Every so often, you come across a comic that throws you for the sort of loop that makes you pause a few pages in and think, “I wasn’t at all prepared for how damned good this is.” Atari and Dynamite’s new Centipede series, based on the classic 1980s video game, is definitely one of those comics.
You wouldn’t initially think too much plot could be derived from an 8-bit game about shooting a pea gun at a bug, and yet writer Max Bemis and artist Eoin Marron conjure a world in which the titular centipede isn’t just a creepy pest with an ungodly number of legs, but also a living calamity that’s eaten a world. Picture in your mind’s eye a cross between the gargantuan sandworms of Dune and a nimble, mobile version of Star Wars’ sarlacci.
That is more or less Centipede’s take on the monster, and much like its video game counterpart, it’s ravenous and seemingly hellbent on eating the only person left alive who can fight it. Twenty-three days after appearing on the planet Sty-Rek, the Centipede manages to wipe out all life save for Dale Trell, a humanoid guy who has been holed up in a heavily armed bunker for weeks. Before the fall of his civilization that specialized in the interstellar collection of information and knowledge from across multiple galaxies, Dale worked as a myth collector who sifted through the popular cultures of various different worlds.
For weeks, Dale sat in his bunker living off a limited food supply and watching as the voices on his planet’s version of the internet and media went silent as the centipede moved from city to city devouring everything in sight.
For a while, Dale busied himself by getting lost in the fictional worlds he loved so much as a child. However, the overwhelming despair of being the last living person is what drives him to create his new ally and ultimate reason for leaving the bunker: you, the reader, his new imaginary travel companion and confidante. The idea’s a charming way to hearken back to Centipede’s origins as a video game, but it’s also a smart way of digging into the ideas of loss and loneliness that define Centipede as a comic book.
As Dale sets out to find the Centipede and try his best to hurt it, he reminisces about his life before everything went to shit. He was simply an awkward outsider in a civilization that didn’t quite value his love of fiction and pop culture. Dale might have been something of a loner but he wasn’t exactly lonely—having found companionship and eventually love in his childhood friend Lucas, someone able to see him as something other than a social misfit.
Though it’s the Centipede (and its glowing spider baby offspring monsters) that present that most pressing threat to Dale’s life, it’s his profound grief for the past that haunts Dale. Whereas before, Dale lovingly lost himself in nostalgia for ancient video games and films from Earth, his literal and understandable obsession with his actual past now comes across as all-consuming.
The Centipede is very much a large monster—but it also feels like an anthropomorphized metaphor for the way that our nostalgia for the past can both be an incredible comfort and a devastating obstacle that keeps us from dealing with the present and future. Centipede may be a comic book about a man fighting a giant bug, but it’s also a comic book that wants you to think about more than just how much you love old Atari games. It wants you to think about how your relationship with the past ultimately shapes your future.
The first two issues of Centipede are in stores now.