January 03, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

Wook Kim reviews ”The Halo Graphic Novel”

Used to be that movie characters who scored well with a certain young-and-pale-and-mostly-male segment of the audience were rewarded with their own comic books and — if they really scored well — their own videogames. The Halo Graphic Novel (Marvel), based on two hugely popular Xbox titles, reverses that process. (Yes, a big-screen adaptation is in the works.) The game’s publisher, Bungie, is handling its lucrative franchise very carefully. They’re just now publishing a graphic novel based on a game released five long years ago. (And you won’t see the Peter Jackson-produced movie anytime before 2008.)

The Halo Graphic Novel is a 128-page collection of four stories — written and drawn by various top-notch creative teams — supplemented by a gallery of Halo-themed art. There are two things you should know: 1. The book demands more than a casual knowledge of Bungie’s space-combat game. 2. Not one of these stories features the game’s taciturn and perpetually visored protagonist, Master Chief.

What these four very different tales do offer are story lines that should deepen your understanding of the Halo universe. ”Last Voyage of the Infinite Succor” reveals some of the dynamics at work between the game’s warring factions, the Flood and the Covenant, while ”Armor Testing” is a slight but intriguing history of Master Chief’s battle suit. Both are solid efforts, but neither quite measures up to the last two pieces. Drawn by Tsutomo Nihei, ”Breaking Quarantine” is a wordless phantasmagoria that imagines just how Sergeant Johnson was able to bust out of Flood captivity. (It took more than a pleasant smile.) And in ”Second Sunrise Over New Mombasa,” which chronicles a city’s violent last hours, Brett Lewis and Moebius create moments of both kinetic violence and poignant loss.

All in all, this is an impressive effort, given a handsome and solemn presentation. And that’s the problem: It’s solemn to the point of being reverential. Absent is any sense of the game’s gallows humor and Dirty Dozen derring-do. One can’t help feeling that Bungie is being perhaps a bit too protective of its franchise. This book represents Halo more as a museum piece meant to be admired than as a game meant to be played. B

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