Thursday, February 21, 2013

Five Reviews: Unstable Molecules, The Dark Knight Returns, Ocean, Orbiter and Ministry of Space

This article originally appeared on JHU Online in December 2008.

In 2003 Marvel released the stunning Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules (now available in trade paperback), written by James Sturm, and illustrated by Sturm, Guy Davis and R. Sikoryak. The series opens with the revelation that, in research, Sturm (indy cartoonist and founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies) discovered that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had created the Fantastic Four based on real people, and that what follows is their "true" story - he even provides interviews and documents as "proof;" of course this is just a clever gimmick, one that helps set up the time and place of the story... It is 1958, and Dr. Reed Richards is a professor at Columbia University and a scientific adviser for the military. His neighbor and would be paramour is "Sue Sturm" - a young woman trying to raise her soon-to-be rebellious younger brother Johnny. Reed's old buddy Ben is nearby, running a boxing gym in his old neighborhood. What follows is not a superhero story. There is no rocketship, no cosmic rays, and no physical transformations, although transformations do take place. The late 1950s was a time of great cultural transition - the liberated era of the 1960s was bubbling on the surface of the 1950's chaste conformity. The story is fiercely of this time, taking place over one day with each of its four issues focusing on a different character. Johnny, bullied and alienated, joins up with a group of beatniks in a night of self-discovery; Reed, ever the genius at matters of science but not matters of the heart; Ben, while being there for one person may lose the friendship of another; and the real highlight of the book, Sue, saddled with the responsibility of her brother while trying to maintain appearances in her well-to-do neighborhood, suffocated by the weight of her responsibilities, the loss of the life she could have and still desperately wants to lead, and the expectations of society on a woman in the 1950s. These four people's lives orbit around each other and intersect in one fateful night that will change all of their lives forever. Unstable Molecules is an utterly remarkable, daring work, with palpably real characters and a fantastic story that jumps from fiction into our world and back again. The title of the book refers not to Reed's greatest early discovery (although those weird particles do appear), but to these four lives, all independent of each other yet effected by the presence of the others, and all just outside of Reed's ability to understand, the hearts and minds and motivations of these fantastic four people.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest comics ever made, and seen as one of several titles from the mid-1980s that changed the medium, one would imagine everyone has read The Dark Knight Returns... Except I hadn't. I didn't really like the cramped art (which is still somewhat off-putting), I just never got around to it... and, frankly, I let my perception of Frank Miller's current work put me off, which was a mistake, of course, as the book really is pretty good. An informal poll of several acquaintances showed me that, yeah, quite a few folks haven't gotten to it for whatever reason, so I was not alone in my unintended avoidance of the book. For the uninitiated, The Dark Knight Returns is the seminal four-part mini-series from 1986 written and illustrated by Frank Miller that helped to reinvent Batman. It's the near future, it has been ten years since Bruce Wayne retired the Batman, and Gotham has suffered for it. America is a very different place - Superheroes in general appear to have been outlawed, and the country lies on the brink of environmental and economic disaster and on the razor's edge of war with the Soviet Union. As Gotham is overrun by street gangs, Bruce Wayne, despite his increasing age, finds himself pulled back into defending his city. But just as Batman begins to retake the streets, he becomes the target of the city, his former allies in the police, and the U.S. government. On the surface, the book is a standard possible future story we see all the time in science fiction, and elements of the story haven't dated well. But there is more going on than just a Batman story: As much as anything, this is an exploration of a society's reaction to media suffocation, unceasing crime, a failing economy, war abroad, a destroyed environment... it is a shockingly subtle and graceful observation of the apocalypse, of a society in collapse. Frank Miller's art is more uneven than his nuanced writing here. Often, the panels are packed onto the pages like sardines, usually just at the service of clunky exposition. But where Miller (with Klaus Jansen's inks and Lynn Varley's appropriately muted coloring) breaks away to get into the action is where he really shines, leaving us with many iconic, stirring images: a fallen general, a giant amongst men, a dark knight riding to his doom. So if you are someone who has not read it (or perhaps has not read it in a while), then this eloquent, emotionally resonant book is worth finally checking out.

Warren Ellis is a long time fan of science fiction, and three recent works written by Ellis exemplify a style of simple character and technology driven sci-fi that hearkens back to the work of science fiction's true golden age of the 1950s and 1960s. Ocean, available in softcover from WildStorm, confidently illustrated by Chris Sprouse, is about a UN weapons inspector circa 2100 AD investigating an anomaly on Europa - that ice covered moon of Jupiter long the center of many science fiction stories exploring the life-giving potential of the moon's under-ice liquid water seas. But instead of finding a new lifeform, a group of rag-tag scientists stumble upon an ancient discovery that may threaten all life in the solar system - and there are corporate forces at work that want to claim the discovery for their own, despite the consequences. In the near future of Orbiter, available in hardcover and softcover from Vertigo, the Space Shuttle, long thought lost and missing for over a decade, suddenly crash lands in Florida covered in an extra-terrestrial skin, and containing but one (possibly insane) passenger. Intricately illustrated by Colleen Doran, the story centers on the investigation of what happened to the shuttle and the crew, and the Earth-changing discovery of what was left behind in the Shuttle after its mysterious journey. Both of these stories are competently produced, fairly straightforward near-future sci-fi stories. The far superior Ministry of Space, available in hardcover from Image, is a rare mix of concise science fiction mixed with alternate history that fulfills the promise of science fiction, telling a story that reveals truths about the human condition that only the greatest sci-fi can reveal. Ostensibly a Dan Dare sendup, the story begins in a far different 2001, looking back over the decades as England comes to dominate the space age while America and Russia are left in the dust. By the 1950s, man is in space, building space stations, heading to the moon with Mars in sight. By 2001, the world (read: British Empire) is a transformed place with cheap and plentiful food, easy space travel to the outer planets, and widespread advanced technological advances. For science fiction fans, there is a sense of loss in how far we could have come if we exercised our own potential as a species... but this is no simple love letter to the what-could-have-been England if it had dominated the global political and scientific world. Thrown into flux by the characters' own dark revelations and a shocking last panel, the reader is left stunned by the implications asked by the question: At what cost, progress? The story is aided by absolutely stunning art: Chris Weston is allowed page after page several times in this short graphic novel to just show us this world and its history - the retro-future of 1950's England all the way through the lost sci-fi future of the present. Colored by the incorporable Laura Martin, Ministry of Space is a rare mix of perfect art and perfect story, a true classic "basic" science fiction story rarely seen in comics.

c) 2008, 2013 Jeffrey O. Gustafson 

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