Monday, March 18, 2013

Post-Apocalypse Now: Brian Wood's The Massive, Volume 1 Reviewed

The Massive Volume 1: Black Pacific by
Brian Wood, Kristian Donaldson & Garry Brown
Dark Horse, 2013
The Massive Volume 1: Black Pacific, out this Wednesday, collects the first six issues of the latest ongoing series from writer Brian Wood. On a near-future Earth, there has been a ceaseless series of environmental and geopolitical calamities. There has been a complete global environmental and economic collapse (referred to as The Crash), and when I say complete, imagine the worst that can happen, then imagine the worst thing that can happen about once a month for a year. The Massive takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Earth's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.

The setting is a ship, The Kapital, the floating operational base of the one-time militant environmental activist group Ninth Wave. Founded and run by shady former mercenaries and a multinational crew of far too-willing volunteers, the ship's mission has changed from environmental activism (think Whale Wars just with more competent volunteers with an eco-terrorist edge) to coming to terms with the nigh-apocalypse and the search for their missing sister ship, the titular Massive.

It's the search for The Massive that drives the leader of the group, internationally wanted man Callum Isreal, and also the book's weakest element. It's Israel's white whale and possibly one Massive MacGuffin - maybe the bloody thing just sank, who knows. He's fairly certain the ship is still out there, but why it's so hard to find (or unwilling to hook up with their brethren) isn't remotely explained yet. Thankfully the search for The Massive isn't the central plot point, as the series immediately focuses on the Kapital's exploration of the post-Crash world. Where your average post-apocalyptic fiction piece tends to be focused on a small aspect of a larger conflict or conflagration, the book's setting of a ship abroad affords a unique look at the entire geo-political post-apocalyptic landscape. Coupled with flashbacks to the days of the Crash Year and to Israel's mercenary past, you get a broad milieu of an Earth in political and environmental transition.

The book's expanded cast is made up of environmental nuts who suddenly have nothing to be nutty for because the environment is well screwed by this point. Their motivation for continuing, beyond simple inertia or lack of choice, is not really explored. Israel's closest allies up the chain of command do get a little more play, and have their own mysteries and hidden motivations that are slowly (and effectively) being doled out.

Brian Wood is really excelling at world building in the book, far more than he was in DMZ, constructing a vivid and well-delineated landscape recognizably built from the soggy ashes of the world we now inhabit. Things are very different here, but it's not too far removed from the present, nor our present understanding of the world, to get into Mad Max-like post apocalyptic territory. There is a great deal of narrative setup in play, but more in setting rather than plot, to the point where we can see that we will always be in a kind-of set-up mode because the world has been so profoundly changed and there is quite a lot of world out there left to see.

It's not quite clear where the book is going - unless, of course, the search for The Massive is the point, which would be most unfortunate. The other big mystery is what precipitated the Crash - we know very well and in great detail what happened, but there is some mystery as to why it all happened at once. I honestly doubt the book will be about the search for why, because no answer could really be satisfying (and how can a lone crew on a single ship discover the answers to such huge questions anyway?).

The initial story arc features nicely detailed art from Kristian Donaldson, who decidedly excels at building the environmental landscape and producing the look of the Kapital. Garry Brown, the series' current ongoing artist, takes over in the second arc of the book, with a slightly rougher but perfectly appropriate style. Dave Stewart's colors and Brian Wood's impeccable design centers the overall feel of the book.

The first volume of The Massive is an attractive graphic novel with an assured voice and viewpoint from what is Wood's best ongoing work, and presents enough of an intriguing mystery and setting to keep readers wanting more. At $20 it's a nicely valued trade paperback from Dark Horse, who are, to the benefit of readers and creators alike, very much keeping pace with the recent Image-spearheaded creator-owned renaissance.

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