Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Dearly Departed: Green Wake

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.

It begins so simply. Sepia tones, overt narration, a car crash. A woman is dead and the man who's with her is overwhelmed by it. He tells us so, plainly and directly, in his captions. For a page or two, it feels like so much more forgettable melodramatic tragedy.
     Then the man is swallowed up by a pile of frogs that appear from nowhere. And then next thing you know, with no warning or introduction or even a time stamp, we're in a whole new place with a whole new color scheme (although it is a limited and muted palette), looking at a brutally murdered body. We also see two men who are looking at the corpse for themselves, one of whom seems to be the man from the car crash (but wasn't he just buried in frogs?) and the other one who appears...to BE a frog? Or maybe like a half-frog? What the hell is going on here?
     In this somewhat disorienting opening four pages to its debut issue, Green Wake quickly establishes some of its most important and pervasive elements: the dark and chaotic art that Riley Rossmo utilizes brilliantly throughout the series; the narrative voice of the story's protagonist, Morley; and above all, it lets the reader know that this is not a book to be breezed through, that it will be somewhat unpredictable and deceitful. Not that it is a difficult read, per se, but it is not exactly an easy one either. If attention is paid to each page and panel, it's actually not that complicated a story. For all intents and purposes, it's a crime procedural like any other, except that it is set in a supernatural world built out of people's guilt. And also it's partly a Messiah story. So maybe it is kind of complicated.
     It is certainly too intricate to bother trying to rehash or summarize the plot for you here. I highly recommend you read it if you haven't, and I'll talk about why in a moment. But before I dig into my opinions, give it a look for yourself. It is, after all, only ten issues. That's just TWO trades! Go for it.
     But if you're unfamiliar with the story, then here's what you should know---Image originally slated Green Wake to be a five-issue mini-series. But it was so immediately well-received, they decided to change it into an ongoing series before the initial five issues had even all come out (if memory serves, the announcement was made between #3 and #4). Then, almost as quickly, it got canceled, after only one other arc (also five issues long) was completed. What results is an interesting kind of narrative. Each arc has threads that are very much self-contained, but they also tell one continuous and complete story together: the story of  Morley slowly gaining an understanding of over Green Wake (the titular setting of the series) until, in the end, he is abel to destroy it and free all of its inhabitants.
     Looking back on the entire run, I can't help but wonder if this tight connectedness between the two arcs is part of why the series never picked up enough steam to keep going. Morley escapes his guilt and thus escapes Green Wake at the end of the first arc, and then in the final pages of #5 and the opening pages of #6, he comes back again. His only explanation is that his self-forgiveness "didn't stick," and while it is true that guilt is never easily overcome, I'm not sure I buy the idea that a man who worked so hard and long get to a place where he could let go of his pain would immediately slip back into such an overbearing depression.
     But even if Morley's return and role as destroyer of Green Wake were inevitable (and it does feel like writer Kurtis Wiebe always knew that's what Morley would ultimately accomplish), he definitely did not need to come back to Green Wake RIGHT AWAY. It's really not that hard to imagine "Lost Children" without him (the first four issues, anyway). It would still be pretty damned compelling. Esther's story could be shown in full rather than related in a few panels of dialogue, and through her Morley's legend would resonate and remain significant. Krieger and his junkie nemesis could still have their escalating battle, leading to Krieger's death. Carl could still show up, sometimes fighting against his new mistress and sometimes doing her killing. And Micah and the children could go through all the same beats, their story remainaing more or less unchanged, with the exception that Micah wouldn't go to Morley for help. In the end, he would declare his independence and return to the schoolhouse on his own, still get seen by Esther, and still get eaten by his original victims, the children over whom he sent himself to Green Wake in the first place. "Lost Children" has legs without Morley, because in many ways Morley's story is separate from the rest of the narrative. He goes through the motions of investigating the new murders, but what he's really doing the whole time is trying to figure out Green Wake itself. His searches never lead him to Esther's lost children, even though she basically tells him all about them. He decides that he doesn't care, that in this case the murders past and the impending murder of Micah are acceptable losses. Because what he wants is the truth about a deeper mystery.
     Hmm...I didn't plan on this column being one long argument against Morley's return, and still don't. I actually think it's totally appropriate, perfectly so, that the finale of the series would be Morley ripping Hecate/Green Wake's guts out and sending everyone trapped there back to their actual lives. That's always where he was headed, whether he knew it or not; it was always his endgame. Figuring Green Wake out is what drove him, and he had to know that figuring her out would mean pissing her off and having to fight her influence. I just wonder if hurrying him back into the book weakened it overall, and though I don't really believe that a second arc without Morley would have prevented its cancellation...I want to believe it, because I want to believe in a world where it's true that if a more interesting story is told, sales improve.
     Of course, the real problem "Lost Children" had was that it was following that first arc, that original five issues. Which, by the way, is a serious masterpiece. And that is ALL about Morley. He's a unique figure in Green Wake from the beginning, and his reasons for being there, as well as his reasons for acting the way he does while he's there, are both incredibly simple and intensely profound. He's a really amazing character in a really amazing world, not to mention what a badass hardboiled detective he makes. Always smoking, always saying cool, gritty shit. Brooding constantly. He's perfect, and  that first story---"Green Wake" I guess, would be the name of the arc---is arguably perfect as well. It hits all the right beats in all the right places, and it relies on such simple, universal themes and plot points to build the foundation for such a complex story. Car accidents, lost love, cheating on someone while living abroad, second chances...it's all so familiar. Yet the world that is built up around and because of these things allows the characters and readers alike to reexamine them and really appreciate their power over us. Wiebe captures so many different kinds of anger and depression and sadness in his different characters' distinct voices, and Rossmo captures them all equally well in his kinetic drawings.
     It's remarkable how expressive Rossmo's art is even while it helps add to the horror and chaos and confusion. At the end of #2, when Green Wake first takes physical form, we see what something truly ugly and horrible looks like in a world where ugliness and horror are commonplace. And his deliberate use of the color red, in both arcs, brings just the right level of life and vibrancy to Green Wake. Even though, admittedly, the reds are mostly for blood, fire, and the clothing of villains. Still, Green Wake might have survived without Morley, but Rossmo was essential from start to finish.
     Wiebe, too, who clearly had a powerful and detailed vision of Green Wake (and non-italicized Green Wake) from the onset, and who is dangerously skilled in both dialogue and pacing. I have not read much else by Wiebe (I should, right?), but his voice is singular and unique as an author here, even as he speaks through so many varied character voices.
     Truth be told, I'd be remiss if I didn't give a shout out to Kelly Tindall on letters. A lot of interesting and important cues are gives in the letters as to where and when we are in the story. Not so often that they serve that kind of role, and it makes Green Wake all the more impressive.
     And it is an impressive series. Despite my frustration with some of the decisions about how to move forward after the opening story, I throughly enjoyed every issue of Green Wake as it came out, and continue to enjoy them all on multiple re-reads. It is an exploration and celebration of human emotion and its ability to affect the world and the people around us. It is a bloody murderfest set in a nightmare world. It is just another story of a man seeking redemption.
     For real, it's only ten issues. Go read it.

Green Wake was published by Image Comics and is dated April 2011-February 2012.

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