Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dearly Departed: The Infinite Vacation

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

Despite never fully liking the main character, I quite enjoyed The Infinite Vacation. The protagonist, Mark, doesn't particularly care for himself, either, so at least we agreed on that, and everything else that goes down in this story is so energetic, interesting, and goddamn gorgeous that it's easy to overlook a lame leading man. Also, it's not as if Mark has no redeeming qualities. He's just...more pathetic than sympathetic, a passive force for four issues before finally growing the brains and balls to take action in the fifth. Then again, Mark's passivity ties directly into one of the major themes of the book, namely how technology gives us so many choices that none can ever satisfy. It's hard for Mark to know for sure what he wants because he's never had to settle for any one reality in his life. This is a story about discovering the one thing that makes all other choices seem immaterial, and it is in that discovery that Mark becomes a man I can root for rather than merely put up with.
     Let me see how succinctly I can summarize this: The Infinite Vacation is a phone app that allows people to see all of the possible lives they could have led in all possible realities, and then bid on those lives against other version of themselves. If you win the bid, you are transported to the new reality, and get to live the life of a different you for as long as you please. Mark is a bit of a serial vacationer, never happy with the life he's chosen and constantly looking for a new, better Mark to become. The problem is that, no matter where he starts out, he finds himself ending up in the same places over and over again: dead-end jobs, stale romances, disillusionment, boredom, depression. This cycle persists until he meets Claire, the woman who's destiny is to push Mark toward his destiny.
     Claire is the strongest character in the series. She's everything Mark isn't, in more ways than one. Decisive, confident, comfortable in her own skin, and, most importantly, she's a Deadender, meaning she does not use The Infinite Vacation at all. One reality suits Claire just fine, which at first confuses and even frustrates Mark. But when they find themselves thrust together and fighting to preserve their very existence, Mark is able to find in Claire an understanding of and personal reason for the desire to lead a single, unique life instead of exploring the endless options of multiple realities.
     There is a definite heavy-handedness in the presentation of this lesson. Nick Spencer's script, like Mark as a character, can sometimes be a little much, becoming obnoxious with its repetition of the same ideas and the overt, bang-you-over-the-head delivery of its moral(s). There are a lot complex bits and pieces involved in the high concept of this series, and Spencer takes the time to explain and then reexplain them all, exploring the myriad ethical, technological, and philosophical questions something as powerful and popular as The Infinite Vacation would necessarily bring up. The side effect of that thoroughness is that things get revisited and reiterated several times by different characters with different viewpoints, and the ultimate resolution of Mark's journey is telegraphed many times before the man himself arrives there.
     In the opening issue, as a matter of fact, Mark is told in no uncertain terms by a surfer-dude version of himself that he should find one thing in this life that makes him happy and give that one this his all, rather than lily-padding from world to world without knowing what he's even looking for. So there's no great subtlety in Spencer's story, nor ambiguity as to where the book stands. And Mark's decision to choose Claire as his one thing is not at all a surprise, nor is it meant to be. She is set up to fill that role for him from her very first appearance, and never once slips from that position. Mark and Claire's path isn't entirely clear, but their destination always is. How they make it there is where things get more bizarre and unexpected.
     I mentioned that Spencer does a thorough job of discussing various problems or points of contention that The Infinite Vacation would raise if it really existed. And he does, with things like "boxing" (i.e. erasing from existence) hostile realities that pose a threat to others, having everyone go to copies of themselves for therapy and customer service, what "identity theft" means in a world where you can steal information from a different you, and so on, covering topics large and small at varying levels of detail. But the biggest and most important of these ideas is the Deadenders, who call themselves Singularists, and the Vacation-threatening philosophy they represent. For the bulk of Singularists, it isn't just a matter of not wanting to participate in The Infinite Vacation. There is a pseudo-religious aspect to their thinking, positing the idea that if, indeed, it is possible to visit any conceivable universe, then there must be a universe out there in which there is only one universe. I know that sounds a bit circular, but it also makes a weird kind of sense. If literally anything is possible, then it must be possible to go somewhere where nothing is possible, right?
     The Singularists take this one step further, though, and say that, because this universe-of-a-single-universe must exist, then there must, in fact, only be one true universe. It is here that things become a bit more faith-based, but it's not a totally illogical viewpoint, either. This theoretical one-universe reality would, if you were there, necessarily be the one true reality, so from that point it's easy to say that it is, therefore, the one true reality for all realities. Agree with that or not (and I don't know enough about the theoretical science you'd need to know about to back up and/or refute this argument) within The Infinite Vacation, it turns out the Singularists have it right. There is one true universe, and not only does it exist, but it's going to cause the collapse of every other reality in existence.
     This collapse is not a part of the Singularist movement's rhetoric, but instead comes to light when the corporation behind the The Infinite Vacation hires a team to research (and, they hope, disprove) the Singularists' claims. The researchers come back and explain that, in fact, the Singularists are correct, and that the appearance of multiple realities is merely just the one real reality waiting to be "observed." I'll admit, they lose me a bit during this part, but the long and short of it is this: the collapse of all realities into a unified one is not only inevitable, but already taking place, and Mark is the cause. Some action Mark will take or thought he'll have will set off the collapse and make it apparent to all, according to the findings. Why Mark? Well, that's the same question that The Infinite Vacation guys ask, and the best response they get is, "Why not?"
     The idea seems to be that it could be anyone, it could be anything, so it might as well be Mark. If the collapse is inevitable and, in truth, an already ongoing event, then there's got to be a trigger somewhere, and Mark's as good as any. He gets to be special and unique and dangerous arbitrarily, which, while a bit frustrating on a conceptual level, is humorous and strangely appropriate reasoning on a narrative one. Especially when The Infinite Vacation's own attempt to kill Mark before he can set off the collapse ends up being exactly what causes it.
     I won't spoil the ending entirely here, but suffice to say Mark does exactly what we're told he'll do, bringing The Infinite Vacation crashing down around itself and coming out the other end with only one reality left. It is a satisfying ending where our hero realizes his potential and everyone gets what they deserve. The villainous fat cats lose their wicked, dangerous business and Mark gets the girl. Or, perhaps a better way to look at it: Claire finally gets a Mark worthy of her love. He shifts from being a coward and Vacation addict who can't even work up the nerve to introduce himself into a daring action hero who's powered by his love for this incredible woman. As indecisive and unsure of himself as he is in the beginning, by the end he becomes equally confident that, regardless of what else his life throws at him, as long as Claire is a part of it he'll be ok. That's a lovely if simple sentiment, and one the series hammers hard into the reader's brain. No matter how many options modern life provides, none of them will ever be good enough if we don't first find some constants in our lives that make us happy. It may sound like common sense, but it is nevertheless a point that becomes more relevant every day as technology continues to offer us new products and experiences at ever faster and cheaper rates.
     Nick Spencer isn't a writer who I usually associate with tight pacing or structure, but The Infinite Vacation is an exception. The debut alone is a shining example, introducing Mark, Claire (and, through her, Deadenders as a group), the concept of The Infinite Vacation, and several funny and/or important details about how it works all in the space of a single issue. From there, Spencer uses each issue to expand in some way everything we've seen so far, whether it's meeting the amoral head of The Infinite Vacation Mr. Vernon, discovering Claire's heartbreaking reason for being a Deadender, learning about "boxing" of threatening realities, or any number of other bits and bobs, all of which come into play in the closing chapter. That final issue, which is something like triple-sized, brings together every character and concept introduced up to that point, closing the story by revisiting and reusing all of its established ideas. That's not easy to do in this kind of sprawling, head-scratching, sci-fi tale, but Spencer pulls it off without it even seeming like a struggle. He is as sure of himself in the end as Mark, and that confidence is key to the series' success.
     However, as well-planned and un-Spencerish as the scripts may be, without Christian Ward's artwork, The Infinite Vacation could've been an absolute dud. After all, even if the pacing is on point, Spencer's script does suffer sometimes from wearing its heart too much on its sleeve and/or over-explaining its bigger ideas. That's a lot easier to look past, though, when you're wrapped up in beautiful and inventive visuals, and Ward provides those on literally every page.
     Firstly, the comicbook medium is ideal for this story if only because the art can help to explain or demonstrate some of the larger concepts more interestingly and in less time than it would take for Spencer to write them all out. Indeed, the several-page stretch in the third issue that is largely prose, where Spencer explains the inevitability of the collapse and reasons for it, is the driest, dullest, most confusing part of the series. Any other time we're being introduced to a new element, Ward's artwork is there to lend a hand, showing the reader an example or multiple examples of whatever is being explained so it's easier to digest/comprehend. But more than assisting in our understanding, Ward's art brings a very specific energy to this book, a kinetic and psychedelic look that is at once perfectly tailored to and strangely ill-fitting for the story. In a series about technology and reality-hopping, the expectation might be to go futuristic with the style, something a little more mainstream sci-fi. Ward moves in an entirely different, arguably opposite direction, with tie-dye colors, loose figures, generous and intelligent use of blank space, and pages that are practically standalone pieces of abstract art. These looser, jazzier, more emotive stylistic choices speak to the book's ultimate message of love and being happy with the world you're in more than they relate to the high-tech parts of the narrative, which is a smart call. Mostly, though, what works so well about Ward's art is that it would be compelling, beautiful work even if taken out of context, so when it also serves as one half of a fresh and fun comicbook story, its value is heightened exponentially.
     Where Spencer's repetitious, overly-explanatory writing can at times be detrimental, Ward uses repeated imagery to great effect, which in turn softens the blow when Spencer repeats himself needlessly. There are images we see over and over again throughout the entire series, some that are used only within a single issue, and even moments where an individual page or panel has multiple copies of something that will never again return. When Mark learns in the first issue that a lot of other Marks have been dying recently, Ward draws an enormous, spiraling image of a bunch of feet with toe tags on them, like you'd find in the morgue. It's not an image that gets revisited, but it sticks nonetheless, because it is so funny and peculiar and so succinctly yet precisely sums up what Mark is feeling in that moment. Meanwhile, the visuals that do carry over from issue to issue help create some consistency in a story that's all about change.
     Ward likes to pack his pages more often than not, so the art is very dense, which, again, goes along with the narrative nicely. Yet the strongest artistic moments, for me, at least, are when Ward instead pulls back and gives us a single, clean shot of something significant. Claire's first appearance springs to mind, where she gets an entire page with a blank background devoted to her. I think my favorite, though, comes in issue #4, where there's a two-page spread of Mark is lying in the snow with a young boy standing next to him saying, "You're not my dad." When it happens, it is intentionally confusing, yet even without knowing exactly what's going on there is an incredible sense of importance on those pages, which are, in fact, the beginning of a deeply moving and significant scene. These quieter, more focused moments, on top of being visually stunning, also serve to remind us of the series' ultimate message. While the world offers innumerable avenues of over-stimulation and distraction, it will always be more satisfying to zero our focus on the smaller things in life that bring us joy and let them drown out the rest of the noise. That's what Ward forces us to do on these pages, and it's what The Infinite Vacation wants us to do in the world beyond said pages.
     There is a final visual technique that I'm actually not certain should be attributed to Ward, but since he is credited with all of the artwork I have to assume he's responsible for this, too. I'm talking about the photographed pages. There is at least one scene in every issue where all of the panels are actual pictures of real live humans (except the finale, where we get photos on top of hand-drawn panels). Mostly these are used for Infinite Vacation promotional material, though the video laying out the Singularists' viewpoint is also done with this method. Though it's not immediately obvious why the change is made, over time it comes to light that these ads, done in the photographs, are basically lies, while the truth of the story is hand-drawn. It's a simple but effective reversal, using real people for scenes of deceit, and they're all brief and humorous enough not to detract from the series as a whole. It's also an opportunity for Spencer to discuss or even introduce some of his ideas from the point of view of characters other than Mark, without having to fully hand over the narration duties to someone else. And some of the title's strongest humor comes from these photos, which tend to be emotionally exaggerated and feature characters talking out their asses, trying to convince the world that The Infinite Vacation does more good than harm. Never overbearing and always well-timed, these photo scenes are one more visual flourish that sets this book apart.
     The Infinite Vacation is a remarkably simple love story folded into a more complex piece of science fiction societal commentary. Both of those facets are right there on the surface, though, which is, if nothing else, a change of pace for this type of story (and for Spencer as a writer). Though there are plenty of questions, there's not a great deal of mystery, because the series opts instead for transparency, laying out the rules and realities of its world honestly and eagerly. It tells us outright what Mark needs and what he's going to do, and then we watch him do it and, in the process, get just what he needs. Yet it manages to surprise along the way, divulging new details and heightening the stakes gradually until an infinite number of entire universes are destroyed. And Christian Ward attempts new feats of artistic acrobatics all the time, toying with color, layout, medium, non-linear storytelling, repeated imagery, and various other tricks and treats, all the while maintaining narrative clarity and a lightweight liveliness in the visual tone and texture. It's a romp, basically, a sweet and funny day-glo romance bearing warnings from a hypothetical not-too-distant future. 

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