Saturday, June 15, 2013

Atari Force Month: End of the Universe Intermission

Because I've gotten through all of Gerry Conway's work on Atari Force, and the end of his final issue felt to me like a fitting end to the whole series, I think it's appropriate to briefly look back at the entirety of his run as a whole and see what works and what doesn't. Obviously, once I've read and reviewed all 20 issues, I'll do a similar post for the full series, but Conway told a single, complete, epic story over the course of his time on the title, and that merits its own analysis.

The story of Dart and Blackjak's relationship has got to be my favorite aspect of this run. In the first three issues, they were the best and most interesting characters. Their fearlessness and deep feelings for one another made them impressive, death-defying warriors. Their rapport was immediate, and even in their most dangerous situations, there was a lot of love and humor in their conversations. And Blackjak's "death" was the first time Atari Force really tugged at my heartstrings. Watching him fall and fade away was nearly as hard on me as it was on Dart. Then, of course, was Blackjak's marvelous return, which led to some of the most hard-hitting material in the book. Issue #11, when his betrayal is revealed in full and he and Dart finally trade blows, remains one of the (if not the very) best issues of all. And the motivations behind his turn made a lot of sense, yet were still unexpected. When he supposedly died, he was an open-ended enough character that there was plenty of room for him to switch sides. Yet the specifics behind why he joins the Dark Destroyer are still tied to what little was established about Blackjak in the opening issues. All of this leads to Dart finally shooting Blackjak in the heat of the final battle, an immensely tragic resolution to this doomed romance.

Martin's obsession with finding the Dark Destroyer, and the Destroyer's equally obsessive vengeance against Martin, make for the second strongest relationship during Conway's tenure. It's not amazing all the way through, but it builds gradually and naturally until the true depth of both characters' madness comes out in the finale. For a long time, the Destroyer seems like he is several steps ahead of Martin, maybe even out of his league. When push comes to shove, though, they are really on the same page as each other, and for largely the same reasons. The Destroyer doesn't just have Martin's face, he has his flaws as well. A smart and well-played (if not wholly original) hero-villain dynamic.

Conway did a great job with all of the characters, right from the start. It took a minute for Pakrat to grow on me, but he was still a fully-realized member of the cast in his first appearance even if I wasn't crazy about him. Babe's voice was developed organically, as was his bond with Hukka and Taz, and the three of them make a wonderful little group of largely non-verbal characters. Morphea was often a great POV character for the reader, and got to be a badass once or twice as well. And even the minor characters, like Venture and Hunter and Rident, all had a lot of life and unique voices to them. There was no shortage of strong characterization in these issues.

Obviously, some stuff got dropped because Conway left the series so suddenly. Rident was shoved aside and never brought back, Tempest's personal arc remains up in the air, we only get the most superficial of explanations as to how the Dark Destroyer is what he is or does what he does, and so on. There are some narrative gaps remaining when issue #13 ends, and only time will tell if they'll ever get filled in. And I wish there'd be more interaction between Morphea and Babe. Though individually they work quite well, as a unit they didn't grow enough, and often weren't even together. She seems pretty content to let Taz and Hukka watch her young ward for now, and even though Babe loves Morphea, it's not like he's always by her side or anything. I was very excited to see how her powers and his age would ineract, but there hasn't been much of that as of yet.

My biggest complaint about Conway's writing, though, is that it often got repetitive. I know he was trying to keep new readers informed on what they'd missed each issue, but that didn't have to mean full scenes of only recap. There are ways to go over old info while still adding new, and though he did that sometimes, more often he would just have a character unnaturally rehash some key plot points in their dialogue. This is but a small quibble, and it's nothing compared to the strength of the actual stories, so ultimately I think Conway did an awesome job on Atari Force. He had a ton of characters and ideas crammed in, but each of them was as rich and detailed as the last.

José Luis García-López deserves one last shout out here, too, even though he left one issue prior to Conway's departure. Because all of the amazing characters and action Conway cooked up would be many times weaker without García-López's always reliable art. The obvious and thorough care put into every panel is a big part of what makes Atari Force worth reading and examining today. The insane worlds of the Multiverse, all the bizarre aliens and technologies, could have been overwhelming or jumbled. But García-López keeps them clear, tight, and consistent, making everything and everyone feel real despite the outlandish, far-future reality in which they exist.

For just over a year's worth of comics, Atari Force #1-13 has loads of great material. Conway and García-López were excellent collaborators who created one of the most bizarre and entertaining team books I've ever read. Not wildly experimental or groundbreaking or anything, but these are rock solid comics that tell a sprawling, compelling, and often heartbreaking story. I'm still not sure I see a reason for a fourteenth issue, but I'll review it tomorrow nevertheless.

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