Sunday, June 2, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #1 Review

The first issue of Atari Force is definitely a strong debut, even though really, it offers no concrete narrative reason for anyone to pick up the second. There are some threats introduced, but the forces behind them aren't entirely clear. What's missing is a single central conflict or, for that matter, core concept to the series. At the end of this issue, the impression left is that Atari Force is an ensemble character study. It sets up numerous characters, all of whom have their own problems and powers and personalities, and banks on that cast to be compelling enough to bring anyone back for more. Luckily, they are interesting people, for the most part, anyway, and even without an obvious story hook, this is an inviting beginning to the book.

Opening on the fictional planet Roc's World, the first scene of Atari Force #1 is a big, loud, crowded sci-fi bar brawl. At the center of the action are Dart and Blackjak, lovers and guns-for-hire who, we learn, have been stiffed by their most recent employer, Ki, so now they're getting him back by taking down his entire army themselves. They win the fight easily, clearly more skilled in the art of violence than anyone else in the room by a lot, but are forced to flee when the cops show up, placing them firmly in the role of lawbreaking anti-heroes. It's a very fun and exciting way the kick off the series, starting with a point of high action and with characters who are impressive, look interesting, and bring a nice sense of humor to the page. Also, Dart is as strong a female character as I've seen in ages, in comicbooks or otherwise. She and Blackjak are clearly equals in their professional and personal partnerships both. And Dart is actually a bit more self-assured and capable than Blackjak because, along with all the other talents she brings to the table, she is apparently able to have brief premonitions that help keep her out of trouble. This is how they avoid the cops, who would certainly have taken Blackjak in (and indeed almost do, anyway) if he didn't have Dart to back him up.
Right away, I like the people I'm meeting. Dart and Blackjak both pull out some nice fight moves and other action scene tricks, have a few laugh lines, and generally play very believably off one another as a competent couple of professionals. And Gerry Conway does a pretty good job of providing expository information through their dialogue without it slowing down the story or spoiling their voices. They explain to Ki that he can either pay them what he owes or they'll kill him, which is a pretty classic offer, made directly. Once that's been established (which takes all of two pages, both of which also have the best and most bombastic action) Dart and Blackjak are free to crack jokes, shout warnings to one another, and demonstrate the strength of their relationship in other ways while they work together to avoid arrest. So Conway gets the exposition out of the way as quickly and naturally as possible in order to give his cast more room to stretch their legs.

Once the story leaves Roc's World, it leaps to the planet Egg, where a couple of nameless merchants are making a stop with their massive spaceship. The captain is a drunk, brash, somewhat arrogant fellow, while his first mate is more level-headed but less informed. The mate is the point-of-view character for the reader while the captain explains why they are there: to kidnap a baby. The native species of Egg are born as giants and grow into literal mountains, sitting perfectly still in their adulthood as part of the landscape of their homeworld. For my money, this is the single best idea in the whole of Atari Force. There's something strangely romantic about it, and though it's a simple concept on the face of it, there are still a lot of questions raised. It's not the greatest scene in the series, or even of the first issue, although the captain and mate do have a funny dynamic. And when they capture one of the babies there is a single panel of it crying that breaks my heart. But there are only three pages of Egg material before the setting shifts again to New Earth and we meet another handful of characters.
All at once are introductions to Morphea, Professor Venture, and Christopher Champion a.k.a. Tempest, all of whom work for the Advanced Technology And Research Institute (A.T.A.R.I., get it?), orbiting above the planet. Venture shows Morphea a live video of Tempest in training, which allows Conway to explain Tempest's abilities to the audience explicitly in Venture's voice. Even still, the explanation is a bit vague: Christopher can transfer some or all of himself to a different part of the Multiverse and back again. Ok, but what is the Multiverse, and how does he do that? For now, that's left unsaid, but what it amounts to is hyper-controlled teleportation, including sticking himself inside of objects and causing them to explode. Which is cool and creative enough for me to want to see more, perhaps next time outside of a danger room situation, where the stakes would be real. The same is true of Morphea, who in the last panel of the scene mentions in passing, and only to herself, that she is an empath. Suddenly she becomes all the more interesting, as I want to know the details of how that empathy works in practice. I suppose this teasing of their powers may be Conway's tactic. Rather than leave the reader with narrative cliffhangers to entice them, he shows us glimpses of seemingly very cool, original, and powerful new characters, hoping we return in order to learn more about their lives.
The last character established here is Pakrat, whose scene is as brief as the one on Egg, just enough time for him to steal something, be identified as a notorious thief, and fight his way out of apprehension. At first he runs, but once cornered, goes into a sort of berserker rage that allows him to tear through multiple armed enemies with claws and teeth alone. Sadly, Pakrat is the dullest member of the cast, in personality, story, and special abilities. Being an artifact thief is an exciting enough lifestyle, but not something entirely new, and "unable to stay cornered" just isn't all that impressive an attribute. And Pakrat's voice is a bit juvenile, entirely selfish, and not especially likable yet. It's not the smartest scene in terms of where it's placed, because it almost ends the issue on the flattest possible note. Luckily, Dart and Blackjak have one more scene to close things out and act as a reminder of all the good stuff that came before.

It's not really the specifics of the couple's exchange that make the ending strong, it's the juxtaposition of their happiness and the gruesome final panel. Earlier in the issue, right after Dart and Blackjak finish their fight with Ki's forces, Ki himself runs off to meet with the man he's working for. This boss villain is clearly set up to be the main villain of the series, but remains for now unnamed and shadowy. What is shown is his efficient ruthlessness as he throws Ki into one of Roc's World's acidic rivers, strong enough to eat away all his flesh and innards in sixteen seconds. Ki was hired to deliver Dart to this nameless menace, and apparently you only get one chance. In the moment of Ki's death, Conway writes the first and only example in this debut of third-person narration. Other than a few captions to identify location, all of the other words are dialogue, but here the script gets more poetic, even though it's still informative. At first it feels an odd choice, but it adds to the impact of Ki's demise and helps keep the scene memorable.
Then, at the very end of the issue, the image of Ki's skeleton in the river is revisited, under a dialogue caption of Blackjak saying that he and Dart are bound for some good luck. The obvious implication is that he couldn't be more wrong. That, in fact, their recent troubles are just the beginning of darker times to come. I suppose, technically, this counts as a the story hook, although "a bad guy threatens our heroes for some reason" doesn't really get full credit in my book. But it's definitely a strong final panel, calling back the evocative language of Ki's death scene and reminding the reader how wicked the bad guy in the background is. It also means Dart, Blackjak, or both are likely to die before the series concludes, and since they are still the best characters so far, that's a truly terrifying and gripping notion.
There are definite bumps in the road, but Atari Force #1 has more to like than dislike in the end. Some very strong character work and sprinklings of fascinating alien worlds and concepts leave a lot of tasty breadcrumbs behind. Though Conway's script can at times be obvious or unsubtle, it tends to feel pretty natural, and he finds logical reasons to have one character deliver exposition to another without it seeming wedged in. Ultimately, though, I don't think Conway's writing is as impressive in total as the art by penciler José Luis García-López, inker Ricardo Villagrán, and colorist Tom Ziuko.

The number of characters that García-López was responsible for in this issue is pretty amazing, especially because they all pretty much look different than each other. Tempest and Dart's outfits have some shared elements because they are both children of A.T.A.R.I., but even Dart and Blackjak don't have a cohesive uniform. If he didn't have his weird eye thing, they might not seem to fit in the same story at all. She's all future fashion, he could blend in with Robin Hood's crew.
It's the minor characters, too, like the nameless aliens in the bar fight, Pakrat's pursuers, or Kargg, the stoic right-hand man of the primary baddy. They all have a lot of tiny details, and because many of them are alien races, unique physical features as well. Tiny touches like the captain's hat on Egg and Professor Venture's sunglasses add a bit of humor and a lighter air to those sections. Actually Professor Venture has a generally relaxed, cheery aura about her that puts me at ease whenever she's on the page. And even she, in the long run, is not too consequential a member of the ensemble. Neither is the captain, who, in addition to his hat, has the best and funniest face in the issue, too. García-López doesn't seem to believe in minor characters, and that level of detail and consideration in his world-building is a foundational aspect of this issue's success.
Both Villagrán and Ziuko help to highlight all the careful work García-López does, punctuating the best and most important of the myriad visual bells and whistles. Villagrán lets the lines stay fairly soft so the characters feel more lifelike, but still keeps even the most crowded, chaotic scenes clear. And Ziuko is as impressive in his costume coloring as García-López in his initial designs. Everyone has their own distinct combinations of hues so that nobody is too much like anyone else. Again, characters with specific connections, like Dart and Tempest or the captain and his mate, have some similar elements, but the rest of their outfits are very much their own. And the backgrounds are varied, too, changing with every new setting and shift in mood. Ziuko utilizes a broad palette and makes all of his decisions deliberately, adding an important final sheen to García-López and Villagrán's already layered work.
It's also worth noting that, as in their characterizations, the women of this series aren't sexualized in their attire. Dart is actually dressed appropriately for battle, which you hardly ever see, and Professor Venture seems to be wearing something like far-future business casual. Even Melissa, Tempest's girlfriend, who is wearing an outfit that's arguably cut a bit too short, doesn't have an insane body shape or ever get posed in an unrealistically sexual manner. Not something I think this book is making an overt point of doing, but still always nice to see.

The cover boasts, "Introducing: The Strangest S-F Heroes of All!" (S-F=science-fiction). I'm not sure if I buy them as the strangest of all, but there are definitely some weird and refreshing folks in here, likable enough to make me excited to follow them on whatever adventures await. It would've been nice to get more of a glimpse of what those adventures might possibly be, or even to see these characters meet one another, but that's not necessary for the initial installment. This is enough of a foundation that a ton of really great stories could be constructed, and that's really all a first issue has to accomplish, whatever route it takes to get there.

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