Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #10 Review

At last, Blackjak is reintegrated into the cast, and Gerry Conway does it well, explaining in a satisfyingly believable way how the character is still alive, but leaving the door wide open for there to be more to the story. Basically, by the end of the issue, it is easy to trust that Blackjak is really alive, but far more difficult to trust the actual character anymore. His story is suspect at best, and at worst an out-and-out lie. Either way, it's entertaining, and just one facet of a solid issue that really gets the Atari Force ball rolling with some momentum again.

Blackjak was rescued, it would seem, by the none other than Dark Destroyer, caught in a tractor beam moments before he would have been incinerated. Though he never met the Destroyer himself, he did get one hell of a harsh welcome from the rest of the crew, and then spent months as their prisoner, slowly recovering. The closest thing he had to a friend in that time was the strange, simple creature who brought him his food. But Blackjak would ultimately betray that friend in order to steal the keys to his shackles and escape. After that, he spotted Dart just before she returned to Scanner One, and so he followed her in a scout ship of his own, only catching up now.  This is the story he tells her, anyway, and though it's not impossible, there are some massive logical gaps that even Dart can't help but notice.
Because why would the Dark Destroyer capture someone so closely connected with one of his enemies and then ignore him for so long that his wounds heal and he escapes? Yes, the Destroyer has pulled some confusing moves before, but none of them were harder to believe than this. Martin refuses to buy it, insisting Blackjak is a foe and asking Morphea to mentally spy on him. And Dart, though she believes him for now, also admits that the story Blackjak tells her makes no sense. Yet she is too overjoyed to be with her love again to dig into the obvious implications that he is no longer on her side. For the length of this issue, which spans not even an entire day, that makes sense. She'd been fighting so hard to avoid dealing with her loss, to have it undone would be too much of a relief not to surrender herself to it. Dart is happy again, something she hasn't been in a while, but to the reader, it's evident that happiness won't last.
Meanwhile, Tempest is having a much harder time of things when it comes to his old lover. After being wounded last issue when he fled Li San and Mohandas' house, Tempest tries to get his ex-girlfriend Melissa to help protect him. As you may recall, the last time he saw her, Melissa dumped Tempest because her father hates and fears him so much, due to his powers. Her feelings toward Tempest have only worsened since then, and she almost immediately sicks Guard-Rob on him, the worst-named robot in all of fiction. It's a dick move, made worse when she contacts Captain Hunter directly after Tempest flees in order to turn him in. Melissa is a funny character. She's never acted sympathetically or even maturely, always the stereotypical over-sensitive screaming daddy's girl. But Tempest is meant to care for her deeply, so she pops up again just to add insult and further injury to his injury.
He then turns to Dr. Lucas Orion, his father Martin's former best friend and colleague. Tempest hopes to learn from him the rest of the story Mohandas began to tell in issue #9 about the old Atari Force's encounters with the Dark Destroyer. And he does, only to immediately be betrayed by Orion and turned over to Hunter. Tempest's high treason arrest is the issue's final event, a strong conclusion and a new low point for the character. Having finally learned what he struggled so hard to discover, he's going to be thrown in a cell before he gets to do anything useful with the information.
Conway's scripting is very much back on track this issue. He does excellent work with Blackjak's story, keeping it succinct enough not to crowd the issue but full enough to feel complete. And the character's voice hasn't change at all. This is recognizably Blackjak, making his reconnection with Dart sweeter for now, but the threat that he might not be trustworthy larger and more terrifying. Other than naming a robot Guard-Rob, the Tempest sections are excellent, too, putting the young man through a ringer built of his own curiosity and persistence. And the story Orion tells, which I imagine originally appeared in a longer form in volume 1, is delivered efficiently. The old Atari Force tried to meet with a group called the Custodians of Life, only to have the Dark Destroyer mentally manipulate the Custodians into attacking them. It is a final reminder of the Destroyer's reach and power.

Little else takes place this issue, because Blackjak's return and Tempest's escapades both require multiple scenes. There is a small section focusing on the Dark Destroyer himself as he mines anti-matter from another reality. According to him, it's for a bomb strong enough to kill a whole universe, but the fictional science of that isn't explained here. As with Orion's story, this scene's role is to demonstrate just how enormously evil the Destroyer can be, and it does that well in a short amount of time. It's all about economy of panels this issue, including a the introduction of a new thread that takes less than a page, about Taz falling ill. We see him get stomach ache and turn down help, and that's as far as that story goes for now. Conway keeps things brief and direct, so he can visit Blackjack and Orion's pasts both without slowing down the progression of his main narrative, either.
I wouldn't necessarily say José Luis García-López is at his best this issue, but he is definitely at his most sci-fi as an artist. The full-page splash of the Dark Destroyer's machines gathering anti-matter is epically cosmic. And then there's Guard-Rob who, while looking comically antiquated in this title, is a heavily detailed robot with impressive mobility. The many species of the Custodians of Life are all given unique designs, and there are a several panels featuring varying numbers of spacecraft that are all gorgeous. But the main course of this science fiction visual meal is Blackjak's rescue, specifically when the Dark Destroyer's ship pulls him to safety in its tractor beam. The level of details in his suit, the stars burning beneath him, the Destroyer's ship and it's tractor beam, and really everything else that can be seen in those panels is amazing. Maybe it's Tom Ziuko's heavy use of hot pinks that brings it home for me, I don't know. What I do know is that in a title that constantly travels through the stars and from universe to universe, the scene of Blackjak's near-death and salvation is the most I've felt pulled into outer space myself.
I guess this issue is just a little heavier on the sci-fi material than most across the board. I mean, this is a sci-fi series, make no mistake. But it also sort of dances between that genre and superheroes, plus really its focus is on the small-scale, personal dramas of its cast. This issue, one of those small-scale dramas involves being propelled toward a star and then saved by reality's biggest spaceship, so it's heavier on the science fiction than usual. The Dark Destroyer has only been seen attacking Atari Force up to now, so his anti-matter expedition is also atypically sci-fi. And Orion's story is all about New Earth attempting to join an intergalactic community of planets so, once again, a broader sci-fi concept than the book always contains. I am not complaining; I loved seeing García-López do a bunch more robotic stuff than before, and I've already praised the plots of the issue. This is just something I noticed.
Aside from Lio, the guy who feeds Blackjak in captivity is the best-looking character to date. I grew to genuinely care about him in the few pages on which he was featured, and was upset and a little angered when Blackjak turned on him. Seems like the solution could have been more cooperative and less cruel, but that's not Blackjak's style, which I can dig. Anyway, he's a great-looking little bestie, resembling an anteater but with oodles more personality.
This is a good issue that seeds a lot of new things and leaves many characters in dangerous, compelling circumstances. Dart may be in bed with the enemy, Tempest is caught, and something medical is up with Taz. Also, at the end of their conversation, just before Hunter interrupts, Orion seems to realize something about the Dark Destroyer based on what Tempest says about him. No clues yet as to what it is, but Orion is in an interesting position, having made a move against one of the title's heroes that he now regrets and may even try to make up for. Only time will tell, but I am anxious for it to do so.

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