Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #11 Review

I have a working theory that Atari Force the book is at its best whenever Atari Force the team are at their worst. Issue #6 was the best issue until this one (and it may still be, but they're close) and what the two share is that they're both chapters in which the good guys get trampled. And though the overall quality here may be lower than in #6, the trampling is many times more brutal and effective.

Let's start with Tempest, arrested at the end of last issue, and now locked in a dimly-lit cell and kept on a disorienting, disabling drug called scopadrone to keep him from phasing himself to freedom. He appears to slide in and out of awareness, struggling to regain control of his own mind and body so he can warn the world about the Dark Destroyer. The world doesn't want to hear him, though, so he remains a prisoner for now. Only Professor Venture shows Tempest any care or concern, visiting him more as a mother than mentor. She cradles the scared and broken boy in her arms, and fights for his rights and his freedom. It gives Venture as a character a distinct sense of purpose she's been lacking up to now, and underlines the tragedy of what Tempest is going through.
Venture also has a spirited debated with Captain Hunter about following the rules vs. doing what is right, and whether or not those are the same thing. Venture argues that, with so many questions surrounding Tempest and his father's theft of Scanner One, maybe they should find some answers before arresting anybody. Hunter points out that the answers can come out in trial, and until they do, Tempest is a criminal according to the law, and must be treated the same way any criminal would. These are equally valid points that have been made about countless other cases, real and fictional, before and since. But still worth touching upon, and, again, it gives Venture something more active and important to do. It also makes Hunter seem smarter and more reasonable than he was before, which is good for any character always, although I personally prefer to have him be an oaf.

Hunter also brings up Rident in this conversation, wondering where the hell he is, and I have been thinking the same thing for several issues. The time for Rident to make his move was probably somewhere back around #8, after the initial encounter with the Dark Destroyer had wrapped. But it's been longer than that since he's appeared on panel, and Hunter's throwaway line is the only reference to Rident in just as long. He wasn't the strongest member of the cast, and as far as guys with a stick up their ass who are after Atari Force, I'll take Hunter over Rident any day of the week. But no character deserves to be shoved aside and abandoned completely, so fingers crossed that Rident will return.
Before Venture is done this issue, she has one more Tempest-related conversation, this time with Dr. Orion, the man who turned Tempest in. He is racked with guilt about it now, because he's come to realize, in light of some new info, that the Dark Destroyer killed Tempest's mother, not the boy himself as Orion had previously believed. Somewhere in his mind, Orion has blamed Tempest for killing Lydia all these years, which undoubtedly made the decision to hand him to Hunter much easier. Now, though, he feels he made the wrong call, because if the Destroyer really did kill Lydia, that means he's still out there, which means Tempest and his supposedly delusional father Martin are right. What Orion intends to do about it, if anything, is left up in the air, but at least there's one more character on the ride side of things, and an intelligent and resourceful one at that.
Not that it does Tempest any good here. He makes no progress, beginning and ending the issue in his cell and his drug-induced state. It is unquestionably the most broken he's been, including when the Destroyer beat him senseless. But it pales in comparison to what Dart experiences when Blackjak turns on her.

Predictably, Blackjak is working for the Dark Destroyer, but I give Conway credit for getting that out of the way in the first scene. It's not the cliffhanger, it's the opener, not played for surprise because it's not a surprise. What makes that scene buzz is José Luis García-López's art. He kicks off the excellence right on the first page, depicting many members of Atari Force sleeping in their rooms. Some are peaceful, some restless, some alone, and others in groups. It is a quiet, intimate, inviting opening page, establishing a brief calm before the immense storms of the issue's narratives.
Blackjak is the only person awake on Scanner One, and he has a secret meeting with his master where the two sabotage the ship. It's clear Blackjak would rather not participate in this, but the Destroyer has a mental hold over him. Like Blackjak's new allegiance in general, the detail of the Destroyer's mind control is no great shock. But García-López makes it count in a single panel that enters Blackjak's mind and displays in great visual detail the overwhelming pain of the Destroyer's psychic attack. It keeps Blackjak ever so slightly sympathetic even as he officially slides over to the villainous side of things.
The Destroyer and Blackjak's plan is to override Scanner One's navigational computer and force the vessel to go where the Destroyer wants. And they succeed, but doing so forces Blackjak to show his hand. Martin immediately suspects him of sabotaging the navigation, but is hopeful that it can be fixed. So Martin, with Babe by his side for the heavy lifting, gets to work trying to repair his ship. But Blackjak sabotages that as well, almost killing Martin and severely hurting Babe with a powerful electric shock. There is no more hiding for Blackjak after that, no more denying his partin all of this. So Dart confronts him, and the two have one of the best-looking yet hardest-to-read fights in the whole of Atari Force.

Conway and García-López, as well as inker Bob Smith and colorist Tom Ziuko, fire on all cylinders and then some for the length of this battle. It begins with something simple but earth-shattering, and ends in about the most tragic imaginable way (save, perhaps, for one of the two lover/combatants dying). For just a moment after realizing his betrayal, Dart stares at Blackjak, the man she thought she knew, thought she loved, and he stares at her right back. García-López draws out the tension and melancholy of that moment with a series of small close-ups of Dart and Blackjak's faces done in silhouette, with a tiny, shadowy image of them standing before each other in the middle. Then, beneath this small and quiet row, there is a half-page image of Blackjack punching Dart square in the jaw, a blow that hits harder for the weight of its surprise than the actual impact of his fist.
If that page wasn't heart-breaking enough already, García-López outdoes himself on the lower half with three perfectly composed panels. First, a tight, silent panel of Dart's face after being hit, the fear and bottomless sadness pouring from her eyes. She has never been so helpless and scared, but this is the man she loves attacking her, so the change is all too fitting. Then she makes one final attempt to connect to the man she once knew, saying he was never afraid of death and therefore must not be himself. Blackjak's response in the page's final panel is the cruelest, most painful strike he makes against her: "You didn't know me very well." Dart was the only person who knew Blackjak as well as she did, and vice versa, so to have him deny all of that so sternly and callously is more damaging than any physical attack could ever be. García-López knows this, and constructs the panel accordingly. Blackjack towers over Dart, to the point that his head extends beyond the panel border. She is contained by it completely, even though the top of her ponytail could, technically, go past the edge. He has all of the power in that moment, so he is the one who gets to bust through their physical confinement.
There are other, smaller touches, too, that make this panel my favorite single image of the series so far, if not of all time. The gun is the true foreground, amping up the danger of the scene and solidifying that Blackjak is serious about being a bad guy now. And Tom Ziuko adds a lot, with the harsh red background contrastingly so blatantly with the blues Dart is done in. She is a shadow of herself, and wants to be anywhere else, so her colors are darker and more obscured. Blackjak, meanwhile, is done in bold blacks and grays, making him stand out as an even more imposing figure on top of the blank red plane behind him. There has not been so gripping or tragic a moment as this one, and things go downhill from there.

Dart and Blackjak knock each other around for a page, during which Dart says that she doesn't believe Blackjak will shoot her. She is confident that she still knows the man he really is inside, and that that will keep her safe. She is, sadly, wrong, and in another startling half-page image, Blackjak takes his shot right at her heart, psychically and metaphorically.
Of course, Dart's always got her battle armor on, and she survives, tricking Blackjak by staying down until he gets close enough for her to grab. She knocks him out, but takes no joy in it, and indeed comes out of the whole mess with a far more joyless attitude than she's ever had before. Even when fighting insurmountable odds, even after she thought Blackjak had died, Dart was always able to maintain her humor and generally upbeat spirit. But pulling herself from the water in which her former love tried to kill her, Dart is the very picture of depression and gloom. Watching Blackjak die was unthinkably horrific for Dart, but fighting him is truly unbearable.
So yeah, this is a fantastic issue, emotionally bashing the cast and reader alike. The only thing that keeps it from being far and away the best issue yet is the very final page, when the Dark Destroyer makes an annoyingly long-winded and unimpressive speech. The real problem with it is that it isn't information that's new to the reader, only to Atari Force. The Destroyer lays out his plan to bring Atari Force to him so they can witness the destruction of their universe, but he's already told Kargg that's what he was doing. So it's not a new threat, and is thus underwhelming as a cliffhanger. Also, the speech literally includes the phrase, "And, speaking of destruction," to get from one point to the next. Weak.
It is but a moment of weakness, though, at the end of one of the book's strongest issues. Neither Tempest nor Dart have ever been in such dire circumstances, and indeed Atari Force as a team is at a new low. They've lost Tempest, lost control of their ship, and have no idea what's in store for them. These are the worst of times if you're in the comic, but the best if you're a reader.

No comments:

Post a Comment