Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #16 Review

The stomach pains Taz first experienced back when Gerry Conway was still writing finally resolve here, and what a delightful resolution it is. Taz, it turns out, was pregnant, and she gives birth to a whole gaggle of tiny Tazlings that look equally hilarious and adorable, and show up just in time to save the day. The giant armed ants from last issue sneak aboard Scanner One at the beginning of this one, and when they attack the bridge, none of the weapons Atari Force has available do anything to them. But the Tazlings arrive en masse with an arsenal of weapons they built themselves out of the ship's parts, and eliminate the enormous bugs easily. It's a great and bizarre action scene, the high point of an issue that is considerably stronger and more focused than the last.

Mike Baron picks up right where he left off, with Babe covered in a growing swarm of ants while he tries to fix the ship's thrusters. At first it is unclear if Babe will survive, but then he has, essentially, a brief temper tantrum, which causes the ants to fall off of him immediately. So he is able to repair Scanner One, and Atari Force departs the bug-covered planet, but not before a handful of the warrior ants secretly climb aboard. While the invaders make their way through the ship's interior, Baron takes the opportunity to introduce a few new plotlines. Dart and Blackjak have a pseudo-reconciliation, opening the door for their relationship to heal for the first time since he betrayed her. And immediately afterward, Dart gets a telepathic call from Tempest, indicating that perhaps New Earth wasn't destroyed as previously believed. Neither of these are unexpected developments, but Baron does a god job with them. He doesn't drag them out, but they have the proper space to breath, much more intelligently paced than his scenes have tended to be up to now.

After Dart tells the rest of the team that she spoke with Tempest, the ant attack and Taz giving birth happen simultaneously, so that the ants-vs.-Tazlings fight makes up most of the issue's latter half. Once the bugs have been slain, Morphea explains that the Tazlings are born with language skills, technical know-how, and other abilities that they will lose and have to re-learn with age. They also, apparently, always find something to fix as a group. This is an interesting concept, that an entire litter of alien babies would emerge with a common goal and the skills to achieve it, only to give those things up as they mature. And this particular group selects Blackjak as their thing to fix, which is how the issue closes. The Tazling basically overrun Blackjak, reminiscent of the ants all over Babe at the issue's opening. It might be scary, except Morphea has already explained by this point that the Tazlings are fixers, and a couple issues back, Dart had a premonition of Blackjak with two functional eyes. So it seems like a safe bet that his eye will be repaired by the babies next time. Possibly also the tumor in his brain in which lives an evil alien personality.

Ed Hannigan comes on as penciler for this issue, with common series inker Ricardo Villagr├ín and new colorist Carl Gafford rounding out the artistic team. They all provide solid work, with the Tazlings in particular. They have a manic joy about them, even when they're engaged in violence. They seem glad to be alive, glad to have something to do. And they work as newborns even with their intelligence and talents, because Hannigan infuses them with such a youthful spirit. His ants look great, too, very militaristic and intimidating. They are a powerful contrast to the tiny, giddy Tazlings, making their fight dynamic and lively.

I also quite liked the three or so panels of Taz giving birth. The pain and determination on her face struck a perfect balance. I think the best contribution of Hannigan's is his Morphea, though. She's a bit longer in the face and wider in the eyes when he draws her, which fits her always-concerned and often-distressed personality. And she is a bit more emotive than usual, somehow, more nuanced in her expression even though she has such an inhuman face. Finally, I appreciate that Hannigan ignored Ed Barreto's decision to give Dart pointless cleavage last issue. Her suit is back in one piece here, which is as it should be. I suppose, technically, it is a continuity mistake, but it's one I support wholeheartedly.

Gafford doesn't miss a beat with the colors, and compared to Tom Ziuko's weaker last few issues, this is actually a step up. Not the the colors ever astound me, but Gafford has a wide-ranging palette and attention to detail that add a thick richness to the art. Subtle things like Taz's white tears showing up even against her white flesh, or the ants' different weapons firing differently colored beams. Even the cover, where Taz's uniform is dark blues while the Tazlings behind her are done in a paler shade, shows Gafford's skill and care.

There are a few tiny missteps here. Martin says that Tempest reaching out to Dart is "further evidence that New Earth exists!" but I can't recall any previous evidence of that ever being found. One of Dart's speech bubbles is connected to Blackjak, Morphea apparently already knows Taz is pregnant even though it is news to the reader, etc. These are minor flubs, but it does speak to Baron's generally looser writing style. His scripts are a little less focused on detail or character, and more interested in new plots and sci-fi concepts. That is, I suppose, a valid tactic, but in the end I think it makes his issues less balanced than Conway's typically were.

The Pakrat backup is better than its predecessor, but only marginally so. The plan seems to be to tell an ongoing Pakrat story in seven-page chunks now, which is an alright decision, but I do wish they'd used another character. With Pakrat, the only real option is a caper story, and that's what we're getting here, only it's not a very good one. Pakrat is tossed out a window of the embassy he tried to rob last issue, and gets saved by Ferra in a hovercar/spaceship/unnamed airborne vehicle. She takes him to one of her father's homes, lulls him into a false sense of security and then, as the cliffhanger, turns him over to his brother Rident. A lame ending in light of Rident recently joining the main narrative as a seemingly permanent cast member, but taken on its own it works alright. Andy Helfer seems to be having fun writing Pakrat, and Pakrat is having fun on his adventure. So is Ferra, probably doubly so. This translates into a story that's fun and easy to read, which is, I suppose, what a backup ought to be. But it's not especially compelling.

Really the highlight of this story is the action sequence, with Pakrat battling the embassy guard and then Ferra saving him and avoiding arrest. Mike Chen draws the most ferocious-looking cornered Pakrat I think the series has ever seen, and doesn't skimp on the guard's expressions either. And the in-flight high-speed chase is exciting and bombastic, ending with Ferra pulling some daredevil stunts to get away. By the time that's done, there are only two pages left, and the final one is a full-page splash of Pakrat, Ferra, and Rident, all drawn with great detail and emotion. So I guess when I say "the action" is this story's highlight, what I really mean is the art trumps the script.

All told, this is Baron's strongest issue yet, and one of the best backup stories since the title started having them. I do wish Baron could get a better handle on the cast, and bring back some of the powerful emotional storytelling that used to be present in this book. But he's got some good ideas, and he seems to be finding his footing more and more, so here's hoping things only get better in the final few chapters.

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