Mike Baron tends to write this series with such an odd, disjointed pace. This issue, more than any others, suffers from a lack of identity. What is it about? Where is it going? I understand what happens, I can see where it will likely lead, but on its own Atari Force #17 is too fragmented, and it feels as though it stops short. None of the myriad plot threads that Baron includes here get enough space to do anything of note. They are either introduced too superficially, resolved in rapid and predictable ways, or briefly visited but not developed whatsoever. Baron jumps from beat to beat with no rhyme or reason, and by the time the issue reaches its final panel, I'm not sure which bits I'm meant to care about the most.
The story opens with Blackjak being fixed by the Tazlings, while the rest of Atari Force is locked outside of the infirmary. Dart refuses to trust the Tazlings with her former love, since all they've accomplished so far is to kill a bunch of ants, so in her mind they're a violent threat. Nevermind the fact that just last issue, Morphea explained to everyone that the Tazlings are fixers by nature, Dart wants to literally break the door down. She never gets a chance, though, and the Tazlings somehow give Blackjak a new, fully functional, organic eye. They also remove the Dark Destroyer's implant from his brain, making Blackjak once again trustworthy as a good guy. Well, unless you're Martin Champion.
Under Baron's pen, Martin is more stubborn and dickish than he ever was before, and seems to grow more one-dimensional each issue. He's been turned into an overly-serious naysayer, who has little to no interest in hearing what anyone else has to say, even though Martin himself has nothing helpful or productive to contribute to any conversation. His lack of depth is nothing compared to Rident, though, who I'm starting to wish Baron had never bothered bringing back into the book. Rident's sole purpose is to remind everyone else that he has plans to arrest them. That's it. It's all he's done yet, and it's utterly obnoxious and pointless, because by now the rest of the cast just flat-out ignores his every line. What is he doing here, what is the creative motivation behind including him in the series? Thus far, there does not seem to be one.
This issue also sees Dart mentally connect to Tempest again, but their conversation doesn't provide any new information or plot advancement whatsoever. He says, just as he did last time, that he is still being held on A.T.A.R.I. station, and Dart once again repeats this to Martin, who once again doesn't really have anything he can do with that knowledge. Essentially, it's three pages of material that rehash an even shorter scene from the preceding issue, a significant chunk of wasted space in an issue that already screws the pooch when it comes to structure and pacing.
Early on, Martin says the Tazlings are depleting Scanner One's food stores at an alarming rate, but no solution is offered by anyone, and the subject is soon dropped. Will it come up again? Probably, but why bring it up here if nothing's going to be done with it? Baron already has so many balls in the air, I'm unclear as to why his strategy would be to throw up more without catching any. But that's what he does with the Tazlings' dietary habits, and then again at the end of the issue when Morphea frees Kargg from the Dark Destroyer's mental hold.
Now, the Morphea-vs.-Destroyer in Kargg's brain scene is actually the issue's strongest section, so I don't mean to complain about it too enthusiastically. But what makes it work isn't Baron's writing but Ed Barreto's art, which comes to life during that battle in a way it never quite has before. Morphea's fear, surprise, and ultimate rage at discovering that the Dark Destroyer has been mentally manipulating Kargg for all these years are all very strong. And the full scale of the Destroyer's inner monstrousness is more clearly on display than ever. We've seen Destroyer as tentacle monster before, but it's never been as horrific as this. It's a brief mental combat, but given all the detail and tension it deserves, making it the issue's biggest strength by a long shot.
Sadly, it rolls right into the too-abrupt ending, where Kargg comes onto the bridge, is met with skepticism, and then apologizes for his recent behavior. And that is it. He apologizes, end of issue. Well, technically the end of the issue is Martin responding to the apology with, "Rrright..." which is about as lackluster a cliffhanger as I've come across. So despite Barreto amping up the energy in the fight scene, the scattered script undoes all that excellent work on its final page.
And before the fight even begins, Barreto loses oodles of credit with me by having Dart change into a slinky, barely-the-right-size nightgown for absolutely no reason at all. It's for her mental connection with Tempest, and I imagine the argument would be that she needed to be relaxed or something in order to reach out to him, but come on. There's changing into something comfortable, and then there's putting on an outfit that strains to cover her breasts and buttocks, and doesn't even always entirely succeed. I'm starting to really hate Barreto for bringing an unneeded and uncharacteristic sexiness to this incredible character. And it doesn't help that Baron writes her as being far blander than she used to be. Also, she kisses Blackjak this issue after the Tazlings fix him, which makes her seem pretty weak to me, in a way that doesn't fit. The Dart of old would not be so quick to return to a romance with the man who tried to kill her, even if she had evidence that he'd been "repaired." It's reckless and sappy in a way Dart isn't, or at any rate hasn't been up to now.
More and more with this creative team, Atari Force feels like a different series, and that's a shame. It was such a good book before, and now it is mediocre at best, lacking the narrative focus and drive it had under Gerry Conway and José Luis García-López. And it has never helped that the main story is limited to sixteen pages so that a seven-page backup can be included. This issue is no exception.
Concluding the Pakrat story that started in issue #15, "Rats Like Us" sees Ferra and Pakrat join forces to set up Rident for the diamond heist that set everything in motion. Andy Helfer does a bit to correct what seemed like a mistake from the first part of the story, by having Rident say here that his and Pakrat's family is an exception to the rule of Markians being thieves. However, Helfer then makes an even bigger factual error by saying that Rident is part of A.T.A.R.I. security. No, he is not. He was hired by them for the sole purpose of retrieving the stolen Scanner One, but this backup story necessarily takes place before that happened. And even if it comes after the events of the main story, why would Rident still be in A.T.A.R.I.'s employ? Nonsense, and totally unforgivable considering Helfer is also the book's editor, and this is, basically, an editorial mistake.
Mike Chen does provide some solid artwork for the backup, at least. When Rident blasts Pakrat across the room, there is a hilarious look of surprise and pain on Pakrat's face. And later, when Rident realizes he's been set up, he looks equally funny in his expression of total defeat and bewilderment. Best of all, though, is the row of five panels showing five different cops, each from a different species with a distinct look and personality. Character design has been one of Atari Force's most consistent strengths, and it's nice to see Chen carry on that tradition, even for just one small strip of a single page.
The plot of the backup makes no sense, though, as it relies on Pakrat convincing Ferra that he knows her father better than she. His argument may be logical, but if Ferra believes her dad will be mad at her for her crimes, she must have a reason. And if, in fact, Pakrat is correct, and Ferra's dad would be proud of her thievery, then she's a strong candidate for the most idiotic and vapid character of all time. In which case, don't waste my time telling stories about her.
My disappointment grows ever larger as this book winds down. There are some good ideas and exciting moments here, but they are few and far between. Baron's scripting is slipshod, Barreto's art rises and falls depending on who he's drawing, and the backups continue to feel pointless and silly. It's not a terrible comic, but the quality has taken a noticeable dip, and there just aren't that many chances left for it to return to its former glory.