Ok, let me get my bitching about the backup story out of the way at the top, because the rest of this issue was pretty good. But "A Boy & His Hukka" is the worst of the seven-pagers yet, for a number of reasons. Here's the synopsis: a young Tempest takes Hukka to the mall to buy a new action figure. Hukka gets left behind as the toy store closes, and is then chased by a guard dog because, you know, that is the dog's only job. Tempest comes back to save his pet, and when he sees the dog attacking, phases into the store. This so tremendously scares the dog that it seizes up and, as far as I can tell based on context clues, dies. That seems to be what the human security guard who arrives to reprimand Tempest indicates, and the dog certainly never stirs. Also the story ends with the guard saying he will call Tempest's parents because of "what you did to my dog."
So, yeah...Tempest is an irresponsible pet owner, and it causes the death of someone else's totally innocent pet. Why would I want to read about that? No lesson is taught, no good is done, and a dog dies for no reason. I don't know if Dave Manak was aiming for humor with this script, but if so he did a lackluster job of it, because there's nothing I would point to as an overt joke or gag. And it certainly isn't a story about Tempest growing up or having an informative or transformative experience, because he learns nothing and changes not at all. It feels like this story exists merely to fill space, that all Manak bothered to think of was a narrative that could, hypothetically, have occurred in his main character's past. It doesn't seem to matter if the story holds any interesting or worthwhile material, the point is just to hit a page count. And honestly, even if I am wrong, and the dog only passes out from fear rather than expiring, it's still a cruel thing to do to an animal that was merely trying to carry out the job it was trained to do. Tempest doesn't exactly get away with it, but he doesn't suffer any real consequences that we ever see, either. He gets caught, but not punished, while the dog suffers its fate right before our eyes. Do I have a soft spot for dogs? Hell yes I do, but I don't ever want to see anything die, human or dog or cat or alien or tree or ANYTHING in my fiction unless it has a specific narrative purpose. Again, this applies even if the dog survived. To traumatize a character, even an animal one, without any reason behind it, is infuriating writing. It makes this backup feature reach new depths of pointlessness.
Marshall Rogers' art, at least, looks very good. His design for young Tempest is spot on. The child's hair is shorter and more rigid than his older self, because he's not yet the rebellious spirit with the enormous chip on his shoulder he will someday be. And the scenes of the dog chasing Hukka through the toy store have a strong sense of motion to them, and a lot of nice details in terms of different kinds of toys being used in different ways throughout the sequence. It would be nice if the art more firmly provided an answer as to the dog's ultimate state, living or dead, but the actual moment of the animal falling to the ground looks fantastic. It may not be the best-looking backup story, but it's up there, yet paired with such a mindless script, it feels like a waste of Rogers' talent rather than an improvement to the feature.
But that is just the issue's final seven pages, and they tell a story that matters not at all for the ongoing saga of the main series. That story snaps back into focus after writer Mike Baron got a little jumpy last time, and though there are still some inexplicable stumbles, considerably more forward progress is made here.
At first, Baron cheats a little by having Tempest regain some low-level phasing abilities without ever explaining how that's possible. He uses them to dismantle the machine that keeps him from phasing away completely, and gets out of A.T.A.R.I. just in time, as Hunter bursts through the door already firing his weapon. This escape takes place on the title page, and it's a dazzling splash image, dizzying in the way it lays out the action. Tempest dives headfirst into his phase field (a term I may have made up...?) on one side of the page while Hunter charges in from the other. The two of them form a kind of circle of action, connected by Tempest's powers and Hunter's laser fire. From there, Tempest finds himself adrift in a disrupted Multiverse. Ed Barreto draws a couple of fascinating new universes as Tempest travels desperately from place to place, trying to find something familiar. This happens on page four, and the narrative momentum doesn't slow considerably after that point, moving steadily toward the inevitable return of Atari Force to New Earth.
While Tempest is lost, Dart tries again to connect to him mentally, and her timing couldn't be better. He is able to focus on her location through their psychic bond and, after falling through a few more great-looking other realities, he makes it back to Scanner One. There is a brief moment of rejoicing, and then it's all business again, because with Tempest's powers to guide them and concrete proof that their universe still exists, Atari Force finally have hope that they can go home. Unfortunately, their navigation system is shot, meaning someone will have to steer the ship manually.
What luck, then, that Blackjak's new eye, given to him by the Tazlings last issue, seems to grant him some sort of super-sight. Earlier, he explains it to Dart as seeing people "surrounded by auras," which she then translates to Martin as Blackjak seeing "too much." This enhanced vision, combined with Dart's earlier premonition that Blackjak would someday dock Scanner One at A.T.A.R.I. with two working eyes, seems to be enough to convince everyone that Blackjak is the right pilot for their current situation. It all seems to be adding up, and for the first time since he took over, Baron is successfully knocking down narrative dominos in what feels like a natural fashion. It wasn't clear what his stories were working toward before, but all of a sudden, as Blackjak takes the wheel, it feels like there really has been a plan all along.
Then something weird happens, where Baron almost backpedals. Or, no, that's exactly what he does. He backpedals by having Blackjak's new eye be an impairment. When he flies Scanner One into the universe hit by the Dark Destroyer's bomb---evidently one adjacent to the intended target---it is a brilliant swirl of vibrant colors. Some of Tom Ziuko's best work yet. But for Blackjak, it's blinding, and he screams in pain at the Tazlings, demanding they return his old cyborg eye. Which they do, reversing the work they'd done before, and it seems to help. Reverting to his former, supposedly lesser self, Blackjak is now prepared to fly his friends home. Why fix his eye only to break it again? Why make it seem like the new eye was proof that Blackjak was destined to bring Scanner One back to New Earth, just so it can instead almost prevent him from accomplishing that very thing? What the fuck was Baron thinking with this last minute flip-flop? I couldn't possible hazard a guess, but I also don't care as much as I'm making it seem. The point is, Atari Force is finally coming full circle, and not a moment too soon.
So there's a weird bit at the beginning with Tempest's powers, and an even weirder one at the end with Blackjak's eye, but in between is a strong and steady narrative about Atari Force coming together and finding new hope. Baretto also keeps up the good work after the opening pages. There's some unusually strong layout work on the page when Dart guides Tempest back to the ship. And Blackjak's old swagger is in full force for the first time in ages when his old eye is back in place. Tom Ziuko also has a particularly strong issue, for more than just the full-rainbow palette of the destroyed universe. There are several instances where he does a foreground character in a wash of a single hue, while the backgrounds are more fully colored. It adds depth to some of the smaller panels, and helps display emotional friction between cast members, physically separating them with the amount of color used. I'm not sure I've noticed him doing this before, but it's very effective this issue.
Nothing but trouble awaits Atari Force on New Earth, beginning with Rident inevitably trying to arrest them all as soon as they're docked. But they're still excited to get there, and based on this issue, so am I. If the momentum built up here can continue to carry the narrative with the same energy for the final two issues, this series could have a properly compelling conclusion.