Sometimes, a given issue of a series is going to necessarily have predictable events. Because comicbooks tell ongoing, serialized tales, when the time comes to wrap them up, the endings can be easy to see from a distance. If the author(s) sets up the resolution(s) logically enough, then things will progress in natural and expected ways. This doesn't have to be a negative, but often it is, because even though it's important to have the story maintain some internal consistency, we still want to be surprised as readers. I give Mike Baron serious credit, then, for the blend of the predictable and the surprising in Atari Force #19. Though the titular team's return home ends up exactly as I knew it would, the journey there looks different than I thought, and has a few brand new elements thrown in that fit perfectly despite coming out of left field.
When Atari Force decide to head straight for New Earth and evade A.T.A.R.I. station, it's obviously not going to work, so Baron doesn't draw it out or play it for tension. Security chief Hunter is informed on page three that Scanner One has been spotted, so there's no question that our heroes will be brought in. Where Baron finds an opportunity to shock the reader is the specific spot on New Earth that Martin chooses as a landing zone. Thought he believes it to be an abandoned site, it is in fact the heart of a secret weapons development program called "Warmech." So instead of landing and immediately facing the wrath of Hunter and his crew as anticipated, Atari Force must first deal with an automated, combat-ready robot. It's a small difference, but an important one, for a few reasons. Firstly, even Hunter wants to prevent the Warmech from attacking, because the project is valuable to him, and he doesn't want Atari Force to destroy it (which, of course, they do). It also gives Atari Force, and Martin in particular, a sudden disillusionment with their homeworld. The New Earth they left all those months ago wasn't building weaponry, and the change does not sit well with Martin. My expectation was that, while they'd be annoyed at being labeled criminals, Atari Force would generally be glad to have gotten home after so long away. Instead, their return is tainted from the start by the Warmech program, and the generally harder, more violent/fascistic nature of current New Earth society that it represents.
The Warmech fight also provides Kargg a chance at some small measure of redemption, which I wasn't sure he'd ever get. He could easily have remained in the background, a simple and stoic former enemy whose story was essentially already complete. Free of his former master's mental control, Kargg didn't necessarily need to prove himself to his new team in the short space remaining for this book. Changing his tune from foe to ally was enough of a character arc, and there were and still are so many other threads to tie up, I wondered if he'd ever have anything active to do again. But he nearly sacrifices his own life in order to defeat the Warmech, winning Dart and Blackjak's admiration in the process. It's a nice moment for the character and the series, the final surprise of this script before things get back on the original narrative track.
Because Hunter still does show up, and still does arrest Atari Force, just as he always had to do. However, even in that, there are some twists. Taz and Kargg cannot be arrested, logically enough, because they weren't part of the group that originally stole Scanner One. But Morphea also gets a pass, since her actions are evidently protected by "doctor/patient immunity." This is all New Earth law, which obviously I didn't know the details of ahead of time, since they are entirely made up by Baron. I appreciate that he took the time to think it through, though, and pleasantly surprised that Hunter wasn't just herding everyone into cells no questions asked. It adds a bit of depth and intelligence to his character, first of all, and more importantly it's another way in which Baron avoids being wholly predictable. It all adds up, but the final sum isn't what I thought it would be.
The issue ends with the inevitable trial's beginning, charges of treason and conspiracy and the like being brought against the members of Atari Force who could be arrested. And while the trial itself was inevitable, I admit that the verdict remains somewhat mysterious. If Martin can prove he was right all along about the Dark Destroyer, that he and his crew prevented the obliteration of the entire universe, will that even be enough? It seems possible that the deck is already so stacked against the good guys that nothing they can do will convince their accusers of their innocence. Also, with the discovery of Warmech and the many recent additions to their number from various other worlds, I'm not positive Atari Force cares to remain on New Earth anymore. Having finally reached their destination, they find it changed for the worse, so they may not be all that invested in winning their trial anyway. Where the team will be at the close of the next, final issue is anyone's guess, another point in Baron's favor here.
On the art side of the equation, there's nothing especially dazzling in Atari Force #19, but there are no noticeable mistakes or bad calls, either. Everyone in the expansive cast is full, mobile, expressive, and clear. The action hums, the emotional drama is played at just the right levels, and all in all it's a good-looking issue. Kargg's selfless attack on Warmech is likely the best work. His determination shines through, as does his immense strength, as he climbs the machine and rips it open despite having only one arm. While Baron is toying slightly with expectations in his script, Ed Barreto goes almost the opposite route. He doesn't pull out many fancy or daring artistic moves, but opts for more straightforward storytelling methods. There are a few bold layouts when called for, but mostly these pages concern themselves with getting the information out and giving each member of the cast the right amount of spotlight.
I was hoping the momentum of issue #18 would carry over into and beyond this one, and for the most part I'd say it does. And in those places where the story swerves a bit, it does so with purpose and thoughtfulness, enhancing the ongoing saga without overturning it. Though Baron and Barreto's tenure has been hit and miss on the whole, I am excited to see how they bring it all to a close.
The backup feature is wordless (well...there's nothing in English, just indecipherable, symbol-based alien language) and was written, penciled, and colored by Ed Hannigan with Bill Wray on inks and Bob Lappan, as always, handling the letters. It is the story of Taz, basically right before we meet her in the main series, losing her combat/life partner to war. Without question, it's the strongest of these seven-page closers, the only one yet that has really been about something other than telling a cute and disposable story. It has something to say, even though no one actually says anything I can understand.
Taz and her partner are already the last two members of their species standing in the story's opening panel. And by the end of the first page, it is just Taz, as an enemy ship strafes the pair and kills Taz's love. The pilot of that ship departs in order to loot the bodies, and Taz ambushes him, blowing his vessel up and causing a massive gap in the ground down which they both fall. They recover quickly, and Taz is seconds away from killing her foe when they are both attacked by an enormous underground serpent or slug of some kind. Suddenly, enemies becomes allies as they work together to evade and then slay the giant beast. Then, there is a bit of extra teamwork needed in order for them to climb back to the surface, pushing against each other's backs as they walk up opposite sides of the chasm. It almost feels like this story's lesson is one of peace over war, but as soon as they've made it topside, their alliance crumbles. Despite emphatic protests from the other alien, Taz guns him down mercilessly, and then picks up her partner's corpse and wanders into the sunset, mere minutes away from meeting Babe and joining the rest of the team in the main storyline. On the final panel, Hannigan offers the only bit of English present in the form of a tiny, third-person, barely visible moral: "Hang on to your gun." But the true meaning and strength of this backup feature is deeper than that.
It is, essentially, an examination of different kinds of violence. There is fighting for survival, and then there is war, and both get stage time here. Both lead to death, but only one also creates harmony, however temporary, and it is a significant distinction. When Taz and her enemy team up to battle the more immediate threats of the giant slug and the hole they're trapped in, the war they were participating in seconds before disappears entirely. When in survival mode, things like race and politics and vengeance evaporate, replaced by more urgent, immediate needs. In many ways, this story displays the mindless ugliness of war, the lack of reason behind it. War is violence that can only beget further violence, whereas the violence inherent in defending oneself against a predator can and does end there. Either the predator dies or the prey does, and then the story is over. But in war, everyone is both predator and prey, an endless cycle of hunting the hunters until only one side has anyone left.
War can turn friends into foes; survival does the opposite. The violence of war necessarily involves hatred and, sometimes, also joy, irrational and overwhelming emotions that cloud the senses. Survival, on the other hand, is a practical kind of violence. Both involve kill-or-be-killed circumstances, but with war, the killing is the point. The violence is the ends, rather than the means. In nature, violence either creates food or prevents its creation, but the goal is survival either way. It's not about putting down the other guy, but staying up yourself. Again, subtle but important differences that Hannigan deftly examines.
With only one issue to go before this series calls it a day (or a year-and-a-half or whatever) things are coming together quite nicely. Baron has left his cast in unenviable and unpredictable positions for the final chapter, and Hannigan finally proved that the backup features could have merit and soul. I'm anxious to dive into issue #20 now, in a way I'm not sure I've felt since Gerry Conway and José Luis García-López departed the title. Sort of too bad that my excitement would be so refreshed so close to the end, but better than having it peter out completely. Here's hoping the last chapter lives up to the potential so firmly established in this penultimate issue.