Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #3 Review

I'm finally warming to Pakrat. Giving him an asshole, possibly fascist brother and equally oppressive family history makes his whole persona, if not any more pleasant, at least empathetic. He's pushing back against all that honor and responsibility talk, rejecting the idea of morality or duty in favor of self-centered avarice. Meeting his brother, Rident, and seeing how humorless and immovable he is, it becomes much easier to understand the impulse to run from it, to rebel as extremely as possible. Also, next to Rident, Pakrat is a barrel of laughs. His immaturity is less grating when bounced off of his brother's excessive seriousness, and I was actually cheering for him when he got away. It was a bit tiresome to have the final solution to his problems be, once again, to get cornered. At least Rident tried to prevent it. Somebody needs to.

Also, Pakrat being cornered this issue was given more space to breath, visually, which helps a lot. In the past, his rages have been somewhat glossed over, but here there is a sizable image of Pakrat charging, teeth barred and claws first. It makes him believably ferocious for the first time. And after that, there are a several other panels of the aftermath, of Pakrat tearing through Rident and his allies. It's the most action the character has seen, and the heaviest action of the issue, something that José Luis García-López has been doing extremely well all along.
Anyway, that plotline was my favorite. On top of the action it had the best humor, and it made me like a character I wasn't fond of prior. Rident is the perfect foil for Pakrat, and also now that Pakrat is on New Earth he's closer to being at all connected to anyone else in the book. So we're finally getting somewhere with that character, which is good, since he's on the cover.

Pakrat's story is truly only the B-plot of the issue, though. The real narrative core revolves around Dart and Blackjak's attempt to leave Roc's World and return to her home on New Earth. Their efforts are thwarted before they begin when Kargg, lackey to the mysterious main villain, pays spaceship dealer Lio off to sell them a faulty ship. Lio, by the way, is the greatest character this series has yet introduced, and as far as I can recall he never comes back. But that's fine, this is the perfect dose. He's almost human in his appearance, but so exaggerated in certain features and understated in others that he ends up also looking quite alien, somehow. And his huge, creepy grin matches his disturbingly cheery personality. "Lovely, lovely." It makes me shudder as I laugh. I've praised García-López's character work a lot, but this is the cream of the crop.
Lio's an ass, though, and sells Dart and Blackjak a vessel that is guaranteed to break down before they get where they want to go. While they stop to repair the ship, they're attacked by their shadowy enemy, and get away only because of another of Dart's visions. Right away, though, they realize their retreat has trapped them in orbit around a binary star system, and with their ship damaged, there is no way for them to break free. It's a gripping, powerful moment, watching these up-to-now fearless characters be awe-struck at their own impending deaths, but it's nothing compared to what follows. Blackjak takes a shot at fixing the ship one last time, hoping to give them the boost they need to escape. And it works, but the consequence is that the ship blasts him when it starts up again, launching Blackjak into the heart of the star from which he was trying to break away. Dart is powerless to do anything but watch him shrink away from her until he goes up in a final, distant flare. It's a well-structured, tightly-drawn scene that hits hard. Though something like this was foreshadowed in the debut, there was no reason to expect it to happen so soon or suddenly. And it speaks to the strong work Gerry Conway does with both characters up to this point that Blackjak's death and the pain of Dart's loss can each be so effective.
The story of Dart and Blackjak's tragic trip, from Roc's World to his demise, takes up something like half of the issue, including the very first scene (Dart wants to leave because of another premonition she has) and the final one (Blackjak dies). Between that and Pakrat's arrest and escape, this issue already fixes a lot of the problems in Atari Force #2. Where that was spinning its wheels, stuck repeating the character sketches of the debut, this instead leaps dramatically forward for much of the cast. Pakrat's world expands greatly; Dart's gets half as big. And then there's Morphea and the Egg baby*.

*Quick digression: I have looked it up, and yes, the Egg child's name is Babe. Also the main bad guy is the Dark Destroyer. But I refuse to call them that in these reviews until the book starts to, because that seems only fair. Or right. Or something. It's what I'm doing.

The nefarious captain and his pathetic first mate land on New Earth and force their captive to unload the rest of their ship. Quite forcefully. The first mate protests, and the captain ignores him as always, but the commotion catches Morphea's attention and she arrives to investigate. Not one to suffer fools, and physically unable to believe anyone's bullshit, Morphea very quickly learns the truth of the situation through a kind of mind meld with the Egg baby. This is displayed visually in a gorgeous half-page panel, where García-López and Ricardo Villagrán do a great job of recapping events from the child's point of view. The captain's face is made into that of a nightmarish monster, and so is his ship, and the memories blend together in a sort of fluid, singular image that still tells a clear narrative. It's a visual high point of the series, different than anything that comes before but not jarring or out of place.
Promising to return and free the baby soon, Morphea departs, but not before striking at the captain with some sort of psychic blow. The scene adds a lot to her powerset, makes her a firmer and bolder character than I previously thought, and binds her to this Egg child, simultaneously advancing both of their individual arcs. In a very short space, Conway pulls off another major development for two of his main characters, which seems to be what Atari Force #3 is all about. With one glaring exception.

Tempest and Professor Venture have a three-page conversation that is 100% pointless recap. He tells her about Melissa dumping him, which he also predicts and she openly admits is news she already knows. They then go over for the third time in as many issues how bad Tempest's relationship is with his father, and at the same time remind us that Venture is very much his mother figure, despite not being his actual mom. Who, it is repeated, died in childbirth. And then the scene closes with Tempest having another temper flare up like he did in issue #2 with Melissa's father, while Venture wishes Dart would return since she and Tempest always had a special bond. Which, like everything else, has been said before. So that's a dud scene and a waste of space, but easily forgiven when everything else that happens in the issue takes large strides ahead.
After a hiccup or two in the previous issue, the artwork is back on point here. As I mentioned, there's some heart-wrenching material when Blackjak dies, and when Pakrat is allowed the necessary page count, he gets transformed into a proper action star. And of course there is the amazing design of Lio, a scene-stealer if ever there was one. Tom Ziuko's colors don't seem to be as loose as last time, either. He does especially strong work in the opening scene, playing with the nighttime lighting and the glow of the fire. The atmosphere of that moment is such a stark contrast to what the characters are feeling. While Dart is panicked, the world around her rests in a calm, gentle dark. Ziuko continues to enhance the overwhelming moods of Dart and Blackjak's story, doing a lot with a more limited palette when the couple is traveling through deep space.
García-López also provides some of his most expressive work in those places of highest, saddest feeling. The utter shock and despair on Dart and Blackjak's faces when they know they're doomed, and the helpless, teary heartbreak in Dart's eyes as she watches her lover die. Or the Egg child's immense fear and the deep maternal care it brings out in Morphea. Hell, even Pakrat's fury and Tempest's deep familial scars. It's not easy to convey the true weight of such things, but García-López does it more than once, whenever it's called for.
For the first time, the already excellent characters now have some exciting narratives cropping up around them. And they draw ever closer together, converging on New Earth for various reasons. Not yet unified, or even all acquainted, the cast still manages to hold my interest based on their individual strengths. And even though Conway stumbles here or there, particularly with Tempest and Venture, he mostly writes strong and surprising stories this time out. Rendered by an art team that very rapidly got their groove back (and only ever lost a small portion of it to begin with), Atari Force #3 is, I think, the best issue of the series to this point. The first two made sure we knew who we were dealing with, this one shows us why they're going to be worth our time and attention in the long term.

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