Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #4 Review

Like the second issue, Atari Force #4 fails to get very far in terms of narrative advancement. Unlike the second issue, though, this one has a thematic reason for taking a breather, and it ends on one of the most important plot points yet. It still feels like a bit of a drag in the storytelling, but it's not a weak issue, necessarily, just a calmer and less thrilling one than they've tended to be until now.

All of the stories in the issue are connected to the concept of family, and the issue itself is titled "Families," so Gerry Conway isn't aiming at subtlety here. The main focus is on Dart returning to New Earth, reuniting with her parents and surrogate brother Tempest. It's nice to see her in a safe place, surrounded by love instead of war, but I will say that I much prefer badass, self-sufficient mercenary Dart to the woman she is at home. Not that there is anything wrong with her, per se, but in the company of her family Dart seems far more reserved and soft-hitting in her personality. She loses her edge a little because she lets her guard down. It is a logical shift in the character, to have her feel and act more at ease at the dinner table than she does in combat. And it's not the kind of change writers always include, so I give Conway credit for really thinking through the difference between Dart at home and Dart in the field. I just happen to like who she is in the field a bit more, personally.
Tempest, on the other hand, changes not at all when his "big sister" is around. Seeing Dart and spending time with her and her loving parents brings him only momentary joy before he slides back into one of his darker moods and ruminates on his estrangement from his own father. This, as usual, leads to a brief history lesson on the old Atari Force, which included Tempest's father (and his now-deceased mother) as well as Dart's parents. All worn out material already, but there's a structural logic to revisiting it with Tempest early in this issue. The next scene essentially covers the same content, this time through the eyes and mind of Martin Champion, Tempest's dad. He takes a walk down buried memory lane thanks to Morphea, the resident empath/telepath/psychiatrist. It spurs him to leave his little isolation pod for the first time in ages and go visit his old friends and colleagues. Perhaps even to make amends, or so he says. This means seeing Dart's parents, which puts Martin and Tempest in the same room. That's a fairly clear three-beat arc: 1.Tempest's view of the damaged relationship and history, 2. Martin's take on the same, 3. Their worlds colliding. And Conway plays the scene well, letting the tension build organically as the dialogue bounces from character to character, until Tempest finally (and predictably) storms off in pained anger.

One of the best details of that scene is the dynamic between Li San and Mohandas, Dart's mother and father, respectively. He tries to make polite small talk with his old friend; she very forcefully speaks the truth, that Martin has been a neglectful, absent hermit for years and owes them all an explanation. It helps propel the conversation forward, and puts Martin a bit on the defensive, which in turn causes him to say something that angers his son. To be fair, Tempest was pretty much waiting for an excuse to get pissed. The whole thing is volatile, and Conway is quick to let it blow up and then watch the dust settle.
In that settling dust, it is revealed that Martin's motives for his visit were not what he claimed, and he returns to his pod and his obsessive search for the powerful evil he believes is hiding somewhere in the Multiverse. This time, he actually has a stroke of luck, and finds what it is he's looking for: a giant ship, flying through what should be an empty universe. Then his luck takes just as quick a turn south when the ship captures his probe in a tractor beam, meaning whatever or whoever is out there now has the means to find New Earth. Which is how we arrive at the dramatic declaration that is the conclusion of this issue.
The cast is all in the same place, the enemy is clear, and Martin is determined to gather a team. It almost feels like the end of an arc, as much as any issue of Atari Force ever will. No longer will this series be about disconnected characters having small-scale, personalized dramas. Now there will be a call to arms, a call to action, and a full-fledged team book can and should emerge. The team, too, will be a sort of family, which is why I think it's fitting to take this issue and check in on their other families first. And because Dart, Tempest, and Martin already have familial bonds with one another, their arcs and backgrounds are given the most attention. It may include repetitive information, but it's largely justified in the service of this particular issue's goals.

In between the various scenes of the Champion family drama, Pakrat has another scene with Rident, and Morphea gets full custody of Babe (who is finally named! Yay!). The Pakrat-Rident exchange is terribly anti-climactic when held up against their initial encounter last issue. Instead of a legitimate arrest and chase, Pakrat basically uses legalese to talk Rident out of trying to nab him. It's a jurisdictional thing, which makes sense, but is dull, dull, dull.
Morphea getting Babe is also less exciting than her discovery of him last time, but that's only because here she just has to threaten the captain and before she actually mind-blasted him. Oh, quick aside: apparently the "first mate" character I've discussed was not the first mate but the literal, sexual mate of the captain, and therefore a woman. So I was wrong on both counts. Apologies.

At any rate, Morphea reminds the captain what she's capable of, and he agrees to let Babe go. First, Morphea has Babe finish the heavy lifting he was being forced to do, which I find a strange choice, but I guess she just wanted to avoid further argument or something. And it doesn't hurt him, so no harm no foul. As he walks away into freedom, Babe gets to spit his disgust at the captain, which is a satisfying moment. Meanwhile, Morphea finds herself surprised at her maternal nature, since her race does not have a classic parent-child relationship. Her bond with Babe is definitely the most interesting family unit examined in this issue, as well as the newest and, therefore, most fragile. I look forward to watching it grow, because it has the potential to teach both characters a lot about themselves through learning about one another.
Ross Andru is the guest penciler for this issue, and does just as good a job as usual for the title. It can't hurt that he's inked by regular penciler José Luis García-López, and both artists have a similarly grounded style. The artistic focus is still on the characters, and Andru is able to put a bit more nuance in his figures' emotions. This is the perfect issue for that, because so much of it is tense conversation with heavy subtext. There is no loss of background detail, though, just because the cast is slightly more expressive, and Andru generally stays very true to García-López's established look and style. They're both classic comicbook artists from a similar time, so it's no surprise that their styles blend well, but that's not necessarily typical of a fill-in artist. Andru is more than up to the task, maintaining every character's distinct look and personality throughout.

I actually like his Rident more, though strangely, his Pakrat is about the same. Somehow, Rident is even more intimidating and stone-faced when Andru draws him. Something about the shading and shape of his face makes him comes across as doubly stern. He also appears a bit more intelligent and competent somehow, which is odd considering he accomplishes less this issue than last.
Andru's best pages are the first three, and in particular page 1. He just draws the shit out of Dart, and the black backgrounds give the whole thing an intimate feel that pulls your eye in and forces you to soak up all the details. Splitting up her face and figure into a bunch of panels on the opening page has the same effect, and then when we turn the page and see her in all her gun-toting glory, it's magnificent. A really powerful opening, which is something this series has had consistently so far.
Andru also gets to draw the first appearance of Tempest's pet Hukka, who I'm not wild about, but serves his purpose as a cuddly-looking pet with basic intelligence. Far more beautiful is the night cat that Hukka chases, who only gets a single panel but is still one of the more memorable images of the issue. Tom Ziuko uses a nice, brash white with spots of milky green for it, too, which only helps.
My first impulse was to call this issue slow, but that's inaccurate. It's not slow, merely light, and that gives the impression of dragging heels. Dart coming home at the beginning is a big deal, and so is Martin's discovery at the end, but in between only the most minuscule of progress is made. Yet the purpose of Atari Force #4 is to show the reader different definitions of "family," good and bad and in between, before prepping the series to assemble a family of its own in the form of the titular team. That seems a worthwhile endeavor, even if it means having a chapter that doesn't get very far. The plot is now primed to develop with some speed, because all the players are where they need to be, and their opponent has been located. All that's left is to bring our heroes together, first with one another, and then with the big bad bad guy.

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