Thursday, June 6, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #5 Review

The beginning of Atari Force #5 feels like it's skipped a beat. From the end of the previous issue to the start of this one, at least one highly significant conversation must have taken place off-panel. Because all of a sudden Tempest, Dart, and Martin Champion are working as a team, despite being totally at odds the last time we saw them. It's a jarring way to begin, and attention-grabbing in its confusion. I'm not sure how well Gerry Conway manages to clear up that confusion over the course of the issue, but he does at least attempt to do so. The rest of the script rolls forward via its own momentum, putting together the full Atari Force team for the first time and hurtling them toward their nemesis.

Plot-wise, this is an atypically focused issue. In the past, the narrative has had to jump between characters on different worlds doing different things, but this is more of a continuous single story. Martin and the team he rounds up steal the Scanner One, his old spaceship, and fly it out into the Multiverse in search of the horrible menace Martin discovered hiding there. It is a little unclear to me why, since he now has empirical proof of this threat's existence, he can't show that to anyone at A.T.A.R.I. I know that in recent years he has been dismissed as crazy, but that just makes,  "See, guys? I told you so!" seem like an obvious route to take. And it might mean having their support on his mission rather than being a criminal.
Whatever his reasons, Martin takes the ship by force. Or rather, he directs Tempest and Dart as they take the ship by force. Morphea shows up and is understandably concerned by what she sees, even feebly trying to stop it. But Martin convinces her, too, to join his rag-tag band, and she agrees on the condition that Babe be brought along as well. That leaves only Pakrat, who ends up on Scanner One by coincidence, using it as a place to hide from his brother. He climbs aboard only seconds before the ship departs, and isn't discovered by the rest of them until they've gone too far to turn back. So like it or not, these people are the new Atari Force, led by Martin Champion in search of an unknown, unnamed terror.
And several of them don't like it. Pakrat, though good-humored about it, has no interest in this kind of death-defying adventure. He faints a few times at the thought of dying, and is the least prepared, emotionally or intellectually, to deal with what's going on. Well, no, that would be Babe, really, but because he has Morphea looking after him I give him an edge over Pakrat. Tempest, as is his nature, gets all hissy about something his dad does, and expresses regret at having come along in the first place. Then, as is also his nature, he flees to a corner of the Multiverse to sulk. So everyone's not exactly on the same page aboard the Scanner One, but that doesn't seem to bother her captain whatsoever.
Martin's whole approach is very funny. He has been so single-mindedly chasing the same monster for so long, now that it is in his sights, his attitude is so extremely in the camp of "the end justify the means" that he's willing to take on Pakrat, a criminal stowaway, as well as risk his son's life and possibly strand the entire team in the infinity of the Multiverse. Part of his plan is to destroy Scanner One's navigation chip so that, in case the ship is apprehended, there will be no way to trace it back to New Earth. That's a brazen enough idea on its own, because it means relying on Tempet's powers to get home, and he's still  mastering his control over them. But what makes it border on comedy is that Martin destroys the chip so suddenly, in the middle of explaining his reasons for it, and without any warning to or input from his crew. It's not even a his way or the highway situation, because there is no highway. Everyone's already stuck on Scanner One with him, so now they've just got to live with his bullheaded leadership.

It's safe to say the team dynamics are working for me so far. And Conway is a capable team book writer, if this issue is any indication. Everyone has their own roles, specific duties to fulfill in the narrative and on the team. They each get their fair share of stage time, and they all interact with each other to some degree. There's even a handy monologue summarizing their personalities and histories for any potential new readers, but written succinctly enough not to turn off old readers, either. I would offer this as a solid jumping on point to this title, were it coming out today. It very plainly explains who everyone is, why they're part of the group, and what they're trying to accomplish. It might even make more sense if you were new, because you wouldn't be wondering how Martin talked Dart and Tempest into joining him before the issue began.
There's even a nice introduction to Rident, Pakrat's brother and arch-rival. Rident speaks before a few members of A.T.A.R.I., first as a witness to Scanner One's theft, but then arguing that he should be the one to bring the thieves in. Because of his experience with Pakrat, he says, he's the perfect man for the job, and he's convincing enough for the folks at A.T.A.R.I. They give him a loaner ship and send him on his way, at which point his character takes a slight but significant turn. Pure, boiling rage in his eyes, he declares that the only way to restore his family's honor is to murder Pakrat, which it's safe to assume isn't great news for the rest of Atari Force either. It transforms Rident from nuisance to legitimate villain.
The panel where Rident announces his murderous intent is fantastic, and an example of a particular strength of Ross Andru's in this issue. He does big images well; because his work is so detailed all the time, when he does a close-up or a splash image, there is an astounding craftsmanship to it. Everything looks alive, even the inanimate objects. They look tangible, anyway, true-to-life even in this sci-fi setting. Rident's fury is Andru zeroing in on a single smaller image and making it remarkably intricate, but he's just as impressive in the panels that take full pages. The second page of this book, where Tempest and Dart make their moves against Scanner One's only guard, is incredible. It makes me care about the guard, gets a laugh out of me from Tempest, and puts Dart back in the thick of the action where she's at her best. And it does all of that with striking beauty.
The ultimate triumph of the art in this issue, though, is the final page. Basically a pin-up of the Dark Destroyer ---he gets named on the cover, though still not in the script, yet, but I'm going to count it---it's the perfect blend of imposing and ridiculous for this kind of major cosmic villain. Chills and chuckles, all at once.
That final splash is also the tail end of a scene that tells us, not unexpectedly, that Dark Destroyer knew the Scanner One would seek him out eventually. It's well-established that he's familiar with Dart and "her family," and last issue he nabbed one of Martin's probes, so he's obviously a knowledgeable dude. His preparedness isn't shocking or scary by itself, but Andru brings home all the drama of that moment anyway with his impeccable penciling. He also gives all three of the Destroyer's nameless henchmen awesome designs that have almost nothing to do with each other. For a single panel, that's some serious care.
I like that Conway doesn't waste time in bringing Atari Force to the Dark Destroyer. The cover of the issue is a lie, because nobody actually sees the enemy's face, but they are at least adjacent to his ship in their own. They know where he is, and he knows they know and has been expecting them. And what they don't know is that Rident's on their tail. It's not sufficient for Conway to just assemble his team, he wants to throw them right into their first conflict, too. A newly-created Atari Force sandwiched between their foes is a nice, clean, high-drama situation, and farther than many comicbook teams get in the issue where they're formed. That gives me great hope that next issue, when they'll be starting in this position, some major shit can go down.

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