Friday, June 7, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #6 Review

Bob Lappan has been the letterer for every issue of Atari Force up to and including this one, and I haven't mentioned him yet, which is silly. He does excellent work, and I think good lettering is harder to notice than bad, so it's worth pointing out where it exists. And it sort of should be hard to notice. You don't want the letters to draw attention to themselves; they should be integrated seamlessly into the images. Which Lappan does expertly, but not without the occasional flourish where appropriate. Like, for instance, the intricate symbol languages spoken by the various aliens aboard the Dark Destroyer's ship. Or his most noteworthy contributions, the stylized dialogue bubble borders for specific characters. Morphea speaks in wavy lines, expressing her soft-spoken tenderness. Psyklops, her villainous counterpart, has a similar look to his speech balloons, but the lines are thicker and more jagged to display his inner darkness. Both characters are Canopeans, so there is a logical, species-based reason to have their dialogue look a little different. But Lappan takes it one step further, and points out the differences in their personalities through his lettering.
He also does a lot of really good sound effects work. There are way more of them in this issue than I realized while reading. It wasn't until I went back through, focusing on the letters specifically, that I noticed how often they pop up. Again, that's how well-done letters should be, the sounds enhancing the action of the story without being obvious or distracting. Lappan has a clear talent for that, and for the placement of his letters in general. He's definitely an important part of what has, by this issue, become the well-oiled creative machine behind Atari Force.

Gerry Conway took his time lining up the narrative dominoes that begin to fall here. The cast is comfortable by now, and just familiar enough with each other to function as a team. There's finally a direct confrontation with the villain (who also names himself at last), and everyone on Atari Force plays a role in it, with the arguable exception of Babe. He's the least important team member this issue, but when he is on panel, he's used well. He adds a slight touch of comic relief to a couple of the tensest moments: splashing Pakrat right before Dart has a terrible premonition, and then later peeking in at Dart and Pakrat as they prepare for battle. The latter of those two is an especially strong detail from José Luis García-López, showing how thoughtful he is as an artist with every inch of space.
The fullness of García-López's panels is best displayed during the fight scenes in the crew quarters of the Dark Destroyer's spaceship. I continue to harp on his detailed character design, and it's as impressive as ever with the myriad alien warriors that make up the crew. But what's even more impressive is that each of them has their own distinct reactions and attitudes about every frame of every fight they're in. And García-López is extremely careful with the positioning of the characters, so that the same nameless baddies appear in subsequent panels if the point of view calls for it. It creates a continuity and feeling of motion to the action, and gives me the sense that García-López had a vivid mental picture of the entirety of these battles from every perspective. This is an action-heavy issue, and having all of it be so fluid and consistent adds tremendously.
None of the violence is more effective than the face-off between the Dark Destroyer and Tempest. The dichotomy between Tempest's Multiverse-hopping, incessant-motion tactics and Dark Destroyer's nearly motionless pummeling makes for some fantastic visuals. Watching as Tempest is steadily worn down, unable to land a worthwhile blow and getting regularly punched right in the's moving. The Dark Destroyer's unforgiving brutality is overshadowed only by the relish he seems to take in it. Meanwhile, Tempest proves himself just as heroic as he wants to be, but as useless as he'd always feared. It is no fun to watch that happen so rapidly to someone so young and good-hearted, but it is highly entertaining and powerful comicbooks. García-López holds nothing back, doing several close-up shots of the heaviest hits Tempest has to suffer. His face swells and his vision blurs, while the Destroyer looms mockingly, toying with his prey. As rough as that is to see, though (and it is rough), I think at the end of the day, Gerry Conway's words have the hardest impact in that sequence.
There's a lot of tightly written narration at the tail end of Tempest's bout with his father's old foe, emphasizing the totality his defeat on every level. As García-López shows us the bruises, cuts, and blood, Conway peeks inside Tempest's broken psyche and finds even deeper wounds. It begins with Dart trying to contact Tempest, and Conway says that, though he can hear her call, it has no meaning for him. "Reality has become sensation," says a poetic narrative caption, meaning for Tempest, all he's conscious of anymore is his pain and his anger. Then, in the final moments before he falls, Conway tells us that Tempest has the crushing realization that this monster who's beating him senseless is likely also responsible for his mother's death. According to his father's theory, anyway, the Destroyer was behind it, and the absence of a mother in his life is an established sore spot for Tempest. That his final waking thoughts would be of her demise at his enemy's hand is the strongest punch landed in the whole fight, and one Conway has Tempest deliver to himself. It's a emotional low point for this series, but some of the finest storytelling yet.
And it's not even the best part of the script. No, that would have to be the Dart-Pakrat team-up. And really just everything Dart does and says all issue. She cuts Martin off from yet another long-winded speech about the importance of their mission, she's the only one who properly encourages Tempest, and she's also the only one capable of keeping her wits about her long enough to formulate a plan of attack. Granted, her plan fails because they're walking into a trap, but at least she has one. And when she finds herself caught in the trap, she still never loses her cool, and with a little quick thinking and clever manipulation of Pakrat, she's able to survive a fight against a room full of armed enemies who were expecting her.
The relationship forming between Dart and Pakrat is wonderful. Firstly, he is much funnier and more agreeable as a character when she's half-forcing him to do things he doesn't want. I like Pakrat so much more when things aren't going his way. Nothing beats the moment that Dart tells Pakrat to run, knowing full well it will lead to him getting cornered and, in fact, counting on that. She's an experienced mercenary, so she knows his species can't handle being trapped, and intentionally steers the situation to send him into a helpful rage. All of a sudden, rather than a whiny liability, he's a capable partner in the fray, and he manages to get them out alive. It makes every other time he was cornered retroactively less annoying to see Dart weaponize it now.

She's just a fabulous protagonist for this story. Not exactly untouchable in the way some superheroes are, but so skilled and level-headed that she comes out of everything unscathed anyway. She has a great sense of humor, even about the most dismal stuff, and a depth of love to give in spite of her profession. Dart has her flaws and her broken bits, and is even pretty honest about them with herself. But she's one of the most self-assured members of Atari Force as well as the most intelligent and, without question, my favorite. If it wasn't before, that fact is surely solidified here.
Both Ricardo Villagrán and Tom Ziuko fire on all cylinders this issue as well. Much like Lappan's letters, what makes for great inks and colors is the balance between making the art stand out and not pulling focus from the pencils or the story too dramatically. Villagrán and García-López are a great team, and all the awesome action I mentioned before should probably be credited to them equally. If García-López gives all of the characters a unique appearance, it is Villagrán who helps distinguish each of them, maintaining clarity in the busiest panels. Ziuko's colors serve a similar role in those scenes, adding to everyone's individual looks and shining a spotlight on the most important or interesting characters. This is a book with many strong lines and bright colors, but neither ever overwhelm the other creative elements.
Atari Force #6 feels like the series has decided to kick things up a notch. Now that all the many players are sharing the same stage, the story can rocket forward and the action can explode. Last issue's conclusion held the promise of big thrills, and this issue not only makes good on that promise and more, but ends with circumstances that have the potential for even greater things to come.

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