Saturday, June 8, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #7 Review

I was not a huge fan of this issue, but before I get into that, I need to criticize myself for a hot second. Yesterday, in talking about Bob Lappan's awesome lettering, I mentioned Morphea and Psyklops both being Canopeans. Having now read Atari Force #7, it's clear to me that that simply isn't true. I'm not sure what Psyklops is, species-wise, but he ain't the same as Morphea. She is a singular example, which is sort of the whole point of the story here. I think I thought I remembered, based on their similar powersets, baldness, and appearance on the cover, that they came from the same world. Like I thought for sure it was a plot point in this issue. It's not, bad. Retracted. Moving on.
Morphea is the best part of Atari Force #7, even if I misremembered her story. For the first time, she gets an origin story, providing insight into the culture of her homeworld. Psyklops forces her to remember her childhood there, a horrible time for Morphea as the only Canopean to feel the need for love. Their society has no family unit, and seems to be almost a hive system. Morphea's mother is clearly a queen bee, fat and pampered and mother to all. Everyone has a role to play, a cog to be in the machine. The pronoun "I" is forbidden, and talking at all is frowned upon. Why Morphea has her empathic abilities and was therefore the only child to resist this system isn't explained, but the isolation, confusion, and pain she felt because of it is obvious. Learning of her own intense emotional scars helps explain the motivations behind her being a psychologist now. It's a nice new layer for the character, humanizing her and making her more alien at once.
Then she breaks free of Psyklops' hold, sending his attack back against him through a psychic feedback of some kind. Though she's been heroic, Morphea's never really kicked anyone's ass before, but in the moment it is a role that suits her. To some extent, she only boards the Dark Destroyer's ship on behalf of Martin Champion. She is his therapist, and Tempest, who Psyklops is torturing, is Martin's son. Because her painful memories have to do with a lack of family, her mission to restore a family saves her. And Martin's rage at what his enemies have done to his child is also Morphea's, so when she gets her shot, she makes it count. With Psyklops down, she becomes a caretaker again, yet even as she carries a broken Tempest away with motherly love in her eyes, she looks so calm and confident doing it that the kick-ass attitude lingers.
Morphea's sequence is the artistic highlight of the issue as well as the narrative one. For starters, the Canopean mother is a perfect blend of Morphea and Jabba the Hutt. And just as he did when Morphea entered Babe's mind, José Luis García-López does an amazing job of displaying the fluid and dreamlike nature of memory. Overlapping images and unusual, fractured panel shapes not only underline the emotional turmoil of Morphea's past but the distorted, exaggerated effect it has on her when dug up in the present.
There's a solid five pages of Morphea battling Psyklops and freeing Tempest, and they are the best five in the issue. The rest is awkwardly paced recap and wrap-up, bringing the current storyline of the mission to retrieve Martin's probe to a crashing halt. Major parts of the solution occur off-panel, and it relies on the Dark Destroyer acting so uncharacteristically it makes my head spin. Besides which, if the plan of this issue was just to have Dart save the day, there is no real narrative purpose to sending Martin onto the Destroyer's vessel. He only goes so that thirty minutes later Morphea can follow and, though I like what she does over there, even that is pointless in light of Dart's actions. It serves its functions in the larger story (learning Morphea's background, letting Babe escape, etc.), but in terms of this specific situation, Dart is the only one who counts. And hers is the off-panel material.

Not that she does nothing. She's first seen with Pakrat hiding in the vents like they were at the end of Atari Force #6, spying on Psyklops as he torments Tempest. Dart then decides to make a move, but before she can, Pakrat gets pounced on by a viper-hound. So Dart shoots at it, sets off an alarm, and the two of them take off. All of that is good stuff, except for some somewhat forced exposition, and sets them up for a major confrontation.
Two pages later, there is a glimpse of that confrontation via a single panel of Morphea mentally connecting to Dart and Pakrat. In that glimpse, they are clearly losing, outnumbered and outgunned in a tight space with nowhere to run. Four pages later, they've won, and not even Pakrat can understand how or why. Dart has a bit more forced exposition, though it does not at all attempt to explain what just happened, and the next time we see her, she's saving everyone by threatening to shoot the ship's engine. Dart has surely proven herself a capable warrior by now, but that doesn't mean she can win this entire conflict without earning it in front of the audience. The best thing about her is watching her figure out what tactic to use in every new situation. I know that her threatening to shoot the engine is supposed to do that, but there was another example skipped on the way that I feel cheated out of. Her whole arc feels rushed this issue, whereas the material with Martin is slow and probably unnecessary.

After learning last time that Tempest had been captured, Martin begins this issue in a fit of insane fury. After some wide-eyed, clenched-teeth brooding, he decides he needs to take action, and volunteers to turn himself over to the Dark Destroyer. This is idiotic for a few reasons. Firstly, sending people over to the Destroyer's ship has been a bad idea every single time so far. Second, Martin has nothing to offer the Destroyer, so why he could possibly imagine he would be able to save Tempest by surrendering himself is beyond me. Now their enemy just has them both. And finally, the Destroyer has predicted pretty much everything Atari Force has done up to now, so Martin jumping to his immediate, knee-jerk reaction is just asking to be anticipated again.
Once Martin gets over there, things go as expected: he's met by an army, stripped, searched, and taken prisoner. Conway does at least attempt in that scene to explain why Martin would behave so rashly, but it is a flimsy and not-that-well-written explanation. Basically, Martin has deluded himself into believing he is fearless, which makes him act fearlessly even when he shouldn't. First of all, how is that different than being fearless? And more importantly, it's not just the absence of fear that makes what he's doing a mistake. It's the complete lack of a plan or any plays. He just wanders into his opponent's territory and lets himself get taken, and tries to reason with a superpowered villain obsessed with ruining his life.
The only thing that keeps Martin alive long enough for Dart to rescue him is that Conway slips in his writing of the Dark Destroyer, and pads out some panels with a speech on the topic of how to best kill Martin. It's the campiest, hackiest dialogue the character has spoken, and not at all as intimidating as it's meant to be. Luckily, it's cut short by Dart. Unluckily, the Destroyer then completely caves to Dart's threat without so much as...anything. He does nothing at all. She says she'll destroy his ship and kill them all, he makes no attempt to call her bluff. Atari Force get their probe, are set free, and return to Scanner One unharmed. Of course, the Destroyer promises they've only won a round, but...why did they win it so suddenly and easily?

After all, if anyone had a chance of surviving the ship blowing up, it'd probably be the Dark Destroyer. I'm not sure I totally swallow Dart's strategy as a valid one, and for the Destroyer not to have any kind of contingency plan in place is even harder to believe. It's a hollow win, an unearned resolution. Easily the biggest disappointment of the series yet.
Even at its worst, Atari Force looks great and reads pretty well. Aside from the primary villain, the character voices remained strong as ever. And the art was also of its typically high caliber, even when the story was weak. Tom Ziuko had a lot of chances to use the full range of his palette because there were so many panels packed to the gills with crew members. And he nailed them all. So still a beautiful book with a great cast, but structurally uneven.
I think this should have been two issues. If Dart's fight had been given panel time, and Martin's confrontation with the Dark Destroyer could've had space to amount to anything, it's easy to imagine a version of the same basic narrative that is many times more satisfying. This is just too unbalanced, ignoring important stuff and focusing too often on the immaterial. It races to its finish line, more concerned with the destination than the journey, which results in neither being particularly enjoyable.

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