Sunday, June 9, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #8 Review

Andy Helfer steps in to script a Gerry Conway plot for Babe and Hukka's side adventure. With Helfer as the series' usual editor and Conway credited here as one of the consulting editors, the change in author is hardly noticeable. Also, Babe's voice hadn't been too firmly established before this issue, so Helfer has a bit of leeway there. He writes a good script, paced so that Babe's story can be rich but still told in its entirety over a single issue. And for the few pages on which they appear, Helfer stays true to the rest of Atari Force. There are some underlying ethical problems with the plot, but overall it is a solid story in which Babe gets to be a hero. He looks good doing it, too, because apparently José Luis García-López can make any character look cool in a fight.
I really wouldn't have expected Babe to be so imposing in an action scene, but García-López and Helfer are smart enough to give him huge things to pick up and throw or swing. Also, when angry, Babe's face has a perfect expression of that blinding childhood rage. The kind that leads to ear-splitting tantrums and shattered toys or, in this case, an army of dead aliens. Babe is still young enough to feel his emotions in their purest, most overwhelming form, so when he decides to fight somebody, he goes big with it. García-López captures that enormity on several pages, as Babe grows more confident and finds ever larger things to wield as weapons.
The basic outline of Babe's tale is this: after crash-landing on a strange planet, he and Hukka encounter a small, armed, angry little creature that Babe calls "Shorty-Man." At first they fight, but eventually make friends, feeding and protecting one another. Shorty-Man has a dead friend he carries with him, and it comes to light that said friend was killed by a race of violent red aliens, who also fire upon Babe when they see him. So Babe and Shorty-Man attack the red aliens' main camp, and eventually target their munitions stores, causing a massive explosion that kills all the enemies, while Babe and friends are protected by his tough hide.
The friendship formed between Babe and Shorty-Man is done well, each of them learning a bit more about how to communicate with each other with every new leg of their journey. And it's a smart and narratively simple decision to have the culmination of those efforts be Shorty-Man learning the word "Bad" and using it at just the right time to have Babe win the battle. Their relationship begins oppositionally because they can't speak to each other, and ends with a single word saving both of their lives and ending a war. That is a clean, clear progression, and Helfer builds to it efficiently in these 23 pages.
The "ending a war" part is what I meant when I mentioned the ethical problems of this story earlier. Helfer doesn't get into the details of the war's history; all that's said for sure is Shorty-Man was on one side, the ugly red aliens were on the other, and Shorty-Man's side lost. He is the last remaining member, which is tragic, to be sure, but...there's no way of knowing what that really means. Is he native to the planet and his enemies are invaders? Maybe it's as simple as that, and the uglies are villains through-and-through. But it could be more complicated, and even if it isn't, I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the idea of a child being used for what amounts to mass murder, if not genocide. It seems unlikely the entirety of the red alien race would be holed up in the camp that Babe blows sky high, but once it happens, the narration says that Shorty-Man's "war is over," so it seems possible. Whatever the case, there are a massive number of deaths on Babe's hands now, and he doesn't even understand what he killed them for, really. Neither does the reader, and that doesn't sit too well with me.

Helfer definitely makes some attempt to depict the red aliens as bad guys. They shoot Babe unprovoked, and they have absolutely committed genocide, and seem quite content to have done so. I feel no particular sympathy for them. García-López also makes them as unattractive as anything seen in this series yet, while Shorty-Man is adorable, even in the heat of battle. It's easy to let the red guys' deaths go, to see them as simple, evil war-mongers who deserved what they got. Maybe they were. But it's not for certain, and even if that's true, should a baby really be the one to wipe them out?
Not that I don't like the story. I do. I think it was well worth giving Babe some spotlight time, and Shorty-Man (who, thank goodness, will be named Taz next issue) is a great addition to the cast. Atari Force could use another soldier, and I like the potential of a character who can't verbally communicate with them, especially when Morphea is on the team. Plus Babe could use another set of eyes looking after him, considering he's run away once already. Helfer handles Babe's dialogue well, keeping it simple and childish without it becoming too grating or cutesy. Also Bob Lappan does a very subtle thing with the tails of Babe's speech balloons that helps to soften them a little. This was a great way to show off the character's spirit, voice, and skill. Babe was the cast member most in need of that, so it came at the right time.
Aside from Babe's story, this issue's most significant narrative development is Dart's premonition of being with Blackjak again. An exciting proposition for character and reader alike. Blackjak's time on the title was too short, and Dart hasn't addressed his death in a wholly satisfactory way. It's understandable that she would avoid thinking or talking about it, and to some extent her reason for joining Martin's missions may have been to distract herself from her grief. But it's high time her loss was revisited, and if that can happen through Blackjak returning to the book, all the better. Though I am not a fan of the comicbook trope of having characters' deaths not sticking, the laws of Atari Force's reality are still so undefined that I'm open to the idea of a return to life for the old pirate. If it's explained convincingly and he is used well in his second chance, I'm all for it.
Other than that, all that happens is the inevitable retrieval of Babe, Hukka, and Shorty-Man by the rest of their team. Atari Force tracks the signal of the scout ship Babe took, and gets there moments after Shorty-Man finishes burying his friend. Pretty spot on timing, all things considered. As a final bit of business, Shorty-Man wins everyone's approval by elbowing Pakrat the eternal punching bag right in the gut. A fun and fitting moment of comedy that provides a sort of sitcom, all's-well-that-ends-well conclusion to the issue. As Atari Force #8 is, essentially, a palette cleanser, detouring from the main narrative right after some major threads resolved there, having it land on such a light and slapstick note is a good move. It clears the air for whatever is to come, and ties a bow on this tiny story in between.

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