Monday, June 10, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #9 Review

For the first time in this series, José Luis García-López is inked by somebody other than Ricardo Villagrán, but it turns out the difference is minimal. With Bob Smith, the characters' faces are sometimes a bit smoother, but otherwise the linework is just as strong as ever. And García-López proves that his pencils are the core of the book's artistic strength, utilizing many of the tools in his belt. Strange layouts, sharp new character designs, and his usual fluid action are all at work here, helping to liven up an issue that is largely expository.

There are two outright info dumps in this issue, first when Tempest catches Professor Venture up on everything that's happened so far, and then again when Mohandas tell Tempest about the original Atari Force encountering the Dark Destroyer. Gerry Conway stuffs them both full of information, presumably designed to catch new readers up on the series' history, but the scenes still manage not to be boring. In Tempest's speech, Conway finds a few opportunities to clarify things that I wasn't sure of before. Like Tempest's exact reasons for joining his father's mission, or the probe being nothing but bait with which to trap Atari Force. There are some definite problems, such as the never-asked question of how Tempest learned so many of the details of Dart's past with Blackjak. She's been avoiding the topic, so there's no in-story reason I can think of for Tempest to have all that info, particularly the fact that the Dark Destroyer was behind Blackjak's death. Does Dart even know that, and if so, how? I guess the Destroyer said something to Martin about trying and failing to capture Dart before, but still...seems a bit of a stretch that Tempest would be aware of every single thing that's happened to every character in every issue. I understand that the primary goal of his speech is to fill in the audience, and second to that is, you know, portraying the character accurately, but I think that's too bad. It's not impossible to imagine Tempest learning all of this, but it's highly unlikely he would have.
Along the same lines, Tempest's story includes things like an explanation of Dart's precognitive powers, which Professor Venture must be familiar with. Considering she studies Tempest's abilities professionally, if she was ignorant of what Dart can do it would be baffling. That's a small quibble, though it comes up again when Mohandas reminds Tempest who the original Atari Force were, something Tempest has told the reader in previous issues. Obnoxious, but ultimately minor.

Mohandas' story is, I assume, pulled from the first volume of Atari Force and, therefore, also recap in its own way. If you'd read all of volumes 1 and 2 up to here, then this issue would have very few new developments to offer. It is an informational, educational script above all else. Mohandas describes for Tempest the old Atari Force's first few struggles against the Dark Destroyer, who back then was some kind of awe-inspiring space squid living between dimensions. He also establishes the idea that the Dark Destroyer has mind-control abilities, something not really shown before now. Though he kicked Morphea out of his mind and clearly has a massive intellect, the Destroyer's henchman have, to all appearances, worked for him willingly. Knowing he can also potentially command people through their own minds is a chilling and significant development. Mohandas' tale is not especially interesting beyond that, a standard sci-fi story of an away team dealing with unfriendlies on the ground. But it's only a couple of pages, and provides further insight into the scope of the Destroyer's evil.
What saves these info dumps the most is García-López's art, and specifically his panel layouts. The storytellers, Tempest and then Mohandas, are often depicted as larger than the panels themselves, ignoring the borders, physically possessing their respective narratives. The panels of the stories they're telling are small and stacked, a highlight reel of things that came before. They keep the eye constantly moving and the brain constantly working, so that the long-winded captions don't overwhelm or drag down the pacing.
García-López breaks standard layouts whenever the script grows dry this issue, yet in the moments of action and/or high drama, he opts for more rigid panel borders. Dart's intense training against a randomly-generated laser system is far more contained on the page, and made more impressive because of it. Seeing Dart move so masterfully in a confined setting is a better reflection of her skill level. While I usually praise García-López for his character design above all, in this issue, it is his thoughtful layouts that I like the most. Although, his design for A.T.A.R.I. Security Captain Hunter is great, equal parts hilarious baffoon and serious soldier. The white cape really ties it together.
This issue is fast and light. Because something like a third of it is taken up by exposition, but exposition that moves quickly thanks to its art, the rest of the story feels airier than usual. But truth be told, Conway does a deceptively good job of introducing new threads here, too. Important and entertaining ones. There is, as mentioned, the introduction of Captain Hunter, a classic hunter-soldier character with something to prove. Looking forward to more shoot-first action from him. And for me, at least, all of the material about the old Atari Force's meetings with the Dark Destroyer was new and interesting. I'm sure the mind-control stuff will come into play, and with any luck the Destroyer will revert to his enormous green monster form before the series concludes. To the best of my memory that doesn't happen, but gosh do I hope I'm wrong. Conway provides tasty treats for readers new and old alike, which is a strategy I admire. Taking an issue to explicitly invite new people in through overt recapping of all they've missed is not a bad idea, but if you're going to do it, you've got to give the established fans something, too. And if Hunter and the retro Dark Destroyer weren't enough, there is the bombshell conclusion teased last issue: Blackjak is back from the dead.
It is a welcome return, though the hows and whys of it are left for next issue, and García-López makes the final splash image of the character celebratory. Tom Ziuko adds a nice touch, doing everything on the page besides Blackjak in one shade of red or another so that the man himself stands out even more powerfully against it. Full of his old swagger and natural charisma, Blackjak's entrance makes for quite a cliffhanger. Even if not everything in this issue is brand new, then, the bits that are do a lot to excite me and reenergize this book. After a strange, poorly-paced wrap-up to the previous arc, it's good to see the series find its footing again.

And Conway actually addresses the ill-fitting ending of Atari Force #7, through Martin Champion, the team member who has the most prior experience with the Dark Destroyer. Martin is perturbed that Atari Force managed to escape so easily, and realizes that the Destroyer could have defeated them even in light of Dart's threat to destroy his ship. It makes Martin uneasy to know his enemy did something uncharacteristic, and in that feeling he and I are the same. I was very glad to have Conway at least nod to this, even for only a panel or two, and he also gives a glimpse of what the Destroyer is up to now. Suddenly, the end issue #7 feels not so much like a conclusion but a new plot thread disguised as the end of an old one. That's comforting, and handled intelligently.
Atari Force #9 is another example of how skilled these creators are on a team book. Everyone has something to do, even in this recap-heavy issue, and several of them have their personal stories advanced, too. While the past is revisited, the present trudges forward, putting Tempest on the run from Hunter and reuniting Dart with her lost love. It's no weaker than your average issue of this title, and stronger than some bit a good bit.

I also appreciated how Tempest and Mohandas' stories were related, not just in content but in their connection to the larger narrative. Tempest recounts his recent past while Mohandas remembers times more distant, but for both of them, what matters is how these things effect their lives now. The facts of their histories are explored not for mere nostalgia or even just for new readers, but also because there will be ramifications to these stories down the line. Again, that's the best approach to take to this kind of issue, and Conway strikes a lovely balance between things already known and the new details that will work to enrich the book's future.
As a final thought: Huzzah! A cameo from Lio!

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