Sunday, June 23, 2013

Atari Force Month: VERDICT

I'm still going to individually review each of the three sections of the 1986 Atari Force Special (even though the second story probably doesn't deserve its own whole post...but I'll get to that in a couple days) but before I do, it seems worth it to look back on the full twenty issues of the actual series and see how it fares as a whole. As editor Andy Helfer points out in the last issue's back matter, the entirety of Atari Force can be seen as a single, long-running story, one unified adventure with many smaller narratives told along the way. But is it any good when viewed this way? Despite the up-and-down nature of the book's quality from one chapter to the next, I would ultimately say that, yes, it is any good. Quite good, in fact, and at times even bordering on greatness.

Every member of Atari Force has a personal arc, a process of change and growth to go through. For some it is glaringly obvious. Blackjak goes from good guy to bad and back again, forced to face his greatest personal weakness (cowardice) in the process. Dart's story is inescapably intertwined with Blackjak's, first suffering through his apparent death, and then having to heal from the even more significant wound of his betrayal. Taz becomes a parent, shifting from soldier to caregiver. And, now that I think of it, shifting from a single character to a group character, since the Tazlings essentially share a mind. But it is Martin Champion who may have the clearest and most important journey. In the beginning, no one believes in his claims that the Dark Destroyer remains an imminent threat. He has no connection with his son, because he obsessively works to find the Destroyer and keep New Earth safe. By the book's end, Martin and his son have worked side by side to not only kill the Destroyer, but prove his existence to the rest of the world as well. Yet by the time New Earth might be willing to accept Martin, he no longer wants to live there, and he abandons the planet he helped discover and colonize. His priorities, reputation, and interpersonal relationships all go through major shake-ups.

Tempest's arc is mostly just the reconnection with his father, but there is also a subtler story about him learning to control his temper. When he stands trial alone, he has a wildly inappropriate and immature outburst. By the time the full team is on trial together, Tempest is able to stay calm and focused enough to be the one who saves them. Morphea's story is almost the inverse of Tempest's. She becomes more and more of a fighter as the series progresses, typically out of necessity, but, in the final trial, mostly out of convenience. She doesn't want to argue with anyone any more, so she mind-blasts Hunter and mentally controls the rest of the courtroom to let her and her teammates leave. And Pakrat just learns how to be on a team at all, beginning as a self-centered and sarcastic pain in the ass and winding up at least smart enough to keep his mouth shut and/or lend a hand when necessary. He probably changes the least, but still, he's a very different character in issue #20 than he was in #1.

Well, it's actually Babe who changes the least, I guess. Perhaps he doesn't change at all, a perpetual infant in a giant's body, always wanting to be returned to his homeworld. But he does learn to verbally communicate, and finds friendship and even a certain sense of family among his allies that isn't present at first. I can see the argument that Babe is the one cast member to remain more or less stagnant, but as the baby of the group, I think that's forgivable.

Why do I point out each of these character arcs? Because they speak to one of greatest strengths of Atari Force: how it functions as a team book. This is truly an ensemble, with everyone mattering as much as everyone else. The larger narrative told in these twenty issues would look dramatically different if any one of these characters was removed from the equation. Not every issue has a perfect balance, nor should it, but when all is said and done, the entire team has had plenty of important work to do. That isn't something you always see in a team comic, but it seems to be one of the most important goals of this title, which is admirable.

And the characters are the core of the series anyway. Yes, there are a lot of great sci-fi high concepts involved, fake super science and bizarre new worlds and lots and lots of alien species. But the central cast is so varied and rich, and established so strongly in the early issues, that they remain the most compelling aspect of this book throughout. Each of them has a distinct point of view, set of morals, physical appearance, and powerset. Again, not something every team book---or even most team books nowadays---offers its readers.

Then there is the larger story itself, the search for, battle against, and consequences of defeating the Dark Destroyer. It has a clear, solid three-act structure (which I basically outlined in that last sentence), and pushes itself steadily forward through its own internal logic and momentum. It involves the destruction of an entire universe, and centers around one of the most perfectly over-the-top cosmic villains of all time. Though I would say that the third act is the slowest and weakest, taking some unnecessary detours here and there and limping across the finish line, it's still a strong narrative on the whole. It makes sense, moves smoothly, and sticks more landings than it misses. Considering two different writers and a handful of artists are responsible for telling this tale, having it stay so consistently on track is impressive. It's the mark of a strong central premise, which Atari Force undoubtedly has.

There are some stinker issues, some glossed over bits and pieces, and even a few points of utter confusion and/or aggravation. Any series, no matter how good, is bound to have these elements in almost two years worth of stories. What they won't all have is the impeccable cast and narrative focus Atari Force brings to the table. That's why, when push comes to shove, I stand by this comicbook as a good one, certainly worth reading almost thirty years later, with loads of evergreen material for modern audiences to enjoy.

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