Sunday, June 30, 2013

Monthly Dose: June 2013

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I reread one issue each month of long-completed series.

100 Bullets #8: This is the issue that really kicks off what will become the larger overarching narrative of this book, and as such it's a little difficult to analyze on its own. Not inherently, but simply because I have already read the entire series several times, so I have an understanding of Graves and Lono's conversation that's fuller than it would be if I was reading this cold. But I do think Brian Azzarello does a pretty good job of walking the line between the mysterious and the obvious in their dialogue anyway, so even taken on its own, this is a strong issue with a mighty sharp hook. Right away it demands attention with drug dealer Topper's strange, phonetically accurate dialogue contrasting heavily with Graves'. And that opening scene has some of the best art of the issue, too, particularly the panel where Topper's chair's floral pattern is done as empty space. I don't know how else to describe it: the fabric of the chair is deep black, but the pattern, rather than simply being drawn in white on top, is displayed by removing the black from the chair in the right places and shapes. It's small, but it catches the eye immediately and asks the reader to look at all of the panels this closely. And the whole scene is so shadowy, and the conversation between Topper and Graves is so cryptic, you're forced to pay focused attention anyway. Then, for just a moment, we get a break from that, as Graves sends a group of cops in to take Topper out, and Eduardo Risso draws a brutal two-page spread of the ensuing shootout. It's silent, but no less gripping for it, nor does it lose anything just because all of the characters involved are new and nameless (save Topper, who's just new). Risso knocks it out of the park, and it's a welcome burst of action between two tense conversations. Graves' subsequent meeting with Lono, as I said, is mostly set-up, introducing Lono and phrases like "The Trust" and "The Minutemen" and "Atlantic City" that will matter more down the line. The characters' dynamic is natural and fascinating, both of them constantly trying to prove to the other how much braver and smarter they are than one another. In the end, Graves wins on both counts, only to be instantly outdone by the up-to-now-unseen (this issue) Mr. Shepherd. Azzarello pulls off the final couple of twists quite skillfully, enticing the reader to come back for more. This whole issue, really, is an invitation to keep reading, a promise that there is a grand plan, that more is happening behind the curtain than we've been allowed to see so far. It ties in Dizzy and Lee from the first two stories, brings some new and fascinating faces into the fold, and references history and organizations it's hard to not be curious about. A definite step up from the last few issues and, in some ways, the true first issue of what will ultimately become this series' epic saga.

The Intimates #8: Every time I reread The Intimates, I eagerly look forward to this issue. I don't know if it's necessarily my favorite, but it's sure in the running, and it definitely features my favorite character, Flora. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the truncated lifespan of this series is that Flora only ever gets one issue, never able to realize her full potential. She could have been a great recurring character, as a romance for Punchy, a new student at the Seminary, or even as a villain down the line, since she's so angry and unstable. As is, her sex scene with Punchy is tasteful and weird and funny and honest, one of the highlights of the series' ongoing mash-up of superhero and teenage drama. And the whole idea of a summer break issue is perfect. Joe Casey manages to check in on pretty much everyone, and by using Destra as the cliffhanger he avoids needing to give her too much space. Vee and Duke get similarly efficient scenes, a few pages each, but in both cases it's just enough to fill us in and tie into Punchy's story, too, at least thematically. Vee is in the midst of celebrating her own sexual rebellion, just as Punchy embarks on his. And while Duke is living a real-life, action hero nightmare, Punchy hides in his basement reading comicbooks and engaging in unrealistic action her fantasies. The two of them probably think they want each other's lives. Only Duke is right about that. I can't really say much more about Giuseppe Camuncoli's art than I have when discussing the previous issues. The dude is perfect for this series, nailing the broadest comedy, most brutal pain, biggest action, and subtlest emotion in equal turn. The best panel is probably the close-up of Punchy's face when he's talking Flora out of further torturing the redneck boys. It's such an impeccable blend of admiration, love, amusement, and concern. And Flora's flowers are gorgeous in their simplicity. Plus I love the info scroll confirming that they are brand new species of plants. Best info scroll yet, I'd say. You could see it in the art, but it's a comicbook, right, so who knows? Maybe Camuncoli just doesn't use references when he draws flowers. But Casey follows up with a quick acknowledgement that, yes, these are intentionally unique flowers. Collaboration! Anyway, Jim Lee does the spy comics stuff well, too, more understated than his art tends to be (by a slim margin), not stealing focus but still being fun and bombastic. You can see why Punchy reads this stuff. So the art continues to be on point, with Camuncoli's immediate comfort in this world only growing all the more comfortable all the time. Casey's best moment, for me, is when the redneck guys, Jeb and Dew, reveal that they were going into the woods to make out. It feels inevitable when it happens, and maybe it is, maybe it's even predictable. But Casey still times it right, words it naturally enough and in such a straightforward manner that it still gets the laugh, even if you suspected it. Even when I know its coming. It makes them a little vulnerable, a bit sweeter and significantly more intimate with each other than they were before. I like the characters anyway, they are only slightly exaggerated versions of tons of guys I went to high school with in central Pennsylvania. So making them endearing at the end can always make me smile, and usually even laugh.

X-Force (vol. 1) #8: Mike Mignola draws all but the first and last pages of the issue, and though he doesn't blow me away here, the art is much crisper and clearer than anything Liefeld's done for this title so far. And the effect seems to be that Fabian Nicieza's writing improves as well. The jokes actually land, a complete story is told, we gain real insight into Cable and his relationship to the's a level of narrative progress this series has regularly failed to reach up to now. Even though, yes, the events of this issue are all flashback, the details that they fill in actually contribute to the present-tense of the ongoing story and deepen the significance of Cannonball's death at the end of last issue. It turns out that Cannonball is the whole reason Cable formed X-Force in the first place, believing that the boy will someday grow up to become a "High-Lord." We don't yet know what the hell that means, but it apparently has to do with possessing immense power and, possibly, immortality, or at any rate extreme longevity. That's all information from the very end of the issue, though. The bulk of the story here is Cable's old team, the Wild Pack, infiltrating a Hydra base under the employ of A.I.M. to retrieve a specific piece of technology. It's heavy on action, which Mignola does well, capturing the scale and power of the fight in a few pages. And the look of the team is great; Mignola plays up Grizzly's massive size, Cable's hard edge, Domino's cockiness, etc. making every member of the Wild Pack stand out while still coming together as a cohesive and well-oiled unit. The best part of the issue, though, is the humor. Nicieza has taken some cracks at jokes in his dialogue before, but for whatever reason they never got much of a reaction out of me. This issue, it all works, and I even laughed out loud  when Cable said, "What century aren't I from?" Maybe it's the clarity of Mignola's art that allows the humor to succeed here, maybe Nicieza was just particularly on point, maybe it's a combination of the two. Whatever the case, this is the most genuinely funny installment of X-Force yet, and one of the best-looking as well, so even though it's a breather, taking a detour from the main narrative to delve into Cabe's history, it may be the best issue so far.

Atari Force Month: Enough Already

Here we are. Day 30. I'd love to have a big, sweeping final point to make. Something super clever and/or insightful to say about Atari Force that I haven't yet mentioned and would tie a beautiful bow on this month of posts. But I'm feeling pretty tapped, truth be told. I've said almost everything I wanted to say, and at a certain point, you're either going to read the book for yourself and form your own opinions, or you're not. Not that the goal of Atari Force Month is necessarily to inspire people to go out and get this series, but if you have no intentions of reading it, you've probably stopped reading this by now, too. So what do I do for this thirtieth column? It's a question that's been needling at me all week, and now here I am with no concrete answer.

I guess that, rather than reach for something to say about Atari Force as a comic, I could take a small moment to reflect on Atari Force Month as a project. I'm quite happy with and proud of it, because I didn't really know if I could pull it off. I moved from Texas to Massachusetts this month, I'm currently looking for work, and I've never attempted something like this before, on the blog or anywhere. I'm pleased to have pulled it off, and I hope and believe that I've done justice to this awesome comicbook series. It's a favorite of mine, obviously, and I enjoyed pulling it apart and looking at each piece and figuring out what makes it click for me.

Atari Force is good science fiction, good superhero stories, great art, great comics. It was spun out of a series of video game tie-in mini-comics, and instantly established itself as something much richer and more original than that. And though it wavered here and there, on the whole it told an excellent and epic tale about some truly fascinating characters in marvelous settings.

Anyway, it's high time to lay this thing to rest, and later today I still want to publish June's Monthly Dose column, so I think I'm going to call it here. I know that this particular post is sort of a cheat, and arguably so was the introduction back on June 1st. But I'm allowing myself this one, because I've written a lot about this title and I'm spent.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Atari Force Month: What Have We Learned?

Atari Force has strong characters, highly entertaining single issues, some truly incredible art, and a cohesive central narrative. That's more than plenty of comicbook series contain, but the question remains: is it really about anything? Like all good fiction, there are several possible answers to that question, but I'd like to offer what is, in my opinion, the best one. Because the clear unifying theme of this book, the tragic flaw that so many characters share, is single-mindedness. They obsess over things, create grudges and vendettas where none need exist, refuse to acknowledge other points of view, and argue with each other a lot. This book is a warning against these attitudes, even though they're present in as many heroes as villains.

Martin and the Dark Destroyer's mutual obsession with one another is the largest, loudest example. An anti-matter bomb is set off because of it, killing an entire universe and the Dark Destroyer to boot. Martin loses touch with New Earth, and when he finally gets back, it has been overrun by his enemies and tainted to the point that Martin no longer desires to stay there. His relationship with Tempest is irreparably damaged because of how absent he was in the boy's youth, too busy searching for the Destroyer to be a father. And the Destroyer was equally focused on Martin, even adopting his physical form for the sake of an emotional slap in the face. Martin's life, his connection to his child and the planet he helped found, is beaten black and blue by his insane agenda against the Dark Destroyer; the Destroyer's life literally ends. Neither of them really gets what they want, but both suffer immense consequences for their actions. Their conflict is the crux of the overarching story of the book, and its message is clear: obsession is unhealthy, unrewarding, and unsafe.

Tempest can't grow up all the way or fully control his anger because he spends his free time bemoaning the raw deal he got in the parent department. This is his obsession, and it also prevents him from following his father's orders or being emotionally mature enough to stay away from his ex-girlfriend. This is what ends up getting him arrested, and spending all that time in a cell being force-fed drugs.

Senator Jamieson is one of the most despicable characters in the book, primarily because he refuses to let go of his anti-A.T.A.R.I. agenda. Hunter, a far more likable and layered villain, also ends up on the wrong side of history because of his narrow views of right and wrong. He sticks just a tad too closely to the letter of the law, and it keeps him closed off from the reality of what's happening.

Kargg and Blackjak are both decent and honorable men who became bad guys when touched by the influence of the Dark Destroyer's obsession. Presumably all of the Destroyer's minions are in similar situations, displaying the dangers of single-mindedness when it comes from someone in a position of power. The Destroyer and his forces are the universe's greatest evil and biggest threat, all motivated by his relentless drive to exact his revenge against an old foe.

There are less significant, less serious examples, too. Rident and Pakrat are opposite extremes, but they both represent the problem with letting your family define you. Pakrat spends his whole life on the run, and ends up on Atari Force by accident, risking his life against the Destroyer for no reason other than the fact that he's physically there. A similar thing happens to Rident, so hell-bent on bringing his brother to justice that he ends up just as stranded after the anti-matter bomb goes off.

The entire culture of Morphea's home planet is a denouncement of having too narrow a focus. They are an almost mindless hive, forced to suppress all emotions and sense of identity in the name of keeping their queen content. Morphea questions this, and though it makes her an outcast at home, abroad it makes her one of the most heroic members of her team.

Any rewards reaped from this kind of overly-determined thinking are shown as bad: the Destroyer's power, New Earth developing weapons, Hunter getting his arrests, etc. And more often than not, the characters are forced to face harsh truths and learn painful lessons because of their obsessions. It is the theme at the center of this book, its underlying lesson and, I would argue, ultimate goal. The series is, as I said, a warning, showing many different types of obsession with consistently negative results.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Atari Force Month: The Series' Excellent Approach to Gender

In this day of fierce examinations and condemnations of the lack of female characters and creators in mainstream comicbooks, I wanted to take one day out of Atari Force Month to point out that, way back in 1984, this book was exemplary in the way it handled gender. Well...not the creators so much, who if memory serves were literally all men. The female characters, though, are very much equal if not superor to the males, and there is a general avoidance of oversexualizing them (with a few obnoxious exceptions). Basically, any of the male characters could just as easily have been women and vice versa, which I see as the true mark of gender equality. When none of the characters' genders truly matter for the success of the narrative, you're doing something right.

The one member of the cast for whom this arguably does not apply is Taz. Her giving birth to the Tazlings is an absolutely essential plot point, and theoretically it requires her to be a woman. However, because we don't really know anything about Taz's species, and Taz herself can't communicate all that effectively, there's no definite way of know that she even is female. I refer to her as "her" because that's what they do in the series, and also for simplicity, but the bottom line is that there may not be a male/female divide amongst Taz's people. Maybe they all can give birth, maybe they're hermaphroditic, maybe their gender changes every day. The assumption at first was that Taz was a man because she was such a ruthless and talented warrior. Then, all of sudden, she became a mother, and that assumption was shattered. Because of this change in everyone else's viewpoint after the birth of the Tazlings, I think Taz fits perfectly into the general attitudes about gender in this book. To have a character be equally effective as a soldier and a mother is fairly rare, and definitely swerves around typical gender expectations.

A far stronger and more immediate example, though, is Dart. I've already mentioned several times how much I love her as a character, and the fact that she avoids most female stereotypes, and specifically female comicbook superhero stereotypes, is a big part of my adoration. She isn't ridiculously proportioned, she never strikes physically impossible poses so her butt and breasts can be seen at the same time, and her outfit wasn't designed to show off her body. On the contrary, it's actually built for combat, covering her in key areas like the chest and midriff because, you know, that's exactly where you don't want to get hit in a fight. Sadly, it is Dart who also breaks the rule, because in a couple of Ed Barreto's issues she either has her costume torn or needlessly changes into something more revealing. I bitched about it in my reviews of the issues in question, and I'll bitch about it again here, because not only did it fail to ever serve any narrative purpose, it was also jarring and distracting. I get so used to Dart looking the way she does, when she's suddenly and pointlessly transformed into eye candy, it pulls me out of the story. As aggravating as that is when it happens, it's also a reminder of what a good job the creators typically do of keeping Dart out of that role.

What really makes Dart stand out is her relationship with Blackjak. Right away when they're introduced in the first scene of the first issue, it's obvious that they function as equals and that, when push comes to shove, Blackjak trusts Dart to make decisions for both of them. Later on, after he has betrayed her, Blackjak confesses that he was never truly as brave or capable as he seemed, but that Dart's skill and confidence made him a better man. So where Dart is self-sufficient and self-assured, a talented fighter and strategian who knows what she wants out of life, Blackjak is an easy-manipulated coward who relies on his external relationships to define him. In the real world, of course, this dynamic of a strong woman with a weaker man exists all the time, but in fiction, and especially in superhero comics*, it is harder to find.

*I know that Atari Force is arguably a sci-fi as opposed to a superhero comic but, come on...code names and superhuman powers, battles to save the universe, a public that fears and misunderstands the good guys. It's a superhero book, deal with it.

The list goes on. Morphea, though she acts as mother to Babe, is also a total badass when needed. And it is her species far more than her gender that sets her apart from the rest of the cast. A male Canopean who had rejected the norms of his people's society would be just as effective in her role, and would have equal motivation to play the part of parent. The judge at Atari Force's trial, Justice Tovah, has quite a commanding presence, and puts more than one unruly man in his place, on both sides of the case. But not everyone bucks trends entirely. Professor Venture is a surrogate mother to Tempest, since his biological mother died in childbirth. That's not all she is, though, she's also an accomplished scientist and a loud voice for truth and righteousness throughout the series. Across the board, Atari Force shows the women of its world being as varied as the men, just like in real life.

Even Melissa, the most one-dimensional and archetypal woman in the book, ever the airheaded and spoiled daddy's girl, is matched pound for pound by her father. He is the epitome of greed and ignorance, possibly the most purely wicked opponent Atari Force ever has, because unlike the Dark Destroyer, he has no concrete reasons for hating the heroes. I don't know that there's always a one-to-one ratio like this, but the point is, there is a general sense of equality that pervades the title. There are good and bad, smart and stupid, deep and shallow, major and minor characters of both genders. It's balanced and realistic, both adjectives that make its more fantastical elements all the more believable and enjoyable.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Atari Force Month: Ten Stories I'd Like to See

The thing about Atari Force is that, as a sci-fi title that only got twenty issues, there are innumerable concepts, characters, worlds, etc. introduced that are never revisited/expanded/fully explored. There's also a lot of background for the main characters that is referenced but never seen, and it winds up open-ended as a series. So below is a list of stories that I wish Atari Force had made room for, details or ideas that piqued my curiosity but I'll never get to see in their entirety.

1. Babe maturing. The whole concept of the members of his species become literal mountains in their adulthood fascinates me, and to see what that transformation looks like would probably be awesome. What are the practical applications of growing into a mountain, and what would it mean for Babe specifically, since he isn't on his homeworld? Is there a day when it happens all of a sudden, or is the shift from mobility to mountain more gradual? It's one of the best ideas of the whole series, and it feels like kind of a rip off to introduce it and never go back and see what it really means.

2. Babe going home. Obviously this is connected to point #1, but it's also different in important ways. Babe's sole desire for the full twenty issues is to go back to Egg, to be reunited with his family and his home. And even though Morphea makes occasional promises to try and make this happen, they're all empty in the end, and no legitimate attempt is ever made to bring Babe back where he belongs. So mostly I guess I want to see this because I think he deserves it as a character, as opposed to seeing any particularly compelling narrative hook in this idea.

3. Tempest and Dart as kids together. We get to see some of Dart's childhood in the Atari Force Special, and there's one backup story about Tempest as a child, but their shared history is never really seen. They refer to each other as brother and sister, and there's an obvious affection between them, but based on what we know about how old Dart was when she was sent to mercenary school, the bond between her and Tempest must have been formed very early on. I'm curious as to what that looked like, how they interacted before she was an efficient killer and he was an emotionally stunted man. We know his father was distant and that it was Dart's parents who essentially raised them both, but how exactly did that work? And what was life like for young Tempest after Dart left? It would likely provide a lot of insight into both characters, and I imagine there'd be some solid humor thrown in as well.

4. The history of the war Taz is fighting when we first meet her. Though we see how devastating this conflict is, wiping out most if not all of two separate species, the details of how it began and what each side was after are never divulged. It would help me understand Taz a bit more completely, and either sympathize with her struggle or, perhaps more interestingly, see her as something of a villain. After all, for all we know, her species was an invasive or oppressive force, and the ugly red aliens were freedom fighters or revolutionaries or something. Not likely, but I'll never know, and I wish I could.

5. Pakrat and Rident as kids, and/or meeting the rest of their family. Rident talks about how their family has a rare history amongst the Markian people of being law-abiding police officers instead of thieves. Meeting Rident and seeing what an ass he is made it a lot easier to like Pakrat, and I have to assume that getting to know their parents might even make Rident a more sympathetic character, too. Also, I just want to see what Markian society is like day-to-day. In a culture where thievery is commonplace, there can't be much trust or even friendship. Seems worth exploring for at least an issue, if not an extended arc.

6. Tempest and Melissa's relationship before it went sour. Melissa isn't at all a likable character in any of her scenes, and maybe she never was, but I'd like to know what attracted Tempest to her in the first place. If her father really hated him so much and she was always so vapid and foolish, how did they even get together? Did they ever get along? Was it the hopelessness of their relationship that drew them to each other? Even though she's one of my least favorite characters, and Tempest is probably the least interesting member of the main cast, I remain weirdly curious about how they became a couple.

7. Anything at all that happens after the final issue. This is the big one. I'd kill for an Atari Force #21. Going back to Old Earth with the hodgepodge of different attitudes and species they have would undoubtedly make for some bizarre and interesting challenges, which, in turn, would make for bizarre and interesting fiction.

8. Hunter's history. That dude was an interesting character, an opponent of Atari Force only because it was his job to be. He took the law very seriously, but he was otherwise an intelligent and reasonable man, and ultimately I think he got kind of a raw deal. I'd like to see what made him who he is, why he's so intense and serious about his duty as security officer. He's one of my favorite characters, big or small, and there's almost no background information on him whatsoever, except a few allusions to him being removed from the security team for a time for being over-zealous. What are the details of that incident? And what are the details of the life that led up to it?

9. Any story at all, narrated by Kargg. Dude is something of an enigma from start to finish, and I want to spend some time in his brain. Especially since, for so long, his brain was under the control of the Dark Destroyer, but is now free again. What kind of perspective does that give him? Probably a unique one, well worth a more thorough examination.

10. A Hukka story where Hukka doesn't do anything stupid or reckless.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Atari Force Month: Special Part 3 Review

Though it begins and ends with Pakrat, this story makes good use of the full Atari Force team, a fitting final adventure. Technically it has to take place sometime in the middle of the main series, since they are still on Scanner One and Blackjak's not there, but in terms of publication chronology it is the last thing they ever did. And considering that, aside from colorist Tom Ziuko, all of the creators are new names for Atari Force, it's a damn fine one-off story.

Clocking in at twenty pages, "Second Skin" is effectively a full-length issue of its own, longer, even than the sixteen-page lead stories of almost the full second half of the main series. It gets a lot done in the space it has. Dwight Jon Zimmerman finds something for everyone to do, telling a single, focused narrative about the team working toward a common goal. There's humor, action, robots, a dash of in-fighting, and the inadvertent destruction of an entire planet. It's a celebration of the immense potential of this book, a demonstration of the strength and flexibility of its cast and reality. As nice a send-off as it is here at the end of the last comic to ever bear the name Atari Force, it's also a reminder that the series ended too soon.

Pakrat falls out of bed because something unseen and unknown is causing a massive disturbance throughout the ship. His assumption is that they've been hit, but he soon finds the rest of the team and Martin informs them that it must have come from inside the ship because there's no hull damage. Everyone splits up to determine what caused the commotion, except for Pakrat who follows a trail of gems he's discovered instead. Those gems end up leading him right to the cause of all the chaos, though: Babe is shedding his skin, which is where the gems come from, and he's doing it by rubbing his back against the ship's interior, which is damaging its systems. His hide shreds the life-support mechanism, so the team is forced to land in order to attempt repairs. The closest available planet is dotted with radioactive hot spots and has absolutely no life signs, indicating some sort of catastrophic nuclear war in its past. But Atari Force manages to locate a radiation-free butte, so while Martin and Tempest work on fixing Scanner One via Tempest's phasing abilities, the rest of the group heads outside so Babe can have space to shed freely.

The repairs run relatively smoothly, except that Tempest is all moody about it like he always is when dealing with his dad. On the planet's surface, however, there is brand new trouble introduced right away. Babe begins rolling on the ground to relieve the itchy discomfort of his shedding, but he immediately opens a large hole and falls down into the darkness. Dart climbs down after him, but rather than finding a rough, unfinished, natural space underground, she discovers a smooth, man-made maze of some kind. At the same time, the reader is shown the various automated defense systems of this place come online---robot security guards, machine guns in the walls, etc. With no sign of Babe and evidence that this chasm is more than it first appeared to be, Dart calls for the rest of the landing party to help her in her search. Morphea and Pakrat climb down while Taz keeps watch above, and the true heart of this adventure begins.

In rapid succession, the team discovers a massive bomb suspended over a pit leading to the planet's core, get attacked by a gang of gigantic robots that they defeat fairly easily, find Babe, watch Babe get shot up by the machine guns in the wall, and discover just how tough their youngest member is when the guns not only fail to hurt him but actually assist in his shedding process. Once his old skin has been removed completely, Babe crushes the guns like they're tin foil, and then absorbs the blast of a small explosive device that falls at his feet. He's the world's greatest defensive player, accidentally blocking these attacks through his size and physical firmness. By the time he has finished shutting down the various underground defenses, Scanner One is operational again, so Atari Force takes their leave of the ruined and dangerous planet.

And not a moment too soon, as the huge bomb they discovered earlier is automatically dropped and, ultimately, causes an explosion large enough to shatter the whole planet into countless chunks of space garbage. Atari Force is shocked and saddened by the catastrophic event, except, of course, for Pakrat, who has a pouch full of Babe skin that he thinks will make him rich if and when he gets back to New Earth. But unfortunately for him, it turns out that the gems have turned to valueless dust, a fact that leaves Pakrat dumbfounded but gives his teammates a welcome excuse to laugh. This is the closing panel, Atari Force standing around Pakrat and teasing him as he stares gap-mouthed at the pile of blue powder pouring from his bag. It's a lighthearted final note at the end of a strong if simple story, and a pleasant place to leave this team.

What I like most about this story is how completely Zimmerman gets all the members of the cast. Martin is the stern and decisive leader. Tempest is the brat with the amazing powers. Dart is the level-headed tactician. Morphea is the concerned mother to Babe's innocent yet mighty infant. Pakrat is selfish but harmless. Taz is a dutiful soldier. Because this story acts as the last word on Atari Force, I'm extremely grateful for these spot on characterizations. Had Zimmerman been less on point, it could easily have left a rotten taste in my mouth, and that'd be a real bummer since this is the final story to ever be told about these characters. It's not a dazzling narrative on its own, but it is solid and moves forward at a steady and engaging pace, and it does so with one of the strongest representations of one of the most interesting casts in comics.

James Fry's pencils, inked by Kyle Baker, are not quite so strong as the writing, but still very good. They are a bit shadier and, at times, smudgier than is normal for this title, and I'm not sure if that should be attributed to Fry or Baker or both. But they're not unclear, and no less expressive than the work done on the main series. Just, at times, a bit less detailed or precise. And the new elements, the robotic attackers and giant bombs, lack some of the creative spark that the character designs tend to possess. Not that they look ugly, they're just a bit blander and more uniform than usual. So the art is looser and less stunning on the whole, but still serviceable throughout. And, like Zimmerman's writing, Fry and Baker stay true to the original looks and personalities of the titular team, which is really all they needed to do to make this a worthwhile read.

Wow...believe it or not, that is it for specified reviews of Atari Force stuff. I made it! It's a positive piece to end on, a shining example of why this series is still good all these years later, and why the relative lack of material in the Atari Force library is such a shame. I would have liked to see more of these self-contained escapades, either set in the midst of the main series like this one, or continuing the adventures of the group after the close of issue #20. But I've got to be content with what's available, and looking at it that way, this final piece of the 1986 special is a real treat. It's the only standalone, full-team story ever written, and a mighty enjoyable one at that.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Atari Force Month: Special Part 2 Review

As the last in a long line of seven-page Hukka stories, the second part of the Atari Force Special probably doesn't merit its own whole post. But screw it, I promised to fill a whole month with this stuff, so I'm wasting a whole day on this story anyway. It'll probably be brief, because there's not an awful lot of material to discuss. But it is the strongest Hukka story, in my opinion, even though it's still not that good. Which raises the question: why the holy hell do they keep making Hukka the focus of these short stories? Who are these for, what purpose do they serve, and what is the appeal of writing them? So I guess it raises like four questions. Let's dive in.

Hukka, hungry and lost and alone in the wilderness, stumbles upon a band of strange, gangly red creatures in the middle of some sort of celebration. They are thrilled to see Hukka, whom they refer to as "mordling." Their speech patterns are similar to Hukka's, broken and simple and often misspelled. They offer Hukka food ("S'fur you, mordling!" and "Eeet! Eeet!") and, once he's had his fill and falls asleep, they declare him ready and carry him away. He wakes on top of a rock that his new friends seem to be using as a platform, as they dance around him giddily. They have fashioned some kind of headpiece for Hukka, and that plus their apparent ceremonial worship makes him suspect that he's been chosen to rule these bizarre red dudes. However, before he can find out for sure, he is replaced: "Wait! Kum c---nu mordling!" The red guys abandon Hukka in favor of the newcomer, a fuzzy blue critter who's kind of shaped like a tooth. Upset at what he thinks is a sudden loss of power, Hukka follows the crowd to see what this new mordling gets. And what he gets is viciously murdered.

Because it turns out the reddies already have a ruler, a large tree that they call "Sheikit." The mordlings, then, are not new leaders but sacrifices, bound and nailed to Sheikit as the brutal finale of this strange ritual. Hukka watches the new mordling suffer this fate, and it understandably terrifies him, so he flees. The red creatures would have been more than happy to kill him, too, but they are not bothered by his escape for very long before yet another "nu mordling" arrives and the cycle begins anew. Hukka, meanwhile, is just as lost and alone as he was at the beginning of the story, only now he's happy for the solitude because it also means safety.

I call this the best Hukka story because, unlike literally all of the other ones, it feels like there is an actual point or moral to this tale. It's not as clear as I'd like it to be, but the weight is there nonetheless. To my mind, the point of this story is not to trust strangers, that people who offer us anything will often if not always want something in return. Cynical, perhaps, but a valid lesson anyway. I can also see the reading that this is about the dangers of religion, since the red guys' behavior could all be interpreted as religious ceremony. If that is what Paul Kupperberg was trying to say with this script, though, he didn't do an obvious or in-depth enough job. Exactly why these beings believe that Sheikit wants or needs mordlings to be killed on its body is never addressed, so whether or not it's truly for religious reasons is unclear at best. Still, there is an obvious ceremonial aspect to what they do, and a definite element of worship when it comes to Sheikit. "Sheikit rools!"

And then there's the idea that, no matter how bad things get, we should always be grateful just to be alive. Again, Kupperberg doesn't hit the mark on this message if it was his goal, but it's still present if you look for it. Hukka is hungry and sad at the start, and so he happily accepts the food given to him without questioning it. At the end, Hukka still doesn't know where he is, and his hunger has returned, but he's no longer upset about it. Instead, he's pleased, his final line being, "Hukka happy!" because he survived what could have been a horrible, fatal experience.

There may well be further viable interpretations of "Food for Thought," but even the three I point out above prove that this is a considerably beefier story than any of the previous Hukka-centric pieces. Typically, his narratives have no real danger and no real consequences. That's not strictly true, but it tends to be the case, and even in the moments where his stories have had a bit more flavor and/or significance, they've never been as full and layered as this. It's not a remarkable or particularly complex story, but it at least makes the case that Hukka has ever deserved to be a protagonist.

Tristan Shane's pencils lend a hand or two, particularly his designs for the creepy red dudes. They look nearly human, but with stretched limbs and enormous mouths that take up more than half of their unnaturally smooth heads. They're almost cute, but also right on the border of immediately terrifying. It makes sense Hukka wouldn't feel threatened by them, but it's no great surprise when they turn out to be the villains, or at any rate the threat of this story, either. It's important for the narrative's success that the red creatures be able to walk that line, and it is Shane's contributions, far more than the stitled language Kupperberg gives them, that allows them to do so.

And Tom Ziuko coloring them in flat, angry reds is a major factor, too. When they're partying, smiling and dancing and feeding Hukka, their coloring adds a brightness to the scene. But in the moment of the reveal of their murderous intentions, it makes them even more menacing. The soft blue used for the mordling that Hukka sees them kill also deepens that effect, and makes its death hit even harder.

I'm not Hukka's biggest fan, because I think he is misused. He has the potential to be a secret observer of hidden things because of his size and curiosity. He could play the role of a kid in any number of hypothetical stories, used to explore age dynamics or childhood psychology because, in essence, that is the intelligence level and personality he possesses. But instead, pretty much every Hukka story, this one included, is about him stumbling into a dangerous situation and then escaping because of outside influences or lucky mistakes. That's not a particularly compelling pattern, and it gets less interesting every time it is repeated. Here, at least, Kupperberg adds some intensity in the form of the blue creature's torturous death, and that alone is enough to raise this Hukka tale above those that came before. Yet it still fits into the typical Hukka story mold, so at the end of the day, it's not that impressive or important a part of the Atari Force whole.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Atari Force Month: Special Part 1 Review

The first story in the Atari Force Special is also the longest, a full-length, 21-pager relating Dart's origin story. Or...not her origin, exactly, just her history, how she became a mercenary and met Blackjak and the like. If any character deserved a more complete background, it was Dart, and so I am pleased to have this story in existence. I just wish it was a little more original or innovative, instead of the string of cliches it actually is.

Dart is the stereotypical outcast in her youth, seen as a freak by the other girls at the New Earth Military Academy because of her parents' past traveling through the Multiverse and the strange powers it gave her. She gets bullied by what amounts to the popular clique, and, as is to be expected, only has one real friend, her roommate Dalia. The two of them get into a fight with their rivals, which of course the mean girls initiate but, predictably, the blame falls on Dart and Dalia. So they are sent away, basically going from one military school to another, only the new one is more of a mercenary camp, run by a somewhat menacing bald old dude named Drago. He is an archetype, the sensei character, imparting all his skills and knowledge to these promising new students. And Dart and Dalia rise quickly through the ranks, as they must, so that Drago soon puts them in charge of their own mission. They join one side of a civil war on the planet Kolb, and it costs Dalia her life. Shortly after, Dart discovers that, in fact, Drago's people were fighting on both sides, that her master is a greedy scumbag who creates conflict for his own gains. So, still an archetype, just not the one he seemed to be at first. Finally and inevitably, Dart confronts and defeats Drago, and the student becomes the master in yet another story.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on the story. Andy Helfer and Paul Kupperberg do use a lot of tired tropes in their script, yes, but admittedly they are not the tropes of the sci-fi or superhero genres, necessarily, which are the worlds in which Atari Force has its feet planted. Still, I found myself underwhelmed by this narrative because it never really surprised me, never did anything out of the ordinary. Glad as I am to have the details of Dart's younger years, it would have been preferable if they'd been as unique and compelling as she was as a character in the main series. Instead, they feel borrowed from other places, and her history becomes a weird puzzle where all the pieces have been used before in more impressive ways.

It does turn out that Dart is responsible for Blackjak losing his eye, a result of Drago pitting them against each other even though they both worked for him. And it is Blackjak who helps Dart carry out her vengeance against their boss for her lost friend, so that the strongest romance from the series also has its beginnings here, and we gain some insight into Blackjak's past as well. I did like that, even if, again, it wasn't wholly unexpected.

And it's a nicely drawn story, with pencils from Marshall Rogers, who does a good job of aging Dart down and handles all of the action well. His design for Drago is about as familiar as the man himself, another mean old bastard with no hair and a wicked grin. But Rogers makes up for it with the native species of Kolb, who are described in the script as being "too bogged down by their corporeal forms to actively participate in any physical activity." Rogers takes that idea and makes them into miniature, blobby Incredible Hulks, stout little green people with legs that barely seem capable of holding them up. It's a throwaway visual gag, but also one of the best parts of the artwork in this story. And the artwork is the best part of the piece as a whole, anyway.

When Dart and Dalia are training, and then again when Dart fights Drago (lots of D names up in here), Rogers packs a lot of action into single panels. And there is a powerful natural chemistry between Dart and Dalia, whether at school or on the battlefield, that helps add some oomph to Dalia's death. Rogers' work didn't melt my face, but it certainly improved the overall quality of this section of the special. Had it been uglier to look at, the cliched nature of the narrative would have been that much more grating.

A final complaint: the way Dart ultimately defeats Drago is by stabbing him in the back. Now, that's all well and good on its own, but Drago's reaction/the writers' explanation for how she was able to pull off such a direct attack is that he never taught her to fight like that. Um...what? You're trying to tell me that a master mercenary, who has been in the business for decades, and who teaches his employees "combat of every style" is completely unprepared for anyone to attack him from behind? That is just ridiculous. And it didn't need to be there, anyway. Dart and Blackjak double-team Drago, and when he's focused on the latter, the former drives a sword through his back. It didn't need to be explained or excused, and trying to force in the "I never taught you" nonsense significantly weakens what should be the dramatic peak. Instead, it becomes comedically absurd, and unbelievable to boot.

I am glad to have read this. I am glad it was written. I love Dart, and as I said, she deserved to have her past fleshed out more than anyone else in the book. But this particular story didn't do her justice, didn't rise to the challenge of giving her a fittingly awesome origin. It's not terrible, but it's one heck of a missed opportunity.

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.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #20 Review

And so Atari Force ends not with a bang but with a longwinded debate, the same one that's been raging underneath the rest of the events of this series all along. It is an argument about two different but connected questions: 1. Is the Dark Destroyer real? and, 2. If so, does that justify stealing Scanner One to fight him? Atari Force manages to convince everyone that yes, the Dark Destroyer was real, but whether or not that makes their crimes forgivable is never decided. Before any verdict can be reached, the team breaks out of their bonds and uses a combination of their powers to leave New Earth entirely. Which is where the series closes, with the titular heroes disappearing into the Multiverse, off to recolonize Old Earth and have who knows what kinds of other adventures. It's not a bad final note, but it's not as sweet or satisfying as I'd hoped. Mostly it makes me wish the book had continued, which I suppose is a good thing, really. You know, leave 'em wanting more and all that. But this finale is a bit of a dud throughout, making its open-ended conclusion more disappointing than it needed to be.

Mike Baron's last script is a slog from the first page, which includes three full narrative captions worth of exposition, as well as a lengthy speech from Justice Tovah listing the many charges of the trial at hand. The wordiness continues, but never gets all that interesting. Martin and Rident offer evidence as to the Dark Destroyer's existence, pointing to the ripple effect from the recently destroyed universe and the mental implant that was removed from Blackjak's brain. This is news to the court, but not for the reader, and it feels like a lot of padding, stalling for time in the opening pages in order to fill out a full issue with not that much material. The court then takes a needless recess, which also feels like filler, and all it accomplishes is giving Professor Venture and Dr. Orion a chance to expound on the information they already provided Martin last issue. Senator Jamieson has taken over New Earth and made it into a despicable, weapons-dealing business instead of the beacon of peace it was meant to be. Again, this is old hat, so almost the full first third of this issue fails to tell us anything we don't already know.

There is some momentary intrigue when one of the Tazlings busts Pakrat out of his cell and leads him to a hidden location where the rest of Taz's babies are building...something. Morphea refers to it as a "secret mission," as she prepares Kargg for something equally mysterious. So while the human characters are tangled up in the trial, Morphea and the rest of the aliens are working in the background to assist them. It is a moment of excitement and potential, but sadly, much of it is spoiled shortly after.

Returning to the trial, nothing has changed. Though the court finally admits the Dark Destroyer may be real, they don't see that fact as a viable defense for what Atari Force has done. Morphea interrupts, and after she and Hunter have some tense words and she finally mind-blasts him, she reveals her plan. According to Morphea, the Dark Destroyer lives off of the beliefs of his many mind-controlled followers, so she believes that using her mental powers and the combined memories of all those who've encountered the Destroyer, she can temporarily bring him back to life. This is the single piece of new information to come out in the trial, and though it's actually interesting, in the end even this is all just filler material, too. Morphea's gambit succeeds, and the Destroyer suddenly appears in the middle of the courtroom, spouting his usual hate-filled rhetoric and scaring everyone to death. But as soon as he goes away again, even though for the first time ever it seems as if the trial might go their way, Atari Force breaks out. It makes everything that has happened in the trial thus far largely meaningless, with even the Dark Destroyer's appearance being little more than a distraction from the real plan all along. A Tazling drops some sort of high-tech lockpick down to Tempest, who frees himself and then uses his phasing abilities to free the rest of his team. Morphea, meanwhile, mentally influences everyone in the room to prevent them from trying to recapture the fleeing Atari Force. The three pages on which this all takes place are the only ones with any action or narrative importance. What precedes them is slow-moving fluff, a drawn out trial that gets nowhere and ends up being wholly irrelevant.

And that's pretty much it. Atari Force casually strolls into the "Multiverse shuttle" Martin designed long ago and the Tazlings have now rebuilt from the parts in his lab. Security officers see them, but have no interest in stopping them, and so our heroes phase away unchallenged, and with great calm. I'm happy for them, but bored by their departure, and quite frankly I'd rather be interested and pissed. Baron seems to be going through the motions to an extent here. He had a destination in mind, and he had an obligatory trial to write before he could get there, and so he wrote it, but without much innovation or liveliness or energy whatsoever.

The art is similarly lacking, but in this case I think it has to do with what Ed Barreto was asked to draw, rather than the way he drew it. For what is primarily a bunch of angry courtroom chatter, this actually looks pretty good. Barreto varies his focus and angles often, and makes the high tension and aggravation of the many, many characters involved abundantly clear. And at the end, when drawing all of Atari Force together in a small space (except Kargg, poor dude, who evidently gets left behind) Barreto does a damn good job. Everyone is as detailed and distinct in personality as always, so even if they leave in a lackluster fashion, they still look good doing it. The problem is that the story has so little going for it, and the panels are necessarily talking heads for so much of the issue, that no matter how talented Barreto is, the art fails to impress.

Tempest phase-punching Hunter in the face when Atari Force begins their escape is an awesome panel, as is the half-page splash of the Destroyer's reemergence. These are the moments of highest drama and action, so Barreto gives them extra attention, and it pays off. It is, however, too little too late, as both of these panels come after eleven pages of drudgery.

I'm not going to get into the backup feature in much detail. It's another cutesy, mindless Hukka story, this time about him getting into a fight with a malfunctioning and outrageously dangerous robotic toy. I'm just too sick of saying how little purpose these short stories serve, and this one is especially guilty. Is it impossible to tell a Hukka-centric story with meat on its bones? It shouldn't be, just because the character is someone's pet, speaking in goofy broken English and seeing the world in simple terms. Essentially, Hukka has a child's perspective, a point of view which can and has been used to great effect in countless pieces of fiction. Why this series has decided to consistently use Hukka to tell pseudo-comedic non-stories is beyond me, but that's what we get here. So the actual ending of the series is even more disappointing and dull than the conclusion of the main narrative.

This isn't a terrible issue, necessarily, but it's a very weak ending to what has mostly been a strong series. It does too little, aims too low, and involves far too much retreading of established facts and details for the benefit of the characters instead of the readers. I wanted something bolder and more action-packed, something that reflected the nineteen issues of sci-fi epic that preceded it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #19 Review

Sometimes, a given issue of a series is going to necessarily have predictable events. Because comicbooks tell ongoing, serialized tales, when the time comes to wrap them up, the endings can be easy to see from a distance. If the author(s) sets up the resolution(s) logically enough, then things will progress in natural and expected ways. This doesn't have to be a negative, but often it is, because even though it's important to have the story maintain some internal consistency, we still want to be surprised as readers. I give Mike Baron serious credit, then, for the blend of the predictable and the surprising in Atari Force #19. Though the titular team's return home ends up exactly as I knew it would, the journey there looks different than I thought, and has a few brand new elements thrown in that fit perfectly despite coming out of left field.

When Atari Force decide to head straight for New Earth and evade A.T.A.R.I. station, it's obviously not going to work, so Baron doesn't draw it out or play it for tension. Security chief Hunter is informed on page three that Scanner One has been spotted, so there's no question that our heroes will be brought in. Where Baron finds an opportunity to shock the reader is the specific spot on New Earth that Martin chooses as a landing zone. Thought he believes it to be an abandoned site, it is in fact the heart of a secret weapons development program called "Warmech." So instead of landing and immediately facing the wrath of Hunter and his crew as anticipated, Atari Force must first deal with an automated, combat-ready robot. It's a small difference, but an important one, for a few reasons. Firstly, even Hunter wants to prevent the Warmech from attacking, because the project is valuable to him, and he doesn't want Atari Force to destroy it (which, of course, they do). It also gives Atari Force, and Martin in particular, a sudden disillusionment with their homeworld. The New Earth they left all those months ago wasn't building weaponry, and the change does not sit well with Martin. My expectation was that, while they'd be annoyed at being labeled criminals, Atari Force would generally be glad to have gotten home after so long away. Instead, their return is tainted from the start by the Warmech program, and the generally harder, more violent/fascistic nature of current New Earth society that it represents.

The Warmech fight also provides Kargg a chance at some small measure of redemption, which I wasn't sure he'd ever get. He could easily have remained in the background, a simple and stoic former enemy whose story was essentially already complete. Free of his former master's mental control, Kargg didn't necessarily need to prove himself to his new team in the short space remaining for this book. Changing his tune from foe to ally was enough of a character arc, and there were and still are so many other threads to tie up, I wondered if he'd ever have anything active to do again. But he nearly sacrifices his own life in order to defeat the Warmech, winning Dart and Blackjak's admiration in the process. It's a nice moment for the character and the series, the final surprise of this script before things get back on the original narrative track.

Because Hunter still does show up, and still does arrest Atari Force, just as he always had to do. However, even in that, there are some twists. Taz and Kargg cannot be arrested, logically enough, because they weren't part of the group that originally stole Scanner One. But Morphea also gets a pass, since her actions are evidently protected by "doctor/patient immunity." This is all New Earth law, which obviously I didn't know the details of ahead of time, since they are entirely made up by Baron. I appreciate that he took the time to think it through, though, and pleasantly surprised that Hunter wasn't just herding everyone into cells no questions asked. It adds a bit of depth and intelligence to his character, first of all, and more importantly it's another way in which Baron avoids being wholly predictable. It all adds up, but the final sum isn't what I thought it would be.

The issue ends with the inevitable trial's beginning, charges of treason and conspiracy and the like being brought against the members of Atari Force who could be arrested. And while the trial itself was inevitable, I admit that the verdict remains somewhat mysterious. If Martin can prove he was right all along about the Dark Destroyer, that he and his crew prevented the obliteration of the entire universe, will that even be enough? It seems possible that the deck is already so stacked against the good guys that nothing they can do will convince their accusers of their innocence. Also, with the discovery of Warmech and the many recent additions to their number from various other worlds, I'm not positive Atari Force cares to remain on New Earth anymore. Having finally reached their destination, they find it changed for the worse, so they may not be all that invested in winning their trial anyway. Where the team will be at the close of the next, final issue is anyone's guess, another point in Baron's favor here.

On the art side of the equation, there's nothing especially dazzling in Atari Force #19, but there are no noticeable mistakes or bad calls, either. Everyone in the expansive cast is full, mobile, expressive, and clear. The action hums, the emotional drama is played at just the right levels, and all in all it's a good-looking issue. Kargg's selfless attack on Warmech is likely the best work. His determination shines through, as does his immense strength, as he climbs the machine and rips it open despite having only one arm. While Baron is toying slightly with expectations in his script, Ed Barreto goes almost the opposite route. He doesn't pull out many fancy or daring artistic moves, but opts for more straightforward storytelling methods. There are a few bold layouts when called for, but mostly these pages concern themselves with getting the information out and giving each member of the cast the right amount of spotlight.

I was hoping the momentum of issue #18 would carry over into and beyond this one, and for the most part I'd say it does. And in those places where the story swerves a bit, it does so with purpose and thoughtfulness, enhancing the ongoing saga without overturning it. Though Baron and Barreto's tenure has been hit and miss on the whole, I am excited to see how they bring it all to a close.

The backup feature is wordless (well...there's nothing in English, just indecipherable, symbol-based alien language) and was written, penciled, and colored by Ed Hannigan with Bill Wray on inks and Bob Lappan, as always, handling the letters. It is the story of Taz, basically right before we meet her in the main series, losing her combat/life partner to war. Without question, it's the strongest of these seven-page closers, the only one yet that has really been about something other than telling a cute and disposable story. It has something to say, even though no one actually says anything I can understand.

Taz and her partner are already the last two members of their species standing in the story's opening panel. And by the end of the first page, it is just Taz, as an enemy ship strafes the pair and kills Taz's love. The pilot of that ship departs in order to loot the bodies, and Taz ambushes him, blowing his vessel up and causing a massive gap in the ground down which they both fall. They recover quickly, and Taz is seconds away from killing her foe when they are both attacked by an enormous underground serpent or slug of some kind. Suddenly, enemies becomes allies as they work together to evade and then slay the giant beast. Then, there is a bit of extra teamwork needed in order for them to climb back to the surface, pushing against each other's backs as they walk up opposite sides of the chasm. It almost feels like this story's lesson is one of peace over war, but as soon as they've made it topside, their alliance crumbles. Despite emphatic protests from the other alien, Taz guns him down mercilessly, and then picks up her partner's corpse and wanders into the sunset, mere minutes away from meeting Babe and joining the rest of the team in the main storyline. On the final panel, Hannigan offers the only bit of English present in the form of a tiny, third-person, barely visible moral: "Hang on to your gun." But the true meaning and strength of this backup feature is deeper than that.

It is, essentially, an examination of different kinds of violence. There is fighting for survival, and then there is war, and both get stage time here. Both lead to death, but only one also creates harmony, however temporary, and it is a significant distinction. When Taz and her enemy team up to battle the more immediate threats of the giant slug and the hole they're trapped in, the war they were participating in seconds before disappears entirely. When in survival mode, things like race and politics and vengeance evaporate, replaced by more urgent, immediate needs. In many ways, this story displays the mindless ugliness of war, the lack of reason behind it. War is violence that can only beget further violence, whereas the violence inherent in defending oneself against a predator can and does end there. Either the predator dies or the prey does, and then the story is over. But in war, everyone is both predator and prey, an endless cycle of hunting the hunters until only one side has anyone left.

War can turn friends into foes; survival does the opposite. The violence of war necessarily involves hatred and, sometimes, also joy, irrational and overwhelming emotions that cloud the senses. Survival, on the other hand, is a practical kind of violence. Both involve kill-or-be-killed circumstances, but with war, the killing is the point. The violence is the ends, rather than the means. In nature, violence either creates food or prevents its creation, but the goal is survival either way. It's not about putting down the other guy, but staying up yourself. Again, subtle but important differences that Hannigan deftly examines.

With only one issue to go before this series calls it a day (or a year-and-a-half or whatever) things are coming together quite nicely. Baron has left his cast in unenviable and unpredictable positions for the final chapter, and Hannigan finally proved that the backup features could have merit and soul. I'm anxious to dive into issue #20 now, in a way I'm not sure I've felt since Gerry Conway and José Luis García-López departed the title. Sort of too bad that my excitement would be so refreshed so close to the end, but better than having it peter out completely. Here's hoping the last chapter lives up to the potential so firmly established in this penultimate issue.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #18 Review

Ok, let me get my bitching about the backup story out of the way at the top, because the rest of this issue was pretty good. But "A Boy & His Hukka" is the worst of the seven-pagers yet, for a number of reasons. Here's the synopsis: a young Tempest takes Hukka to the mall to buy a new action figure. Hukka gets left behind as the toy store closes, and is then chased by a guard dog because, you know, that is the dog's only job. Tempest comes back to save his pet, and when he sees the dog attacking, phases into the store. This so tremendously scares the dog that it seizes up and, as far as I can tell based on context clues, dies. That seems to be what the human security guard who arrives to reprimand Tempest indicates, and the dog certainly never stirs. Also the story ends with the guard saying he will call Tempest's parents because of "what you did to my dog."

So, yeah...Tempest is an irresponsible pet owner, and it causes the death of someone else's totally innocent pet. Why would I want to read about that? No lesson is taught, no good is done, and a dog dies for no reason. I don't know if Dave Manak was aiming for humor with this script, but if so he did a lackluster job of it, because there's nothing I would point to as an overt joke or gag. And it certainly isn't a story about Tempest growing up or having an informative or transformative experience, because he learns nothing and changes not at all. It feels like this story exists merely to fill space, that all Manak bothered to think of was a narrative that could, hypothetically, have occurred in his main character's past. It doesn't seem to matter if the story holds any interesting or worthwhile material, the point is just to hit a page count. And honestly, even if I am wrong, and the dog only passes out from fear rather than expiring, it's still a cruel thing to do to an animal that was merely trying to carry out the job it was trained to do. Tempest doesn't exactly get away with it, but he doesn't suffer any real consequences that we ever see, either. He gets caught, but not punished, while the dog suffers its fate right before our eyes. Do I have a soft spot for dogs? Hell yes I do, but I don't ever want to see anything die, human or dog or cat or alien or tree or ANYTHING in my fiction unless it has a specific narrative purpose. Again, this applies even if the dog survived. To traumatize a character, even an animal one, without any reason behind it, is infuriating writing. It makes this backup feature reach new depths of pointlessness.

Marshall Rogers' art, at least, looks very good. His design for young Tempest is spot on. The child's hair is shorter and more rigid than his older self, because he's not yet the rebellious spirit with the enormous chip on his shoulder he will someday be. And the scenes of the dog chasing Hukka through the toy store have a strong sense of motion to them, and a lot of nice details in terms of different kinds of toys being used in different ways throughout the sequence. It would be nice if the art more firmly provided an answer as to the dog's ultimate state, living or dead, but the actual moment of the animal falling to the ground looks fantastic. It may not be the best-looking backup story, but it's up there, yet paired with such a mindless script, it feels like a waste of Rogers' talent rather than an improvement to the feature.

But that is just the issue's final seven pages, and they tell a story that matters not at all for the ongoing saga of the main series. That story snaps back into focus after writer Mike Baron got a little jumpy last time, and though there are still some inexplicable stumbles, considerably more forward progress is made here.

At first, Baron cheats a little by having Tempest regain some low-level phasing abilities without ever explaining how that's possible. He uses them to dismantle the machine that keeps him from phasing away completely, and gets out of A.T.A.R.I. just in time, as Hunter bursts through the door already firing his weapon. This escape takes place on the title page, and it's a dazzling splash image, dizzying in the way it lays out the action. Tempest dives headfirst into his phase field (a term I may have made up...?) on one side of the page while Hunter charges in from the other. The two of them form a kind of circle of action, connected by Tempest's powers and Hunter's laser fire. From there, Tempest finds himself adrift in a disrupted Multiverse. Ed Barreto draws a couple of fascinating new universes as Tempest travels desperately from place to place, trying to find something familiar. This happens on page four, and the narrative momentum doesn't slow considerably after that point, moving steadily toward the inevitable return of Atari Force to New Earth.

While Tempest is lost, Dart tries again to connect to him mentally, and her timing couldn't be better. He is able to focus on her location through their psychic bond and, after falling through a few more great-looking other realities, he makes it back to Scanner One. There is a brief moment of rejoicing, and then it's all business again, because with Tempest's powers to guide them and concrete proof that their universe still exists, Atari Force finally have hope that they can go home. Unfortunately, their navigation system is shot, meaning someone will have to steer the ship manually.

What luck, then, that Blackjak's new eye, given to him by the Tazlings last issue, seems to grant him some sort of super-sight. Earlier, he explains it to Dart as seeing people "surrounded by auras," which she then translates to Martin as Blackjak seeing "too much." This enhanced vision, combined with Dart's earlier premonition that Blackjak would someday dock Scanner One at A.T.A.R.I. with two working eyes, seems to be enough to convince everyone that Blackjak is the right pilot for their current situation. It all seems to be adding up, and for the first time since he took over, Baron is successfully knocking down narrative dominos in what feels like a natural fashion. It wasn't clear what his stories were working toward before, but all of a sudden, as Blackjak takes the wheel, it feels like there really has been a plan all along.

Then something weird happens, where Baron almost backpedals. Or, no, that's exactly what he does. He backpedals by having Blackjak's new eye be an impairment. When he flies Scanner One into the universe hit by the Dark Destroyer's bomb---evidently one adjacent to the intended target---it is a brilliant swirl of vibrant colors. Some of Tom Ziuko's best work yet. But for Blackjak, it's blinding, and he screams in pain at the Tazlings, demanding they return his old cyborg eye. Which they do, reversing the work they'd done before, and it seems to help. Reverting to his former, supposedly lesser self, Blackjak is now prepared to fly his friends home. Why fix his eye only to break it again? Why make it seem like the new eye was proof that Blackjak was destined to bring Scanner One back to New Earth, just so it can instead almost prevent him from accomplishing that very thing? What the fuck was Baron thinking with this last minute flip-flop? I couldn't possible hazard a guess, but I also don't care as much as I'm making it seem. The point is, Atari Force is finally coming full circle, and not a moment too soon.

So there's a weird bit at the beginning with Tempest's powers, and an even weirder one at the end with Blackjak's eye, but in between is a strong and steady narrative about Atari Force coming together and finding new hope. Baretto also keeps up the good work after the opening pages. There's some unusually strong layout work on the page when Dart guides Tempest back to the ship. And Blackjak's old swagger is in full force for the first time in ages when his old eye is back in place. Tom Ziuko also has a particularly strong issue, for more than just the full-rainbow palette of the destroyed universe. There are several instances where he does a foreground character in a wash of a single hue, while the backgrounds are more fully colored. It adds depth to some of the smaller panels, and helps display emotional friction between cast members, physically separating them with the amount of color used. I'm not sure I've noticed him doing this before, but it's very effective this issue.

Nothing but trouble awaits Atari Force on New Earth, beginning with Rident inevitably trying to arrest them all as soon as they're docked. But they're still excited to get there, and based on this issue, so am I. If the momentum built up here can continue to carry the narrative with the same energy for the final two issues, this series could have a properly compelling conclusion.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #17 Review

Mike Baron tends to write this series with such an odd, disjointed pace. This issue, more than any others, suffers from a lack of identity. What is it about? Where is it going? I understand what happens, I can see where it will likely lead, but on its own Atari Force #17 is too fragmented, and it feels as though it stops short. None of the myriad plot threads that Baron includes here get enough space to do anything of note. They are either introduced too superficially, resolved in rapid and predictable ways, or briefly visited but not developed whatsoever. Baron jumps from beat to beat with no rhyme or reason, and by the time the issue reaches its final panel, I'm not sure which bits I'm meant to care about the most.

The story opens with Blackjak being fixed by the Tazlings, while the rest of Atari Force is locked outside of the infirmary. Dart refuses to trust the Tazlings with her former love, since all they've accomplished so far is to kill a bunch of ants, so in her mind they're a violent threat. Nevermind the fact that just last issue, Morphea explained to everyone that the Tazlings are fixers by nature, Dart wants to literally break the door down. She never gets a chance, though, and the Tazlings somehow give Blackjak a new, fully functional, organic eye. They also remove the Dark Destroyer's implant from his brain, making Blackjak once again trustworthy as a good guy. Well, unless you're Martin Champion.

Under Baron's pen, Martin is more stubborn and dickish than he ever was before, and seems to grow more one-dimensional each issue. He's been turned into an overly-serious naysayer, who has little to no interest in hearing what anyone else has to say, even though Martin himself has nothing helpful or productive to contribute to any conversation. His lack of depth is nothing compared to Rident, though, who I'm starting to wish Baron had never bothered bringing back into the book. Rident's sole purpose is to remind everyone else that he has plans to arrest them. That's it. It's all he's done yet, and it's utterly obnoxious and pointless, because by now the rest of the cast just flat-out ignores his every line. What is he doing here, what is the creative motivation behind including him in the series? Thus far, there does not seem to be one.

This issue also sees Dart mentally connect to Tempest again, but their conversation doesn't provide any new information or plot advancement whatsoever. He says, just as he did last time, that he is still being held on A.T.A.R.I. station, and Dart once again repeats this to Martin, who once again doesn't really have anything he can do with that knowledge. Essentially, it's three pages of material that rehash an even shorter scene from the preceding issue, a significant chunk of wasted space in an issue that already screws the pooch when it comes to structure and pacing.

Early on, Martin says the Tazlings are depleting Scanner One's food stores at an alarming rate, but no solution is offered by anyone, and the subject is soon dropped. Will it come up again? Probably, but why bring it up here if nothing's going to be done with it? Baron already has so many balls in the air, I'm unclear as to why his strategy would be to throw up more without catching any. But that's what he does with the Tazlings' dietary habits, and then again at the end of the issue when Morphea frees Kargg from the Dark Destroyer's mental hold.

Now, the Morphea-vs.-Destroyer in Kargg's brain scene is actually the issue's strongest section, so I don't mean to complain about it too enthusiastically. But what makes it work isn't Baron's writing but Ed Barreto's art, which comes to life during that battle in a way it never quite has before. Morphea's fear, surprise, and ultimate rage at discovering that the Dark Destroyer has been mentally manipulating Kargg for all these years are all very strong. And the full scale of the Destroyer's inner monstrousness is more clearly on display than ever. We've seen Destroyer as tentacle monster before, but it's never been as horrific as this. It's a brief mental combat, but given all the detail and tension it deserves, making it the issue's biggest strength by a long shot.

Sadly, it rolls right into the too-abrupt ending, where Kargg comes onto the bridge, is met with skepticism, and then apologizes for his recent behavior. And that is it. He apologizes, end of issue. Well, technically the end of the issue is Martin responding to the apology with, "Rrright..." which is about as lackluster a cliffhanger as I've come across. So despite Barreto amping up the energy in the fight scene, the scattered script undoes all that excellent work on its final page.

And before the fight even begins, Barreto loses oodles of credit with me by having Dart change into a slinky, barely-the-right-size nightgown for absolutely no reason at all. It's for her mental connection with Tempest, and I imagine the argument would be that she needed to be relaxed or something in order to reach out to him, but come on. There's changing into something comfortable, and then there's putting on an outfit that strains to cover her breasts and buttocks, and doesn't even always entirely succeed. I'm starting to really hate Barreto for bringing an unneeded and uncharacteristic sexiness to this incredible character. And it doesn't help that Baron writes her as being far blander than she used to be. Also, she kisses Blackjak this issue after the Tazlings fix him, which makes her seem pretty weak to me, in a way that doesn't fit. The Dart of old would not be so quick to return to a romance with the man who tried to kill her, even if she had evidence that he'd been "repaired." It's reckless and sappy in a way Dart isn't, or at any rate hasn't been up to now.

More and more with this creative team, Atari Force feels like a different series, and that's a shame. It was such a good book before, and now it is mediocre at best, lacking the narrative focus and drive it had under Gerry Conway and José Luis García-López. And it has never helped that the main story is limited to sixteen pages so that a seven-page backup can be included. This issue is no exception.

Concluding the Pakrat story that started in issue #15, "Rats Like Us" sees Ferra and Pakrat join forces to set up Rident for the diamond heist that set everything in motion. Andy Helfer does a bit to correct what seemed like a mistake from the first part of the story, by having Rident say here that his and Pakrat's family is an exception to the rule of Markians being thieves. However, Helfer then makes an even bigger factual error by saying that Rident is part of A.T.A.R.I. security. No, he is not. He was hired by them for the sole purpose of retrieving the stolen Scanner One, but this backup story necessarily takes place before that happened. And even if it comes after the events of the main story, why would Rident still be in A.T.A.R.I.'s employ? Nonsense, and totally unforgivable considering Helfer is also the book's editor, and this is, basically, an editorial mistake.

Mike Chen does provide some solid artwork for the backup, at least. When Rident blasts Pakrat across the room, there is a hilarious look of surprise and pain on Pakrat's face. And later, when Rident realizes he's been set up, he looks equally funny in his expression of total defeat and bewilderment. Best of all, though, is the row of five panels showing five different cops, each from a different species with a distinct look and personality. Character design has been one of Atari Force's most consistent strengths, and it's nice to see Chen carry on that tradition, even for just one small strip of a single page.

The plot of the backup makes no sense, though, as it relies on Pakrat convincing Ferra that he knows her father better than she. His argument may be logical, but if Ferra believes her dad will be mad at her for her crimes, she must have a reason. And if, in fact, Pakrat is correct, and Ferra's dad would be proud of her thievery, then she's a strong candidate for the most idiotic and vapid character of all time. In which case, don't waste my time telling stories about her.

My disappointment grows ever larger as this book winds down. There are some good ideas and exciting moments here, but they are few and far between. Baron's scripting is slipshod, Barreto's art rises and falls depending on who he's drawing, and the backups continue to feel pointless and silly. It's not a terrible comic, but the quality has taken a noticeable dip, and there just aren't that many chances left for it to return to its former glory.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Atari Force Month: Issue #16 Review

The stomach pains Taz first experienced back when Gerry Conway was still writing finally resolve here, and what a delightful resolution it is. Taz, it turns out, was pregnant, and she gives birth to a whole gaggle of tiny Tazlings that look equally hilarious and adorable, and show up just in time to save the day. The giant armed ants from last issue sneak aboard Scanner One at the beginning of this one, and when they attack the bridge, none of the weapons Atari Force has available do anything to them. But the Tazlings arrive en masse with an arsenal of weapons they built themselves out of the ship's parts, and eliminate the enormous bugs easily. It's a great and bizarre action scene, the high point of an issue that is considerably stronger and more focused than the last.

Mike Baron picks up right where he left off, with Babe covered in a growing swarm of ants while he tries to fix the ship's thrusters. At first it is unclear if Babe will survive, but then he has, essentially, a brief temper tantrum, which causes the ants to fall off of him immediately. So he is able to repair Scanner One, and Atari Force departs the bug-covered planet, but not before a handful of the warrior ants secretly climb aboard. While the invaders make their way through the ship's interior, Baron takes the opportunity to introduce a few new plotlines. Dart and Blackjak have a pseudo-reconciliation, opening the door for their relationship to heal for the first time since he betrayed her. And immediately afterward, Dart gets a telepathic call from Tempest, indicating that perhaps New Earth wasn't destroyed as previously believed. Neither of these are unexpected developments, but Baron does a god job with them. He doesn't drag them out, but they have the proper space to breath, much more intelligently paced than his scenes have tended to be up to now.

After Dart tells the rest of the team that she spoke with Tempest, the ant attack and Taz giving birth happen simultaneously, so that the ants-vs.-Tazlings fight makes up most of the issue's latter half. Once the bugs have been slain, Morphea explains that the Tazlings are born with language skills, technical know-how, and other abilities that they will lose and have to re-learn with age. They also, apparently, always find something to fix as a group. This is an interesting concept, that an entire litter of alien babies would emerge with a common goal and the skills to achieve it, only to give those things up as they mature. And this particular group selects Blackjak as their thing to fix, which is how the issue closes. The Tazling basically overrun Blackjak, reminiscent of the ants all over Babe at the issue's opening. It might be scary, except Morphea has already explained by this point that the Tazlings are fixers, and a couple issues back, Dart had a premonition of Blackjak with two functional eyes. So it seems like a safe bet that his eye will be repaired by the babies next time. Possibly also the tumor in his brain in which lives an evil alien personality.

Ed Hannigan comes on as penciler for this issue, with common series inker Ricardo Villagrán and new colorist Carl Gafford rounding out the artistic team. They all provide solid work, with the Tazlings in particular. They have a manic joy about them, even when they're engaged in violence. They seem glad to be alive, glad to have something to do. And they work as newborns even with their intelligence and talents, because Hannigan infuses them with such a youthful spirit. His ants look great, too, very militaristic and intimidating. They are a powerful contrast to the tiny, giddy Tazlings, making their fight dynamic and lively.

I also quite liked the three or so panels of Taz giving birth. The pain and determination on her face struck a perfect balance. I think the best contribution of Hannigan's is his Morphea, though. She's a bit longer in the face and wider in the eyes when he draws her, which fits her always-concerned and often-distressed personality. And she is a bit more emotive than usual, somehow, more nuanced in her expression even though she has such an inhuman face. Finally, I appreciate that Hannigan ignored Ed Barreto's decision to give Dart pointless cleavage last issue. Her suit is back in one piece here, which is as it should be. I suppose, technically, it is a continuity mistake, but it's one I support wholeheartedly.

Gafford doesn't miss a beat with the colors, and compared to Tom Ziuko's weaker last few issues, this is actually a step up. Not the the colors ever astound me, but Gafford has a wide-ranging palette and attention to detail that add a thick richness to the art. Subtle things like Taz's white tears showing up even against her white flesh, or the ants' different weapons firing differently colored beams. Even the cover, where Taz's uniform is dark blues while the Tazlings behind her are done in a paler shade, shows Gafford's skill and care.

There are a few tiny missteps here. Martin says that Tempest reaching out to Dart is "further evidence that New Earth exists!" but I can't recall any previous evidence of that ever being found. One of Dart's speech bubbles is connected to Blackjak, Morphea apparently already knows Taz is pregnant even though it is news to the reader, etc. These are minor flubs, but it does speak to Baron's generally looser writing style. His scripts are a little less focused on detail or character, and more interested in new plots and sci-fi concepts. That is, I suppose, a valid tactic, but in the end I think it makes his issues less balanced than Conway's typically were.

The Pakrat backup is better than its predecessor, but only marginally so. The plan seems to be to tell an ongoing Pakrat story in seven-page chunks now, which is an alright decision, but I do wish they'd used another character. With Pakrat, the only real option is a caper story, and that's what we're getting here, only it's not a very good one. Pakrat is tossed out a window of the embassy he tried to rob last issue, and gets saved by Ferra in a hovercar/spaceship/unnamed airborne vehicle. She takes him to one of her father's homes, lulls him into a false sense of security and then, as the cliffhanger, turns him over to his brother Rident. A lame ending in light of Rident recently joining the main narrative as a seemingly permanent cast member, but taken on its own it works alright. Andy Helfer seems to be having fun writing Pakrat, and Pakrat is having fun on his adventure. So is Ferra, probably doubly so. This translates into a story that's fun and easy to read, which is, I suppose, what a backup ought to be. But it's not especially compelling.

Really the highlight of this story is the action sequence, with Pakrat battling the embassy guard and then Ferra saving him and avoiding arrest. Mike Chen draws the most ferocious-looking cornered Pakrat I think the series has ever seen, and doesn't skimp on the guard's expressions either. And the in-flight high-speed chase is exciting and bombastic, ending with Ferra pulling some daredevil stunts to get away. By the time that's done, there are only two pages left, and the final one is a full-page splash of Pakrat, Ferra, and Rident, all drawn with great detail and emotion. So I guess when I say "the action" is this story's highlight, what I really mean is the art trumps the script.

All told, this is Baron's strongest issue yet, and one of the best backup stories since the title started having them. I do wish Baron could get a better handle on the cast, and bring back some of the powerful emotional storytelling that used to be present in this book. But he's got some good ideas, and he seems to be finding his footing more and more, so here's hoping things only get better in the final few chapters.

Atari Force Month: Issue #15 Review

OH NO! My move to Massachusetts has, predictably enough, prevented me from all the reading and writing I has hoping to do these past few days, which is why the below review did not go up yesterday. We have arrived at our destination now, and I am unemployed at the moment, so I gots some time to do some catching up. Therefore, the plan is to do this review and the next one today, getting me back on track for Atari Force Month.

This is a sloppy issue. It opens sloppily and never course corrects. Despite issue #14 ending with the team walking back to Scanner One, this time they start off standing around Kargg's fallen form, surrounded by thousands of giant insects. Rident apparently already sees these insects and knows that they are hostile, but how he could possibly have that info is beyond me. He says they ate his ship, did he survive? Why weren't they already on his tail when he showed up last time? It all raises more questions than it does provide answers, and that's only the first two panels. From there, Mike Baron writes really awkward dialogue between Martin and Dart as the two of them debate strategy and ultimately decide the best bet is to run away. So  everyone returns to Scanner One, with the insects close behind. This all only takes two pages, the first of which is a splash, so there is definitely a hurried feeling to the script in the beginning. And it never quite lets up.

Martin tries to convince Rident that their home universe is destroyed while, at the same time, Dart works on removing the limb of the one insect who managed to get a foot in the door of the ship. She first tries a blade that is "ten times harder than magnatun," which is a meaningless sentence. Especially since the blade is ineffective against the giant bug. So Dart says she'll try a power saw instead, and all of the other characters leave her behind to do so while they race to the bridge. There's just no time, apparently, to see if the saw works, because Baron wants Martin and Rident's debate to continue. The two men argue with one another over whether or not there is still a New Earth to return to, but even that only gets one page of attention before Dart shows back up with the severed bug claw in her hand. Her sense of victory is short-lived, though, as the insects have already covered the ship's thrusters with a strange blue goo that prevents it from taking off.

Quick cut to the room Blackjak is apparently being held in and, wait a minute, Kargg is there, too. Not just in the room, but held down by some kind of high-tech restraint. When the hell did this happen? We see Martin carry Kargg onto Scanner One when they're running from the bugs, but nobody ever takes him into this room or secures him. He is just conveniently there for no reason, another example of the issue's sloppiness. Morphea shows up to try and probe Blackjak's mind, which he agrees to, and it turns out there is still some invasive alien personality hiding in there. The indication is that it is now Kargg and not the Dark Destroyer, but that's not confirmed, and for now this thread is left to dangle. That's fine, though, and actually this scene marks the one instance where things don't seem rushed in this script.

There is a brief scene of Taz escaping sick bay and finding a quiet, dark place to hide with his ongoing stomach pains. And then there is the rapid discovery that Babe's physiology allows him to harm the attacking bugs, leading to Martin forcing Morphea to send Babe outside to try and fix the thrusters. Morphea objects strongly to having a child put in such a dangerous situation (some of the bugs who showed up most recently have rocket launchers), but Martin and Dart insist this is their only hope. Babe agrees, goes outside, and is immediately swarmed, and that is where the issue ends.

It's not mind-numbingly AWFUL, but it's bad. Baron's script bounces from point to point, never settling on anything long enough. Even the sequence at the end of realizing Babe can save them and sending him outside to try is too jumpy, and punctuated with color commentary from Rident and Pakrat that isn't funny, informative, helpful, or necessary. Nothing gets resolved because this issue is all set-up. It introduces the threat of the bugs and offers Babe as a possible solution, but then he is immediately overrun when he goes outside, so it's possible that solution is no good, after all. Not that every issue needs to include resolutions...that's not really my problem with this issue's narrative. My problem is that the lack of resolutions comes with a lack of much development, either. The heroes begin and end the issue trapped on this planet, attacked by bugs. The only progress made is learning Babe can fight the bugs, and that might not even be true.

Also, Baron doesn't write these characters as strongly as they usually are. Rident and Pakrat are alright, but Martin is much more one-note and bullheaded than before (and he was always a pretty bullheaded guy). Dart is the worst, though, as she becomes a sort of bland, exposition-only character here. She's lost some of her humor and charm somehow, which is depressing since she was always the best member of the cast. It's not as if this issue is impossible to understand, but Baron doesn't seem to be taking his time at all. He's just throwing out the plot pints as rapidly as possible, which results in a less filling story than I want.

Ed Barretto inks himself this issue, and his art is as strong as it was in the last two issues, with one huge, infuriating exception. For the first time since this series' debut, Dart is sexualized by the artwork. It's dumb, needless, and comes at the worst possible time, when her voice loses a lot of what made it so enjoyable, too. Dart cutting off the bug's arm happens off-panel, so the details are unknown, but when she shows up on the bridge, her shirt has been torn perfectly to give her generous cleavage. In that first panel, at least, the tear is visible, but after that Barreto doesn't both drawing it; the fabric that used to be there is just gone. Basically it's an excuse to redesign her costume so he can draw half-visible breasts whenever she's on panel. If that wasn't gross enough, there is a panel at the bottom of page twelve where the foreground of the image is just Dart's ass. That has never happened in this book before, and it is disgusting and serves zero narrative purpose. It's an entirely visual decision, and one that ruins any other good work Barreto does here.

Tom Ziuko's coloring is off this issue, too. There are several examples of characters being done in a wash of a single color for no explicable reason. Sometimes they're all done in the same color, usually red, and that makes it hard to tell who is even who. Just one more way in which Atari Force #15 is less put together than anything that's preceded it. A jumbled, rushed, visually aggravating mess.

The backup feature is Pakrat-focused this time, and has much of the sloppiness of the story it follows. For starters, this is the first time a backup story hasn't been complete. It ends on a cliffhanger, with Pakrat about to be arrested for a theft he didn't even commit. Written by editor (and sometimes writer) Andy Helfer, it's just as pointless a tale as any of these short stories have been, with the added disadvantage of not yet ending. Pakrat breaks into an embassy building to steal some diamonds, but another Markian thief name Ferra has beaten him to it. The indication is that the two have either a professional or personal history (if not both) but we don't learn the details here. Ferra manipulates Pakrat into causing a distraction so she can escape while he is blamed for the robbery, and that is where the story closes.

My biggest complaint is actually that Helfer has Pakrat say most members of his species are thieves and that stealing is therefore his birthright. Maybe most Markians do like to take what isn't theirs, I couldn't possibly know, but it is an established truth that Pakrat's family, specifically, are cops instead. His whole deal is that he is pushing back against his birthright, so...yeah Helfer just gets that plain wrong. Again, sloppy. Sloppy, sloppy joe.

Penciled by Mike Chen and inked by Joe Delbeato, the artwork in the backup is pretty good. As is tradition in this series, the scenes in the embassy that feature numerous alien races interacting have a jaw-droppingly impressive level of character design. Lots of really interesting details and different looks for the myriad nameless characters in the room. Sadly, like Barreto did with Dart, Chen over-sexualizes Ferra here. Not so much in her attire as the come-hither stance and look she has on constantly. It isn't helped by Helfer having her use false romance and coy charm to get away with her crimes. She is the stereotypical sex-as-a-tool criminal character, which is unimaginative at best, and misogynistic at worst.

Disappointing issue through and though, this one. Two stories that get nowhere and treat their female characters badly. If this is the direction of the new creative team, I think I may understand why there are only five issues to go.