Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This Exists!: Washouts

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across.
 In the backmatter of Washouts—I guess techincally it's Washouts #1 but since, as far as I can tell, it's the only issue ever published of this tile, I'm not going to use the number—writer/artist Michael Cohen explains how the three short stories contained within the issue came to be. Basically, he wrote them several years before as part of his development of a different comicbook concept, Strange Attractors. That book was Cohen's idea originally, but he had a hard time selling it to any publishers on his own. It was until he collaborated with Mark Sherman to more fully develop and tweak Strange Attractors that it actually got published and, apparently, received some critical acclaim. Now, I haven't read that series, so I can't properly make a comparison between the two, but I will say this: Washouts absolutely reads like a comic that would've benefitted from having someone other than Cohen providing their input. It  meanders, it fails to properly introduce its cast or their world, and two of the three stories barely have a plot, let alone a reason to exist. Nothing gets said by this comic, because it only barely manages to give its characters anything at all to do. If Cohen had even a single collaborator to give the book some purpose or drive, it's not out of the question that it might've become something worthwhile. Instead, we get this.

The concept of the title, as much as we're ever told, is that the Washouts are a team comprised of young women who flunked out of the "Academy." What that Academy trains people for is never explained, and neither is why, exactly, the cast of this book didn't cut the mustard. The Washouts themselves seem to be interstellar explorers/heroes, so maybe that's what the Academy is all about, too? I'm pretty sure it's part of the world of Strange Attractors, which I guess is why Cohen didn't feel the need to provide much information about it here, but whatever the Academy's up to, the Washouts aren't involved anymore. This doesn't stop them from having dangerous, action-packed adventures of their own, though, which makes me wonder if maybe they are operating illegally. Perhaps the Academy is how one gets licensed in this reality for a life of adventuring, and the Washouts are an underground gang of do-gooders who don't have the proper paperwork. But that's all speculation, and much of it is baseless, so instead of wondering about the possible explanations of things that aren't clear, let's look at what's actually present in this comic.
The first and longest of the three stories is "Our Typical Rotten Luck," featuring five of the Washouts (who have at least seven total members, based on who we meet in this issue). The tale opens with two members of the team, Freeda and Squinch, in a small spacecraft together and on the run from an enemy of theirs named Stargate Sally. In trying to evade Sally's far superior vessel, the Washouts end up crash-landing on an unknown planet where, in classic fashion, they are cut off from communication with the outside world. They manage to send a quick warning signal to the other Washouts so a rescue mission is launched, but in the meantime Freeda and Squinch are stranded with no way of knowing for sure whether or not their friends will save them or when. This strangers in a strange land thing is, of course, a pretty standard set-up, especially for science fiction. And Cohen doesn't stray too far from the familiar for the duration of the narrative. Freeda and Squinch meet the native species of the planet, who, predictably enough, are advanced in some ways (language, mostly) but not-as-advanced technologically. Their culture is based on their religion, which itself is based on a sacred text written in giant stone letters that can only be read if viewed from high above. Squinch inadvertently destroys one of these stones while she and Freeda are exploring, and it's a mistake that nearly gets her killed, changing the text so that instead of saying not to sacrifice outsiders, it says to sacrifice them. As such, Freeda and Squinch are locked in a holding cell where they are to be kept until it's time for one or the other of them to be killed as an offering to the gods.

Lucky for the Washouts, Stargate Sally doesn't abandon her pursuit just because her targets disappear on a mysterious world. She follows them without hesitation, able to safely land without taking the same damage the Washouts' spaceship did. At first, this seems like bad new for our heroes, who don't even realize Sally has managed to keep up her end of the chase. But once Sally meets the natives, her aggressive behavior makes her their captive as well, and their top pick for outsider to kill. So in the morning, rather than either Freeda or Squinch being selected as a sacrifice, they are both set free, not even aware that it was their old enemy Sally who their new enemies chose to kill in their place. And if that wasn't enough, the three Washouts who came to save Freeda and Squinch arrive at more or less the same time, and all five members of the group reunite at the site of Sally's spaceship, where it waits unguarded and in perfect condition for a pilot who will never return. So the Washouts use it to take their leave of the strange, harsh place, and everyone goes home happy. Except, you know, for Sally.
It's a pretty dumb story, all in all. The Washouts are depicted as obnoxious idiots, with Squinch the clumsy coward who accidentally demolishes ancient stone letters, and Freeda an arrogant, bossy bully whose reckless bravado is why they end up stranded in the first place. I see no reason to like them, and in fact I'm not positive if Cohen wants me to. They might be good guys, but they could just as easily be criminals who Sally is trying to arrest. We don't learn any of their history with Sally, or really much about her at all, so the easiest assumption to make is that the title characters are the heroes and Sally is therefore a villain. But other than Sally being kind of mean, there aren't any in-story clues as to why she and the Washouts are at odds with each other, or what the heck the Washouts are trying to accomplish as a group at all. Cohen doesn't try to make his stars sympathetic or three-dimensional, each of them only capable of displaying maybe two or three different emotions. There is no context for this narrative, no reason to care about the stakes, even though what's at risk is literally the lives of two of the protagonists. If your main characters can be hours away from death without it sparking the least bit of excitement in your reader, then you need to go back and get the basics down before diving into the details of the plot.

Which is basically my whole problem with Washouts top to bottom: Cohen never covers his bases. He lays no groundwork, has no foundation on top of which he can construct these tales. Things just happen with no rhyme or reason, and we're never told why we should give even the smallest shit about it all. The Washouts do stuff and we have no insight into why or even how. Again, I assume some of this has to do with this kind of introductory material being covered previously in Strange Attractors, but Washouts is its own series and deserves to have its reality freshly established, even if that info does technically exist elsewhere already. This is a comicbook that throws its readers into the deep end of what ends up being a very shallow pool overall.
The second story, "Another Day with Astra," is an utterly simplistic day-in-the-life story about, you guessed it, Astra, who I assume is a Washout (but who really knows/cares?) and is definitely a superhero. At only two pages, this section is essentially just an excuse for Cohen to draw a handful of disconnected stereotypical superhero scenes that are all too short to be the least bit effective. It ends with her relaxing after this long day of heroics to watch a TV show based on her life of heroics. A sort of funny ending, but none too original, and it's the conclusion of a non-narrative story, anyway. There is no plot here, just a string of events capped off with a lame gag.

Finally, there's "Make Way!" a X-page piece about a Washout named Phoebe racing against the clock to make it...somewhere on time. We don't actually know where she's headed until the story's last page reveal that it's just a hair appointment, making all her anxiety, selfishness, and law-breaking on the way there seem way more annoying than it already did. She evades law enforcement and steals a transportation pass off of a guy she knocks unconscious after carelessly plowing into him in her hurry. All so she can get to her haircut on time. It's extremely petty, and it makes Phoebe seem spoiled and vain and intensely unlikable. Not that she was all that endearing before the haircut reveal, because the whole story is pretty inane. From the start, it's just her worrying about being late, trying to use different shortcuts in this unexplained, confusing, futuristic sci-fi setting and getting more and more lost and flustered until she decides that picking the pocket of a dude she flattened is an acceptable means of getting what she wants. While the other Washouts give us no reason to root for them, Phoebe actually has me rooting against her by the end of her story, a terrible way to close an already underwhelming comicbook.
I'm not sure what Michael Cohen thought he had in Washouts. Is it meant to be a comedy? A ragtag group of young misfit space ladies having goofy/madcap escapades? That's as close to reality as I can get when trying to imagine a more enjoyable, viable version of this project, but that is still too bland and trite and lightweight. Even if the humor worked and the characters were fleshed out and the world was explained, I still don't see what would make Washouts stand out from the crowd. It reads like something that was published not because anyone really wanted to see it, but because Cohen happened to find the scripts in the bottom of some desk drawer right when he had a bit of extra free time on his hands. There's no attempt here to establish an ongoing series, or even really to carry the reader's interest from the start of any one story to its end. Washouts is empty and boring on a level I rarely encounter. But hey, it exists.

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