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I’m on a Boat: Why I Didn’t Pass on The Massive
Creative-types (writers, artists) live for Armageddon; bunch of Galactuses (Galacti?) with fancy pens, tables that cant and paper. What really gets these ‘Gods of Oblivion’ off happens only after all ‘the poundin’, the hollerin’ and the screamin’ ends — once it’s O.K. to prefix said apocalypse, disaster or crash with the word ‘post-,’ the hyphen helps accent the whole bloody business.
I’m not an end-of-days-kind-of-guy. If (or when) the living dead do run amuck and the market for recycled urine begins to rise and day-to-day living requires a lot more camping, I’m going to be pissed and not much of a happy camper either. I seem to be the 1%, however, when it comes to these post-’what-have-you’ type tales because if there is one thing that there is no shortage of in our (as yet) zombie-free world it’s post-apocalyptic fiction.
Other than survivalists with a hard-on for the second amendment, sickos on the make for oceanfront property and outdoor enthusiasts who love to dress in layers, the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is hope. In a post-crash world, the grass is always greener on the other side because it has to be, the genre demands it. Here’s the other thing about ‘post-disaster’ fiction, it’s always a comment on today’s ills tomorrow; Thunderdome is inevitable, I get it.
In Channel Zero and DMZ, Brian Wood was in full-on ‘eater of worlds’ mode as he reshaped — politically, socially and otherwise — a city and a country, respectively. The Massive sees Wood turn his sites on the Earth. I love Local and I was already hooked on Wood’s Conan the Barbarian so when The Massive came out in June, it was the next logical step. The first issue — the first three-issue arc, really — underwhelmed me. Due to my post-apocalyptic predisposition, I had one foot out the door and the other on a slick of dead fish and I was ready to jump ship, but I was willing to give The Massive one more chance.
The Massive #4 is one of the best single issues I’ve read all year. Sometimes it pays to ride out the storm.
The Massive by Wood, artists Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown, colorist Dave Stewart and letterer Jared K. Fletcher centers on loss; the Massive is missing. The logline for series goes something like this: militant environmentalists adrift in a ruined world in search of a lost ship and their own personal and professional identities. Hard sells don’t come any harder or more complicated. One thing that The Massive has over other catastrophe-centric fiction is that it takes place (mostly) on a boat, a refitted Royal Canadian Navy vessel christened the Kapital. So, indoor plumbing, yeah!
The Kapital provides Wood with a setting that’s part Pequod part Millennium Falcon or part USS Enterprise depending on which way you swing. There are crewmembers aplenty to identify with and a few redshirts should Wood give one of them permission to die. The Kapital’s tillerman is Callum ‘Cal’ Israel, an ex-paramilitary of a Blackwater security type firm turned ardent conservationist. Behind his aviator shades, Cal looks (and acts) like Scott Summers except with a beard, mustache and rakish blond hair. Like Cyclops, Israel is a leader, plain and simple. Mag, an ex-Tamil Tiger, is the doer of the group, the ‘fist’ should Israel require such a service. Mary is the ‘Holy Ghost’ in this tree-hugger trinity; her birthdate is as an unknown as she is, a mystery in corn rows. She is the soul of the group. Apart or together, these three characters are resourceful in a resource-less world.
World-building or world-destroying, in the case of The Massive, takes time. In the first story arc, Landfall, Wood, Donaldson and Stewart set out to draft a world deplete of resources and yet still flooded with technology. The story takes place in the early days after ‘the crash,’ so the grunge has yet to set in, supplies are scare, but not unattainable … for the right price. In the first issue, Stewart’s use of an autumnal yellow wash to color the past is effective in establishing a timeline. Stewart’s palette complements Wood’s script as it seesaws away from the main action aboard the Kapital to designer disaster porn: burning off-shore oil rigs, pods of dead killer whales and derelict wind farms. There’s a faux-suicide mission to repel hostiles that separates Mary from the ship, but it feels like a red herring as does the McGuffin-like search to find the Massive. The roundabout-ness of Wood’s narrative and the cataclysmic dog pile left me cold. Wood makes the stakes clear, but I wasn’t feeling it.
The Landfall storyline takes place in the Northern Pacific, Siberia and Alaska, perhaps, that’s why I wasn’t warming up to this story, but I don’t think so. If you’ve ever read a comic book review in which the artist is referred to as a ‘draftsmen’ and wondered want that means, look at Kristian Donaldson’s artwork in The Massive — mechanical, surgical and icy. The technical intricacy of Donaldson’s art is way above board, ship interiors and exteriors are so detailed that they look like you could build the Kapital from what Donaldson sets out on the page. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the man is a fiend with backgrounds — people, not so much — everything Donaldson draws looks like it came out of a book of Star Wars blueprints, which is only a problem if you’ve never seen Star Wars.
Art is a very personal and very subjective. One person’s Pieter Brueghel the Elder is someone else’s Willem de Kooning and vice versa, both Dutch, both painters, but very different in almost every other way. So, I don’t dig Donaldson’s art, so what. So, The Massive goes on notice, ready to be pulled from the pull list at a moment’s notice, heaven help us all.
When Brown took over for Donaldson on issue #4 (Stewart, the series ‘artistic’ North Star remains) everything changed for me and, I would argue, for Wood as well. In the first panel on the first page of The Massive #4 the prow of the Kapital looks different, there’s a slight (near impressionistic) curve. Brown replaces Donaldson’s straight-line precision with immediacy, a lived-in quality, sketchier, but in no way does the art look unfinished as the term is sometimes used to imply. Brown’s figures appear more alive and less like they were drawn to suit a technical manual.
Each issue of The Massive includes an inside front cover ‘the story, so far’ recap. In addition, Wood goes out of his way in each of the first three issues to remind the reader of the time, the set (the characters) and the setting. By issue #4, I did not need to know (or be reminded of) the five W’s and the H of The Massive; M. Wood would disagree. There is a journalistic quality to Wood’s writing in each of the first five scripts for The Massive that smacks of the old news media cliché: ‘tell ‘em, tell ‘em what you told ‘em and tell ‘em again.’ That’s the thing about the present tense, its current and (used well) it increases anxiety over what’s to come.
Wood exchanges the disaster updates in issues #1 through #3 for a flashback about Cal’s pre-crash life in issue #4. This technique gives Cal more personality and makes him look less like an automaton moving across a post-FUBAR-like landscape. This stylistic switch-up in both the art and Wood’s approach to the narrative gives issue #4 a newness that’s often exclusive to a first issue or an in continuity reboot.
Everything is the same in The Massive #4, except everything is different. The naturalness of Brown’s artwork raises the stakes of the story. Donaldson’s reserved style put too much distance between the people and the places. Brown retains the scale — figures in The Massive are always drawn much smaller in the face of capital ‘N’ nature — of Donaldson’s schematics, but Brown telescopes the action so that it builds an intimacy that was absent when the series began. This closeness also fits well with Wood’s ‘you-are-there’ style scripts. Longtime Wood collaborator, Becky Cloonan, says it’s Wood’s way to play to an artist’s strength. So, is Brown more Wood-like than Donaldson or is Wood adapting to suit Brown’s particular talents or both? Brian Wood excels at telling personal stories (Local and Channel Zero for starters) perhaps the shift away from all the calamity accounting in the first story arc to more character-centric stories has allowed Wood to get his groove back, either way, it works.
The Massive #4 and #5 play out as a character studies about what it means to ‘commit to a cause.’ The action sequences set up the quieter moments that speak the loudest when it comes to a character’s motivation and personal history. I didn’t find Brown’s scruffy pencils to have the same effect on Mary and Ryan (the female protagonists in issue #5) that served Cal so well in issue #4, but that’s a quibble. A life is saved (twice) in issue #5 and the intimacy that that act requires assures that the physicality and nearness that Brown established in the previous issue wasn’t a fluke.
There are not enough action/adventure movies or TV shows about environmentalists without the word ‘wars‘ in the title or that star Steven Segal. The Massive is one of those ‘only in a comic book’ kind of comic books that requires a big canvas with a lot of individual moving parts. The post-apocalyptic setting gives Wood the opportunity to muck across a damned planet like he’s playing a game of Risk with a cache of characters that are damaged and a lack purpose, but not commitment. Wood and his crew are still finding their bearings and mapping their course as this series sails on. They too are committed. Brown is on for (at least) issues #6 and #7. Should he disembark and if Donaldson or another artist steps on board I will greet him or her with a hearty ahoy. This series is too good, too interesting to let sail off into obscurity and cancellation. Like Mary, Cal and Mag I’m committed. As Captain Willard says on his way upriver in Apocalypse Now: ”Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin‘ all the way.”
Keith Silva works in television, it’s a small space, but, hey, it’s show business! The rest of his time he writes for Comics Bulletin and his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun?. Follow him @keithpmsilva on the Twitter box.
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