9.01.2010

Graphic Novel Of The Month

Fluorescent Black (Heavy Metal): My friend Ryan recently pointed out to me that I’m drawn to dystopian epics, those stories in which things are pretty broken. This oversized hardcover collected edition of a story that’s been running in Heavy Metal magazine for the last three years or so fits the bill pretty nicely. If you can imagine the bioengineered Singaporean lovechild of Philip K. Dick and Paul Pope, then you’ll have some thematic and aesthetic clues as to what Fluorescent Black is going to do for you. Written by relative newcomer MF Wilson, with art by the inimitable Nathan Fox, and the heavenly pop colors of Jeremy Cox, the project feels pretty special and lush just holding it in your hands. I can tell you from the crowd that was formed at the Heavy Metal booth for the signing this year at the San Diego Con that the buzz is high, and it is well deserved. I’ve been to Singapore and the team really captured the geography well; it would be easy to isolate the place utilizing nothing but bridges back to the mainland. Wilson and Fox pull off an inventive little trick where the dystopian and utopian elements reside side by side, creating mirror images visually, which act as competing paradigms in the narrative. In this future, biogenetics moves from big business to being intertwined with government. As one character points out, “humanity was not free from market logic.” Genetic perfection is legislated and controlled by the wealthy, with men like Dr. Rupinder, acting as a great villain with a God complex, attempting to “fix humans” by creating a new social dichotomy between the engineered homo superior and the lesser homo inferior, those with any trace of genetic abnormality or disease predisposition. Max and Blue are siblings who survive by any means necessary and believe in a popular movement demonstrated by the rallying cry “free the gene.” It reminded me of the phrase used to promote Joss Whedon’s Serenity movie, “can’t stop the signal.” Genetic manipulation devices are the hot street commodity, have created a sort of barter currency, and an unofficial bio-war is waged between the rich and poor; the poor building superbugs to infest the rich hiding in their genetically perfect bubble city of Biopolis. In an intense Singaporean standoff (similar to the Mexican variety), our band realizes they’ve been used as decoys to perpetrate another more strategic crime, and end up with a valuable lab model called Nina. Through Nina and her abilities, we see the potential for the rise of cognitive neural networking, shared memories leading to a homogenous society with no class system, which severely rocks the social order and the stability of the status quo in power. At this point, I’m making the book sound like it’s all about heady social concepts, but Nathan Fox could illustrate the proverbial phone book and I’d be lining up to get my copy. On top of the talking heads bits and fully realized environments he creates down to painstaking details, there are some insane action sequences too, with fire fights between rival gangs and security forces which play like cinematic experiences. They’re hectic shootouts like the bank robbery in Heat or many of the cramped fire fights in Blackhawk Down. Fox delivers the realistic claustrophobia, with a European aesthetic to his art and density of the panel compositions. Wilson laces the story with a few hot button social issues, even touching on the ecology impact amid the genetic class war. There’s a place called “the greenbelt,” which is essentially an area where mother nature is fighting back and showing that natural evolution is stronger and more stable than man made manipulation of the human genome. Fluorescent Black is a ruthless tale of bloody survival on the littered streets, full of double crossing deals, in a reality where life is cheap and the deaths are daily. At first, this precarious time and place makes the characters believe that the only value seems to be things within immediate grasp and gain, whatever score gets you through the day, but Max learns to take a longer view of things. He realizes that in Nina is something that can cause humanity to all be empathetic toward one another, and that really is the great equalizer. If society possesses shared memories, that eliminates the ability of one social class to dominate another. In the end of this future cautionary tale, sacrifices are made, and Nina, possessing the memory experiences of Max and Blue, is set off to shape the world from that point forward for the better. The pessimism of the reality gives way momentarily to hope for the future. Fluorescent Black is dense with strong social messaging and is visually stunning. I hope that Nathan Fox has finally found the vehicle he deserves to make him a comic household name; there should be more people than just me crying “he’s the next Paul Pope!,” and I’d love to see more of this brand of wild-eyed, engaging, and socially charged story fodder from MF Wilson. Grade A.

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