10.10.12 Advance Review [The Massive #5]

By Justin Giampaoli

The Massive #5 (Dark Horse): If I had to sum up what this issue is about in a single word? Commitment. It’s really about these two female characters and their commitment to both the Ninth Wave cause and their own acute sense of survival. If you read the issue a little closer, you can even pick up on some subtle references. We see Ryan as a younger student at the University of Vermont, writer Brian Wood’s home state, and then Ryan confesses to Mary that she’s from Minneapolis, just like frequent Brian Wood collaborator Ryan Kelly. As a long-time fan who pays attention to details, I just eat stuff like that right up. I’ve seen some comparisons of this issue online to Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber’s Whiteout, but aside from the bleak Antarctic setting and both being terrific in their own right, they really don’t have much else in common. Mary and Ryan go on a mission to retrieve some ice core samples, which means a source of clean water unfettered by radiological fallout and whatever else it would have otherwise been exposed to on the surface. Clean water, now one of the most valuable substances on the planet. Some unexpected visitors pop up and a terrifying bit of isolated action ensues. Wood also continues an attack on our politically gridlocked and jingoistic American view of the world, stating through Mary that America is essentially just a 200 year old experiment, a “good concept” as she says. Being American doesn’t really mean shit at the end of the world, in fact it’s probably a liability.

I really enjoyed the callback sequences to the Dark Horse Presents prequels. At times, non-linear storytelling annoys me when it’s over-used or if it's just used as an empty gimmick, but here it feels organic, as you find yourself following what are probably the characters’ inner thought processes and triggered memories. The lines about the sea having a greater purpose for these people, Callum, Mary, Mag, and now Ryan, all feel significant. There’s a sense that Mother Ocean (my term) really is some sort of sentient being, selecting a handful of individuals for a higher purpose. The whole notion of destiny and the cast’s dogged determination to reinvent themselves and do something right gives the series a romantic glimmer in an absolutely devastated world. Once again, we see parts of the event that turned Cal from mercenary to activist, and get more traces of Mary’s talents and secretive past. Mary is a nuanced character; she continually dodges questions about her origin, she’s there at Cal’s “rebirth" ("immaculate conception" is probably too hoary a stretch considering her name), and the mystery that surrounds her seems to imply that she is more than she seems. It’s not that she’s superhuman or that it’s a taking a supernatural turn or anything, I don’t think, but at the very least she must be in peak physical form to dive 450 feet with another person in tow, resist freezing temperatures barefoot, and then revive someone with rescue breathing in cramped quarters.

I’ll have to let my day job emergency management brain take over for a second and give you this factoidal aside that CPR only works about 10% of the time statistically. Here, Mary does it to successfully revive Ryan, totally beating the odds twice on the same person. Now, Ryan was not breathing for just a few seconds and probably still had a pulse, so we can argue that Mary is doing just rescue breathing and it would be much easier to revive Ryan since her heart doesn’t need restarting too, just flushing the lungs of water. Mary’s got to do this in just 2-3 minutes, to avoid exposure as she says, but also to be under the 4-5 minute window where the onset of long term brain damage occurs without oxygen to the brain. OMG, have I just become one of those guys who is going to bitch about shell casings still being on bullets and hyper-analyze everything??? Nah, just kind of reasoning my way through the plausibility of things. 

This is another complete aside, but there seems to be a recurring item popping up in Wood’s contemporary body of work, maybe involving these inconclusive traits surrounding women who possess some vague sense of spirituality or the ethereal to them. To wit, Zee Hernandez disappears at the end of DMZ as the physical embodiment of New York City. Here in The Massive, Mary seems to have some mysterious origin, some kind of, dare I say, “abilities,” and could at the very least possibly be Wood subconsciously writing her as the physical manifestation of this “Mother Ocean” ideologue I’ve just coined. I realize that two points don’t make a trend, and I don't think I can quite make a connection from memory to the titular "Gods & Monsters" in DV8, but it’s something I’ll be keeping my eye on in future work, namely Mara coming in December from Image Comics.

I try not to be one of those reviewers that gives short shrift to the artists involved in a project, so let’s talk about Garry Brown for a while. His work is just phenomenal in this issue. It first jumped out at me on page 4, with that absolutely majestic expanse as Ryan and Mary stand on the edge of the snow cliff. It gives you a sense of just how small people are juxtaposed against the sheer scale of the unspoiled stretch of land mass enveloping them. There’s a stark beauty there in the open space and the simple (not simplistic) colors of Dave Stewart. Brown is also really strong at depicting action scenes that convey the majority of the narrative thrust without any dialogue necessary to make the activity crystal clear. It’s surely the mark of a great panel-to-panel storyteller, and the trust that Wood places in his collaborator. I also like how Brown is able to punctuate singular ideas; the big full page spreads, like the entirety of page 15 as the sea, probably exhibit this the best. I could do this all day, but another bit I found remarkable was the long thin vertical panel on the right side of page 19 that emphasizes the motion of the duo swimming up. You don’t really see this type of panel variation and intuitive layout sensibility all that much anymore. It’s the kind of thing you can fly past reading quickly, but if you really stop to look at how the overall page is composed, it becomes a rare and clever treat you want to linger on for a beat or two.

This issue is a favorite (not just because I contributed to the backmatter, but yeah, how about that?!) because it’s an intimate story. It’s a story about a smart, stylish, and successful little mission, sure, but it strongly develops what’s been a minor character so far, and through their bond, furthers the Mary mystery a bit in the process. It finds a way to focus on characters, despite the title’s huge world-building events, despite the litany of cool factoids and research, and despite the politics I can generally get behind. It’s first and foremost about people and characterization; Wood knows that you just can’t have a story without that, no matter how strong your high concept hook is. It might be self-indulgent or conflict of interest-y, but I really see nothing wrong with this issue, and the fact that the backmatter even exists as a bonus feature in these singles, any backmatter at all – regardless of who has a hand in it, is a total win that’s evidence of what some creators are willing to pour into a creator-owned labor of love purely out of unique goodwill to their fans. It’s immeasurable what it may contribute to the bottom line and I can tell you from experience now that it takes a ton of time and effort. So, I’ll end with some advice. If you like something, say something. Comics, backmatter, writers, artists, inkers, colorists, restaurants, music, movies, customer service, whatever. Tell a creator, tell a publisher, tell a retailer, tell family, tell friends, tell coworkers. Word of mouth and voting with your wallet can make or break these beloved indie projects. Grade A+.


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