The sixth issue of The Massive follows the crew of The Kapital to a drifting UK corporate container ship called The Caledonia (Word Nerd Alert: It’s the Roman/Latin name for Scotland, coincidentally also the subtitle of the Supernatural mini-series based on the WB show that Brian Wood wrote for DC), which has ostensibly been abandoned and is fair game for boarding and salvage under applicable maritime law. But, if you’ve been reading this series with any semblance of regularity, you know that it’s unlikely events will play that simple. Not only does the mission go a little sideways, but Wood and artist Garry Brown (also from Scotland) lace it with more important flashback sequences that build the world and the characters in the process. Let me mix my metaphors all to hell, and say that if you buy my old theory that this theme of “identity” is some sort of endemic connective tissue supporting the apothecary of diverse series in the Wood library, then you can probably focus your microscope to an even more granular level and say that this story is increasingly becoming about identity crisis.
From the Congo, to Sri Lanka, to Gulf War I, with burning oil fields, assorted dictators, and obtuse blanket orders, it’s all a quick crash course in the type of “just following orders” atrocities man is capable of. It would be easy for a lesser writer to use this breed of vignette to dutifully explain why war should always be a last resort to avoid at all costs, or some rote lesson in preachy morality, but Wood moves a step further to personalize the horror and show us a couple historical moments when men like Cal and Mag need to decide precisely what kind of men they want to actually be. Or, at the very least, what kind of men they don’t want to be. We’re seeing in these systematic “building the crew” flashes sprinkled across the series how the main characters have all been pushed toward Ninth Wave as an outlet for redefining their identity when it was either listless (Ryan) or actively going down the wrong path (Cal, Mag). Even during their present Ninth Wave tenure, as they decide what to do about this ship on a sliding scale of ethical conundrums (ie: break the law to confirm they can legally salvage an adrift vessel?), their identities are in a constant state of flux, begging for further clarification in this post-Crash world. Everyone has their moment, and one we get to see in this issue is Mag’s moment of satori, involving a child, the hint of family, evidence that everyone has their unique trigger points to force a decision favoring a personal sense of integrity over a professional sense of duty. For what it’s worth, I also loved his ultimate Jed Bartlett line “So… what’s next?” It doesn’t stop there.
For me, there’s one moment in this issue that’s absolutely key. Not only is it the precise moment Cal quits his former life (physically this time, not just spiritually as he did in the North Sea), but it’s a point where the art also converges with this story thread to act in perfect unison. It’s a silhouette shot of Callum Israel in a doorway when he finds the clinic. That quiet crescendo says everything. It’s a moment when the mission is abruptly aborted, Cal is emotionally deflated to his core, and his very identity is called into question. It’s the moment he quits, literally laying down his weapon and choosing a different path. It’s a powerful scene that you can sort of just gloss by, so don’t miss it, go back and look for it, realize what’s happening in that small space. The silhouette also makes me think of a similar moment in DMZ, when Matthew Roth seems to accept his final fate and give into the tide of events, walking out into the wilds of war torn NYC – danger be damned. But, I’m digressing when this is supposed to be about The Massive. Wood isn’t one to analyze his own work too deeply for meaning, and who knows if these silhouette shots were on-the-fly artist interpretation and not even scripted in the first place. However, I do wonder if there’s some subconscious connection at play for Wood, with characters obscured in shadows at precarious moments of uncertainty, knowing their lives will be irrevocably altered depending on the judgment call at a singular intersection in time. These realistic moments, which are not the tidy fait accompli we so often see in fiction, are something Wood has acknowledged he favors and is fascinated by, so it’s hard not to jump at the idea that they’re not just being written from the gut, but that their portrayals carry more intentional meaning.
Speaking of art, Garry Brown needs to be commended yet again for an affable visual style with tons of dramatic versatility. He can handle pure blockbuster* shoot-‘em-up action scenes, relatively quiet (but no less important) environmental establishing shots, or the emotive facial expressions during intimate character moments that offer all the insight lying somewhere in between. On rare occasion, I found the types of automatic weapons he was depicting drawn a little too small for the scale of the figures holding them, but that’s admittedly being super nitpicky. For the most part, the figures are lean and muscular, but in a realistic way, not some superhero-influenced parody of a style. I enjoy little things like the stray wisps of hair out of place, or stubble that logically hangs on the characters, and the heavily inked lines that almost remind me of Sean Murphy in spots for how well they relay a level of grit and weariness that strikes just the right tone for a series like The Massive. Dave Stewart’s colors are always worth discussing and work particularly well in the shadow of Brown’s warm pencils. Stewart tends to work in tonal palettes, obviously so here, with sepia for panic and violence, black and dark blue for oceanic depths, light blue for the icy chill of a winter kill, the green lush of a Sri Lankan forest full of Tamil Tigers, and brown hues that saturate a sunbaked ocean surface. The colors make you feel a certain way, as imperceptibly as a good musical score in a film. They’re all smart choices that are so seamless they might actually go unnoticed if not called out for being precisely what they are.
Beyond wordy themes and artistic craftsmanship, authenticity also plays a starring strong role in The Massive. It’s all over the place, permeating the book with the voluminous research Wood conducts, so it’s difficult to whittle it down to one perfect example. That said, I’ll just note a few assorted ones. I like stuff like “motion detectors” and “line of sight,” specific word choices in the dialogue that are a language I speak, smacking of my day job and appealing to me from familiarity and their logical placement in a tactical situation. The way that Mag and Georg quickly banter about snipers is a very small throwaway piece of dialogue, but it’s the type of non-expositional jocular conversation these two would likely trade in. The lower floors of Ursk-Holler corporate HQ being under the Thames is evidence of how a small flick of a writing flourish can world-build, letting us know that the UK is just as impacted as the rest of the world, even though we’ve never seen it, we’ve never been there in the book, but the image is quickly painted in our mind’s eye. There’s that massive field of containers on The Caledonia; the way Mag’s field interrogation quickly deduces there’s more than meets the eye. Yes, just what are those people doing there for whatever that is? It’s Mary either thinking like Cal or knowing him so well she can anticipate his next line. It’s Georg saying “From Grozny. With love.” It’s stylish as hell, with movie-like* panache, but it also speaks volumes about the nature of his character. The way sudden violence is a total silent surprise that had me quietly whispering “fuck” when it happened. ‘Nuff said on that one without spoiling more. The derogatory term “wog” lends a well-placed sense of authenticity. There it is, one word, three little letters, an apt pejorative given the speaker’s culture of origin, establishing one person’s worldview, and building dramatic tension in the process. It’s all just very effective.
The issue closes when you think there’s been some sort of satisfactory denouement of the mission aboard The Caledonia, and the overarching character arcs we’ve seen in flashback. But like I said up top, it’s just never quite that simple. There’s some division in the ranks brewing, small secret favors being dealt, and let’s not forget the proverbial North Star driving the primary narrative – The Massive is still lost at sea (radar blips being tracked in the backmatter, along with other notes on deteriorating global status in Cal’s “Ninth Wave Dispatches” forming a set of compelling journal entries). I can’t wait to see what Wood and Brown (now the regular series artist) have in store next. It’s also worth pausing to note that #6 marks the end of this arc and issues 1-6, along with the three 8-page prequels from Dark Horse Presents, will be collected in the first trade due out in March 2013. In the wake of still raw and palpable evidence of planetary climate change in the form of “Superstorm” Hurricane Sandy, the world of The Massive is more relevant than ever. The Massive can literally go anywhere, do anything. This is creator-owned comics at their most potent. The Massive plays a high stakes game that not only leaves you thinking, but begging for more. Grade A.