2.24.2014

The Massive #20 [Advance Review]

The Massive #20 (Dark Horse): The Massive exists somewhere in the nexus between Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction. It’s been said that “good” sci-fi begins with an intriguing “what if?” proposition. Warren Ellis does this particularly well, asking a singular compelling question which catapults a plethora of ideas into the future, exponentially increasing in intensity and quirk the more time that passes, the further flung into the future the setting is. Speculative Fiction, “spec-fi” as I’m now wont to call it, must take the “what if?” question and predicate it upon selective amplification of the observed present. Brian Wood is a master at Speculative Fiction. This is why critics, myself included, have continually hurled the “prescient” label at him.

When I wrote the introduction to DMZ Volume 12: The Five Nations of New York (shameless self-promotion), I said that Brian began that now-seminal series utilizing what I termed “poli-fi,” or Political Fiction. DMZ was: What if the United States was so busy nation-building abroad, that it all crumbled at home? What if there was a Second American Civil War? What if an in-over-his-head everyman found his way into the middle of this mess in NYC? Brian postulated that in the near-future, the US would be entangled in something like 8 foreign conflicts, deploying 1 million troops abroad, extrapolating from the observed present of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the selective amplification of Syria, Iran, Somalia, maybe even mixing it up in the Balkans, or the ‘stans, or somewhere in the South China Sea, like Taiwan. Brian took logical narrative leaps given what he knew to be available, then Syria was on CNN out here in the real world as we closed our embassy, and thus he appeared prescient. I say this not to denigrate his creative process (he’s said as much in interviews), only to help explain how it happens and how the label can stick once the ideas start to pan out.

This is a long-winded wind-up for one of the best issues to date of The Massive. It’s Speculative Fiction with social relevance, the big picture “what if?” scenario surrounding cataclysmic global environmental disasters, with dramatic hooks concerning flawed protagonists and arcs of strong characterization. Now, before we get rolling, let me caveat this whole thing by saying that I’ve never been the type of critic who only talks about the writing, and ignores the art. I always bring balance to my reviews and give the artists equal footing. Kristian Donaldson’s brief stint was great. Garry Brown’s enduring collaboration is great. The guest artists have (mostly) been great, and I’m super-stoked to see Danijel Zezelj on deck for an upcoming arc. I’ve also been very deliberate in recent years to push beyond that and talk up colorists and letterers, starting with my love for the work of Dean White (Uncanny X-Force, Black Science), and moving onto people like Jordie Bellaire (The Massive, Pretty Deadly), Gabe Eltaeb (Star Wars), Owen Gieni (Manifest Destiny), Shari Chankhamma (Sheltered, The Fuse), Jared K. Fletcher (DV8, DMZ, Ex Machina), and Thomas Mauer (Umbral), so indulge me this one time, as I fill the role of writer discussing writing, won’t you?

The Massive #20 continues this tradition of an unflinching litany of prompts in full force. The Massive has been a series constructed on “what if?” premises as enticing as they are relevant to our modern times. It’s introduced ponderous issues, and in the book’s quest to find answers for our fleeting band of misfit characters, it unapologetically introduces even more questions, a sort of perpetual narrative machine. I mean, yeah, what if it’s just a given that we’re pushing our planet to an irreversible tipping point in terms of environmental sustainability? What if there were a near-future series of global cataclysmic events that signaled a planetary apocalypse? As I’ve been contending for months now, what if Captain Callum Israel, the center of the Ninth Wave Marine Conservationist Direct Action Force, steadily dying of liver cancer mostly from a dose of PCBs and other cocktail carcinogens he was exposed to in the Med (it was in the backmatter, people, the backmatter matters!), does not actually live to see the end of the series?

Brian’s just never been the type of writer to feature characters dependent on high-noon heroism in the third act. His protagonists are conflicted, unapologetically so, positioned on the “precipice of change” as he likes to call it, living in the gray, because real life is gray, and fictional high art should always reflect non-fictional truths to resonate. (Total aside, but maybe this is the cultural consumer explanation as to why some of his books don’t sell as well as they should, perhaps they don’t offer the easily identifiable binary purity of black and white escapism that the typical cape crowd wants? I’m just spit-balling here…) What are the choices in terms of Cal’s succession? Will it be Mag? (the military survivalist option), or Lars? (the pragmatic humanitarian option), or even Ryan? (perhaps the one least likely, but the one I’ve had my eye on for some time, since she’s basically the everyman character through which we, the audience, view events through, Ryan is the one most like any of us, since not all of us are reformed black ops mercenaries, or conflicted Russian Mafiosos, or whatever the hell Mary is).

What if Blackbell PMC was a secret army with no allegiance to any state, but only ever existed to serve the “Nation of Money” controlling global interests and protecting corporate policy? What if men like Callum Israel and Mag Nagendra are hopelessly adrift in this New World Disorder, shadow soldiers without a war to fight, asymmetrical existence at its most nebulous? What if a man like Mag Nagendra really did have the skill to nonchalantly be held at gun point, and then suddenly drop the magazine out of the assault rifle held by his captor, immediately proceeding to then clear the round in the chamber with lighting accuracy, rendering said weapon inert? (I ain’t seen no Navy SEAL do *that* shit before!) What if Mag could then craftily outmaneuver his interrogators with wicked ease, parceling out lies laced with half-truths sandwiched between facts?

What if enigmatic Mary left a coded transponder clue for Cal from a place and time that only he would understand? What if that triggered a gorgeous one-page flashback memory? What if a glorious c-list character like Yusup returned with critical info, stealing the show with conscious effort to make friends rather than enemies? Were there ever more important words uttered than “tell me about Mary.”? What if Mary isn’t really a person at all? What if Cal is being lied to, in order to protect his fragile ego, his failing health, or his would-be legacy? What if The Massive discovered some type of “Fountain of Youth” oceanic wellspring that explains why a woman who should be pushing 50 looks 25? What if, somehow, The Massive caused The Crash, and the crew has been shielding Cal from this secret? Brian Wood has recently reminded us that the series was originally meant to have a sci-fi slant; maybe now we can see that start to rear up and clang against the spec-fi journey? He’s said that the series is all about the end of the series, that everything hinges on it, the pitch was the end, the end might reframe all that’s come before. Dare we venture a guess at where this twisting M. Night Shyamalan style proposition might be destined to go? Is this but a fool’s errand, or are we meant to merely sit back and enjoy the journey? Grade A+.

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