By Isaac Butler
This year, it's a tie:
(1) Saga (written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples): What if Romeo and Juliet lived and stayed together and had a baby? And that didn't stop their families from fighting? And it was in space? And their babysitter was the ghost of a dead gothy teenager? And they flew through space in a giant tree having adventures while being pursued by, amongst other things, robots with televisions for heads? Well, it turns out what you get is one of the most enjoyable comics I've read in a long time. Saga is really funny, quite dirty and very, very strange.
It all works in part because the archetypal story of star crossed lovers is both easy to get into-- sometimes clichés have their place-- and entertaining. Alana and Marko come from two humanoid species that have been locked in an intractable war for some time, that also may be serving as a proxy war for more powerful forces. Alana comes from the planet Landfall, Marko from its moon, Wreath. Landfall is a technology based planet filled with people with wings, Wreath has a magic based society and its residents are basically goat-people. They meet and fall in love when Marko is in a POW work camp and Alana is his guard. When Alana gets pregnant wit their child, they realize they have to flee. Soon, it appears the entire Universe is after them and the first known hybrid-baby between their two races.
It sounds ridiculous. And in fact, it is ridiculous. But that's one of its strengths. Vaughan-- rather like Iain M. Banks-- understands that Space Opera on some level cannot help but be totally ridiculous and thus, rather than try to steer around the silly, he sails right into it. So, yeah, the book features robots with televisions for heads that reproduce through sexual intercourse, and when one of them is hit over the head too hard, his tv screen starts broadcasting gay porn. And yeah, there's both magic and technology in the universe. And yeah, there's this group of bounty hunters that may be some sort of intergalactic ronin that all have names like The Will and The Stalk. And yeah, one of the running jokes is that the characters frequently use contemporary slang in a way that makes you think "The Whedon Is Strong With This One." But somehow, it all works.
Tying it all together is the narration to the story, provided by Marko and Alana's daughter Hazel at some point in the indeterminate future. Hazel is one fo Vaughan's most charming characters, and her wry commentary perfectly sets off the contents of the book. For children tend to think that the circumstances of their upbringing are normal, no matter how weird they actually were. Hazel doesn't seem to realize that having the floating ethereal top half of a teenager for a babysitty is odd.
Key to all of this is Fiona Staples's art, which is a real joy to behold. Her art makes the disparate elements and influences in Vaughan's writing come together in a way that they likely wouldn't if Saga were simply a prose work. Her work is filled with expressive faces, dips into caricature, and bold use of color. And she can actually draw an action sequence. It's the best looking book Vaughan has worked on by far-- not a high bar, I know--and both writer and artist seem to be constantly challenging each other to up their game.
In an age where comics still seems to equate quality with "seriousness" and "seriousness" with either male shame (in the indie world) or gritty violence (in the mainstream world) it's nice to see a comic that is a successful intergalactic romp, and that understands that you can take your job seriously as an artist and still make something fun. My only concern with this one is that, after a propulsive first couple of trades, the actual sustaining and development of the story will prove as much of a challenge as it has in Vaughn's Ex Machina and Y: The Last Man.
(2) Mind MGMT. Let's just start this out by saying I'm totally in the tank of Matt Kindt. His earlier work, Super Spy, a series of interconnected, chronologically scrambled, comic-book short stories about allied spies during World War II, is a favorite of mine. While Super Spy wasn't short on adventuring, its real focus was on the humanity of its cast of characters, of the cost of sacrificing your entire life to a cause greater than yourself. Because the cause is defeating the Nazis-- a cause most of us would agree is worth fighting for, and dying for-- the materials take on a real complexity.
Mind MGMT is in the same lineage as Super Spy, although it is much pulpier and the serialized structure of the monthly means that it is far more dedicated to keeping narrative tension high, leading to an awful lot of things going boom and regularly paced cliffhanger endings. In Mind MGMT, the spies are all gifted psychics who were part of a now-discontinued secret government agency ("The Management") that a rogue agent called The Eraser is trying to start up again under her own control. The agent's powers are not always what you would expect. There's Duncan, who can read the minds of everyone within a five block radius and use this knowledge to predict the future. There are The Immortals who have convinced their bodies they cannot die and thus cannot be killed (they even grow gills after being drowned in one issue). There's Henry Lyme (note the name!) who is capable of mind and emotional control on a mass scale. There's The Hulk, who can pinpoint the weakness in anything and destroy it with a well placed touch.
And there's a group of agents who all use writing in some way to control people, from the man who writes "assasination letters" (bad haikus that kill the reader), to the sisters who write short stories that cause specific people to take specific actions, to the advertisement executive who plants mind control messages in billboards to a pop star whose songs can shape world events.
Into this world steps Meru, a bankrupt journalist and true-crime author who is trying to write a book about a case of mass permanent amnesia that occured on a commuter jet a few years earlier. Her search takes her gradually into the world of The Management, and into the world of her own mysterious past.
Kindt comes out of a wholly different tradition that Vaughan. While Vaughan is all about the post-Whedon wise crack, where people make jokes even as they may be about to die, Kindt comes out of the world of le Carré and Graham Greene. Mind MGMT's agents might be nearly all powerful badasses, but they're still mostly sad sack schmos. Their powers isolate them. Able to control minds, they begin to doubt whether their realities are real or constructed by them for their own benefit. They're lonely. They smoke too much. They're depressed. They have regrets that haunt them about the things they've done. They are, in other words, normal human beings grappling with their extraordinary lives and abilities.
Yet Kindt appears to know that grim self-pity is these days a quagmire that every genre story gets stuck in before too long, and thus he's careful not to render the Management agents too sympathetically. Lyme, for example, has done horrible, horrible things and regrets them, yet remains a mysterious and monumentally selfish person, drawn with mirror sunglasses that act as a wall between him and the reader. Duncan the mind reader is something of a Dr. Manhattan figure. His ability to know the near-future and inability to die render the goings on of the world around him remote and possible meaningless. Only Meru, the newcomer to this world, is an uncomplicate site for our sympathy.
Kindt's art has always had a rough-hewn quality to it, leading some to put him in the "craft is the enemy" camp, which he most certainly does not belong. Often his lines do the bare minimum to suggest the forms they summon, but his art extends beyond what's in the individual panel. His page design and layouts are adventurous, and he often inserts little puzzles and side tracks for the dedciated reader. The second volume of Mind MGMT, for exmaple, has a true-crime story written by Meru parcelled out by the 2-3 sentence chunk on the sides of each page. Super Spy, true to its name, has little puzzles and codes parceled throughout and one short story that works both forwards and backwards and must be cut out and laid out according to a treasure map. His work is obsessed with the "sequential" part of sequential art and how it can be playfully, delightfully messed with.
The pages of Mind MGMT, which feature lovely watercolor work and just about every shade of yello and brown imagined by man, constantly call attention to their own construction. When a character in book 2 remembers something that had been wiped from their memory in book 1, for example, the moment is rendered in a style that makes it look as if Kindt simply tore the earlier page out and furiously pasted it onto the new one. Another character's forgotten face is obsucred with a heavily drawn X over the panel. One sequences references the blue pencil drafting of comics, and nearly every page is framed having been drawn on report forms for Management missions.
All of these meta gestures aren't just for fun, they're deeply entwinted with the book's themes. If our world is created in part by our perception of it, and if that perception resides in our minds, and if our minds can be controlled, then what does it really mean to think, to see, to remember, to experience? Mind MGMT plays with these heady questions while also delivering a satisfying, mysterious, globe-spanning espionage thriller.