The Game Boy was a godsend to the traveling family. Relatively cheap and blessed with a ridiculously durable battery life, the little handheld that could kept a whole generation of kids silent in the backseat for an incalculable number of cross country moves. I know because I was one of them, and I was pretty happy in my handheld solitude right up until middle school. In 1996, I was ten, and like every other kid with access to a Game Boy, I was obsessed with Pokemon, a kid friendly RPG that appealed to my collector instincts and also forced me to link my Game Boy up with others– to compete, to practice, to trade. But I was a weird kid and even then I wondered about the world of Pokemon, and how its citizens justified having an entire economy based around the capturing, breeding and forced fighting of pocket monsters. I was ten so I wasn't exactly capable of crafting whole essays on the subject, but I knew it was a messed up reality when you thought about it too much, and now almost two decades later, Ulises Farinas has made an entire fucking comic about this insanity.
Originally told in the pages of Dark Horse Presents, Ulises Farinas' Gamma is every crazy thought we all had about the world of Pokemon brought to vivid life. A post-apocalyptic monster tale where faux-Pokemon take the place of kaiju as mankind's fiddling with the little brawlers' DNA has led to an explosion in their numbers and power, Gamma is a smart mix of the silly and the frightening. Farinas' monsters come from cubes instead of balls, and they tend to be far more grotesque, looking like they're from an alternate reality where one of the most popular video game franchises in history was borne out of some kind of fucked up plotting session between Brandon Graham and Takashi Miike, but there's no mistaking what Farinas is pulling from and that real world base adds to the potency of the narrative.
Working with Erick Freitas on plotting, Farinas develops a fascinating world in a relatively short number of pages, treating us to not just an intriguing reconfiguration of a kiddie RPG, but also a deceptively clever reimagining of the post-modern anti-hero's journey. The anti-hero in this case is Dusty Keztchemal (a straightforward flip of Ash Ketchum if ever there was one), the disgraced World Champion, who assured the public there was no “monster problem” even as humongous blue reptiles blocked harbors and aimless herds of rockbacks accidentally destroyed towns. Once those denials are no longer tenable and the government starts seizing people's monsters, Keztchemal is reluctantly drafted into leading an Independence Day-style military operation against the worst of the monsters. After several years, though, the effort goes the way of the Vietnam War, complete with its own Fall of Saigon, in which Keztchemal is disgraced in a panicky retreat that costs him not just his hero status, but also his pet monster Sparky, the thunder jerboa.
That moment is symbolic of Farinas' tone in general, with its savvy pop culture references, bleak humor and unabashedly emotional payoff. Farinas uses the silliness of Gamma's premise to fool you into not taking it too seriously, only to sucker punch you with gut wrenching twists that play against your expectations of this kind of tale. Though Farinas' aesthetic has a lot in common with Brandon Graham, his storytelling is clearer and more structured, which works extremely well for Gamma's subversion of the hero's journey. Within the pages of this one shot, we get a complete cycle, from the rise to the top to the epic hubris that undoes that success to a glimpse at possible redemption as Keztchemal is seemingly reunited with an old friend. Like a comics twist on madcap hip-hop producer Prince Paul, Farinas knows exactly what samples to utilize for familiarity and what cuts to make to flip the experience, drawing you in with recognition before flooring you with a stunningly original update. If Dark Horse is smart, this Gamma one shot is merely a prelude to a full, ongoing series, because Gamma has more than pocket monsters in common with Pokemon, it shares its addictiveness too.
But even if this is all we get, it's well worth it and an easy contender for best single issue of 2013. We've been treated to a disgusting number of great single issue comics this year already, but few are as complete a package as Gamma, which not only stands as an excellent example of how comics can achieve so much in such a small number of pages, but also serves as a breakout work from Farinas that will hopefully get him on the collective radar the same way Prophet did for Graham himself last year. At the least, it's going to force anyone who comes into contact with it to reexamine their thoughts on Pokemon, and that's no small feat.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you c
an find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.