Declan Shalvey possesses the soul of a poet. A few pages into The Massive #11, Shalvey draws what may be the saddest and most poignant panel of this series so far. A small boy sits round about cross-legged on a beach; in one hand he holds a pail, in the other, a shovel. He looks… helpless, alone. This image occurs in one of the series' environmental intermezzos so it's bathed in a sepia patina, except, in this instance, colorist Jordie Bellaire uses a darker shade, almost a rust color, so the sand and water look like scabbed blood. This boy has blood on his hands and on his feet and on his elbows and on his shins. He is, however, an innocent. This world of earthquakes, dead whales and nuclear detonation is his inheritance, his legacy, his future. The panel's caption box reads: "A population being snuffed out." In The Massive, sweetness and light have vanished, gone to ground.
As commander of The Massive, writer and series creator Brian Wood has built a sturdy cast of characters, each story arc tests their mettle, leverages their loyalty and pushes them to their limits. Because Wood sets The Massive in a post-disaster world, he must destroy as well as build. For me, it's in the world-destroying (world-building) where this otherwise superlative series always falls down, until now, until that boy on the beach.
The landscape (the globe) dominates The Massive. For evidence, look no further than the cover of the first issue. When Wood works with set pieces like oil rigs or derelict outposts, he provides a better sense of what has been lost after "the Crash" as opposed to when he directs artists draw oceans of dead fish or columns of smoke and ash from offshore refineries; and now, this picture of the boy with his shovel and pail — pathos made palpable. In The Massive #11, Wood mitres misery to catastrophe to project a world.
Besides "Shalvey's boy" — the image is, perhaps, personal for me — the exemplar(s) of environmental devastation in this issue is Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark, thousands of them, big ones, bigger ones and even a prehistoric one. The great whites rule this issue, their presence signals the degree to which their world, the world of The Massive continues to degrade. If it's bad for great whites, what chance does the Earth's other apex predator have?
Sharks of another sort surround Callum Israel, the captain of the Kapital, as well. Of late, his crew has left to ply other waters, fight other wars and die on other shores, surely alone. Israel sits on his ship's empty bridge, chasing ghosts, chasing the Massive and like his world, he is cancerous, dying. His most trusted mates stew, sneak a quick joint to alleviate boredom and craft contingencies, dark days indeed. Israel's vitality, which was so central in earlier issues, has begun to ebb away, like a population, to be slowly snuffed out. The Massive is terminal and from the beginning Wood has seeded his story with inevitabilities of all kinds. This doom gives The Massive stakes and in an ironic twist makes it live. Cal remains dying, but not dead. The "valley of darkness" he finds himself in means he must continue to suffer, that is his condition and it too is terminal. As ship and story sail on, it will be curious to see if The Massive has any survivors, then again, it can't. No one lives forever, not even sharks, right? Maybe. Maybe Mary.
Mary is the toughest of Cal's crew to divine. She is the story's most super heroic character because she is its most alien. Everyone on the Kapital is a castaway, a survivor of one disaster or many, all Ishmaels. Mary stands apart, she's an apex survivor. She is cool and unknowable, sharky in every sense. Perhaps, Wood means for her name to be a clue. She is not a mother figure, but she is blessed. At the end of the issue she emerges from the water and Lars, the Kapital's driver, says to her, "Christ, Mary." Lars's relief at his friend's survival fits the situation; however "Christ" carries a lot of weight, a lot of meaning. Is this a conscious word choice on Wood's part? Or even better, unconscious? Mary's name and Cal's surname intimate faith (religion?). Is this Wood's intent, to draw a connection, to hint at something Biblical? Either way it's out there, now, the word made flesh.
Shalvey's cartooning matches the gritty raggedness regular series artist Garry Brown has established for The Massive, Brown is on leave and will return in a couple of issues. It's not only poignancy Shalvey brings; he has a flair for the dramatic and the cinematic too. How Mary gets stranded on one of the Farallones Islands — or "sea stacks" as Wood correctly calls these "devil's teeth" off the coast of San Francisco — is too good to give away. Leave it at this: Shalvey's panel (and page) composition captures, for the reader, the terror and chaos of a moment few walk away from. Did I mention sharks? Shalvey gets to draw sharks, lots and lots of 'em, and what's more cinematic than a great white?
The Massive is a moveable feast of agonies, a Gethsemane on the waves. Leave it to a writer with Wood's inimitable talents to make a reader even consider life worth saving. How Christ-like. Populations are being snuffed out. Cal is dying. And the sharks are circling.
The Massive #11 will go on sale April 24, 2013.
Keith Silva is crazy about sharks, going so far as to make his children memorize lines from Jaws, it's true. Follow him @keithpmsilva and visit his blog Interested in Sophisticated Fun? which he never has time to update any more since he started writing for Comics Bulletin. Oh well, there are worse fates.