Keith Silva: When Stephen King is asked to choose his favorite novel of the fifty (and counting) he's written, America's schlockmeister (self-appointed) always opts for the same one: the next one. This bon mot — King is far from the first to craft a clever such comeback — speaks to King's imagination and his optimism. Perhaps Brian Wood plucks out a similar riff when asked about his favorite issue of The Massive. If so, his answer has become a self-fulfilling prophecy — issue to issue, month to month, The Massive gathers in strength and might. And so, as with each of its predecessors, The Massive #12 sets a new high water mark for the series.
For the last twelve months, Wood and his gang of eight (artists Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown, Gary Erskine, Declan Shalvey and (now) Danijel Zezelj, colorists Dave Stewart and Jordie Bellaire and letterer Jared K. Fletcher) have plotted a course across a broken landscape, a sunken world and a limitless Gehenna. The Massive embodies the old serial saw about how it's the journey and not the destination that matters most. The Massive remains a chimera, as it must; however, Wood knows he needs to give the reader something, so long as that something remains out of reach.
The crew of the Kapital continues to pursue a phantom signal, a shadow, a blip or at least its ghost. The Massive remains unseen, just over the horizon and out of sight. As the issue begins, it would almost be better if the signal did go cold, at least it would complement the crew's morale and the weather outside. "The sixty-six" says Lars, the Kapital's pilot, to his fellow crew member (and lover) Ryan, "sixty-six degrees, the Arctic Circle." The crew has seen cold climes (and starry skies) already, but never have they been this Massive adjacent, maybe.
Callum Israel, the ship's captain, has become an obsessive, an Ahab in full, the ancient mariner. Like those troubled souls, Cal's monomania remains second only to his personal demons. He slumps, shambles and haunts the bridge of the Kapital in the vain hope the next nautical mile will grant him the sight of his own promised land, his own Israel. The Massive is about exceeding limits and exhausting resources and Israel is on a fume. And when the reserves are (almost) empty and an arctic storm ices the ship in as Israel continues to ice his crew out, what other choice does he have but to shoulder his pack and soldier on into whiteness and nothingness? Desperate times call for self-sacrifice. Cal's been down so long, it's beginning to look like up to him.
Jason Sacks: Ah, Silva, leave it to you to add layers of smart literary references to your analysis of Brian Wood's thrillingly complex story of the quest for the Massive. I hope I can broaden and deepen your thoughts here, but honestly I may just barely manage to keep up with you.
Callum Israel is an intriguing central character for a series like this. I've always heard a vague truism that the best man to have around in a post-apocalyptic world is a guy who's good with guns and military strategy. When civilization has descended into barbarism, when everyone you meet is a potential rival for precious resources, the best fighter to have on your side is the man who's not afraid to be a nastier bastard than the other guy.
And on the surface, Cal is exactly that sort of guy. As this story marvelously explores, he has a checkered past, a mercenary past that shows him good with guns and bad with conscience until he experiences a thoroughly galvanizing event in Tajikistan.
That event is a shattering experience for Cal. The incident in Tajikistan destroys his nerve for the mercenary career. Callum Israel is the rarest of all people: a man who reacts to the horrific events in his life by actually changing his behavior. Like a cigarette smoker who sees his X-rays and immediately trashes the cartons he has hidden in his garage, Cal pivots 180 degrees on his former profession. He needs to repent of his own experiences. He must change. Most of all, he learns once again to care deeply about everybody who is in his charge.
Which is why his Cal is so obsessed with pursuing every last faint hint of the Massive. Callum Israel has sworn to help this fallen Earth rather than cause pain and havoc. The loss of the Massive eats as deeply into his soul as the terrible incident in Tajikistan — worse, because he has vowed to keep all of his charges safe no matter what they experience after the Crash. Their lives are Cal's White Whale. Their destinies are what drives Cal.
That journey takes Cal to a place that is as bleak and desolate as his own heart (and wow, Silva, how about the brilliantly stark art by Danijel Zezelj and coloring by Jordie Bellaire?), but the dreadful Arctic cold is no match for the fire inside a kind woman's soul. In the moment of his worst despair, as the Massive seems as far away as it ever has been, Cal finds some measure of redemption in the warm arms of a good woman.
Sometimes all we need is a moment of real love and compassion — even if that love is delivered at the end of a fist — to make us realize that the true enemy of happiness isn't the things that we do. The true enemy of happiness is much more evilly pernicious than our actions: that nemesis is inside our own heads. And while Callum Israel isn't a tragic hero in the Shakespearean sense, he is a complicated leader living a life of major moral compromise.
Will Cal rise and fall? For all of its post-apocalyptic trappings and quest scenarios, that question is the actual center of this comic book series, and the reason The Massive succeeds so movingly. What's important here isn't the fate of the Massive. What's important here is the battle inside Cal's soul.
Keith: It's grace, Sacks; something you know a lot about.
I agree, when oceans turn to blood and the land to ash it is the paranoid and those with training in small arms and tactical combat that will lead those who remain. Survivor-types are easy targets to spot, rugged women and men willing to forgo luxuries like indoor plumbing and a ready source of coffee.
Wood takes this archetype and imbues it with soul, with grace. Yes, with the exception that it takes place on a boat, The Massive is another post-apocalyptic action/adventure story like The Walking Dead or Mad Max or, hell, even Mary Shelley's The Last Man. Cal doesn't have survivor's guilt as much as he has guilt guilt. He is a heroic character because he constantly pisses into the wind and shovels shit against the tide on levels and to degrees where most would drown. And in the end it's all for naught. Israel can't stop the inevitable. He can stick, he can survive, but he is frail, human and heavy with guilt.
"A kind woman," aye, indeed, Sacks, inde
ed. Mary is the one character I have found to be out-of-place in this series. She's aloof, mysterious and a hair's breadth too close to"the magical Negro" for a writer with the smarts and talents of Brian Wood. The Massive #12 is when Mary stops swimming with sharks and holding her breath and does what has (what must) be done. She takes control of the situation, no super heroic stunts or need to fill the role of the group's conscience, only cold hard purpose and pragmatism. I hope Mary's decision"out on the ice" (finally) establishes her to be what has been hinted at since the series began: Israel's equal; that would be the greatest kindness (and grace) Wood could bestow.
The Massive turned around for me when Garry Brown took over as the regular artist on the series with issue #4. So, when I write that Danijel Zezelj's work on issue #12 is (maybe) my favorite art in the series so far, it feels like I'm cheating. Zezelj has worked with Wood before on DMZ and Northlanders and it is clear these two get each other. Perhaps this is evidence of Wood's penchant and renown for writing to an artist's strength. Zezelj's thick lines make his figures look like woodcuts and Jordie Bellaire's colors elevates their earthiness to the splendor of stained glass — how often does a colorist, in this case, Bellaire, make one forget about Dave Stewart, the series regular colorist. Those pages of Israel set against the blankness of the arctic are exemplars for the philosophy of less is more. There is one panel in particular that intersects Cal at his most desperate that shows (almost) nothing at all. The placement of the panel itself and its composition on the page is sublime.
Please allow me to take my bow here, Sacks, on the sublimity of Zezelj, Bellaire and Wood. The Massive is a rare work of perpetual progress. The Massive #12 is perfection, but it won't top my favorite issue in the series: the next one.
Jason: The Massive as a work of perpetual progress. Let's unpack that concept for a bit.
On a purely plot level, this series is a work of perpetual progress. The Kapital's crew continues to sail around the world on their lonely ship, desperately searching for their lost friends and companions. We readers have absolutely no idea what will happen when — or if — the team on the Kapital ever find those missing compatriots, nor do we have the slightest idea what kinds of horrific dangers they will encounter along the way. This gives the comic a special edge: because we are as lost at sea as the ship's crew, the entire ocean of Wood's story is a vast land to be explored.
Characters are also in perpetual progress as they grow, change and evolve in ways that are true to their character while feeling wonderfully surprising. As we discussed above, in this issue we start to see Mary move out of the shark-infested box that we readers may have put her in (Wood, of course, always sees the bigger picture — or a bigger box). Other team members" lives also progress as the story proceeds. Neither of us mentioned Lars and Ryan's evolving relationship on the first few pages of this issue, nor did we discuss how the tremendous psychic strain of shipboard life –not to mention Cal's endless quest and his recent lethargy — has had on the Kapital's exhausted crew.
Similarly, the art on The Massive is in perpetual progress, as Wood slots different artists on his comic in a way that adds rather than detracts from the tales he's telling. Zezelj's art in this issue is completely stunning in its austere stained-glass stylings, but we know that the next artist to take the helm of this book will deliver an equally impressive job. That's the history of artwork on The Massive. We readers expect nothing less.
In the end, the one who's in perpetual progress with this comic is the reader. As we consumers become more embedded in the world that Wood and his fellow creators build; as we dig deeper into the people he writes and the incredibly complicated and morally compromised panoply that Wood designed, we are slowly, gradually changed. Good fiction has the power to subtly affect our perceptions, forcing our minds to progress in new directions.
Isn't it the ultimate compliment to Wood to say that he's done that with his first year of The Massive?
The Massive #12 will be in stores Wednesday, May 22, 2013.
Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin. Follow him at @keithpmsilva or read his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun? where one will find more praise for the work of Brian Wood, but not as much as other places on the internet.