SUNDAY SLUGFEST: Mystery in Space #1A comic review article by: Nick Hanover, Danny Djeljosevic
Nick Hanover: Lately, Vertigo has been pumping out quite a few anthologies, gathering up vets and newcomers under a general subject. Last year's The Unexpected leaned towards the supernatural, while Strange Adventures and the brand new Mystery in Space are more sci-fi oriented. Mystery in Space happens to occupy a middle ground between its two predecessors, featuring an eclectic array of talent and subjects that builds in quality as it goes along, ultimately not quite as consistently rewarding as The Unexpected but far more interesting and well-executed than Strange Adventures. Its primary weakness is the lack of a consistent editor, as each story has a completely different creative team and thus the special ultimately lacks unity. Still, Vertigo's decision to continue these smartly priced anthologies is a good one and there's plenty of excellent material contained within Mystery in Space.
Danny Djeljosevic: The various editors all contributing to this anthology is akin to a record with a different producer on each track -- individual songs might be okay, but as an album it doesn't hold together. While on one hand it's cool that apparently everyone in the Vertigo office jammed together to put out Mystery in Space, as a collection of nine stories all under the same cover, there's a distinct lack of unity.
"Verbinsky Doesn't Appreciate It"
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Artist: Ramon Bachs
Mystery in Space's opening story is the decidedly Twilight Zone-esque "Verbinsky Doesn't Appreciate It," a clever short from Duane Swierczynski that at first seems to concern how what we view as gifts in others may be less enticing to them. But it soon morphs into something twistier and more uncanny, eventually becoming a sort of sci-fi Groundhog Day. Ramon Bachs does excellent work on the art, granting the characters a bittersweet comedic look and filling the background with subtle cosmic touches that hint at what's really to come. It makes for a read that's entertaining and enjoyable, but which has multiple layers that reward rereads, like any good story of its nature should. Still, it's not entirely original and the ending is somewhat abrupt.
The bar locale of "Verbinsky Doesn't Appreciate It" is surprisingly mundane for a sci-fi anthology, possibly because Swierczynski is typically a crime writer and that kind of milieu is more his speed. Or maybe someone thought that the reader should be eased into the sci-fi world. Either way, it has a cute twist in the vein of a 2000AD "Future Shock," which I guess is my way of saying that this eight-page story should have probably been about half the length.
Writer: Andy Diggle
Artist: David Gianfelice
Andy Diggle and David Gianfelice's "Transmission" likewise treads familiar ground, exploring a futuristic society where technology functions as a semi-benevolent dictator. Rather than going the Terminator or Matrix route, though, Diggle uses his story to reflect on the way political beliefs and pop culture spread in similar ways, through memes that get hard wired in your brain just from the slightest exposure. Gianfelice's art is extremely clean and crisp, especially with Dave McCaig's coloring imbuing the work with a space age brightness, but it would benefit from more expression and braver choices. It's far too easy to make out the influences Gianfelice is pulling from, specifically Stuart Immonen, whose linework has made an obvious impression throughout.
Now this -- this is my shit. Diggle and Gianfelice create the kind of sci-fi story you'd totally find in a prose anthology, where a conversation between woman and a computer comes to a head and we get a taste of the world that was and the world to come. I'm sure Asimov wrote dozens of stories just like this, but "Transmission" scratched a certain itch for me in comics form. You know, that "They don't make sci-fi stories like this in comics, so this will have to do" kind of itch.
"Asleep to See You"
Writer: Ming Doyle
Artist: Ming Doyle
Ming Doyle has the opposite problem on "Asleep to See You," which features stunning artwork from Doyle but has a lackluster script (written by Doyle herself) to contend with. "Asleep to See You" wears its own Twilight Zone influence proudly, telling a futuristic love story that concerns mortality and how technology may be changing the way we meet and deal with that aspect of life. The story features some of the best art in the issue -- and in Doyle's career on the whole -- with truly cinematic pacing and framing. But Doyle leaves too many gaps in the story of the relationship at the story's center, between a space travel stewardess and a woman she may or may not have been seeing for just a short time. That point is never clear and it's equally unclear whether Doyle has made that decision on purpose in order to make the twist at the story's conclusion open ended for reader interpretation. Without giving away too much, the length of the relationship could mean that one character is taking a gigantic leap of faith or it could mean that something that was already long standing has been rejuvenated through one character's sacrifice. Even so, either interpretation then opens up a whole new set of issues about the characters' motivations and it mostly seems like Doyle didn't develop the history of these characters before penning the plot.
I dunno, man. I found "Asleep to See You" deceptively simple -- not that it lacks complexity, but rather that it's conveying some fairly universal relationship stuff through its sci-fi context -- losing yourself in your career versus losing yourself in the person you love, and what sacrifices you have to make for either one. The trick isn't to approach Doyle's story like the average sci-fi story, where the spaceships are there to comment on a very clear aspect of the era during which it was written. It's more that they're platforms for the way Doyle is approaching this divergent relationship.
In other words, to me "Asleep to See You" is more of a song than a story -- science fiction not as a way of thinking, but as a way of feeling.
"Here Nor There"
Writer: Ann Nocenti
Artist: Fred Harper
In "Here Nor There," Ann Nocenti engages in a different kind of space story, where a creature from beyond invades our own local deep space, the bottom of the ocean. "Here Nor There" is an unfortunate disappointment, channeling as it does sci-fi horror classics like The Thing and The Abyss but lacking the clear, concise focus or proper mood of those influences. "Here Nor There" focuses instead on an irritating, wholly unlovable research scientist couple and their poor cat Schrodinger. Nocenti can't help herself from filling the story with awkward science puns and non-stop, distracting dialogue full of phrases like "GAME ON." The story might very well be the nadir of the anthology, with Fred Harper's caricature-like art not doing much to counteract Nocenti's cringeworthy script or the go-nowhere antics of the characters.
I'm trying to figure out why I liked this story besides Fred Harper's Chris Weston/Phillip Bond love-child style, and the best I can come up with is that it's meaning is occluded enough to make me want to figure it out, and I can hardly fault a story that gives me that sort of challenge. As far as its meaning, best I can come up with is that it's about this woman freeing herself from the shackles of matrimony no matter how detrimental it is to her. For some that sheer liberation is way more important than the fallout. The hilariously Tank Girl final panel suggests that Nocenti and Harper are aware that our heroine is nuts but it's for the best. But I'm also thinking of the film Splice where the female lead's actions are problematic if you're taking a Gender Studies approach to it. So I guess what I'm saying is that I'm confused.
Writer: Nnedi Okorafor
Artist: Michael Wm. Kaluta
That rating given to "The Elegort" comes with a gigantic disclaimer: Nnedi Okorafor and Michael Wm. Kaluta's gorgeous, highly promising story is docked points almost entirely because it ends in the most disappointing, chaotic way possible. Okorafor's story, which concerns a young woman with impressive abilities who essentially works for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, builds up an entire enticing world with any number of possible narrative paths before it simply… ends. There is no resolution, nothing that has been built up pays off and the end result is you feel as though someone tore a few very important pages from your comic. Kaluta in particular deserves major accolades for his stunning artwork, which manages to recall Nonplayer and all of its own influences without being beholden to them or derivative. The world of "The Elegort" is exciting and dangerous, full of surprises and rich with visual treasure, so it's a pity that we're pulled from it long before we seemingly should be. Here's hoping this was meant as a tease and Okorafor and Kaluta have plenty more in store.
I seriously hope this is a preview of a 700-page graphic novel that took 10 years to make, because if not this is just a really pretty sketch of a story that only satisfies provided you never, ever take into account the sum of its parts. Kaluta's eye-straining detail and the fact that this is a fantasy story with no white people in it begs an expansion, but this is western comics so I know I shouldn't expect that.
Writer: Steve Orlando
Artist: Francesco Trifogli
I'll be honest: I'm still pretty confused about what even happened in "Breeching," Steve Orlando and Francesco Trifogli's Hunger Games/The Lottery/Logan's Run/Metropolis-inspired story about the (anti-)fertility rites of a planet full of centaurs. Trifogli's art is legitimately stellar, slightly manga-esque and simultaneously Manara-like in its expressionism and linework. Cris Peter's colors at first seem a little morose and bland, but the explosive palette she unleashes at select points in the story is all the more effective as a result. The trouble is that Orlando isn't exactly clear in his narrative; basically, this planet of centaurs functions by separating its people into two distinct classes, one a group of Deep Thinkers who are able to achieve higher thought by removing their sexual instincts, the other a group of laborers who can still breed but have no capacity for higher thought. It's an intriguing enough idea, albeit somewhat derivative (as is the case with about half these stories), but it ends with a flashback (or maybe not a flashback?) that should clarify everything but is confusingly framed and scripted. All I'll say is that a hickey is involved.
When Cris Peter smears a panel with pinks and purples I know it's going to be a good day. As for the story itself, the key is in the bookend scenes. Ignore the centaur bodies and the hallucinogenic ritual -- "Breaching" is all about that youthful moment of passion and the subsequent heartbreak when you first realize that what you want and what the other person wants doesn't match up, except in this case that split has life-changing consequences. In that respect, it turns out that "Breaching" makes for a nice counterpoint to "Asleep to See You," provided you look for the hickey at the beginning.
Though, the fact that the story confuses at first -- is that because Orlando and Trifogli don't make an effort to point hickey at the beginning, or are we actually meant to pour over the story to figure it out? Should a story even necessarily be totally clear the first time around? Or am I just reading too much into it and making excuses for a mediocre pop comic?
Writer: Robert Rodi
Artist: Sebastian Fiumara
Though it features excellent, at times deeply abstract artwork of Sebastian Fiumara, and a relatively strong central idea, "Contact High" unfortunately suffers from some missteps with the smaller details, namely the dialogue, which is hilarious given that it's a story about the small things. Featuring some bizarre cultural signifiers (has anyone unironically mentioned Baywatch in a comic in the past two decades?), "Contact High" posits itself as a hip, queer-friendly sci-fi tale that recalls space junker classics like Dark Star, but without the dark humor or sardonicism. Its plot is interesting at points and the twist tidy enough, but the characterization is far too thin to make that ending resonate the way it should.
The Baywatch reference and turns of phrase like "two grown men getting their freak on" (I'm surprised "I'll rock your world" didn't make it in) make me think this story either has been sitting in an editor's desk since 1999 or was originally a rejected Will & Grace spec, reworked to include telepathic bacteria. Either way, I admire the utopian idea of a trio of gay astronauts not being a big deal, and the colors are pretty, but some character work would have really made the dark ending pop the way it should have. Maybe if Robert Rodi spent more time developing the scenario instead of running down the clock at the very beginning with flashback material...
"The Dream Pool"
Writer: Kevin McCarthy
Artist: Kyle Baker
Kevin McCarthy and Kyle Baker's "The Dream Pool" is a better representation of how to do a story in this kind of anthology. Bleak, hilarious and insightful, "The Dream Pool" is about how greed is unlikely to be unique to humans, and the addictive properties of curiosity. Baker is the perfect artist for this kind of story, though here he adopts a style that's equal parts manga and cartoon strip, with exaggerated features and Mad Mag pacing. "The Dream Pool" possesses the kind of tone that was found in abundance in Warren magazines like Creepy and Eerie but McCarthy manages to create a world and concept that is both refreshing and comfortably recognizable, with Biblical elements and a genuinely surprising, harsh conclusion. McCarthy and Baker make an excellent team, complementing each other's styles and drawing out the best from one another and hopefully this will lead to future collaborations between the two. This story and "Alpha Meets Omega" alone almost make Mystery in Space a must-buy.
Just when it was starting to get grim, McCarthy and Baker parachute in and straight-up murder it with a weirdo take on the kind of space pulp that one might have expected from the original Mystery in Space, except with a purple-haired female anthropologist instead of a dude with a raygun, a helmet and a chin. Kyle Baker is the motherfucking shit, unafraid to draw comics that give the finger to what the average reader thinks comic book art "should" look like, while Kevin McCarthy's script offers a unique sci-fi scenario that justifies its existence beyond "Hey, we're putting together a sci-fi anthology, can you come up with eight pages?"
"Alpha Meets Omega"
Writer: Mike Allred
Artist: Mike Allred
Speaking of "Alpha Meets Omega," could there be any better way to end this anthology? Mike Allred's story about life, the universe and everything is a vision to behold, a work that pushes the artist's capabilities beyond what's normally expected of him. The end result is still recognizably Allred, with those gorgeous Laura Allred colors, but it's more abstract, more theoretical than normal, a comic book version of the conclusion to 2001, with all the headiness that implies. The cyclical nature of the story -- telling of death, rebirth and the infinity that cycle implies -- allows it to serve as a perfect bookend for the anthology, emphasizing the way this medium itself is built around cycles and patterns. Allred fan or not, this is an artist seizing the medium and bring out the best of it.
While overall Mystery in Space didn't set our worlds ablaze, whoever was in charge of assembling the book did a fantastic job of sequencing, saving the powerhouses for the very end -- especially Allred's story, not just for thematic reasons but because putting it anywhere in the book would make the surrounding stories about 10 times worse (Kyle Baker can hold his own).
"Alpha Meets Omega" shows off Allred's existential side, a thematic preoccupation readers seemingly tend to ignore in favor of his retro-hip aesthetic. Overall it reminds me of the early issues of Madman Atomic Comics, but with (surprisingly) far less Bowie than usual. It's a beautiful piece of trippy pop, all bright colors and Zip-A-Tone and giant floating words. More than worth the $7.99 price tag.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.