I really wanted to like Mara. I’m not a fan of writer Brian Wood, especially his Conan run, though one of my criticisms with that run, and with his own series Northlanders, (both set in medieval-y eras) is that the dialogue in those comics sounds too modern. But Wood does write good action sequences, and the artists he works with are always interesting, so I thought a series set in a near future might lend itself to Wood’s strengths
Plus, what I had heard of the story going into it intrigued me. It had elements that I like: I love dystopian future worlds. I love strong female characters. I love the idea of a strong female character of color (though Mara’s race/ethnicity is vague: she’s ‘ambiguously brown’). Plus there were hints of some kind of futuristic sport, something perhaps Hunger Games-ish. I love the idea of sports being tied into a military-type dictatorship (one of my favorite movies is the 70s James Caan Rollerball), as a way to distract the masses from what’s really going on in the world, and as a way to get people used to aspiring to be physically fit so as to serve well in the military.
Except, the super popular sport that everyone in MARA is watching? Hoping for a role model that might inspire them to revolt against The Man?
That’s right. In the dystopian near future, everyone will be watching volleyball.
The ‘twist’ (if it really is) is that Mara, the star volleyball player, develops superhuman powers. Which causes all her fans to hate her and think she’s a “cheater.” And so Mara loses her corporate sponsors. And then the military steps in to use her as a secret weapon.
Mara doesn’t even gain her powers until about issue #4 of the six collected issues in this first volume. Which means the first three issues are about a teen girl going through the problems of being a world renowned volleyball player while balancing corporate sponsors and her lesbian teammate love (who is also starting to get sponsors).
It’s never explained how Mara gets her new superpowers. They just kind of happen, during games, so everyone knows, and without her control, until suddenly they are under her control. Which powers does she have? She basically combines Superman with Jean Grey/Phoenix. She can fly at the speed of light (I guess); she has telekinesis; she can read minds: she can do basically anything. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s a superhero that’s just overwhelmingly superpowerful. I hate Superman. The only way Jean Grey/Phoenix was cool was because she turned into a bad-guy god.
If Wood were creating this super-character as a way to get ‘meta’ and critique superhero culture, or culture in general—like Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen—then that might be interesting. Instead, Mara just kind of…well, she escapes the military, hangs out with some penguins, sends some nuclear missiles crashing into cities (after first mentally disabling them) then flies along her brother’s super-secret-never-to-return-to-Earth spaceship for a few weeks, then…then nothing. This first volume just ends with her floating in space staring at Earth. She’s a god. Where do you go from there? Where’s the tension? Where’s the doubt that she can handle anything? Good thing she’s a nice seventeen-year-old teen girl, so she’s (seemingly automatically) a good person.
And apparently the fact that she’s named after the Buddhist Devil means nothing.
Is this story meant for a YA audience? Are teens going to like this? I don’t know, but unlike some stories, the art in MARA isn’t so remarkable that it could carry the story (except the cover). But then, there’s not much for artist Ming Doyle to work with: not a lot of action, except for volleyball games.
I’m stumped about what this story is supposed to ‘really’ be about, as they say in comics critique circles. Friendship? Well, her (girl)friend is kinda there for eye candy, though seems to care more about losing her sponsors than Mara’s friendship.
Is it critiquing corporate sponsorship of sports? Well, Mara seems pretty fine with having her sponsors up until the point they drop her for being superpowerful. It’s not like she ever seems to think that the system is wrong, just that ‘they’ are wrong for dumping her in particular, for not understanding her in particular.
Does it critique sports culture, and/or the militarization of a lot of sports fads nowadays (like all the obstacle course races)? Nope. But again, we’re talking volleyball here.
The opening credits tout this as a “coming-of-rage” story, which is clever, and potentially interesting. And, I guess there’s some rage coming from Mara, though she never does much with it except talk to penguins. There’s just nothing at stake. Maybe if she were a little less ‘nice’ and actually let her rage rage? Mara as anti-hero? Maybe. I’m just not going to stick around to find out.