Losing myself in books, long and short, big and small, has been a passion of time since I can remember but even I have to admit it’s well near impossible to read everything (not that I don’t give it a red hot go!).
Riding to the rescue for those with not enough time, and for those addicted to the viral bits-and-pieces of today’s read-and-run culture (of which I am a participant as much as anyone), is Ottawa-based graphic designer John Atkinson who has come up with a really fast, and fun, way to get a handle on a book in record time – abridged illustrations which humourously take a book down to its core elements.
It’s all driven by a simple recognition that our reading and information absorption habits have changed in the digital age, as he told Buzzfeed:
“I did the original three abridged classics cartoons a while back. I was thinking about how, in an online world, we consume information. In the past, we would spend hours/days/weeks reading great literature, but now we have a need to digest everything in small viral bits.”
Fun though they are though, and they are nothing short of wonderfully inspired, he hopes they will lead people to go further and explore the actual books:
“I would hope that people find these funny — or at least pithy. I’d also hope they might encourage some to revisit, re-read, or discover for the first time some of these great works of literature.”
For some reason, and it may have something to do with the fact that ever since the optimistic blush of post-World War Two idealism wore off in the early 1970s that we’ve become more and more convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket, everyone is obsessed with a thousand different ways the world might end …
… and, more intriguingly for a storyteller, what happens after that cataclysmic event.
Robert Kirkman, through his The Walking Dead comics and TV series, and the spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead, has been one of the people at the forefront of this fascination with a bleakly dark and deadly future, asking time and again what it would mean for humanity to be faced with this most horrific of existential crises?
Would we rise, nobly and selflessly to the challenge, or cave in on ourselves and employ our best (read: worst) Darwinian tendencies for a race to the self-preserving bottom, alive but with little that made us stand above the evolutionary crowd intact?
It’s an intriguing, multi-layered question and one he explores once again, with talented artist Lorenzo De Felici, in his new comic book series Oblivion Songwhich explores what happens when 300,000 of Phildelphia’s citizens are absorbed, with no warning into an alternate dimensional hellscape known, you might have guessed, as Oblivion.
Populated by beastial monsters and the stuff of nightmares on acid, the Oblivion kills many of its unwilling captors as the government does it best to save as many of its people from their dimensional prison as they can.
But as so often happens even in the more mundane and terrestrial of disasters – and I use the word “mundane” only as a contrast to the freakish otherworldliness of Oblivion – people lose interest, the news cycle powers down and its left to survivors and their families to do what they can do to save those they love and have lost.
Nathan Cole, whose estranged brother Edward may still be trapped in the mindlessly terrifying expanse of Oblivion – the land it consumed in Philadelphia before disappearing is a desert wasteland, with the only way to reach the alternate dimension through darts that allow movement across the barrier between the worlds (Nathan has more freedom of movement than that) – is pretty much the last man left standing, working with Bridget and her Oblivion-survivor husband Duncan (who suffers from PTSD and in unaware his wife forged a new life with a new man during the many years her husband was missing and presumed dead).
With a dogged determination borne of the need to do the right thing and no doubt find his brother – he is accused repeatedly of doing it for wholly selfish reasons but you wouldn’t keep exposing yourself to such nightmarish danger and possible death – there are a number of close scrapes with mortality in just the first few issues – Nathan keeps pushing back into Oblivion to rescue people like Thomas and Patricia Crenshaw, a married couple who, like most rescue survivors, can’t adjust to the fact that they are safe from the monsters.
It’s a common thread in the series so far – what happens after your rescued? Is the happily-ever-after really all that happy or is it an agonisingly awful safety and nothing more? Can you ever leave that kind of trauma behind?
Given the fact that Oblivion Song is bouncing between Oblivion itself, where it turns out some survivors, organised and led by the mysterious Ed who may or may be Nathan’s missing brother, have actually, and weirdly, made themselves a new life, present-day scarred Philadelphia where a massive memorial museum to this hopefully one-off apocalyptic event dominates the city, physically and psychically, Nathan’s relationship with Heather who works in city government, and the experiences of rescued survivors, it somehow manages to tell an engrossingly complex story.
It’s not perfectly executed, of course, but given the profusion of imaginatively-articulated moving parts, that’s to be expected, with an interesting premise, some nicely-brought to life characters and some incisive perceptiveness about government and society and they can be out of step with basic humanity giving the series, thus far at least, a robust well-roundedness.
What is fascinating is how something this cataclysmic, this devastating could be so easily ignored, after the initial panic and rush to rescue survivors has subsided? Surely the public, the families of the 300,000 not yet accounted for would be baying at the doors of government, beseeching the media, begging people like Nathan to do more, much more?
Two scenes explain why this isn’t happening, at least not in the way you expect.
Nathan, fronts to a meeting at city hall organised by Heather where he must keep his cool – like most outliers, he is passionate to the point of rudeness and subordination, unable to conceive how anything other than going in and saving people matters; fair enough, in a perfect world, that would and should be the sole consideration – in order to get the funds he need to expand his team back to the size it once was before government decided the mission was fulfilled.
The fact that people are out there, and that Nathan keeps finding and saving them suggests that’s not the case at all, but it appears the government, worried that continual movement through the dimensional barrier might be weakening it, something which could lead to a repeat of events a decade earlier, and other considerations not articulated, feels it’s simply not feasible to reopen the program to its full strength and leaves Nathan as an effective one-man band.
Later on, he goes to see his old tea member Marco who is uneasy about Nathan’s requests to come back with him into Oblivion – the series titles comes from Duncan’s relocation of the “music” you would hear in the rare, quiet moments you weren’t running from monsters when all you could hear was “the breeze, the creatures in the distance, insects” sounding like nothing in our dimension – and eventually rejects his request, deferring his wife Lucia’s fears about him going back in and his own understandable terror.
It’s this cumulative, ever-present horror, this sense that Oblivion is but a permeable barrier away and that everything could go to hell again, that I think powers the reluctance of government and the populace – how is Philly not a ghost town? I’d have packed up and left but then like most people, could I afford to? – and the crowds that surge through the museum, afraid of the reminders it provides but unable to look away since the reality of it all is but a transitional event away?
In Kirkman’s other creative endeavours, you can’t escape the apocalypse since it’s everywhere; but in Oblivion Song, rich with humanity, portent, lingering hope and grief and loss, people feel like they can ignore it, well enough to get on with their lives in something approaching normalcy.
Of course, that’s a fallacy, which Nathan and survivors like the Crewshaws and Duncan prove each and every day but among the many insights Oblivion Song provides through its immersive narrative and stunningly evocative art – De Felici’s artwork is a thing of beauty and nightmares all at once – is humanity’s enduring ability to both face up to and roundly ignore threats to its very existence (think climate change right now as exhibit A).
There’s a great deal left to explore such as the organised survivors in Oblivion seeing people like Nathan as a threat not as saviours, which makes this series, which could, Kirkman promises, run for years (they didn’t launch until they had a year’s worth of issues in the vault so clearly the idea has narrative legs), a new apocalypse powerhouse of storytelling one that has the potential, if properly exercised, to offer up some penetrating truisms on the messy contrariness that is humanity.
Slack Wyrm – the ongoing comic story of unconcerned dragon in an uncaring world by Josh Wright. Set in an ill-conceived medieval/fantasy realm of fabulous monsters, princesses, towering castles, creepy woods and houses made out of confectionery. There are witches and wizards and talking animals who sometimes wear jackets, but never pants. Also everyone seems to have a smartphone, which makes no sense at all. Wickedly quirky and gleefully subversive are two qualities I love in any pop culture I consume. (Slack Wyrm Facebook page(c) Joshua Wright)
Anyone can replicate a trope or a well-worn idea, but only a gifted few can take them, turn them inside out, give an idiosyncratic spit-and-polish and voila! Regale us with something entrancingly new …
Even better if it’s funny too, and in the case of cartoons or comics, possessed of a singular arresting visual personality.
Geelong, Australia-born Joshua Wright, who says he “remains ever-keen to impose his art onto a weary world” and who happily, and quite accurately boasts that “I already have more Twitter followers than Alexander the Great ever did, [which] must mean I’m more important” has ticked all the above boxes with his Slack Wyrm comics which are unapologetically in your face and hilariously so.
Averaging two comics a week, Wright is clearly a man with a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humour to unleash upon the world. Take this excerpt from his website bio:
“After finishing a History & Literature degree, and taking a few overseas trips, he settled down to his deluded fantasy career as a famous writer of children’s novels. A decade later and with several unimpressive jobs on his resume, he finally got a few books into print. These masterful works continue to fade into history to this very day. You should probably buy one now before they become collector’s items.” (Joshuawright.net)
Armed with that kind of self-deprecating wit and a talent for giving it both visual and verbal expression that wins on just about every count, Wright’s Slack Wyrm couldn’t be anything other than the gloriously off-the-wall piece of creativity than it is.
If you’re tired of comics that play it safe or don’t push the envelope, or that simply feature a dearth of dragons – we’ve all been there, am I right? – then Slack Wyem should be your new comical bae.
Who knows? You may even get a great magical black forest cake out of the deal.
You have to hand to DC Comics – they may not have had much success with their foray into moviedom, save for the stellar success of Wonder Woman, but they sure know they’re away around comic book adaptations of old, beloved Hanna-Barbera characters.
Following hot on the heels of the likes Adam Strange/Future Quest, Booster Gold/The Flintstones, Green Lantern/Space Ghost and Suicide Squad/The Banana Splits, comes all-new fantastic cross-fertilisations between the likes of Jabberjaw and Aquaman (my favourite combo to be honest), Black Lightning with Hong Kong Phooey, Dynomutt with Super Sons, and The Flash with another one of my enduring favourites, Speed Buggy.
In the world of Wallace the Brave, drawn by Will Henry, the pen name of Jamestown, Rhode Island-based Will Wilson, it’s all that and more, a whimsical, fabulous place where you can muse on what it would be like to “heroically [ride] a llama to school in front of grandiose sunrise”, speculate whether the gnarled stone wall on which you’re walking saw some serious sabretooth companionship, and dream of how much fun it would be to live in a house atop a giant tortoise so you never got bored with your location.
Or what about wishing you could have a rhino or a talking pelican as a pet? Speculate that prints in the snow were made by a garrulous multi-legged monster, and picture the fun you’d have with an accordion-playing gnu.
Such is the delightfully oddball childhood of Wallace, “a bold and curious little boy” who lives in Snug Harbor with his fisherman dad who has a dry sense of humour and a willingness to push boundaries, his loving but no-nonsense mum and his off-the-wall weird brother Sterling who is best described as lovably feral.
Throw in school friends Spud – a running gag is that Wallace’s dad can never remember his name – and ballsy Amelia, who doesn’t quite get the nerdism of her two male friends, and you have one of those comic strip casts that are witty, silly, sweet and above all, a joy to spend time with.
Coming in cold when I first saw the collection on a web page somewhere, I had no idea how much of a delight Henry’s Calvin and Hobbes-ish strip would be.
Beautifully-coloured worldbuilding and brilliant characterisation, such that you pretty much get Wallace and his idiosyncratic family and friends within the first few strips, give the strip the air of the lost world of childhoods past where filling in time meant racing around town, spending time in comic bookstores, imagining that the drab reality of life is way cooler and more exciting that might otherwise be the case, and lending your expansive imagination run gleefully riot.
According to a piece on Henry in The Sun Chronicle, Wallace the Brave reflects the artist’s own relaxed childhood, and while he denies he and Wallace are too alike in an interview on The Huffington Post – “I don’t believe I was THAT rambunctious as a kid. My mother may disagree” – you have to imagine that Henry’s inner child has a fairly substantial role in shaping his engagingly cheeky protagonist.
One of the things that drew me to the strip almost immediately is its absence of any real dark elements; there are no noxious bullies, Wallace is never horribly naughty and malicious, acting much as you’d expect a happily well-adjusted kid who’s well-raised and lovingly-parented to be, and school is trying and boring at times but never too horrible.
Some might think this is unrealistic but the joy of Wallace the Brave is that it gives us, much like Calvin and Hobbes did, and does, a window into the kind of childhood of which we were all capable of, and might have wished for, but perfectly never exactly realised.
While I was deeply-loved by my mum and dad, and had a secure, content childhood in some senses – days spend riding my dragster bike across town and sailing LEGO ships down now-filled in streams were carefree ones by anyone’s notion – I was insidiously and endlessly bullied from kindergarten through to my second-last year of school, and so strips like Henry’s bucolically mischievous, rampantly and amusingly imaginative, and sweetly funny Wallace the Brave give me the chance to live out a childhood I sort of had but never fully.
If wish fulfillment could manifest as ink and paper – Henry still draws by hand, describing himself as “a 32 year old dinosaur [who’s all] pen, paper, ink and watercolor” (The Huffington Post) – and I could relive my ideal childhood, it would most certainly find form as Wallace the Brave.
I’m sure there are people who might find this sort of quirky idealism a little twee in our cynical postmodern age, but the popularity of Wallace the Brave would suggest that a great many more people find its adventurously, cheekily sweet outlook just the tonic in a world-weary world that’s forgotten the value of some pretty important things:
“Henry hopes that readers get a laugh out of Wallace the Brave. He also hopes they appreciate the sense of nature that the comic exudes and the strong bonds of friendship and family.” (The Sun Chronicle)
Let’s face it – while nature is getting a clobbering at the moment thanks to climate change deniers, there is something deeply healing and rewarding from being it and connected to it; even more so, when that connection includes the powerful closeness of ties to family and friends.
Like Mutts, Henry’s endlessly joy-inducing world inspires you to believe the world can be a whole lot better than it is, and sure reality might try and disabuse of that notion, but I like the idea of trying rather than simply giving up and surrendering all the concrete, isolation and negativity of the modern world.
Henry’s real achievement is restoring our belief in some fundamental building blocks of a well-loved and happy life while giving us a good giggle and a soul-restoring laugh, and frankly if that’s not a life well-used, then I don’t know what it.
Make sure you read Wallace the Brave – it is indisputably good for what ails you, and while like Wallace you might find reality strangely resistant to your flights of imaginative hopefulness, you’ll be far better off conjuring up a world where a net full of flying fish might take your father off his fishing boat into the sky or giant cyclops skulls sit just below the ground than not even bothering in the first place.
We forget where we put the keys. What day our niece’s birthday falls. Where we hid that present that would be perfect for Aunty Jean?
But being responsible for genocide? Yeah, no, that, THAT, is something you’d definitely remember.
Unless you’re Martian weatherman, Nathan Bright, who finds himself accused of masterminding a terrorist attack on Earth that all but wipes out the human race and has to flee across the stars to escape the inevitable retribution.
Thing is – he can’t remember a thing. Not one bit of it – so is he not guilty or just really, horrifically forgetful?
Alas The Weathemanof the title, the one with the great girlfriend, crazy fun presenting style and a Golden Retriever can’t remember whether he did or didn’t do it, a problem when you’re being fingered for what is essentially the crime to end all crimes.
So on the run he goes but when you’re a feelgood, zany weatherman are you really ready to be James Bond among the others.
It seems not, and that, according to writer Jody LeHeup is where things get really interesting:
“Nathan’s of course completely ill-equipped for life as the most wanted man in the solar system but he’s forced on the run anyway, on a journey to find the truth and the key to stopping a second extinction level attack. And that’s just the starting point. Things get extremely crazy once we start to fill in the blanks.” (io9)
The Weatherman sounds like a clever, funny, deadly serious, amazing series that will be well worth reading if only to feel better about those momentary slip-ups of memory we all go through.
Issue #1 will be available at your favourite comic book store on 13 June.
One of the things I have long-loved about the European style of storytelling, and the reason why I have consumed everything from Agaton Sax and the Moomins as a child through to The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery as an adult, is that it is not afraid to tell it like it is.
Life may have its whimsical, magical moments, those special moments of wonder and belonging that make the spirit soar but it is also dark, sad and distressing, and all of the examples given, and many more besides, have shown their willingness to depict and discuss both sides of the existential coin.
Atlas & Axis, a delightful comic series from the hand of Pau, a Spanish writer/illustrator based in Mallorca who you can sponsor on Patreon, joins this illustrious line of fine, nuanced and truthful storytelling, unafraid to be lighthearted and joyous but brutal and realist when it is called for.
And for a series set in the early Middle Ages, with anthropomorphic dogs taking the place of humans, it is called for a great deal.
Much like the human Middle Ages when death and destruction were everyday facts of life, and expectations for happiness were short-lived (though not non-existent; hope springs eternal in the most unexpected of time and places), life for our two delightfully gungo protagonists, Atlas & Axis is often difficult and heartbreaking in the extreme.
In the first volume alone of this four-part comic series, which ends far too early, leaving you wanting considerably more of their adventures, the village that best friends forever Atlas & Axis share with friends Raposa, wise Canuto and Atlas’s sister Erika, is pillaged by wolf-like Vikings, with all the men killed and the bitches and puppies taken away “north”.
It’s a horrifying moment for both dogs, and a startling break from the opening pages where thoughtful, considered Atlas and a far more impulsive and adorably dimwitted Axis, are acting like two good friends do, all gentle teasing, wisecracks and catching up on the former’s most recent trip away from which he has returned with a mysterious parchment which talks of a magic bone which gives its possessor an always-filled food bowl.
It’s a quirky riff on the concept of a McGuffin, an object or device that spurs a plot right along, but any excitement stemming from its existence, which Canuto alas cannot shed light on before his death, is quickly dissipated by the horrors Atlas & Axis find in their now-destroyed village.
It spurs them to go “north”, although that is a vague idea for the two – although wise Atlas is more knowing and adept than his companion so their quest does not degenerate into a wild goose chase (and trust me, if there were actual wild geese, they’d fit beautifully right into Pau’s imaginatively-realised animal-filled world) – to find Raposa and Erika but also to seek revenge which they duly deliver after a sidetrack or two.
Their attack on the Vikings is purposeful, bloody and sustained, and though they meet sweet bear barkeeper and eventual good friend Honey and the love of Atlas’s life Mika (who keeps disappearing to his lovelorn frustration), and even exploding ewes (who are, wait for it, terrorists), and while it’s all cosy and wonderful, it’s also really, soul-saddeningly grim.
Just like life, of course.
That’s the magic of Pau’s storytelling, which is rich with emotion, joyously whimsical, and ferociously intelligent and socially-aware, often all at once – it acknowledges both sides of life’s equation and the narrative is all the more powerful for it.
Along with a substantial and engaging narrative that will have you turning the pages so fast you may get papercuts (trust me, you won’t mind), there is Pau’s expansive, luminously beautiful artwork.
Even in the most searingly emotional of scenes, we are treated to gorgeously-rendered panels that feel wonderfully, vividly alive even when, alas, the characters who inhabit them are not.
As Atlas & Axis race north, and then east to help prove the theory of evolution is true by finding woolly mammoths and Tarse, the link between wolf and dog (who turn out to be far more sophisticated than either protagonist expects), and on and on, one immersive adventure after another, we’re treated to stunningly beautiful, richly-colourful landscapes that entrance and inveigle and into which you happily descend along with Atlas & Axis who race through them with alacrity, glee or panicked urgency, depending on what is going on at the time.
In many ways, these two endlessly supportive friends, who may bicker a little and get separated more than either would like, remind me of Astérix and Obélix, the hilariously heartfelt and satirical series from Goscinny and Uderzo, who similarly race d madly hither and yon on grand adventures, who showed a cheeky disregard for convention and who were gifted with superlatively well-drawn landscapes too.
Atlas & Axis, the first collection of which came out in 2011 and which has been published in Spanish, French, Dutch and eight other languages, is certainly reminiscent in spirit of the longrunning French series, but is most assuredly its own uniquely beguiling creation too.
For a start, while the dogs of the series are anthropomorphic in many ways, they are still dogs.
They sniff each other’s butts in greeting or to initiate intimacy, they sniff turds to determine who is around and what they might be like, and as Axis winningly remarks in one of the first pages of issue 1 as he greets his long-absent friend “I’e had nothing to do but rub my bum on the carpet …” to which an amused Atlas retorts ” You need to get your carpet cleaned … Seriously.”
They’re also inclined to chase down sheep to eat, or in the case of the Tarse, keep a herd of them for quick and easy consumption, thus proving that you can dress a dog in clothes and make him interested in the origins of life, but that doesn’t mean they won’t stop acting like dogs.
This faithfulness to all matters canine gives Atlas & Axis a unique feel, making them both very human and very doggy, a combination that allows them to be all kinds of things, and which powers the series on page after page with wit, wisdom and an authenticity of life experience that will endear this brilliantly-clever and emotionally-resonant series, which can take its place in the grand canon of European storytelling with head held high and absolutely no need to even remotely consider putting its tale between its legs with shame.
Pick up any issue of Space Family Robinson Lost in Space, and the first thing you’ll notice beyond the gloriously melodramatic painted covers, is the complete absence of pretty much every character we love in Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space TV series.
Where’s Zachary Smith? The Robot? Major Don West? For that matter where are the Robinsons themselves – John, Maureen, Will, Judy and Penny? How do you create a spinoff comic book series with none of the characters from the TV show?
Quite easily, in fact, if the comic book series in question, based, as was the TV series, on the book Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, predates Allen’s delightfully schlocky space masterpiece by some three years.
Debuting in 1962, the comic series from Gold Key Comics ran for 59 issues until 1982, with a few cancellations, revivals and name tweaks along the way, arriving at a time when the idea of a family lost in space was a hot pitch.
In fact, in the early ’60s, before Lost in Space blasted off rather wonkily in September 1965, there were two other competing TV shows on offer according to Pop Matters:
“What’s more, once Space Family Robinson became a success for Gold Key, the film and TV rights were sold to TV writer Hilda Bohem, who worked up a treatment called Space Family 3000.
“Case Closed? Again, not so fast. There was still another Space Family Robinson to contend with. Ib Melchior, author of the story Death Race 2000 was based on, began pitching his own Space Family Robinson in 1964. So, that makes three Robinson projects being volleyed before Lost in Space‘s debut.”
Confused yet? Feeling a little lost yourself?
Don’t be – leave that to the Robinsons who are, let’s face it, perenially good at getting profoundly, deeply and narrative-fuellingly lost.
In the comic book series, the Robinsons, as mentioned, come in a completely different combination, as does their mode of travel.
In this iteration, they are onboard what was Earth’s first orbital outpost, Space Station One – issues 37 to 44, published from 1973, carried the tag “On Space Station One” – which departs Earth in 2001 bound for the stars, equipped with everything from hydroponic gardens, an observatory and shuttlecraft known as Spacemobiles”.
Everything it seems but a compass; although to be fair, a cosmic storm in issue 2 is the culprit that sends them hurtling into the great galactic beyond, leaving the Robinsons in their titular lost state and the comic book series rich with all kinds of storytelling possibilities which they used quite effectively, if colourfully.
It’s the make-up of the family using “inter-dimensional space jumps” to get home that is interesting here.
The comic book Robinsons are led by Craig and June, described in issue 18 of the series as “scientists working in space technology laboratories” who were deemed to be “the most mentally and physically qualified [people] to man [sic] the station”.
Coming along for the ride, for what is the Robinson family without some kids, are children Tim and Tam – yes their names do make up the name of one of Australia’s famous biscuit exports, the Tim Tam but surely that’s just a coincidence? – who are equal parts adept and not depending on narrative demands (although it’s usually Tam, the girl, who ends up in damsel in distress mode), dog Clancy and parrot Yakker.
And that, really is it – no robot, no pesky Dr Smith, no Don West, and consequently not a lot of cheesy moments or quippy catchphrases.
The comics by writer Del Connell and artist Dan Spiegle are, hyperbolic melodrama aside, something which likely reflects more of a 1960s mindset that anything else, reasonably serious, gung-ho affairs in which some outlandish plot development occurs, ranging from a plague to giant flying characters to being stuck in a medieval landscape, the Robinsons respond and ultimately triumph.
It’s great episodic storytelling that, like the TV series that both succeeded and ran concurrently for three years with it, is great escapist sci-fi fun.
Without, it must be said, much of the charming histrionic nonsense that Allen brought to the table.
To be honest, I am a fan of all the insanity and over the top frippery that came with the TV series, with the show occupying a great big warm-and-fuzzy place in my heart, but it is ridiculously silly at times too.
True, much the same accusation could be leveled at the comic book series at times.
But mostly, odd monsters and strange flying creatures aside, Space Family Robinson is much more serious and intense, with the family tackling each and everyone narrative obstacle with customary gusto and knowhow.
The premises might be outlandish but the family isn’t, with everything being taken very seriously, very much in the same spirit of cinema serials from the ’40s and ’50s which came with, to modern sensibilities at least, manically outsized melodramatic scenarios but which were always treated with grave concern and intensity by the characters.
That my friends, is now good escapist entertainment should work, and Space Family Robinson excels in this regard, allowing you to tap into your inner comic-reading child, and relive the wonder and enchantment that came with reading about people in impossible situations who somehow always came out on top.
It’s tempting to be cynical and postmodern and gently, or not so gently for we are now in a viciously intolerant digital media age, make fun of TV shows, movies and comic books like the Gold Key series but honestly, they’re a lot of fun to read, visually adventurous and expansive with the kind of blockbuster, out there adventuring that even a jaded adult laden with the burdensome realities of life, would find liberating.
There’s something distinctly therapeutic about surrendering yourself to the adventures of the comic book Robinsons; sure they’re cheesy, a little bit sexist (OK, a lot at times) and hilarious OTT, but they represent something we’ve lost in our more knowing, meta age, the opportunity to go on a grand and exciting adventure where the stakes are high and consequences deadly, but you always know the heroes will triumph.
If I was the multiverse I’d been looking for a new PR agent.
The idea that there are multiple versions of our reality sitting cheek-by-jowl in the wilds of space and time – and yes, I’m not a scientist so this is a fantastically wobbly explanation for the concept of the multiverse that you likely shouldn’t use in your thesis – has proved an irresistibly intoxicating storytelling device for shows like Star Trek, The Flash and Fringe, movies like Interstellar and Twelve Monkeys, and countless books such as The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, and one of my great favourites, All Our Wrong Todays.
But, as you might expect from an idea that promises infinitely malleable storytelling premises, the good old multiverse more often than not ends up as a place of menace and trouble, an devilishly-threatening world of the almost-what-we-know-but-not-quite unknown, an existential “uncanny valley” where there’s just enough out of whack for it not to feel like home.
But help may be at hand in the form of Motherlands, a new darkly-comic series from master storyteller writer Simon Spurrier, illustrator Rachael Stott and colourist Felipe Sobreiro, in which the endless permutations of our reality, many of which are fantastically different, others off by only a fraction, are the least of everyone’s problems.
It’s the people spilling across the various twists and turns on their own reality that cause more problems than the Strings, as they known in the series, specifically Trawl Hunters like Selena and Tabitha Tubach, a mother and daughter “team” (one borne of convenience, not love and existing more in name only than anything else) who traverse the multiverse via portal or “punctures” as they’re known, in search of the scum of the earth whose apprehension, dead or alive depending on requirements, brings in a rich reward.
Selena is a has-been in the world of Trawl Hunters, a once-glamourous woman who swept across the Strings with style, panache and foul-mouthed attitude, accompanied by a reality TV show crew who charted her every move, and made her and her family celebrities in a multiverse with more than its fair share of other mind-boggling distractions.
But what she had in spades as a celebrity apprehender of multiple earth bad guys and gals, she most definitely lacked in mothering skills, a deficit made all the more stark and noticeable when her husband absconds with their son Bubba to worlds unknown – only Tabitha vaguely knows where they are via holo-messages smuggled to her on a sporadic basis over the years.
So when Tabitha, all grown up and more than a little disenchanted with family life, needs help going off in pursuit of her ne’er-do-well brother, she reluctantly, very reluctantly teams up with her now disabled but still brassy and distinctly unlikeable mother, setting in play an Odd Couple-like race across the multiverse peppered with profanity, disagreements and a continuing sense that the the infinite variations of the Strings are less an issue than the flawed humans populating them in multitudinous abundance spurred on what is referred to as an “era of deregulated scientific hybridization”.
Motherlands is not for the fainthearted.
The series is as gritty as they come, with swear words everywhere, violence splayed across most pages and an acknowledgement that humanity is irredeemably awful beyond belief.
All of which for some damn good, utterly engaging storytelling as our two very broken protagonists, only marginally more virtuous, and that’s highly debatable than the bounties they are seeking, created havoc both without and within, proof that while the possibility of endlessly-promising realities could usher in a whole new era for humanity, it’s basically business as usual but on a far bigger, and infinitely variable, scale.
You don’t always have long to appreciate each of the worlds that Motherlands sprints through as breakneck pace, but without exception, the world-building is masterful, the artwork exceptionally evocative and just plain lovely to look at, and the storytelling tight, engaging and immersive.
The action is pretty relentless but this doesn’t mean you end with a vacuous narrative that fails to possess any depth, personality or flawed humanity.
In fact, Spurrier, who is a past master of balancing gung-ho storytelling with rich characterisation, works a minor miracle in Motherlands, by actually making us care about Selena and Tabitha who are more alike than either cares to admit.
It’s highly doubtful they’ll ever share a warm and friendly, Hallmark-card bedecked Mother’s Day lunch anytime soon, but if only to improve their chances for survival, you have to expect that eventually Selena and Tabitha will arrive at some sort of accommodation and form a functional team to get the job done.
The big impediment to this? Not just years of antipathy, bordering on venomous hatred but the fact that the quarry, Bubba, is someone both of them still care very much about it, a family member who for all his misdeeds, is someone they want to see back in the fold.
That’s the intriguing thing about Motherlands – it’s big, brash, ballsy and filthily irreverent, but it also has these tantalisingly heartfelt kernels, remnants of humanity that would indicate that for all the bluster and antagonism, that somewhere down in the depths of their muddied humanity, both mother and daughter actually care for each other and their brother.
It’s not going to ever be a Normal Rockwell Christmas true, but it might be more than what they have know, proof perhaps that the bonds of love and family can endure even the acidity of then relationship between Selena or Tabitha.
Or they could just kill each other – yeah, that could totally happen too.
Stayed tuned … a new String and infinite possibilities await and it will be fascinating and not a little exciting seeing where Spurrier, Stott and Sobreiro might take us next into the imaginative expansive of the multiverse.
It’s probably not the first word that springs to mind about a show that’s better known for bloody, internecine struggles, betrayal, lust and endless, nightmarish war … oh, and zombies.
Not excactly Hello Kitty having tea with her special pals Dora the Explorer, Strawberry Shortcake and Thomas the Tank Engine now is it?
But the talented artists at Combo Estúdio have found a way to give Game of Thrones a delightfully whimsical, Disney-esque edge that keeps the characters surprisingly true to themselves but a whole lot cuter than they are usually are.