Saturday, 23 August 2008

Slipping Through The Cracks: Part 1

Every now and then it makes a nice change of pace to sit down with a ludicrously high stack of comics and just chew through them. Since I'm home visiting my parents this weekend, I figured now was the perfect time to catch up with new developments, and return to old favourites.

At long last I am now up to speed with the X-Men (and my God, UXM 500 is a perfect case study of how to totally screw up on almost every imaginable level). I also finally got round to reading Civil War, which frankly is worthy of an entire post on its own; whatever else you want to say about Mark Millar, he did a pretty good job of presenting both sides of the argument reasonably well.

That's for later, though. Today I wanted to talk about one of my all-time favourite comic series, which for some reason never seems to really get the attention or praise it deserves. Thus follows some of my thoughts on Midnight Nation. Today I'll start with some essentially spoiler-free comments (I'll paint the early story in broad sketches, though, so if you're one of those people terrified you might accidentally learn an episode title, or whatever, look away now), to try and whet the appetite of those not yet familiar with the series. Then tomorrow I'll move on to some more in-depth thoughts for anyone who has already experienced the end of David Grey's year long journey across America.

The plot to Midnight Nation is deceptively simple, and I use that phrase for two reasons. Firstly because the book is multi-layered, and a lot of what seems obvious on the surface is often more complex, or even contradictory, when considered more closely. Secondly, the seeming direction of the narrative manages two shuddering ninety degree turns within the first three issues.

At first, the comic presents itself as little more than a detective story with a supernatural bent. LAPD detective David Grey is called to the scene of a particularly brutal homicide. According to a twitchy informant David meets in a nearby alley, some force known simply as "The Men" (yes, it's a stupid, stupid name; but nobody's perfect) are going around killing people, apparently to keep them quiet about some unfathomable conspiracy. At first Grey isn't sure what to think, but once his snitch turns up brutally murdered (so brutally in fact that The Men get to arrange the myriad separate body parts for the sake of various sick visual puns), he gets interested quick. This interest leads to his first encounter with The Men, which alters the path of David's destiny to a considerable degree.

Now, it appears, we find ourselves in some Californian equivalent of Neil Gaiman's London Below, an alternative city occupying the same geography as the LA Grey knows, the same streets and buildings, but populated by the lost and the abandoned. These are the dregs of society that have fallen from sight, to the point where they have literally become invisible to the general population, and vice versa. Nothing can be used by Grey and his new associates unless the regular Los Angelinos have discarded it. Phones calls, for example, can only be made from telephone booths that are dilapidated and abandoned. The less said about how they get food, the better, I would think. Each character has a story as to how they fell through the cracks. Take the apparent leader of the LA forgotten, a stern, angry man named Arthur, who worked so hard alongside his buddies in a car factory that the owners reaped enough profits to move the whole shebang to Asia and lay the peons off. Unable to find new employment, he eventually realised that no-one was paying him any attention at all any more, and he was lost.

David, though, is different. He didn't fall through the cracks, he was pushed. Apparently for this reason, someone seems to have decided he warrants a guide. Said role is taken by Laurel, a mass of anger and jaded condescension who makes it immediately clear that she has done this many, many times before, and that David is "the biggest asshole in the history of the known universe". Patient and understanding she is not, especially considering the degree to which David's world has been aggressively rearranged. It seems an odd attitude for a guide, even considering that this is obviously old news to her.

At the conclusion of his tense and confusing encounter with Arthur, we find ourselves shifting rails again. This isn't really a story about the lost and the desperate, and how they live from day today inside the ghost of the city they used to know. It's more of a existential road-movie with religious overtones. The Men took something from him, they've stashed it in New York, and it's going to be the mother if all battles getting it back. Plus, cars don't work for the lost, so they're going to have to slog it on foot.

They have exactly one year.

In a nutshell (well, possibly a series of nutshells), then, those are the basics. What can't be conveyed here, of course, is just how well done it all is. It's fairly common knowledge that jms is a Marmite writer, either you get it or you don't, but even his more fervent defenders (of whom I am often, though not always, an example of) have to admit that the man has his blind spots. An insistence upon having his characters stare into the middle distance and spout melodramatic monologues, for instance (the most obvious example of his problems with overwrought and inflexible dialogue). I'm sure every dedicated Babylon 5 fan can reel off at least a couple of badly-judged "comedic" interludes over the course of the show that had them chewing their fingers with embarrassment. Straczynski has always doggedly insisted that his trump card is the strength of his characters. There's certainly some truth to that statement, but every time he tries to force what he considers pithy dialogue into their mouths, it no longer sounds like Delenn or Ivanova or Vir (G'Kar and Londo both get away with it, either because their characters are close to being user-proof or because Katsulas and Jurasik could act their way into Fort Knox and then ad-lib the gold into the air), it sounds like jms. I've said before that Joss Whedon is talented enough to write gags into dialogue without it working against the plausibility of a scene. Straczynski isn't (nor for that matter is RTD, who I bring up just because I haven't given him a kicking in a while and I miss it). His plots are often fascinating, exciting, or thoughtful (or a combination of same), and his characters frequently rise above his meat 'n' potatoes dialogue, but the above two problems seem determined to ham-string his efforts.

In Midnight Nation, they evaporate entirely.

Vomiting Mike always maintained that jms was a writer best suited to the forum of comics (mind you, he said the same thing about me, so what does he know?). His argument was that Straczynski's fascination with the mythical and the legendary, and his particular spin on dialogue, both lending themselves better to 24 pages of pictures and word balloons than to a forty-two minute television episode. Rising Stars had already vindicated this position, of course, but Midnight Nation really drives it home. An individual comic doesn't allow for wiggle room. Every comment has to be short and to the point. Nor, with only twelve issues to tell a fairly ambitious story, can you afford to piss away three pages having a discussion about socks and zippers, or stabbing someone with a sewing needle, or whatever the fuck jms thinks is funny this week [1]. The very nature of comics demands concision, and to his credit Straczynski cuts out exactly the right aspects of his writing style.

What he leaves in is tense, thought-provoking and visceral. The more we learn of David's situation, and Laurel's role regarding it, the more we feel for both, and the more certain we are that the series can't possibly end well for both of them, possibly for either.

And just who is the Messianic leader of the Men?

Tomorrow we get to a more thorough deconstruction of the series. Be warned, spoilers will abound. ABOUND, I tell you!

Oh, and also: I request one minute's silence for the upcoming passing of Books & Comics, the store from which I have been purchasing my monthly X-Men fix (in addition to Midnight Nation, Rising Stars, and various spin-off titles and trade paperbacks) for more than twelve years.

[1] Actually I thought the zipper conversation was pretty good. In fact, whilst Season 1 of B5 is generally considered as a promising mess, it was probably the most consistently funny year of the show. I mean, I'm not saying Will Ferrell should be up nights worrying, or anything, but at least the misfire rate had yet to shoot through the roof.

So maybe it's a bad example. Um, let's think.... How about Ivanova's crazed sex-dance in Acts of Sacrifice? That felt like watching someone singing a car crash.

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