Bob's Comics Reviews September 2023 Arrows


Declan Shalvey and Rory McConville: Time Before Time
This is the best discovery of the year. I saw four TPBs at the library, and thought that would be too much if I didn't like it, so I just got two. I had to go back twice to get the last two.

I'm a sucker for time travel stories, and this one adds a twist I'm surprised no one has tried before: time travel is run by organized crime. Also, the future sucks.

The basic idea: Tatsuo and Oscar work for The Syndicate, based in 2040. His main job is smuggling people to a safer time period... the amusing conceit is that this is always in the past. But time travel makes you sick, and the Syndicate has a "payment" system that leaves you always in debt, and the boss is a jerk, so they think about stealing one of the time travel pods and escaping. Nothing could go wrong, right?

Things go wrong. An FBI agent named Nadia gets after them, they end up in an unfriendly time period, one where a rival organization rules. And then things really go south.

Overall the story reminds me of 100 Bullets, or Saga, in that no one is safe, there's a lot of ultraviolence, and there seems to be an ever-expanding cast of characters hunting the protagonists. But there's an underlying sense of humor-- sometimes very dark humor-- and like all good time travel stories, there's a nice sense of overlapping threads and recurrences. (Some of this only becomes clear on a re-reading. What seem like throwaway characters often are not.)

I really want to avoid spoilers, but I'll say that one of the best characters is named Kevin, not least because he comes from outside the super-serious worlds of cops and criminals. (At least I think he does; we haven't got an origin story yet.)

One character says the past can't be changed, but others question this... I guess we'll find out later on.

I do worry about one story aspect, same as in Kate Mascarenhas's The Psychology of Time Travel, namely: if you have time travel, how can dramatic events happen and no one knows about them? E.g. character X dies in 2093: how come everybody doesn't know that at all times, including X?

There is a bit of lampshading that may address this: it's treated as a major faux pas to tell someone what happens after their time, even big political events. Also, the pods are expensive, finicky, and tightly controlled, so (unlike in Mascarenhas) you can't just jaunt all over spacetime. People like Tatsuo seem to have a home time and just advance normally there, only using the pods for specific missions. Plus, it's a dangerous business, so just as people try not to think about the radiation hazard, they evidently prefer not to learn or think about when they die.

A minor cavil is that time periods are treated as monocultures... indeed, it's never very clear where on the planet any one episode takes place. Given the byzantine complexity of the plot, however, that's probably unavoidable.

The story changes direction a bit in book 4. We get our first extended glimpse of what seem to be normal, non-criminal people. Not that that stops things from going wrong.

I just Googled and apparently the series is ending, but it'll go at least to volume 5. I look forward to seeing how it all comes together.

The world that Shalvey and McConville have built is so rich that I wouldn't mind continuing it indefinitely. On the other hand, maybe they've learned from looking at, say, Saga, or Fables. There is something to be said for taking your huge epic and array of characters and bringing it to a conclusion. You can't really maintain high-intensity drama for thousands of pages; you just end up with episodic melodrama.

Warren Ellis: The Authority
I first met the Authority through a crossover with Planetary. I’ve slowly been finding volumes and finally got the first one, written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Bryan Hitch.

First, what is it? The Authority is a super-team led by Jenny Sparks, “the spirit of the 20th century”… she was born on Jan. 1, 1900 but stopped aging at 19. She’s had a lively career, aided by power over electricity. The other members are Jack Hawksmoor (who has special powers deriving from what city he’s in); Swift (she flies, mostly); the Engineer (has nine pints of nanoparticles she can arrange at will to create clothing, guns, machines, even clones); the Midnighter (para-Batman); Apollo (sun-powered para-Superman, also Midnighter’s lover); and the Doctor (a shaman).

The particular conceit of the book is that the Authority are planet-level superheroes: they are powerful enough to stop an entire invasion of Earth. Which they do about three times in Volume 1. A typical threat: an entire alternate Earth is ruled by humans and aliens who want to conquer our planet for, um, unseemly reasons. It takes just four issues to stop them.

As befits beings taking on cosmic threats, the Authority are pretty cavalier about property damage… though they always help clean up afterward. They have none of the old-school DC squeamishness about killing. They also have a certain social conscience– they believe, at least, in making the world a better place, using superhuman technology to help the world, etc. And though they grew out of a UN group, they don’t really answer to anyone.

And how is it? In brief: I like it, but I don’t love it. I don’t think the book entirely works. Why?

First, it’s actually pretty difficult to tell stories about near-deities. Only world-level threats will work, and the ones Ellis comes up with are pure fantasy, thus hard to relate to. To justify the ultraviolence, they are completely evil; but that’s ultimately not very interesting. The villains in his other works, Planetary and Transmetropolitan, are far better creations.

Second, I think Ellis does best with a single protagonist. Transmetropolitan focused on Spider Jerusalem, Planetary on Elijah Snow. They had character arcs, they had personal goals, they discovered things, they had opinions on what they saw. This gave these works focus and motivation. By contrast Authority tries to talk about the whole team, but no one gets much airtime, no one really gets a personal story, no one is changed by what happens. We don’t even get to know Jenny Sparks very much.

And related to the first point, Jerusalem and Planetary were both underdogs. Their opponents were far stronger, so they had to be far cleverer. The Authority has only enough bad moments to make its stories four issues long.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad– the characters are all likeable, they do their jobs, they wisecrack entertainingly. Hitch’s art is appropriately grand, so we can believe in these super-mega-threats. Maybe it would have worked if Ellis had had the time to build these people up for a mini-series each. Or allowed either the humans or the villains more humanity. There’s more pathos and feeling in each standalone issue of Planetary.

Ironically, the Planetary-Authority crossover works better than most of the actual Authority stories, because it gives us both an outsider’s perspective, and a hint– a version of the Authority from another alternate Earth– that shows that Ellis was well aware of the thin line between protecting the planet with no oversight, and taking it over.

Since I have kind of an ultra-left sensitivity these days, I have to warn you that a few of Ellis’s ideas haven’t aged well. There’s a terrorist leader who’s a Fu Manchu clone, though maybe this is more the artist’s fault. The Engineer uses her nanomachines for clothes– which means she has a shiny metal body but is basically nude… well, superheroes and superheroines are basically drawn naked anyway, just with painted-on clothes, but it’s kind of adolescent. And the alternative-Earthers are nasty sexual abusers, along the same lines Alan Moore uses way too much.

The second volume was mostly written by Mark Millar. I read it first, and found it kind of bombastic. It doesn’t really solve the above problems– except in one story arc where the Authority is completely defeated and replaced by the G7 nations, using a redneck cyborg supervillain with 1200 superpowers. I mean, OK, kudos for creating a situation where the Authority faces something that actually makes them sweat. But the details are even more problematic. P.S. they do get their revenge.

The Authority is now owned by DC. Reading their Wikipedia page, like reading that of most long-running comics, is kind of depressing. The tendency with any media property is to just keep it going, replacing creators when needed. And that may create some great works! But the assemblage makes less and less sense.

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