Comic Picks By The Glick

Spaceman

February 24, 2013

I check Diamond’s shipping lists religiously each week, so I’m not sure how I missed this collection of the latest collaboration from Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso.  Between their work on “Johnny Double,” various “Batman” stories, and their landmark crime series “100 Bullets,” the two have established a reputation as one of the industry’s premiere creative teams.  Picking up their latest in a deluxe hardcover format was an easy decision for me after I noticed it was on sale.  To give you an indication of how I regard their works, I was worried going in that I’d have to issue some sort of amendment to my “Best of 2012” list.

That concern ultimately turned out to be unnecessary.  Regrettably, “Spaceman” is the least of the Azzarello/Risso canon and it’s all the writer’s fault for a very specific reason.

It’s very disappointing too because the series features typically superb art from Risso and creates an interesting near-future world for the story to unfold in.  We’re not told how much farther in the future things take place, but it’s far enough for large cities on the coast to have been flooded by the rising ocean while giant walls have been erected further inland to contain the threat.  This had led to a robust salvage industry picking over the remains of those cities and its in this profession that the protagonist of this story, Orson, is employed.

Though Orson is working as a scrapman on his boat now, it’s not the job he was born to do.  You see, he’s one of the title characters who were genetically engineered to be stronger and more durable than ordinary men in order to survive the long trips in zero gravity that would allow humanity to colonize planets like Mars.  They grew up to look distinctly cro-magnon, but their careers in space were brought to an end when origins of their program were brought to light.  Now Orson tries to scrape out a daily living, being as inconspicuous as his needs will allow, until the daughter of one of the world’s most popular reality TV couples is kidnapped and winds up in his keeping.

While I consider “Transmetropolitan” to be the gold standard in showing us how the future will actually be, “Spaceman” also has a good deal of that vibe as well.  Its post-ecological cataclysm world may seem like a worst-case scenario, yet also comes off as eerily plausible in the way that no one has taken any real steps to avert it in our time.  There’s also the fact that humanity has found a way to endure and thrive in spite of it, rather than find a solution, which rings true as well.  You’ve also got the way reality TV has evolved into this all-consuming beast where Brangelina-esque couple Marc and April and their host of adopted kids have the world’s most popular series in “The Ark.”  Not only is their world so carefully controlled that cops have to be fingerprinted and sign a contract before they can investigate a crime scene, but they’ve also got plenty of managers, producers, editors and cameramen who view the kidnapping of April as more golden opportunity than tragedy.  Even when the stars try to do the right thing for their girl, the people around them are more concerned with stretching the story out to create the most drama possible.  Granted, that’s probably not too far off from how reality TV operates today, but it’s hard not to see that kind of real-life-narrative-editing taken to its logical extreme here once people start dying.

Risso also adds his signature unsavory grit to this world, making the run-down parts appear dangerous in their decay, and the upper-class levels slickly futuristic.  His characters also emote incredibly well, as always, with Orson coming off as particularly credible in the way he forges a believable bond with Tara and starts to show signs of strain as his situations go from bad to worse.  The many action scenes are also professionally handled with Risso making sure everything flows cleanly on the page.

Now, what went so wrong that it almost completely negates these positive qualities?  As I’ve said in the past, one of the things I like most about Azzarello’s style is the way his wordplay flows.  He can spin a nice turn of phrase, put new twists on how words read on the page and sound in your head, and has a good handle on slang as well.  The problem here is that in creating a futuristic world he winds up pushing his talent way too far.  Right into the realm of self-indulgence.

Near as I can tell, Azzarello figured that a futuristic world should have a futuristic vernacular to go along with it.  So he wound up giving new twists on old words, giving us phrases like, “You brainin loco -- big rubble for you, say?  Law dawgs in hot pursuit!” and “I booby the switches, case of thievers.  My lectrics juiced from a genni hiding in the floor.”  Now not all of the dialogue in the collection isn’t as overwrought as these phrases but a lot of it is.  The end result is that you’re constantly being taken out of the narrative as you try to figure out what’s being said and that a lot of the flow and flavor of Azzarello’s style is lost as a result.  Reading the dialogue as the story goes on becomes more and more of a slog as you see how the writer continues to mangle syntax and diction in the pursuit of vernacular of the future.

Other comics, TV shows and movies have shown that creating futuristic dialogue is something that’s best handled in small doses.  When done right, you get a frakking good example that can worm its way right into pop culture and act as a shorthand for the legacy and overall quality of its source.  Taken too far and you’re left with the feeling that the writers were trying too hard to be clever and the result yanks you right out of the world they were trying to create.  That’s the effect of Azzarello’s dialogue in “Spaceman.”  It could’ve been an entertaining futuristic chase story with some compelling noir leanings and some interesting ideas about the future.  I’ll concede that stuff is there in the finished work, but it’s buried underneath an unreasonable amount of wretchedly overwrought futuristic slang and mangled verbage.  Too much, in my opinion, to make it worth the effort to dig it up.

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