Up to this point, I’ve found Rick Remender’s work to be a bit of an outlier in terms of how the company-owned/creator-owned comics paradigm is supposed to work. You’d think that most creators’ best work is seen in the titles that they own themselves, but his “Fear Agent” eventually degenerated into an increasingly depressing slog to the point where I gave up after getting to vol. 4. Conversely, the man has written one of the most entertaining runs of superhero comics in recent memory with his stint on “Uncanny X-Force,” while the first volumes of “Captain America” and “Uncanny Avengers” both got off to entertaining starts. Now that he’s a more established writer than in his “Fear Agent” days, Remender is giving the creator-owned angle another shot with his Reagan-era assassination school series “Deadly Class,” and this title, “Black Science.” Even with the energy he invests in the storytelling and the fantastic work of artist Matteo Scalera and colorist Dean White, the series never really struck me as more than a high-concept mix of “Sliders” and “Fantastic Four.” Then something happens towards the end of the volume which got me invested in the title’s future in a big way.
Grant McKay and his team have created an amazing scientific breakthrough. They call it the Pillar and it can travel between realities with a virtually unlimited amount of worlds to explore and secure resources from. As Grant is also the man whose brilliance is equaled only by his neglect of his family, he decides to bring his son and daughter along on the inaugural trip only to have it interrupted by his scheming boss Kadir and the man’s assistant Chandra. This leads to the Pillar becoming damaged as it now jumps through the eververse at random intervals with no clear way to stop it.
The premise itself is right out of that late 90’s/early 00’s series “Sliders,” as our protagonists are sent jumping through worlds in the hope that they’ll get lucky and finally arrive back home. Only here the worlds are far more fantastic, with the first one they encounter being a dark swamp-world occupied by humanoid fish and frog-men with the latter having electric tongues as their primary means of attack. Their next jump takes them to a crazy sci-fi mash-up of World War I being fought by German and Native American forces with advanced robotic weaponry and even what appears to be magic. Though the next worlds aren’t quite as insane as this one, they make it clear that so far Remender isn’t short on imagination when it comes to thinking these things up.
As for the “Fantastic Four” influence, well, Grant is clearly a more driven Reed Richards who gets those closest to him in a round of “science gone wrong.” Only instead of giving them superpowers, his efforts lead them fighting for their lives with no clear direction home. Using him as an axis, his girlfriend Rebecca (and not his actual wife) is Sue Storm, Shawn, the only African-American and person capable of telling a joke in this series is Johnny Storm, and burly security man Ward is Ben Grimm. What about Dr. Doom? Kadir fills that role, more for the fact that he and Grant met in college and immediately found themselves at odds than any kind of parity in their scientific minds.
Even if Remender is borrowing liberally from other sources, he does a good job of fashioning something new and interesting out of them. As I said before, the worlds visited in this volume are very imaginative that at least suggest the potential for comic series of their own based on what we see of them. The exploits of the characters in these worlds, however, is delivered at a very high level of energy with almost every moment of the first few issues threatening to devolve into overkill. Remender gets around this through the flashbacks to the crew as they were building the Pillar and the methodical, almost laid-back tone of the narration which creates an interesting tension between how these words are being conveyed and the action on the page.
This is all good, but you’re able to see what appears to be the entire scope of the series early on. Grant’s going to struggle to do right by his kids and his crew to get everyone home, Kadir and Chandra will be unscrupulously evil and not get caught, and there will be a new danger on each new world people encounter. This is what I thought “Black Science” was going to be about, and while that sounded fine based on what I had read so far, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would eventually become too predictable for its own good and it’d wind up taking the same route as “Fear Agent” with things getting progressively worse for the cast past the point where I could be forced to care.
Then I got to the final issue in this volume and my expectations were completely upended. Remender gives us a ballsy twist that completely changes the nature of this title and throws a huge wrench into the “Fantastic Four” comparison I made above as well as my predictions about what this series was going to be about. Yes, everyone will still be jumping from dimension to dimension, but Kadir and Chandra have far more interesting roles to play now. It does mean that the title’s future is going to hinge on how well Remender can humanize this bastard. He does make some headway here in having the man relate his first encounter with Grant and how they fell out, but this guy was introduced to us as a Grade-A dick so it’s going to take a lot more work than this. Still, I like the idea of what he’s trying to do here so I’ll definitely be sticking around to see if Remender can pull it off.
Even if I had some misgivings about the story, I had none regarding the art. While I wasn’t too impressed with Scalera’s work on “Indestructible Hulk,” he redeems himself in a big way here. The crazy worlds and their distinctive inhabitants are vividly realized on the page, and even if they all have some basis in reality the artist makes these roots seem so far away as we see Grant battle electric-tongued frogs and Ward square off against a mechanized army of Native Americans. Everything Scalera gives us in this volume is memorable in some way, though I doubt that it would’ve looked as nice without White’s colors. While the present-day coloring is appropriately normal, we get some very vivid schemes in the rest of the volume as the man was clearly inspired by the look of sci-fi in the 70’s with its deep purples and oranges. White’s work makes the already-great art look better and the result is one of the most visually stunning titles I’ve seen so far this year.
Based on the work of Scalera and White, this title probably could’ve coasted for a while on being a good example of style over substance had it stuck to its initial setup. Yet with that last-act-twist, Remender really got me invested in the fate of the cast and the new character arcs that lay ahead of certain people. It has left me eager to see what the future holds for the protagonists of “Black Science” in a way that few comics in recent memory have.
Enough to make me consider buying the title in single issue format as opposed to waiting for the trades? HA! Tempting, but no. I’ve yet to read a comic that good…