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The Massive vol. 4: Sahara

January 26, 2015

Barring a spectacular last-minute turn-around, I think it’s safe to say that Brian Wood’s latest creator-owned series is going to finish without ever having lived up to its potential.  The story of environmentalists trying to survive and hold onto their beliefs in a post-environmental crash world was certainly a promising setup.  Yet Wood kicked things off by breaking down his characters before they could even be built up in the first place, and we had to settle for being told about the events of the Crash rather than being shown it as it happened.  Another questionable storytelling decision was also made in the previous volume when a supernatural aspect was added to one of the book’s characters.  To the writer’s credit, he doesn’t shy away from the supernatural here and plunges ahead with it in a way that’s going to make about as much sense as it could in the context of the series.  As for everything else, well…

The thing with Wood’s decision to start the series where it did is that “The Massive” has really felt like the back half of a series that we never got to see the first half of.  Events like the mystery of what happened to the title ship and Ninth Wave leader Callum Israel’s slow decline into irrelevance and death fall flat when we’re not given much of a reason to care about them beyond the fact that we’re told that we should.  This feeling carries over to the first story in this volume, “Bloc,” which involves Callum and his security head Mag Negendra’s confrontation with Arkady, their former partner in the Blackbell private military contracting operation and the closest thing this book has to a main antagonist.

Things begin with a genuine shock that propels Callum and Mag onto a collision course with Arkady and his agenda.  Along the way, Callum ditches his partner but winds up coming face to face with Yussup, the Russian hacker who downloaded the data from the Massive’s transponder back in vol. 2.  It turns out that Yussup has been trying to decode this data ever since and he’s made a very surprising discovery about this info.  The hacker is also in Arkady’s pocket and has promised to deliver Callum to his nemesis.  Meanwhile, Arkady has his own plans to get Mag on his side for this endeavor.  They involve simply telling the security head the truth about the head of Ninth Wave.

Oddly, the low-key build-up to the final confrontation with Arkady works in the context of the story.  The character has received a limited amount of build-up in the previous volumes, with his relationship to Callum and Mag clearly identified.  However, he hasn’t been much of a presence up until now so playing up the event would’ve felt disingenuous.  Arkady may be the antagonist here, but he winds up functioning better as an agent of change for the relationship between Callum, Mag, and the rest of Ninth Wave, while also heralding the series’ conclusion by bringing Yussup and his data into play here.  As a bad guy, he’s strictly second-rate.  The man is driven only by a generic desire for money and power and prone to making villainous speeches when he should be paying attention to what his audience is up to.  It’s actually kind of appropriate to see his grand plans undone by one of Mag’s memories.  For all of his grand ambitions, Arkady is ultimately nothing more than an annoying little ass.

There’s also some interesting discussion of Mary in this story which effectively confirms that there is some kind of otherworldly aspect to her.  Just about all of it comes from Yusup, his data, and the questions he puts to Callum about the woman’s past.  The questions offered by the captain are interesting to observe after the hacker calls him on his responses, noting that they reveal more about the man than the woman.  It’s then that you see Callum has been completely blinded to the reality of the woman he loves by her role as a confidant and supporter for his cause after all these years.  Everyone else is simply dumbstruck by this news (which makes them acceptable audience surrogates in this matter too) with the story ending with a revelation that potentially ties Mary to the Crash, setting up the title’s finale.  I still think that the decision to involve the supernatural in a series that started off as trafficking in grounded scientific speculation has resulted in a story where its moving parts actively grind against suspension of disbelief.  They still do here, but there’s something to be said for the acknowledgement of this in the narrative itself.

That thread continues in the next arc, “Sahara,” which shifts the focus squarely onto Mary.  After disappearing in the previous volume, we find her in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia working with the women there and several months pregnant with Callum’s child.  When word goes out that women are being hired for the purposes of guarding a gigantic water caravan across Northern Africa to Morocco, Mary signs on for the job.  Not out of any real desire to safeguard the transportation of the water itself, but to ensure the safety of the women involved.

Right off the bat, the idea of a group of women working security on this convoy, to protect it against threats from within and without, is a compelling and progressive one that immediately grabs your attention.  While I have my doubts about “The Massive” working in other media without some real changes to its overall structure, this arc in particular would make for a great stand-alone movie.  It has action, with the threats from sandstorms, bandits, and men in the convoy with their own agenda, while also putting forth that the women are just as capable of handling these threats as men.  I’d pay to see that movie.  Wouldn’t you?

Where the arc falls down somewhat is in Wood’s use of Mary.  She’s effectively fulfilling the role of the badass leader who holds everything together and knows all the angles as well as how to manipulate them best for her benefit.  This is fine in the beginning when Mary and her comrades are dealing with things like the schemes of their tanker’s driver and a surprise security inspection, as it’s easy to believe that fast-talking and quick thinking would be able to defuse these issues.  Her actions become less credible as the threats escalate and I’m honestly surprised that the men listening to her didn’t put a bullet in the woman’s head rather than take everything she said at face value.  This does give the story a happy ending, but not one that feels properly earned.

Regular series artist Garry Brown provides the art for “Bloc,” and while his style has always had a rough look to it, that aspect is more pronounced here.  Maybe it’s because he had already drawn the previous six issues of the series prior to this, but the artist’s work looked more sketchy than usual here.  He still manages to convey the action and tell the story well enough in the end.  “Sahara’s” art is provided by another artist who has worked on the series and with Wood in the past, Danijel Zezelj.  He provides solid work throughout his arc, giving the proceedings a haunted look that complements the danger of the job at hand well.

Ultimately, this is one of the more successful volumes of the series.  It took an idea that could’ve completely sunk it and made it work to the point where it didn’t completely destroy my suspension of disbelief.  That’s an achievement in and of itself.  Even so, my ongoing issues with the series persist.  I’ll be back for the final volume, but it can’t lay any claim to being “eagerly anticipated” at this point.

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