Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Malachi Ward: Vile Decay and Top Five/Sweet Dreams

Malachi Ward is one of the preeminent science fiction cartoonists working today. Though his work is unabashedly genre-oriented, its attitude and inspirations clearly come from the world of alternative comics. This week and next, I'll take a look at some of his comics.

Sweet Dreams/Top Five. This is an interesting flip book that's about science-fiction tropes, sleep and fantasy. Sweet Dreams is a first-person narrative about a man with a slightly oddly-shaped head who doesn't dream that he was abducted by aliens; instead, he dreamed he was the alien abducting people! With just one or two panels per page and an all-black background, it would seem that the comic might be frightening. Far from it, as it ends with the man (now in classic alien "grey" form) kissing his former abductee on the forehead. What's funny about the story is that despite being the alien and going through his process, there's still no explanation as to his goals or reasoning behind probing and examining humans. It's every bit as opaque in this fantasy as it is for those who claim to remember being kidnapped.

Top Five, the other story in the flip book, is a story about grim survival with a first-person narrative that tries to take the protagonist's mind off his situation. He's an explorer on another planet who thinks about Star Trek minutiae in order to pass the time and deal with grueling physical labor as he struggles to make it through each day. There's an urgency to his fantasy life that goes into details about things like the top five time travel episodes of Star Trek that supersedes the urgency of his dull but frightening everyday life. Whereas the man in the first story has the luxury of pretending he's an alien, the spaceman in the second story retreats into fiction as a means of keeping his sanity. Both men dream of a different life for different reasons. This story has a rigid four panel grid that de-emphasizes the exotic nature of a foreign planet, instead putting the reader right into the heart of the man's boring work rituals, again and again. While the images tell the story, they do little to tell the story of the man's inner life, which is told almost entirely through text. In both stories, the actual drawings serve to tell the story in a mostly naturalistic style, but in neither case are they designed to draw a lot of attention. It's the page composition and panel set-up that do all the heavy work here.

Ritual #3: Vile Decay is the latest issue in Ward's running series with Revival House. The approach is radically different in this comic, as the reddish pinks dominate everything, including line. The story is indeed about decay, the decay of time and narrative, and the fragility of the line contributes greatly to the way the story works. Using a simple 2 x 3 grid, the story starts with a father and son walking around the beautiful canyons of a desert, with the father telling a story of a family going to visit a city. When they approached the city, a mob overtook them and did horrible things to the man's family. The moral of the story is that there was no moral; "Everything just gets worse" and "That's why you don't go into the fucking city, boy." Then the whole environment was revealed to be a hologram. Flash back to the man remembering being in a political protest with his girlfriend that turned into a riot, and then the boy is revealed to be a hologram as well. Then theres's another flashback to a few years after the riot, when everyone there talks about the incident. The political urgency of the moment is replaced by one of intimacy rotting away, as the couple is no longer together in the future, and they're with different partners. The former girlfriend of the protagonist in particular seems resentful of this in the sense that she created this powerful narrative with her former boyfriend, but it wasn't enough to keep their relationship a living, vital thing. Seeing the sun come up, the last few pages are all about her thinking about the sun, a seeming constant but also in a state of decay. She literally thinks about past sunsets and time passing, as she seems lonely and isolated. Whether in the past or in the future, Ward seems to suggest, the characters in this story all die alone.

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