Travelling Man's Blog


Graphic Novel Spotlight: The Massive Volume 1: Black Pacific by Travelling Man


The Massive

Volume 1: Black Pacific

Written by Brian Wood

Art by Kristian Donaldson and Garry Brown

Colours by Dave Stewart

Lettering by Jared K. Fletcher

Chapter Art by J.P. Leon

Published by Dark Horse £14.99

There’s an old Peter Gabriel song that’s sort of haunted me over the years. Here Comes the Flood is a beautiful, minimalistic piece, just his aching voice and a piano, crammed full of lyrics which seem to imply that not only has the world ended but that what comes after it is peaceful and sad. It’s one of those pieces of music, like the Jeff Buckley song that TV shows and movies will roll out time and time again when they want to push the MAKE THE PEOPLE SAD button. Which is great because it means if you’ve ever seen Alias (And you should), you’ll have heard it but also a little irritating because songs can get over used.

Here’s the link to the song. Go listen it’s great.

That plays in the back of my mind a lot every time I read The Massive. Written by Brian Wood, an author who splits his time these days between being one of the most interesting authors in the X Office and being one of the most interesting authors everywhere else, it follows the crew of the Kapital. The Kapital  is a fairly small trawler and one half of the Ninth Wave fleet. Ninth Wave are environmentalists who like direct action and have no problem recruiting former extremists. Cal Israel, the lead, is one, a former BlackBell mercenary turned devout pacifist. Mag Nagendara, his closest friend, is another, a former Tamil Tiger and BlackBell operator who followed Cal to Ninth Wave but remains the ship’s combat specialist. Finally, Mary, Cal’s partner, is a Ninth Wave veteran with a brutally pragmatic view of the world, balanced by a profoundly, surprisingly deep religious belief in the sea. These three are the Kirk, Bones and Spock of the series, the head, heart and mind of the crew of the Kapital.

One year ago, the world ended. A series of inconceivably vast events ranging from colossal earthquakes to tsunamis to a pulse that knocked every surveillance satellite in orbit out of the sky, erased cities, changed coastlines and killed countless people. The Massive and the Kapital, Ninth Wave’s flotilla, escaped the damage and were attempting to offer help when the Massive disappeared in a storm. The Kapital has been looking for her ever since, and the story of that search, forms the basis of the Massive.

This is a bleak book and that feeling is communicated the moment you open it. There are two stories here, each named for the region the Kapital is in when they take place. ‘Landfall’, the first story sets the tone, with Kristian Donaldson’s precise careful art and Dave Stewart’s very smart colours. The world is drenched in the gentle blues and greys of marine life and there’s not one visual fudge to be seen; every piece of equipment, every piece of clothing, every character looks like it’s worked for a living at sea and has done so for some time. The true genius of the colours however isn’t apparent until the flashbacks start. Wood continually explores the year of the disasters in pages of three, wide expansive panels, each one focusing on a different event and each in a washed out, almost sepia tone. It’s beautiful and terrifying in equal parts as we see container ships capsized by horrific waves, see oil fields burn and satellites fall from the sky. The world end by degrees as the sea rises and takes Ninth Wave with it and their witnessing of these events almost kills them. The book never loses sight of the human cost of events and one of the most telling panels is nothing more than Cal, head in his hands, with Mary’s arm around him. This is the world the ends, so fast and so huge that anyone who witnesses it is never quite the same.

That sense of human frailty, and strength, in the face of massive changes lies at the heart of the book. Cal is a fascinating lead, a peaceful warrior who has no problem giving Mag a kill order, on the condition every possible attempt has been made to resolve things peacefully. One of the best stories in the book, ‘Black Pacific: Mogadishu’ focuses on him as we see Cal negotiate them safe landing rights with a Mogadishu warlord, talk down an old BlackBell mercenary friend and indirectly answer a question that shows just how much the ocean has changed. He’s an endlessly gentle, softly spoken man but there’s incredible strength there that Wood makes sure to always show us. Special mention must also be made of Garry Brown who’s scratchier style is as suited to the ‘Black Pacific’ stories as Donaldson’s cold lines are to ‘Landfall’. The ‘Black Pacific’ stories are an examination of the simple day to day things the Kapital’s crew has to do to survive and also serve as excellent character spotlights. Mag and Mary are as well-served as Cal, the final full length story in the book, ‘Micronesia’ opening up some wonderful ambiguities about just what side Mag is on. He persuades Cal to let him take another crewmember to examine, and steal from, an apparently deserted container ship. Mag is under no illusions about the ship being occupied, takes weapons, kills people and then lies to Cal on his return. What makes the story truly great is it’s implied, very strongly, that Cal knows what he’s done. Mag may be a hypocrite, but he’s allowed to do this sort of thing because Cal can’t let himself anymore and that’s incredibly interesting ground to base a relationship on. Allies, friends and increasingly ideologically separate Mag and Cal are two of the most compelling characters to hit comics for some time.

However, it’s Mary who will probably fascinate you. We don’t learn anything about her other than her name and her dedication in this volume and it gives her incredible presence. She has a natural authority that draws your attention to her every word and Wood, interestingly, isn’t afraid to have her express unpopular opinions. She’s been raised largely outside Western culture, like Mag, but unlike Mag is quite prepared to point out when Cal is thinking like a rich westerner and the danger that puts them in. This comes to a head in ‘Black Pacific: Antarctica’. It involves Mary taking Ryan, the only American on the crew to a private research station. There, a corporate borehole has been drilled to the freshest, and some of the oldest, water on the planet. These days fresh water is a commodity, so Mary and Ryan set out to take a look at the base and see what sort of condition it’s in. The first half of the book consists of Ryan complaining, Mary taking her to task and the book getting disturbingly close to being preachy, something it’s previously been careful to avoid.

Then two things happen. The first is that they find the base is far from deserted. The second is Mary and Ryan being called on to do something genuinely terrifying to survive.

Twice.

The scenes at the borehole are the hinge the story turns, the crisis moment which will make or break Ryan forever and she…excels. And Mary notices and gains a new found respect for her. The issue is almost entirely focused on two female characters, discusses their differing ideologies, places them in a massively threatening (And resolutely non sexual) situation, sees them excel and closes with both reassessing their opinion of the other all in the space of twenty plus pages. It’s not quite a perfect piece of drama but it can see it from where it is.

The book is rounded out by three short stories, originally in Dark Horse Presents that, again, focus on one of the main three characters in turn. These all flash back to crucial moments for each and these three stories appear to hold clues for where the series will go. In 1994, Cal’s life is changed forever when he’s the only apparent survivor of a rogue wave hitting an oil rig (By the way rogue waves are real and the single most terrifying thing I’ve seen in a while). Mag’s story is set in 1984 and features both a near-death and completely inexplicable experience for him that may be very important later in the series whilst Mary’s story, set in 2012, sees her lost overboard during a direct action. When she’s found, she’s completely serene because she knew it wasn’t her time; the ocean still had need of her. Mary has no last name, no past and no family outside the men and women of the Kapital. But she has faith, and that’s a rare commodity in the post disaster world.

Similarly, The Massive is a rare thing in modern comics; a book which is as fascinated with science and politics as it with character and action and equally adept at all four. Wood’s script is typically great, balancing the lightest touch of character with brutally effective action, Stewart’s colors are an essential part of the book’s approach and Donaldson and Brown’s art, complemented by Fletcher’s letters and Leon’s chapter art shows you the tragedy and moments of curious beauty in this new world. The flood’s come, the crew of the Kapital are still here and this is the story of what happens next. Don’t miss it.

Alasdair Stuart

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