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Unthinkable

Posted: Wednesday, December 16, 2009
By: Danny Djeljosevic

Mark Sable
Juan Totino Tedesco
BOOM! Studios
In Unthinkable, Alan Ripley is a hack novelist turned hack film producer. In the wake of 9/11 he was enlisted by a government project called The Think Tank to imagine potential terrorist scenarios. Eight years later, his scenarios have started to become very real.

Unthinkable got me thinking about comics as a medium, specifically the special place of thrillers and action stories in the form. In a novel, readers would have to trudge through pages and pages of terrible prose to enjoy the twists and turns. In cinema, the scope and intensity of the action is limited by budget constraints. Even worse, because action comics are influenced by movies nowadays, too many of them seem like they're struggling to keep from going over budget.

This notion is patently ridiculous, because you can do nearly anything in comics (except, y'know, create motion). Mark Sable and Juan Totino Tedesco seem to understand this basic fact, so Unthinkable ends up a high-high-concept thriller rendered nigh-unfilmable by sheer scope--packing a half-dozen thriller plots into five issues. They don't need no stinkin' budget.

What I'm saying, of course, is that comics are better than all other art forms--except maybe music. Close call there.

A high-concept thriller about high-concept thrillers, Unthinkable's brilliant premise (a hack novelist devising potential terror attacks for the government) raises questions about the power of ideas. What happens when someone commits a crime based on something he saw in a movie? Who is responsible when a scientist sees her research taken to lethal ends?

Like any good thriller, Unthinkable is steeped in causes and effects that seem realistic. There are attacks on oil rigs, the threat of the Large Hadron Collider, and potential pandemics--all written with a concern for political and global effects.

Since Unthinkable is an action comic, the people who are seeing their ideas used for real-life terror end up taking matters into their own hands. As a result, some very smart people--including our hack protagonist, a microbiologist, a physicist, and an attorney--end up becoming unlikely action heroes save for the bit of training Ripley received in the first chapter. It's shocking these people weren't all killed on their first mission.

Considering the kind of story he's writing, it's almost appropriate that Sable stumbles in characterization. While he establishes his protagonist in the first issue, the other members of the Think Tank are often ill defined until they're on a mission that affords a signature moment to profile one of the supporting characters.

Considering their primary interaction was communicating and brainstorming, one doesn't get a sense of history among most of the group. At best, they're an intellectual A-team--though for how well the rest of the story works I'm willing to forgive some flaws in characterization.

Appropriate for such an unsettling story, Tedesco's art is often dark and gritty but surprisingly versatile. He can render a gruesome full-page spread of soldiers succumbing to a supervirus as well as he can illustrate an elegant full-page shot of a plane about to crash into the Pentagon. He's especially good at rendering clean, slick locations and huge machines like the Large Hadron Collider, which suggests some serious skill as a concept artist. Don't let the movies know about this guy. We need to keep him for ourselves.

Unthinkable is exactly the kind of pop comic we need: one that shows the scale of what comics can achieve over other forms that tell similar stories and, more importantly, one with crossover appeal to court Tom Clancy/Dan Brown crowd. The extra benefit of reading Mark Sable and Juan Totino Tedesco's comic is that Unthinkable is far more thoughtful than the average cheap airplane read. Please, let's not wait for the movie version.



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