Advance Review: 'The Massive' #21: Prescriptive Moments and the Rule of Threes

A comic review article by: Justin Giampaoli

What I’m about to say has little to do with the review of this specific issue, but it’s something I wanted to say out loud. I’ve been wondering what the next phase of Brian Wood’s career in comics is going to look like. I only know of one new creator owned series he has cooking at this point, but think about it, his 25-issue run on Conan The Barbarian recently wrapped, his 20-issue run on Star Wars will apparently wrap according to contract around August of this year, and The Massive will wrap at a planned 30 issues, which puts the final issue somewhere around December. I’m curious to see what’s going to be in the line-up moving forward, which has traditionally been a healthy mix of creator owned and licensed properties.

Anyway, fellow CB’er Keith Silva and I have written before about The Massive and applied The Rule of Three to the series. That tertiary structure remains a central conceit here, in a series that’s built on three-issue arcs, with exactly three of those three-issue arcs left to go in the run. Wood confesses flat out in this issue, using everyone’s favorite Russian Bear, Yusup, as a cipher to explain, that the three central mysteries of the series are inextricably linked: What happened to The Massive? What caused The Crash? What’s up with Mary? That’s it. That’s the ball game, folks. I love that, for the first time, the Ninth Wave command staff, Cal, Mag, Lars, Ryan, and now Yusup himself, all have a very direct conversation about this connection. It’s a direct moment from a writer who sometimes catches flak for not being very direct, and letting the audience interpret the open-ended. It’s a prescriptive moment, from a writer who usually favors subscriptive means, so you know it’s important.

I was given the opportunity to see an uncorrected proof of the book prior to it being colored. It knocked my socks off. From a technical production standpoint, it was cool to see Jared Fletcher laying down the lettering. To some degree, it’s always interesting to see the “horror” of how the sausage gets made, especially if you’re a process junkie like me, to see speech balloons initially attributed to the wrong speaker, or sound effects originally drawn by the artist deliberately enlarged by the letterer for greater impact, and to imagine how the writer, or even the wannabe editor in me, would give feedback to the rest of the creative team regarding small tweaks at this stage of the process. However, the best part of this peek behind the curtain was seeing Garry Brown’s work in black and white. It was startlingly good.

Before I get too deep into this thought about black and white art, let’s not give short shrift to Jordie Bellaire, who is one of the best, and most prolific, new colorists working in the industry today, and turns in the type of commercially polished product you’d expect. But, sometimes the glory of full color can change, not for better or worse – just different, the look of inked art by tamping down the energy of unfettered black and white, obscuring some of the wild wisps of ink. There’s a rawness underneath the beautiful color that reveals why Garry Brown is the type of artist that Brian Wood gravitates toward, much like his affection for the work of repeat collaborators like John Paul Leon or Danijel Zezelj. These guys all like their ink, and sometimes it’s best appreciated sans color. There’s power and purity in black and white, which is unique to itself.

In the San Francisco flashback, Brown nails the types of walk-ups you’d see out in the Sunset District, as Cal tracks down Mary after meeting her in the Blackbell PMC era on an oil platform in the North Sea. Brown gives the characters hard lines on their faces, pushing on Mary’s ability to read Cal’s genuine intentions, or the terse conversations between Cal and Arkady with heavy religious imagery as a juxtaposed backdrop. For a series constructed on threes, where I’m constantly tempted to draw Holy Trinity correlations, a European cathedral is about as perfect a setting as I can imagine for this denouement. Brown’s unencumbered black and white shows how inclement weather falls unevenly, or how an embattled city like Prague is exemplary of the history of European warfare (with the help of some omniscient narration from Wood, almost a holdover from the newsfeed in DMZ, the spiritual precursor to The Massive). Brown gets the close-quarter details so clear and correct; last issue it was Mag suddenly dropping the mag of an assault rifle, here it’s Cal slipping off some zip-tie handcuffs as he and Mag work Arkady with synchronized subtlety.

Mary intimates that we all have our own histories, and that foreshadowing echoes what’s to come, the ripple effect of personal histories that will play on the present. I especially liked the dialogue in this issue, not only because it starts to answer some of the questions – or initiates the right conversations at least, but also because the characters act like adults trying to resolve conflict with other adults they either fear, respect, or care for. They’re not petulant kids or silly capes who kick and curse and spit and call each other motherfucker with empty bluster. The conversations between Cal and Yusup, or Cal and Mag, or Cal and Arkady, there’re so many choice options to pull from, are all direct and reasonable as the Arkady plot thread gets resolved. Dealing with history allows the crew some forward motion. Cal does a deed, admits he was wrong, is direct about his health, and there’s something of a new beginning fomenting with a revised mission and a new player, yet there’s still the lingering hook of that triple-entwined central mystery left like a narrative bomb on the final page.

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