Mr. Vertigo Reviews 24: Strange Attractors; Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Vol. 2: Secrets of the Dead; Severed

Strange AttractorsStrange Attractors

Charles Soule’s OGN Strange Attractors (a hardcover from Archaia) was published just as he began to get high-profile writing assignments like Swamp Thing for DC. He has sole creator credit, but there is a large creative team: illustrated by Greg Scott; cover by Dan Duncan; colored by Art Lyon & Matthew Petz; lettered by Thomas Mauer; and Complexity Maps by Robert Saywitz.

The story has an intriguing premise: Heller Wilson is a brilliant mathematician who is looking for inspiration to complete his thesis, which involves using chaos theory to explain how New York City recovers from disasters. He tracks down Dr. Spencer Brownfield, a disgraced academic who did early work on modeling and manipulation of complex systems. Brownfield takes him on as an assistant, then proceeds to show him how he uses mathematics to operate on reality. He claims to be actively manipulating things to help the city to repair itself.

Wilson is convinced that Brownfield is a genius, but he’s not so sure of his sanity. His daily actions are a series of seemingly random activities: he releases a rat in a diner to get it closed down for health violations; throws paint on the sidewalk to disrupt a crowd; moves trash around in Central Park; and so on.

Wilson’s thesis is rejected, his girlfriend Grace leaves him–his life is falling apart. When Brownfield tells him that the city faces a major crisis, Wilson refuses to help. He has seen Brownfield’s file on him, and realizes that he was being manipulated. Brownfield begins the operation alone. When he succumbs to the heat, the police find a note telling them to call Wilson, and that he will know what to do.

Wilson (who has reunited with Grace) decides that he’s seen Brownfield’s theories work too much to ignore the call for help. Brownfield left a large cash reserve, so they hire a group of volunteers and set the plan into motion.

Really exciting climax, as the whole group completes their tasks on schedule. Wilson himself makes a mad dash to finish the last one…then just when it looks like the adjustment is over (but the reader knows there is still a major unresolved problem) he saves the day by following his instincts. And there’s one final surprise, as he fully inherits Brownfield’s mission. It’s a great story, which reminds me why I like self-contained graphic novels. Soule tells a complete, original story with a satisfying ending (although I suppose that sequels would be possible).

Although the visual artists do not get co-creator credit, Soule praises them in his Introduction. The Complexity Maps used in the story are a potent visualization of the complex mathematics that underlie the story. Creator Robert Saywitz gets a few pages at the end of the book to explain the process of their creation, complete with process examples. While there have been stories in many media referencing the Butterfly Effect, Soule doesn’t mention any specific artistic inspirations in his Introduction. He does make a lot of the love of New York City shared by him and his collaborators. So it’s a kind of reverse of Brian Woods’ Vertigo series DMZ, which showed the city in collapse, even though the love came through as well. In Soule’s vision the city may always seem to be teetering on the edge of one form of collapse or other, but there’s a scientist guardian angel “keeping this marvelous machine going.”

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Frankenstein 2Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Vol. 2: Secrets of the Dead

The second (and final) Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. collection leads off with the last two stories by departing writer Jeff Lemire. They are far more consequential than two single issue stories would normally be. In “The Spawn of Frankenstein” Frankenstein and Lady Frankenstein seek their child (the result of a DNA combination by S.H.A.D.E.) who they had thought long dead. It turns out that the mutant had been kept alive without their knowledge, a revelation which shakes the morale of several members of the cast. In the end Lady Frankenstein must kill the child, and resigns as a S.H.A.D.E. agent. “Animal Tracks” begins the tie-in with the Rotworld story line (although the “Rotworld” logo doesn’t appear on the cover until Issue 13, four issues later). The organization comes to San Diego to investigate the disappearance of Animal Man, along with his family and the San Diego P.D. detective they last had contact with. Frank and Nina (a fish woman who reminds me of Abe Sapien of B.P.R.D.) find the detectives body, and soon find themselves under attack by the rot. It takes a Black Bomb (which atomizes any living thing within range) to neutralize them.

New writer Matt Kindt debuts with Issue 10, Part 1 of “Son of Satan’s Ring.” No sooner has a  S.H.A.D.E. librarian told Frankenstein about rumors of a ring of traitors called “Satan’s Ring” than he finds himself attacked by deadly insects called Scare-Eb Agents (gotta love the names in this series). They’re usually employed by S.H.A.D.E. for covert assassinations. So Frank and a group of Creature Commandos head out to the extra-dimensional Fourth Cloud to track down rogue agent Crowly.

This book is such an insane mess of monster madness that I’m really sorry that this collection will be the last of it.

The remaining two parts of “Son of Satan’s Ring” seem a bit rushed; I wonder if the end of the series wasn’t already being planned. Kindt hurries the narrative along  by having Part 3 told in the form of a briefing for Father Time, which allows for brief exposition of action that would have taken many more pages to tell in first person. Frankenstein arrives in the Leviathan, the source of the mole; quickly learns what is going on; kills the Leviathan; and averts a disaster at the S.H.A.D.E. headquarters in the Leviathan Graveyard. In the end he has an army of allies, ready to face the return of his creator Victor Frankenstein, who has “brought the Rot back with him.”

Despite the rush, there is an interesting subplot of Frank experiencing flashbacks tied to the lives of the humans who donated his body parts. There are a number of these little flashback panels (done in sepia tones so it is clear that they exist outside the current action) that appear before there is any explanation, which I thought was a subtle bit of story telling. The writer transition is quite seamless as well: there’s no change in the tone or the dialog. Lemire and Kindt have switched off in the past (even on Lemire’s creator-owned Sweet Tooth). Kindt continues the clever use of acronyms, e.g. P.E.E.P. (Psionic EKG Extrapolation Program) and D.R. H.I.D.E. (Dermal Reconaissance Hiding for Influencing Disguise Expectations).

Victor’s return leads directly into the 0 issue, “Meeting His Maker,” which tells Frankenstein’s origin story (DC Comics Proudly Presents: Before the New 52! trumpets the title page). It reveals a lot about Dr. Frankenstein’s technology, shows how the monster discovered his humanity, and ends with Frank killing Victor and meeting the then-current Father Time to be recruited into S.H.A.D.E.

Which takes us to the three part “Rotworld: Secrets of the Dead” story arc. The entire world has been falling into rot while Frankenstein has been underwater on the Leviathan. Frank has unique status as a living being who is invulnerable to rot (he is already dead, after all, and was created using “unnatural science”). So both S.H.A.D.E. and the Red are looking to him for help. Over the course of these issues he and his fellow Creature Commandos travel the globe seeking the parts of Victor’s soul-grinder machine. The parts are hidden inside giant creatures called Collosi, which offers lots of opportunities for epic monster battles. In the end the small S.H.A.D.E. band assembles the machine, and use it to defeat Victor, as well as to create an army that is also rot-resistant. At the end of Part 3 we are told “Thanks to Frank and his army, the Red and the Green were able to return the world to order. See Animal Man Vol. 3 and Swamp Thing Vol. 3.”

I guess that could be regarded as an enormous spoiler, but then again this is comics. I haven’t read those other collections yet, but I felt pretty certain that the Rot was going to be defeated somehow. It’s the details that matter, so I’m still looking forward to reading those stories.

The last issue “The Monster Bomb” shows the entire S.H.A.D.E. team back in action, looking alive and restored to normal. Which is also a spoiler of sorts. But I’m glad to see them back, even though their story is over for now. DC could have killed them all off, which is how things were looking at the end of the “Rotworld” arc.

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SeveredSevered

Severed reprints a 2011 seven issue Image miniseries, co-written by Scott Snyder & Scott Tuft, with art & covers by Attila Futaki. There’s been considerable fanfare about Snyder’s recently announced Image project, but this one appeared about a year after American Vampire debuted, and before all of the even higher profile work that followed. Tuft’s prior writing experience was in screenplays, while Futaki is best known for the graphic novel adaptation of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

It’s a horror story featuring an especially horrific monster, a man with razor-sharp, shark-like teeth who apparently eats people and sometimes steals their identities. The hero is twelve-year old Jack Garron, an adoptee who has run away from home to join up with his birth father, an itinerant musician.

As the story opens we meet Jack as an old man. He receives a letter that reminds him of how he lost his right arm, and the story proper begins in flashback, in the year 1916. While Jack runs off and jumps a train, the man calling himself Mr. Porter picks up an orphan at an orphanage, promising him an apprenticeship. Jack soon finds life on the road difficult, but the orphan is in far worse trouble. Porter reveals his true nature to deadly effect. We are spared the actual murder scene–this is not the print equivalent of a splatter film–but the end result is horrible enough.

Jack and his road companion Sam (short for Samantha; she’s passing as a boy) discover that Jack’s father has gone south, and begin busking on the street to earn train fare. Inevitably they meet Porter–now going by the name Alan Fisher, who he murdered–and accept his offer of a ride.

Futaki’s style is well-suited to the turn of the century setting. He’s more of an illustrator than a cartoonist. I can imagine a stylized horror artist like Ben Templesmith illustrating the story, but this flatter, realistic look conveys its own sense of dread.

Samantha remains deeply suspicious of the old man. Jack assures her that he trusts her, and the two share a kiss. This marks her as doomed in any standard comic book plot, so I was disappointed when things played out just as expected. It leaves Jack and Fisher as traveling companions, which certainly focuses the dramatic conflict. On the road Fisher reveals his violent side when Jack becomes entangled with a prostitute and her pimp. And as the two are packing, Jack discovers his wallet in Fisher’s luggage, a major indicator that Fisher has been lying to him.

Convinced of Fisher’s evil intent, Jack confronts him and cuts him with a knife. He escapes in their car and heads for the address of his father’s house, sure that he has given Fisher an erroneous address that will throw him off the track. Instead of a reunion with his father, he is met by Fisher. Turns out that Fisher had lured him there from the beginning, using information he found while picking up his earlier victim at the orphanage.

Fisher has already removed Jack’s arm when Jack’s foster mother Katherine arrives, brought there by a letter from Samantha (so she gets a little revenge from the grave). Fisher drugs her, but in the meantime Jack has gotten untied and forces him into the basement. The pair is about to escape, but Jack returns to the house to finish Fisher once and for all. He leaves the house ablaze, which should be the end.

But remember that letter that launched Jack’s trip down memory lane? It contained the charred remains of his father’s photograph, which should have been consumed along with Fisher and the house. Jack runs outside into the sunshine–nice shift from dark shadows to bright daylight in the art–and loses track of the old man in a crowd. It is a final reminder that some things cannot be explained, and pure evil is still out there somewhere.

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About marksullivan5

Librarian, Jazz musician, comic book fan
This entry was posted in DC Comics, graphic novels, Image Comics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mr. Vertigo Reviews 24: Strange Attractors; Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Vol. 2: Secrets of the Dead; Severed

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