Published by: DC Comics
Written by: G. Willow Wilson
Art by: M.K. Perker
Welcome once again to a new edition of Newsarama’s occasional team-review feature, presented by the staff of Best Shots. This edition, Jamie Trecker and Sarah Jaffe review the new Vertigo series Air, which shipped its third issue to stores earlier this month.
Written by G. Willow Wilson and drawn by M. K. Perker, who penned last year’s well-received graphic novel, Cairo, Air follows the adventures of an acrophobic flight attendant named Blythe. Loosely based on East Asian history and Wilson’s own experiences as a writer on Middle Eastern issues, Blythe’s life takes a left turn when she is swept into a conflict between two shadowy groups fighting for control of a mysterious object inside a country that has somehow ceased to exist.
Air has evinced some strong reactions from our panelists — Sarah loves it while Jamie is less-than-thrilled — so with that, we’ll turn the floor over to them:
Jamie Trecker: I’ll say right up front that I think Air is a mess. It’s got some fun ideas, and it has some very good dialogue, but that’s where it ends for me. I can’t make heads or tails out of the plot, if there is one; the characters seem like stick figures, and the art isn’t picking up the slack. I’ll get more specific after Sarah has her say, but I have be honest and say I think this title is a real disappointment: The kernel of the idea is pretty cool, but this team isn’t clicking or getting them across.
Sarah Jaffe: Wow, I couldn't disagree more. I got sucked right into the first issue, intrigued by the idea of a flight attendant scared of flying and the idea of a kind of in-flight right-wing vigilante organization plays right into my conspiracy-theorist streak. I like Blythe, and I think straight from the first issue you get to watch her grow and develop. Her backup cast is rather flat, but this is a story about Blythe, not an ensemble book. In the third issue we get a bit of a twist on Zayn as well. Wilson throws a wrench into things after spending two books making us believe that he's trustworthy.
The story is zipping along, and I must confess I have no idea where she's going next, but I'm fascinated. The idea of a country that doesn't exist on maps--well, it makes me think about the nature of information and how much we trust what we hear and read about parts of the world we've never seen. I think this book has amazing potential.
I'm liking the art as well. I think the light hand compliments the story, though I do notice a lot of the panels have very little or no background and I think in a book like this that is so much about place and its meaning, there should be more emphasis on the settings.
JT: Ok, well let’s go down the list. One of the things you like is the pacing of the story, and I happen to think it’s the book’s biggest weakness. I’ll agree with you that the story is zipping along, right enough… but to what effect?
I feel like we’re getting hit by a series of ideas that individually are quite compelling: The idea of a flight attendant afraid of flying is a fun start; and I like the mythical land of Narimar, which supposedly disappeared off the maps after the Partition of 1947 (which resulted in the creation of modern Pakistan and India.) The problem is, none of them stick. The first issue alone is cram-packed with action… but none of it follows any sort of real-world logic. For starters: if this radical and self-described “anti-terror group” is trying to test Blythe and see if she can be recruited, why do they load a suitcase full of incriminating documents? And, since this group has large tattoos on their hands (!) that mark them as members, why does Blythe’s would-be savior Zayn need to set her up as bait in the first place to find out ? Couldn’t he just have looked down and said, “Ah, tattoo. Etesian Front. Well done.”
SJ: On this question, I read it as Zayn was trying to get them to out themselves to Blythe--and I think that it's meant to be fairly obvious to the reader that he's not telling her the entire truth. We get more than a hint of that in the third issue, where he hides from her in the prison rather than having the glorious lovers' reunion we might be expecting from the first two books. And the Etesians as well--they were trying to see if they could use her as a courier, not necessarily recruit her to their cause.
JT: Well, I would agree with you except for one thing: A courier wouldn’t be meeting the same person who gave her the suitcase. Also, The Etesians say specifically to Blythe that it was a test. I’m apparently not the only person who noticed this flub and I’m wondering if this was an edit mistake.
This also plays into the structural problems I see with the book. The first issue begins with an arresting image of Blythe and (one of) her mysterious acquaintances parachuting out of a crashing airliner. Then we flash forward to the aftermath of the crash for a page… and then back to before the crash occurred. Neither Wilson nor Perker — who are copping a technique used to good effect on Lost — communicate these time shifts well, making it difficult to figure out just what is happening, and when. I think Wilson’s intent is to make the reader feel woozy, which is all well and good — but you have to be able to pull it off, and she doesn’t.
SJ: Exactly--and I think the effect is rather good, actually. Blythe is thrown into this strange world and is suddenly trying to piece the story together, figure out whom to trust (of course the rational answer is "no one," but then we'd have no drama).
JT: I’ll buy that… but it doesn’t work for me. It would have if things had been given more time to develop. Again, this comes back to the structure and the pacing of the book. In a lot of ways, the first three issues feel like the work of a novice, eager to get all the pieces out on the board at once. This is a technique that someone like Grant Morrison has used to superb effect, and of course foreshadowing and salting stories is a tradition that goes back to the Bard. What Morrison learned from Shakespeare is figuring out how things are going to end, and then working backwards. A book like Doom Patrol is memorable not because of the plots — which were clever and fantastical — but because Morrison made you care about his characters even as he moved them through strange worlds. A book like the team-written 52 stands out because the guys put all the clues in your face from the get-go… but got you so wrapped up in the characters you didn’t notice them until the end.
Just throwing a torrent of ideas at a reader doesn’t make one care about them. I finished up the first three issues and still don’t have a good reason to care about these characters. That’s in Wilson’s lap, I’m afraid — Blythe is a stick figure just being moved through a series of situations, and I think your comment about it not being an ensemble book is actually the most damning. This IS an ensemble book; we have already seen seven characters of varying importance. And yet not one of them remains memorable.
SJ: Just because we've seen seven characters, though, doesn't make them all important. When I think of an ensemble piece, I think of Scalped, say, where as the book goes on we get into the heads and hearts of all of the major characters, where the villains get their backstory and motivations explained as well.
Air and Blythe are closer to DMZ and Matty Roth. Even though DMZ has a large cast of characters, you see the story through Matty's eyes and learn as he does what's going on. Blythe is the same--she's our eyes into this world, and she's as clueless as we are, but learning on the fly. (No pun intended.) Of the other characters, only Zayn thus far is truly a major character. We've got assorted baddies and a couple of sidekicks, but no one else with motivations and real thoughts and feelings.
It does feel a bit sped-up, but it doesn't really bother me. I think Wilson's taking the series from micro- to macro-level quickly--from the personal drama to international political intrigue. I do agree with you that the most important thing in any sort of storytelling, comics or prose or even journalism, is making the audience care about your characters, and maybe slowing the pace down a bit would help with that.
I do feel like Wilson is still getting the hang of the medium--at times there's more telling than showing. Still, there isn't room for much of a learning curve with a series like this. It's super high-concept and plot-driven and maybe if it's given the space to breathe, we can get some real feelings out of it. But it feels like maybe it was written with the knowledge that it might already be on the chopping block.
JT: I think that’s an excellent point, Sarah. Air’s sales are lousy, and it’s a big disappointment for a book that did enjoy a pre-publicity campaign and some buzz. I think it has bigger ramifications for the medium as a whole, too.
Wilson is not a long-time comic creator — she’s a freelance journalist who is admirably trying to broaden her scope. Some have slagged her off as a dilettante because of that, and I’d like to say that that’s monstrously unfair. She clearly has an interesting voice and a great deal of knowledge, and to my mind she’s exactly the kind of person who can breathe some new life into the medium.
But if she doesn’t getting the time to develop that voice and find a stride, she’ll be hard done by. That hurts her career and it also hurts us out in the audience. In the old days, when comic books were bigger — and overhead costs were smaller — creators were allowed a little more rope. Mr. Morrison didn’t emerge fully-formed, after all — he had a long apprenticeship in British comics writing a variety of genre stories before he found his voice. The same is true of other Vertigo creators like Fables’ Bill Willingham (who used to draw as well as write, for Comico); David Lapham (who toiled at Valiant) and of course, Neil Gaiman.
What would have happened had Willingham gone no further than Elementals? Or if Morrison had been stuck writing Tharg’s Future Shocks? What if David Lapham had been stuck doing Valiant’s house style? There’s a dozen good books right there that never would have seen the light of day.
I do think Air has problems. It also has some redeeming qualities — as I mentioned, the dialogue feels natural and I think the ideas are sound. And Narimar sounds like a neat place — let’s explore it a bit more. I’d like to see Wilson slow down and give her story a bit of time to expand. After all, it’s worth pointing out that Swamp Thing took umpteen issues before Moore came on and made it a classic. And it took Morrison a number of issues to rekindle the magic from the Arnold Drake era Doom Patrol.
SJ: Absolutely. I think Wilson also gets extra-slagged for being a dilettante, frankly, because she's a woman. It always seems that the assumption is that women aren't real comic fans. Also, with names that few people recognize on the cover it can be a hard sell to the comic market, which on the whole tends to want to know what it's getting.
I fear that when one book by a new female author fails, it chills the market for others. And let's face it, Gail Simone is still the exception, not the rule. I think the people at Vertigo know that they sell more books to women than the rest of the comics industry, but a lot of those women don't go to comic shops weekly. I wrote about Air for BUST magazine's website and got an excellent response.
Also, Vertigo books tend to sell better in trade anyway--which sucks, because it means good books get cancelled before they really get to find their audience. A really excellent book like Scalped still has iffy sales in single issues. It seems that Vertigo is working on that problem with their increase in original graphic novels, but what do you do with an ongoing series that is doing fine in trade but lousy in singles?
I think you've put up some valid concerns about the book, but on the whole I'm still a fan and I'm hoping it will get a chance to find its footing. It really is an interesting idea and I don't want to see it gone or Wilson to get written off because it didn't leap out of the box to huge numbers.