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‘The Massive #16:’ Advance Comic Book Review

Brian Wood’s socially-conscious action-adventure story kicks off the initial installment of the anachronistic “Longship” arc this issue. Wood and regular series artist Garry Brown pick up aboard the Ninth Wave Marine Conservationist Direct Action Force command ship, The Kapital. The crew is venturing deep into the North Sea territory, where post-Crash society has degenerated the technology and basic infrastructure to an interesting point, altering the very way of life. The inhabitants of this region have basically returned to primitive subsistence fishing in order to survive. Ninth Wave’s origins are rooted in combating illegal whaling operations, so, naturally, this brings them into conflict with a small fleet of newly manufactured Viking longships(!) helmed by a guy named Bors Bergsen.

It’s important to note how fully realized Bergsen’s character is, despite being newly introduced. He isn’t some mindless, post-apocalyptic rogue you’d find on the way to Thunderdome; he’s known to the crew of The Kapital specifically but is also generally infamous for having a less-than-stellar reputation on the former world stage. Bergsen was a successful politician and businessman pre-Crash but also a radical thinker and a savvy street fighter, capable of adapting and surviving, just the kind of man you’d largely expect to find in an extreme leadership capacity post-Crash. Callum Israel and Bors Bergsen now find themselves on opposite sides of this centuries-old whaling tradition, ready to go to war over basic philosophical differences about their respective places in the world.

When you think about it, this is a crazy conflux of seemingly unrelated elements, Viking Age longships, modern-day technology, an ethnically diverse global cast, combined with a near-future post-apocalyptic setting. Brian Wood found a way to take an era he’s fascinated by, one he researched extensively for his 50-issue run of Northlanders, mines some of the man-against-nature residual energy and the ethos of paradigm-shifting times that title held, and weaves it into his globetrotting treatise on environmental sustainability. Garry Brown, in turn, found a way to convincingly pull off this eclectic menagerie of images. One of the best examples of this artistry occurs early on while whale hunting. The scene is full of harpoons and shotgun blasts, diluted crimson blood in the icy water, all with a backdrop of the brown hulls of the longships. It’s an inspired way to compose all of these disparate elements into being a translatable scene from raw script to final printed page. Brown chisels his figures with deep cuts and harsh wrinkles in their worn faces, the times taking their toll. There’s an aesthetic spiritual weariness to these characters and their flat flashbacks that’s only intensified by the smart palette of colorist du jour Jordie Bellaire.

What’s particularly striking about this script from Wood, aside from the crisply articulated sustainability debate it contains, is the subtle intelligence that pervades the story and the dialogue. Wood provides a compressed glimpse of Ninth Wave investigating the overt sale of minke whale meat and tracing it from an open-air market in Reykjavik, Iceland, all the way back to Bors’ little village of Blackstave. There are also crafty, little writing flourishes that shine, such as Callum’s ability to recall the name of a dead wife, the way he seamlessly converts kilos into pounds, the drop of more mysterious Mary clues with Rhodesia, and, most importantly, he presents both sides of an argument in a way that never descends into didactic preaching condescension. It’s rooted in characterization. It’s just two men debating an issue over Lagavulin Whisky in a way that is experiential and not expositional.

Bergsen’s quest to live with a preindustrial methodology and create a community more in harmony with nature, the kind of balance that may have precluded Mother Nature’s “Hard Reboot” with The Crash in the first place (at least that’s what we think at this point. Wood promises the cause of The Crash will be revealed by series end.), is not unlike the quest Cal finds himself on. Both men are searching for a new identity, a new purpose, an existence which puts them in a place where they’re no longer afraid to look at themselves in the mirror, in shame of what they’ve become. They’re two men who may be so alike without realizing it that it puts them on this collision course, going to war with each other in the ideological sense, as much as the physical. Maybe a man fishing just to eat is not the scourge of the environment. Maybe he’s doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. For Bors, a single whale from a plentiful stock represents food for a month, with nothing wasted, and nothing threatened in terms of the species being endangered. For Cal, killing whales stands in cut-and-dry opposition to everything Ninth Wave stands for. The two men are intersecting and catching each other at a very precarious time, neither willing to back down for two very different and powerful reasons, sheer survival and existential dilemma. In short, this is a good example of why I like Brian Wood’s writing. It just has a depth to it that I find severely lacking in most other books.

The difference in worldview that the story confronts is one that even divides the crew. Ryan and Lars see a black and white “core mission” issue, maybe it’s their youthful idealism, maybe just a product of their experiences. Mag sees the shades of gray in the situation and calls into question Cal’s skewed perception, but without Mary around to possibly back him up, he’s quickly outnumbered. But, the most pertinent factor is that with Cal’s waning health, he’s so determined to do something, to do anything, that he sees of lasting value. It’s perhaps become a misguided attempt at action, even as Mag and Bors plead with him in their own ways to just let the big-picture insignificance of this transgression go. It establishes an interesting potential showdown. Bors has home turf advantage, which basically compensates for most of his old equipment. We’ve seen both Bors and Cal display savvy tactical skills. This essentially puts them on equal footing as they try to outmaneuver the other. Bors calls it correctly, setting the stage for potentially brutal consequences. Callum Israel is “a man out of time,” a statement both literally and figuratively true. Grade A.




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