Wednesday, 30 May 2012
Resident Alien #1: Reader's Roulette 2:2
There's a difference between confidence and cockiness, just as there's an obvious distinction between ingenious marketing and at-best carelessly misleading salesmanship. As if one or more of writer Peter Hogan, artist Steve Parkhouse and editor Philip R. Simon had been determined to test just how compelling Resident Alien #1's opening scene would be, the very first panel of the very first page of the title's supposedly very first issue closes with the following declaration;
"Nope, our story doesn't begin here. You need to read Resident Alien #0 before reading this."
Is this an experiment of some kind? Faced with this, will the innocent reader see the accompanying panel of a woman aiming a rifle and (a) read on, (b) wait before finding and consuming the preceding missing issue, or (c) rip the whole comic in half in frustration at the snakeoil-saleman's audacity of it all.
It's hard to think of any other popular, or even would-be popular, medium which would reward the curious punter for their not-insignificant investment of $3.50 with such a staggeringly insensitive assertion. But then, it's hard to think of another group of consumers who so habitually swallow such shenanigans that they've not even - as far as I can tell - mentioned this particular example in the blogosphere. Yet who'd be able to avoid feeling more than a little irked if, for example, they'd shelled out for a movie, settled into their seats and then been faced with an announcement that there was another film that they really ought to have paid for and watched first? Who'd put up with a book that begins with chapter two and a warning that another tome ought to have been purchased and processed beforehand, or with a single that cuts in only after the first chorus, and so on? Only in comics would we find anything so casually, and no doubt unintentionally, contemptuous of the customer. Is it presumed that there's no such thing as a casual reader anymore? Are we all supposed to anxiously research our books before we buy them, so as to avoid being deceived by that only-apparently unambiguous statement on a comic's cover promising that this is "#1 of 3"? Well, it's not, is it? "#1 of 3" is actually "#2 of 4", and $3.50's a lot to be handing over on faith for a comic which is already well under way. Was it simply assumed that the comic shop which carried Resident Alien #1 would also stock back-issues of the vital opening issue too, and that the reader handing over their dosh would have somehow noticed the short-change in set-up and felt more than happy to double their investment just to catch up with where every indication had promised they'd be in the first place?
Mine didn't, and I'm not.
It's a thoroughly bad business, and with the origin/pilot component of Resident Alien having already been told, it suggests that creators and/or publishers really aren't thinking too much about the folks who might actually be buying their product. Still, in the impossibly unlikely event that it was all designed to test whether a furious reader might still find themselves enjoying Resident Alien #1 under such infuriating conditions, my contribution to the research data is that this furious reader still did. With no little reluctance and a keen sense of vexation on my part, the unnamed tale - titles are apparently passe this season - still managed to charm and intrigue. There's a brief what-has-gone-before blurb on the editorial page which lends a skeleton of what the tale's opening chapter involved, which is broadly helpful though entirely unmoving, and the chapter itself is skillfully written so as to not depend on the reader knowing anything other than the events on the page. Yet those of us who came late to the party might care a great deal more if we knew how the alien "Doc Harry" came to have fallen to Earth before being pitched straight into a murder hunt for a serial killer. And yet, despite that, Resident Alien #1 still stands as a quietly compelling, gently-paced fish-out-of-water sci-fi thriller, in which an extra-terrestrial with the power to appear human attempts to uncover the truth of the murder of a rural everytown's well-loved doctor.
Resident Alien could so easily be lumped in with the recent wave of comics apparently designed to primarily appeal to the investment programmes of film and TV producers, real or wanna-be, but any such suggestion would unfairly imply that the comic was more of an advert for a property than a story in itself. Though it would seem hard to imagine that it wasn't designed to appeal as an optionable conceit, Resident Alien's also as sturdily-constructed a comic-book as the market's seen this year. As such, the most considerable part of its value as an advert for itself lies in the fact that it's a tale that's exceptionally well-crafted. There's a complete absence of easy melodrama on the page, with the plot side-stepping the short-cuts of violent excess and soap-operatic melodrama. Instead, the plot is carefully judged so that the pace of events gathers almost inconspicuously from the off. Most of the tension comes from off-stage, from events reported and interpreted second-hand in the various duologues which the comic's structured around, which means that character as much as plot is given the space to breathe.
Our resident alien "Harry" himself is a wonderfully subdued and yet involving point-of-view character, as new to the town of Patience as we are, although he's of course also a first-stepper when it comes to the Planet Earth too. Perhaps most impressively, the very empathetic quality which allows Harry to intuit truthfulness in those he meets also overwhelms him when he's faced with crowds. It's a brilliantly useful plot-twist, since it means that the story's living lie-detector is also forced to be absent whenever groups of potential witnesses and suspects are together. Simultaneously central to the truth of events and peripheral as an outsider to the society of the town, Harry's perfectly placed to be chasing answers while being excluded from many of the situations where it might be found. Frustration is matched against power from the off, and there's a vulnerability as well as an unearthly set of capabilities which leaves the visitor participating in and yet never dominating events. We can't stop watching Harry, because he's the only one who seems likely to forestall the disaster that threatening the townsfolks, but we can't help worrying for him as well.
In a tale of every-people set in an every-town, Steve Parkhouse's art works admirably to lend every character and setting its own distinct personality. In a book that's largely constructed from small clusters of individuals locked in private discussions, he succeeds in generating pace and emotion where others might mire the pages in talking heads. Even in a scene such as that between Harry and Nurse Asta, where little happens for four pages beyond the making of a cup of tea and a gentle chin-wag, Parkhouse captures the eye with the consistent and telling body-language of the characters combined with camera-angles which never allow the eye to either rest or purposelessly shift around the page. Asta's anxiety subtly shows itself in the way in which her left hand is in constant, unconscious motion, Harry's determination in the apparent calmness of his surreptitious interrogation. Today's media so often struggles to accept that fictions can be told about women and men who aren't in the first flush of hormone-saturated youth, but here Parkhouse's art creates unique and sympathetic characters from Hogan's untypically all-ages cast. There's a sense of individuality and, through that, dignity given to the men and women of Patience which, it's sad to note, is incredibly rare in the modern-era comic book. In the most unshowy and yet precise and story-focused fashion, Parkhouse brings to life the members of a community which would elsewhere be most likely presented as nothing more than a gaggle of types. It may seem pedantic to note, for example, that each of Parkhouse's cast has a unique and characterful nose, and it hardly sounds like the most overwhelming of praise. Yet it's not until the reader notes how carefully the artist pays attention to the essential detail as well as to the overall sense of the work that his achievement really becomes obvious. Otherwise, as with so many of the finest craftspeople, the virtues of the artist's work remain modestly unobtrusive while the storytelling serves the narrative rather than its creator's ego.
The only substantial disappointment to the pages which follow that dubious first panel is to be found in the generic nature of the town of Patience itself. It exists as one more of those characterless, backwater, semi-urban pit-stops which are so common in American visual fiction. It lacks any specific aspects of culture to lift it from stereotype into a more convincing and fascinating backdrop to events. It's America as portrayed straight from central casting, and although it's charming and well put to use, it lacks the characterful and eccentric allure of a location as specific as the North Dakota of Fargo or the Washington of Twin Peaks. In time, the reader might even start to note that there's a certain absence of verisimilitude in a world which lacks those markers of distinctiveness which characterise all real-world small communities. From road signs to turns of phrase, it would've been invigorating to get a better sense of Patience as a vibrant society rather than an efficiently crafted stage-set.
The thing about being a stranger in town is that it's easy to get the wrong idea of what sort of place it is. Persevere with Resident Alien beyond the hubris of that opening statement - about first issues which aren't anything of the kind - and what appears is a tale that's entirely involving, endearingly smart, and, despite its generally familiar set-up, thoroughly enjoyable. No, it doesn't pay to jump to conclusions, but then, it's not helpful to be rude to strangers who don't know how ultimately well-intentioned you might be either.
Reader's Roulette Rating; A smartly-told captivatingly-illustrated chapter of a story which sadly started quite a way before this particular reader took his seat.
Tomorrow, a look at the new Ultimate Spider-Man, and then the remaining Reader's Roulette reviews from last round.