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. 

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12 comments:

  1. Ah. I should have mentioned the issue '0' nonsense. That is a very poor introduction to an issue, particularly as 0 seemed like set up that a reader coming in at issue 1 would not need to have read.
    That aside, I'm pleased you enjoyed it (not read 1 yet, so I'm basing this on 0), it features a level of craft that fools readers into believing it's effortless. Fair point about the lack of character to the location, Parkhouse can be very brisk, which works very well from a storytelling POV, yet it does shortchange in a way I don't recall him doing in, say, Bojeffries.
    I mentioned it in the roulette recommends but if you ever spot 'Illegal Alien' by James Robinson and Phil Elliot then give it a look, it's a lovely comic and I found the hook of 'what kind of film would Ealing have made if they lasted long enough to do a sci-fi film' to be utterly charming.... which is why I'm sharing it!

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    1. Hello Paul:- I'm REALLY glad you didn't mention that O issue. I'm fascinated by the way in which the industry sells its product just as I am about the storytelling itself, and I found the whole oh-we've-sold-you-a-book-and-now-we're-gonna-insist-you-buy-another business to be a real eye-opener. A fine example of how the industry just looses sight of what's the right thing to do. And a shame, because I'm sure no-one thought they were doing something daft and unfair. And perhaps they never will. But over at HQ, it read badly ...

      Obviously I can't speak for #0 as you can't for #1, but there was a particularly eye-catching scene of the mountains behind a funeral party in #1. And the storytelling, as you say, is always good. I did wish for a touch more on the page though, some sense that this was a, if not a real town, then one with its own unique flavour. None of which says that the story wasn't well worth the reading, but ....

      I will indeed go hunt out Illegal Alien. You're recommendations are obviously to be trusted :) And if you say "Ealing", then I'm going to imagine Passport To Pimlico with Klingons and that just sounds fantastic!

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    2. Now that I've caught up with issue 1....
      Content wise I liked it fine, refreshingly straightforward and compelling. The scene setting is less of an issue for me simply because despite the generic-ness of the town it's the inhabitants that set it out as being a well observed 'real' place. The backdrop never quite falls into generic for me simply because Parkhouse has a visual reference memory that informs even the most standard of back drops. A little more 'colour' to the town the mirrors the detail of the residents would be nice, but at least it doesn't feel like the backgrounds have been forgotten. That said, I've been re-watching Northern Exposure and am aware that the setting can also be a key character, so who knows how much better Resident Alien could be if the setting was a bit more fully realised.
      I'm afraid you version of Illegal Alien is not the version you would find, but it's close enough that I don't think/hope you'd be disappointed. I was a bookseller for 15 years and I just can't seem to break the habit of recommending things to read!

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    3. Hello Paul:- Thanks for popping back with your views on the next issue along. I fear, reading your words, that I may have given the impression that I thought the lack of local colour in a specific sense was a fatal blow to the book. I don't think that it seriously holed the comic below the waterline, and I did, as I say, enjoy it. And yet, I do still feel that it came across as if it had been designed to exist in a every-town rural USA. It's been many years since I visited America, and yet I was always amazed how the big networks produce series which are consistently "everytown" and "everypeople", and yet everywhere I went in the States had a specific and distinct character.

      Please do recommend away when you pop over this way. For one thing, I welcome your suggestions, and for another, and now that you've said, I rather like the idea of how an expert book-man putting his experience to good use!

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  2. Dark Horse may be stupid, but the reason they published a "zero" issue is because it contained already-published stuff from a few issues of Dark Horse Presents, where this story debuted. So the zero issue was a reprint. It's wildly idiotic, but Dark Horse seems to have decided to court the trade market, and I suppose the "zero" issue will be collected along with the rest of it. There has to be a better way to do it, though.

    You really puzzle me, sir. As you don't review comics every week, it's hard to get a bead on you. I like the Resident Alien prologue that I read in DHP and plan to get the trade, but I didn't think it was better than, say, Mind Mgmt, which you appeared (from your tweets) to dislike. I hope you're going to review it here so I can get a longer explanation of why you didn't like it, but I thought it did everything a first issue is supposed to do. I don't mean you puzzle me in a bad way, of course - it's really interesting reading what you think of these comics. But you're still puzzling!

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    1. Hello Greg:- I think everyone's taste is puzzling, and that includes my own. By which I'm not meaning to sound snarky, but rather expressing a belief that we all tend to hold opinions, great and trivial, which are at one point or another difficult for even ourselves to make sense of. And as far as I can see, unraveling my own tastes - or should I say 'prejudices' - is one of the three reasons why I've written this blog. (The other two being to (1) practise the habit of writing in a more structured manner and (2) to try to gain some small insight into how comics work.)So, I'd hope that I was being honest enough to admit to puzzling myself when it comes to the things I think and feel, even given that does run the risk of puzzling others who're generous to pop over at times.

      My opinion of Mind MGMT isn't in any way a straight-forward "didn't like". I thought that there was a great deal in the comic which was worthy of applause. And I don't intend to dish out a slapping of any kind in its direction. If nothing else, I hope to approach the book in a slightly different way to the reviews I've read, and I've tried to read every one that I could possibly find!

      What I will do - and I say this out of a desire not to puzzle you rather than any sense of self-importance, I do promise you - is try to explain why I think that Resident Alien was a more successful comic in certain key aspects. But in other ways Mind MGMT was an experience I enjoyed, and, as I'm sure we'd both agree, it's a question of apples and oranges anyway; they're not doing a similar thing in a similar way. I hope I can un-puzzle you even if I can't convince you. (Actually, if you liked Mind MGMT, I wouldn't want to convince you even if I could!)

      I'm with you in understanding the many advantages to a "o" issue. Reprinting already paid-for material and therefore generating extra revenue, filling in an audience which hasn't read DHP Presents, creating a measure of buzz; all sensible stuff. But as you say, there has to be a better way of doing it. A reader who thinks they're buying the first issue of a self-contained 3 issue series shouldn't be told - in an entirely unapologetic way too - that the movie's already started and the key back-story has already been established. I don't think Dark Horse is a stupid publisher in any way, but this wasn't a bright approach where it comes to being fair to the customer. I'm certainly not inclined to go back to the "0" issue or proceed to "2" and "3". I suspect I'll get the TPB. It's a good story that's well told. But there's lots of good stuff out there, and I feel, having had a good night's sleep, that my loyalty wasn't secured by the whole business. In a market-place full of terrific books from today and the long history of comics, publishers just can't afford to suggest that they're taking a reader for granted.

      Actually, I have a great deal of fondness for Dark Horse. I usually disassociate myself from any measure of warm feelings for publishers. It's the work and not the delivery system for me. But I must say, Dark Horse have printed so much that I've admired, going back to the days of Concrete et al. It's a shame to find such a presumptuous misjudgment in one of their books.

      Thank you for being my first comment this morning! As you may note in the above, I've been waking up while writing this :)

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    2. Colin: Well, I do like reading contrary opinions to my own, no matter what book it is, because it forces me to consider my own response to a piece of work, so I do look forward to your writing about it!

      I like Dark Horse, too - I think DH and Image are the two best publishers right now and have been for some time - but of course, they're not perfect!

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    3. Hello Greg:- I'm with you on the value of contrary opinions, as I'm sure you know. And your opinions, contrary or not, are very welcome here. It does keep me on my toes in addition to be interesting to have the privilage of reading the comments here, and I'm keen to make sure that what I write on Mind MGMT isn't puzzling, I really am.

      Dark Horse I've always been fond of. Image was never my favourite comic because those early 90s comics werenever my cup of tea. But I've long learned that today's Image is something else entirely. An entirely admirable organisation, it appears.

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  3. Aside from your (entirely justified) anger at the #0 issue business (I would certainly lost my temper too) I'm pleased to see a comic which completely slipped under my radar receive such a generally positive review.

    Like you said to paulhd I too am going to wait for the TPB with this book and, like you said to Greg, I regard Dark Horse highly enough that such an error of judgement (a foolish presumption that we'd all read the hit-or-miss anthology that is 'Presents' or an irritating cash-grab) won't tarnish my opinion of their generally fine output.

    Hopefully we won't have any similar silliness with the new Brian Wood series 'The Massive' starting next month with issue #1 (there's a #0 issue in the works for that too which will also contain content from DHP).

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    1. Hello Ed:- You're right to label the "read the O issue first" business as "an error of judgment". It was a bad move, but it's hardly typical. Not that it made it feel any less irritating, of course.

      And thank you for the nudge in the direction of The Massive. Completely off my radar, and now well-placed on the check-out list. I guess there's no grudge being held, then :)

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    2. I have high hopes for The Massive. I've enjoyed a previous Brian Wood and Kristian Donaldson collaboration (Supermarket) and the premise is one which immediately appealed to my political sensibilities and thematic tastes:

      "Set in a post-war, post-crash, post-disaster, post-everything world - the environmental action trawler Kapital scours the earth’s oceans for its missing sister ship The Massive, while struggling to redefine its core mission. What does it mean to be an activist after the world’s already ended?"

      Can't wait. If superheroes are swerving sharply towards the right it seems - when I think of comics like The Massive and Orchid - as though Dark Horse's creator owned comics might be heading leftwards (although reality has a tendency to resist such easy and sweeping generalisations).

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    3. Hello Ed:- And thank you for continuing to nudge me in interesting directions. I do get there in the end :) Supermarket escaped me, as did the pre-publication news of The Massive. Yet the premise is, as you say, fascinating.

      OK. I'm in!

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