On Saucer Country # 1 & 5
Saucer Country #1 suffers because of a problem with its inciting incident. What is it about the story climax in #5 that remedies the situation?
Forget about the UFOs and the politicking just for a moment. They're the playing fields, but they're not ultimately the game. Instead, Saucer Country: Run is concerned with how individuals respond when the certainties of their lives are cruelly taken away from them. It's a theme which, quite deliberately, isn't made absolutely explicit until the conclusion of the comic's opening arc, where an ad-hoc meeting of the exhausted Governor Alvarado's closest advisers appears to have collapsed into unhelpful theorising and mutual alienation. As Professor Kidd is made to understand that he's exhausted the patience of a roomful full of weary colleagues, the narrative gives every impression of grinding towards a downbeat ending. With just five pages to go, it appears that our cast of potential allies will be left disorientated, drained, and disunited at the story's end. It would, after all, be a way of closing Run that would make perfect thematic sense. Individuals do tend to buckle when faced with an avalanche of what might be either paradigm-undercutting Forteana or purposefully distributed misinformation. Alliances do have a habit of imploding when faced with circumstances which resist rational analysis and defy conventional solutions. Why shouldn't Saucer Country: Run close on such a fundamentally dispiriting note?
There's no doubt that the reader's been lead to suspect that such a disheartening resolution might be on its way, and that process of shaping and misdirecting our expectations only intensifies as the end of the comic approaches. And so, there's a deliberate and quietly forebodding contrast that's established between the scene of the bullish and thoroughly unpleasant Major Abramowitz's bar-room plotting on page 5:14 and the lack of leadership and unity being shown in the meeting at the Governor's Mansion which immediately follows on 5:15. (See scan above) But then, having skillfully emphasised the lethargy and disharmony of Alvarado's situation, Cornell suddenly presents the moment of empathy and inspiration which Saucer Country's been surreptitiously crying out for;
Harry: "Professor -- we've all had a long night --"
Joshua: "Then let me finish with the most important point of all -- walks to Arcadia -- I'm very sorry that you were tortured."
Alvarado turns and, her eyes closed, gently embraces the surprised Joshua.
It's a brilliantly unexpected and tenderly underplayed moment. Kidd's the most recent member of Alvarado's inner circle, he's been profoundly insensitive to her ex-husband, and he secretly believes that he's being guided by strange, self-proclaimed "magic helpers". As such, he's the last person we'd expect to find publicly expressing regret for the incarceration and rape which the Governor has recently suffered. Yet he's also the only member of the cast who's studied the phenomena of supposedly alien encounters, which means that he's able to draw a clear distinction between the uncertainties of the struggles ahead and the suffering which has already been caused. He is, in this one moment, the most typical of Cornellian protagonists, in that he's learned something of how circumstances have changed and set out to help folks think more clearly about the complexities of the situation they're facing.
In showing Kidd reaching out to Alvarado in this way, Cornell's confirming that Saucer Country isn't a typical, if conspicuously well-made, invading-ET conspiracy yarn, in which defeating the fiendish Other is the major topic of concern. Instead, Kidd's compassion and Alvarado's response signals to us that the comic's fundamentally concerned with the way in which the individual's sense of self can be whittled away and ultimately destroyed by lies and manipulation, abduction and torture. The first and last priority in the war against the "alien", we're being reminded, is to make sure that we help each other remain securely human, and Alvarado is far, far too smart and emotionally literate not to recognise the truth in what Kidd's attempting to tell her.
Or the winning of a war can be an interesting and exciting matter, but the challenge of staying decent-hearted while working to help others do the same is a far more moving and inspiring business.
It's not until we reach this moment of tenderness and surprise that it becomes obvious how little physical intimacy and good cheer we've seen being expressed by Saucer Country's cast so far. We've noted Alvarado touching Harry on the shoulder to make him pause for a moment, of course, and she's reached out for Michael's hands or touched him reassuringly on the forearm while their bodies are safely well apart from one another's. We've even had the pleasure of seeing the reprehensible Dr Glass being utterly outmaneuvered by the sharp-thinking Governor, but that's a scene warmed by schadenfreude and relief and little but. Yet when Alvarado stands and holds Kidd, we're presented a warmth of sympathy and acceptance that isn't in any way restrained or conditional. It's at that moment that everything that we've previously seen in Saucer Country becomes recast in a quite different light. Held back by Cornell until the very last feasible moment, the scene functions as a turning point leading into what McKee would call the story climax, which he defines as the moment towards the end of a tale when an extreme situation suddenly becomes transformed into its exact opposite. In doing so, it sweeps up the audience's "heart" and redefines what the story's about. Here, Cornell's presenting us with a reversal which changes a tale marked by bewilderment, loss and panic management into one of fellowship, trust and mission. Before Alvarado responded to Kidd's concern, the cast were dangerously isolated one from the other. Afterwards, there's a sense that they're bound not just through self-interest and loyalty, chance and design, but through their membership of an accidental and yet all-too-real community.
And because Cornell has held back so much of the emotion of the story until its climax, its arrival affects us with all the released tension of a necessary moment long delayed.
Ever exceptionally keen to emphasise how vitally important the conclusion of a tale is, Robert McKee writes in Story that;
"Once the climax is in hand, stories are in a significant way rewritten backward, not forward."
What McKee's arguing, of course, is that the writer who's identified their tale's climax then has to go back and make sure that everything - everything - which comes before contributes directly to it. Yet if the climax of a tale is smart and moving enough, then it can inspire the reader to double-back and reconsider what it is that they've been experiencing. Before reading the final act of its final chapter, Saucer Country had felt like a smart book with a somewhat mysteriously constrained emotional range. Well worth reading, and yet odd unsatisfying in a hard-to-specify fashion. Now, in the light of Kidd's transformative gesture of sympathy, the story seems to have been describing a group of people who really weren't often sure what to think or feel anymore. The sense of dislocation and dissatisfaction which the story suggested even as it held the reader's attention is now absent from the page. What were once vices are now clearly rewarding set-ups. Even the problems which accompanied the decision to start Run after its own inciting incident can now be seen as a deliberate strategy to ratchet up the longing in the book for a moment in which the protagonists began to take some measure of control over their own destinies. As such, it seems clear that the reason why Saucer County: Run occasionally felt like a rather unhappy book about a strangely rootless cast is because that's exactly what it was about. And it stayed that way right up until its final few pages, when Cornell has Alvarado declare that she refuses "to be powerless" again. At that point, everything that's gone before clicks satisfyingly into place.
|The absence of Michael from this last frame before Run's epilogue is a rather worrying business. "You're part of this now" he's told by his ex-wife, and yet he really doesn't seem to be.|
It's been an incredibly brave strategy, and Cornell's just not received the recognition he's due for so patiently and skillfully set up the final chapter's moment of quiet catharsis. Though Run is always pacy and full of character and incident, it's a comic which is far easier to admire than warm to until Alavarado starts acting pro-actively in the story's last few pages. The pleasure of finally seeing the Governor and her co-conspirators joining together without any conspicuous friction in order to organise the good fight is one that's only intensified by the long wait for it, or something as satisfying as it, to occur. Cornell's strategy of delayed gratification means that the Governor's embrace of Kidd need only be a gentle moment in order for it to carry a considerable, story-redefining force. To engineer such a moment with such precision and effect is an admirable technical achievement, and yet how courageous and confident would an author have to be, to leave such a vital moment of hope, energy and purpose so late? These are hard times in the marketplace, after all, and audiences for new books have been lost for far less.
How it was that Cornell and Kelly succeeded in keeping their readership engaged while holding back so much of the tale's heart and forward-momentum will be the topic of this post's third and soon-to-arrive final part.
I've only discussed Mr Kelly's art briefly so far, but should anyone ever get down to this point on the page, I'd like to assure you that his work will be discussed in far greater and appreciative detail next time;