Meaningless Landscapes: G. Willow Wilson’s and M.K. Perker’s 'air'
We believe that a map—a symbol—is something we dream up to represent a real place, real people, real things. That’s not true. The maps, the symbols, are dreaming us.
—Amelia Earhart, in air #6
As the world has become effectively smaller, the apparent differences between individual places have also diminished, reducing the variety of cultural landscapes and human experience to interchangeable tract houses, big box stores, and chain restaurants. This is what political scientist Benjamin Barber calls “McWorld”.
Opposing that tendency is “Jihad”, or, the militant and exclusivist assertion of local difference against the homogenizing consumerism of McWorld. For Barber, the (post)modern world is shaped by the tension between these forces, which are nonetheless paradoxically linked, both politically and in practice (think ethnic separatist suicide bombers whose last meals might include Coca Cola and KFC, or someone who attends a Wal-Mart protest while drinking Starbucks).
G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker locate the opening narrative for their new Vertigo series, air, in these tensions between the apparent homogeneity of the “global village” and human desires for a world richer in meaning.
air is about Blythe, an acrophobic flight attendant. As the series begins, she finds herself entangled in the rivalry between the Etesian Front, whose self-proclaimed mission is to take “the skies back from terror”, and Zayn, a man of indeterminate nationality with whom Blythe becomes romantically involved. The initial story arc ends with the heroine beginning to discover the power of her own mind to remake the world.
In the first two issues, the events in air are largely set in airports and airplanes. So, while the book is peppered with references to many different places, what the reader mostly sees are landscapes like this:
Ahbay Khosla at The Savage Critics describes these scenes this way in
When Blythe asks for his “real name”, Javad/Niko/Manuel, offers “Zayn”, a name almost impossible to pin down as far as its origin, a point driven home in one of the final panels of air’s first issue as Blythe and co-worker Fletcher puzzle over a letter with a return address of “Bandho State Prison, Handra, Narimar”. Narimar is a country with no official existence, but its role in the book suggests that Wilson and Perker, while hardly sympathetic to the Etesians, also desire a more meaningful world than the one implied by the placeless landscapes of Blythe’s everyday work life.
In that other world, exotic, forgotten countries are hidden behind the emergent blandness, and “the map is the territory”, or, as Blythe exclaims mid-way through issue two regarding Narimar, “we have to believe it exists in order for it to exist”. The landscapes in front of us may offer nothing but mediocre sameness, but the landscapes of our imaginations still hold greater possibilities, possibilities that exceed both the empty spaces of air travel and the violent reactionary politics of the Etesians.
In the fourth issue of the series, in fact, it is revealed that the Lancaster is not merely a true believer, but is, at the least, also working for a rival to Blythe’s employer, Clearfleet. The object of their contest is a technology that allows travel through a machine that turns the world into a set of symbols that can be manipulated by select individuals, “hyperpracts”, who have a unique ability to interpret the world through those symbols. The real battle in air, it seems, is between the human imagination and the forces of normalization that would level that imagination to the lowest common denominator.
Airports and airplanes are extreme manifestations of a placeless McWorld, and Jihad is a backward-looking form of resistance to that placelessness, but Willow and Perker suggest that we need not be limited by those choices. In air they posit that the only limitations on our imaginations are the ones we impose upon ourselves.