[1 August 2013]
There’s nothing more rewarding than finding a perfectly matched creative team. At times, the collaborative nature of comicbooks is a bad thing. Even good artists working with good writers will sometimes produce bad comics. A lack of communication or understanding between creators or major tonal and/or stylistic differences can weaken a story, make it less clear or less effective. So when you can find a book where the divides between writer(s) and artist(s) are seamless, where everyone is firing on all cylinders in the exact same direction, it’s a treasure. That kind of creative synergy is my favorite thing about Storm Dogs.
David Hine’s scripts are ambitious and difficult to pin down or summarize. The book is a futuristic western crime procedural, a high-tech love triangle, and an intergalactic political thriller. It has action as intimate as a bar brawl and as sprawling as a citywide invasion. There’s fantasy technology, various otherworldly plant and animal species, a sizable cast, melodrama, intense torture scenes…basically it’s a fully-loaded story, and therefore demands a lot of the artist. Doug Braithwaite handles those demands deftly for all six issues.
What makes Braithwaite the right choice for this series isn’t just his ability to bring the same level of detail and care to everything, from tiny space slugs to massive spaceships. It’s the way he makes common elements from so many different genres seem like they belong in the same world. The sci-fi western isn’t exactly an unexplored idea, but I’m not sure it has ever looked this natural, a perfect blend of the two genres resulting in something that’s new but still familiar. From the designs of the indigenous races of Amaranth to the deadly storms that sweep across the planet, everything is a mix of future and frontier. This look is established so quickly and remains so consistent, it makes slipping into the narrative complexities of each issue much easier. The world feels lived-in and real, and the characters all seem comfortable in it. Even the team of outsiders sent to Amaranth by the Union to investigate a string of murders. They may not be used to life there, and at times are surprised or hurt or even angered by it, but they still fit. Braithwaite sees the full scope of the puzzle Hine is putting together, and makes sure each piece is precisely shaped.
There is also Braithwaite’s general talent as a storyteller, no matter the genre. Some of his strongest panels are the moments of high emotion, often silent close-ups on a character’s face. They display secrecy, determination, anger, confusion, and heartbreak with equal force, giving Storm Dogs a strong emotional core in the midst of the many high concepts and larger plot threads. My favorite storyline was Jered’s tragic romance with Doll, which has everything to do with their rich and nuanced expressions. The genuine care they have for one another, their shared interest in each other’s lives, and the overwhelming fear Jered shows when he thinks he’s losing Doll make their relationship one of the most exciting and surprising parts of the story. Yes, the idea of Doll being a “wirehead,” renting out his/her body for strangers to use for sexual encounters is also a compelling aspect. But even without that, even after Jered and Doll move past it, their connection is captivating. You get the sense that they’ve been looking for exactly each other for a long time without knowing it, and that realizing it now is the most satisfying part of the attraction for them both. None of this is stated out loud, but Braithwaite floods their scenes with it, creating an atmosphere that’s inviting and enthralling.
Appropriately, the major action sequences demand just as much attention as these quieter, more personal moments. There’s not an excessive amount of violence in Storm Dogs, but what’s there is brutal and detailed, painful to see but too well-crafted to look away. Every punch, shot, and claw can be felt, and Braithwaite isn’t squeamish about gore when necessary, but he’s tastefully realistic about it. Flesh is shredded and innards exposed, but there are no cartoonish geysers of blood covering everything. The fighting has more low-key consequences: bruises last, bodies decompose, etc. The thoughtful consideration of anatomy that makes Braithwaite such a talented sci-fi artist—able to create believable new species that feel like they come from the same place—also strengthens his depictions of violence.
Braithwaite’s work clearly carries much of the weight of the series, but his is not the only artistic hand applied to these pages, though he is credited with some of the coloring along with Sue Braithwaite. However, most of the coloring on the series is attributed to Ulises Arreola, and it’s all fantastic work. Much of the sci-fi/western mix is accomplished in the colors, perhaps more so than Braithwaite’s lines, though it’s hard to separate those two sides of the art. The desert life of Amaranth is captured just so, the environment done in dull, dusty browns that contrast the more textured hues of the beings which are native to it. The skin tones of the humans who have lived there for a long time are rougher and less even than those of the Union’s investigators. The notable exception to that rule is Doll, who is unnaturally pale and smooth by design, in service of her/his profession. Similarly, Director Kaneko, the head of Arcana (the mining company that’s the only profitable part of Amaranth) is so pampered and protected that, despite living on-world, she’s still essentially an outsider. And she looks it, with the smoothest, softest complexion of anyone. This shows Arreloa putting in the same effort as Braithwaite, committing the same thought to every image, tackling each new item or character with deliberate consideration.
There’s so much to admire and appreciate in the artwork, Storm Dogs could likely have gotten away with a lazier, simpler narrative. Set on this world, with these characters, drawn by these artists, Hine could’ve gone with a straightforward murder mystery plot and left it at that. Instead, his writing is just as dense and tightly constructed as the visuals, and every issue contains new world-building, character development, and truly unexpected plot twists. Anti-heroes reveal themselves to be outright villains, villains who seem simple end up far more ambitious and dangerous than they first appeared, and then in the last few pages of the finale, the question of who’s actually a hero and who’s a villain becomes more complicated and difficult than ever before. This is not a simple good-versus-evil kind of tale. It presents complex socio-political circumstances, long-established problems that can’t be fixed now without creating larger ones, and then forces the characters to try and fix them anyway. Except, it turns out some members of the cast are deceptively working toward the opposite goal, trying to create problems where none need exist. That’s far easier work than finding solutions, so things go from bad to worse to warfare over the course of the series.
Or, I suppose I should say, “over the course of the series’ first season,” since things don’t really conclude within these initial six chapters, and the end of the last issue promises that things will continue in “Season Two.” Fine by me, I could always go for a second helping of great comicbook fiction, but is it a cop out, leaving things so open-ended? I suppose it runs that risk, but in point of fact, the mystery that first brings the investigation team to Amaranth has been solved, it’s just that solving it opened up a whole mess of other problems. So Storm Dogs #1-6 does tell a whole story, establishing a mystery, adding clues and information steadily, and concluding with firm answers obtained. At the same time, this opening narrative is used to establish a reality so rife with potential, and so massive in scope, that innumerable other stories begin to spill forth from it based on the momentum of this initial one. And so those new tales will be told in the future, spinning out of this establishing arc with tremendous promise.
The characters who star in this series all go through significant shifts, ending up in positions that differ greatly from where they were when things began. Life on Amaranth in general goes through a similarly dramatic change, as relations between the indigenous people and the Union settlers break down. Hine progresses things rapidly, introducing the status quo just in time effectively to shake it up and shatter it. And he drops at least three major bombs on the reader in the closing issue’s second half, ramping up the excitement in the end as a means of enticing the audience to come back for round two. It works, or at least it did on me, keeping the established truths intact while still pulling the rug out at dangerous speeds. To try and guess what happens next is a futile and frustrating exercise. There are too many viable possibilities, the story is too layered and parts of it still too obscured for anyone to predict the ultimate outcome. But by now there is no doubt that, whatever the specifics, the future of this title will be a filling, rewarding, and extremely entertaining reading experience.
I don’t know for certain that the same creators will be back for the next leg of the Storm Dogs saga, but it’d be a mistake, I think, if they weren’t all involved. Perhaps there is another artist who could so brilliantly interpret Hine’s work and bring such life to it, but they must be exceedingly rare at best. And after the Braithwaite-Arreola team’s regularly gorgeous work on this opening gambit, chances are anyone else would have a hard time stacking up. Hine’s inventiveness runs amok on this title in the best way; he still controls the story, but also leaves it space to grow larger and spread wider organically. This requires artistic collaborators who can do the same, who can construct a fantasy world so complete that any part of it can be visited or developed and none of it can be undone. Hine’s words want to exist in a tangible setting, a believable future that also has relevant things to say about our own time, like any great science fiction. Braithwaite and Arreola deliver that setting with the full force of their respective talents, raising Hine’s already far-reaching story to new heights.