[6 March 2014]
Predictability is often the bane of good fiction. No matter the medium or genre, audiences want to be surprised. They want to see things they haven’t before, and to be gripped and carried along by whatever they’re watching or reading or listening to, driven to pay close attention by an inescapable desire to find out what happens next. If they can figure it out for themselves before it happens, the impact is lessened significantly, and so is their subsequent enjoyment. Predictable stories can still be great, of course, depending on how they’re told, and not everything needs to have a twist ending or dense mystery to have merit; there’s room for every type of tale. But if you can be kept guessing, pulled in by the unknowable nature of a narrative, there is a special kind of pleasure that comes with that. As the story progresses, it offers a steady supply of shock, giving the audience fresh reasons to get hooked all the time. Not knowing what’s coming makes each new development a delightful surprise, rather than an inevitability. For my money, a story that swerves my expectations is almost always going to win out over something more familiar or formulaic, no matter how well-done.
Simon Oliver and Robbi Rodriquez’s FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics is a comicbook that’s impossible to predict, because it’s in a constant state of change, both within its story and externally. It wasn’t even always called FBP; the first issue was released as Collider before legal problems made Vertigo change the name in time for issue #2. Though the main character has stayed the same, the rest of the cast has already gone through some significant shake-ups in only seven issues, and so has the status quo of the book’s reality. It is a series about the laws of physics disappearing, the world becoming undone one sci-fi incident at a time. Even the scientists in FBP can’t say what’s going to happen next, because the rules of science have become less applicable or reliable than before.
At the very beginning of the very first issue of FBP (back when it was still Collider), those rules have already changed. The laws of physics, thought to be fundamental and unbendable, are starting to reveal themselves as less stable or set-in-stone than previously believed. Anomalies of physics are popping up in seemingly random places and with increasing frequency, causing all sorts of bizarre problems for those unfortunate enough to be affected: losses in gravity, time, molecular stability, etc. It is the titular Federal Bureau of Physics’ job to solve these problems and return things to normal. Trouble is, the FBP’s efforts are the equivalent of putting band-aids over the wounds of someone who’s still being stabbed—they may solve each individual case, but the larger problem of the laws of physics breaking down remains. The FBP are a treatment rather than a cure, and the more common and unmanageable the physics flare-ups become, the less trust the public has in this fledgling government organization. There are those who would like to see the physics industry privatized, and are determined to make that come to pass. By the end of the series’ first arc, they’ve succeeded, and everything changes again.
That opening arc is called “The Paradigm Shift,” and, at first, the name seems obvious. Humanity’s understanding of the entire make-up of existence has been challenged by the deteriorating laws of physics, and it’s forced a change in our way of life. As the story unfolds, though, it becomes apparent that the change in physics is old news, and the paradigm shift to which the arc’s title refers is more in how that change is handled. By intentionally causing a disaster during a delicate FBP operation, an evil corporation called Atom-Craft Industires succeeds in getting a law to pass that allows private companies to provide people with physics insurance. Nearly overnight, the FBP goes from the first line of defense against rogue physics to the public defenders of their field, only used by those without the means to hire better protection. Which is a jarring enough twist for the characters in the comic, but it’s also a very sharp turn for the readers, and taken very early. As soon as we’re comfortable with the concept of the FBP and what it does, its role in the world changes significantly.
To have the end of the opening arc mark such a big difference in the future of the book is perhaps a risky move, made no less risky by the fact that the arc’s conclusion also involves the death of someone who looked like they were going to be a major player. The star of FBP is Agent Adam Hardy, and in “The Paradigm Shift,” his partner and apparent best friend is Agent Jay Kelly. Jay is slightly older and more experienced in the field than Adam, but the two have a good bond, playful but professional, and they clearly look out and care for one another. But Jay, we learn very early on, has been working for some kind of shady figure, a secret he’s keeping even from Adam, and the question of what Jay’s up to adds a layer of tension to everything he and Adam do together. Ultimately, Jay is the man responsible for causing the accident that leads to the FBP’s near-irrelevancy and Atom-Craft Industires’ ascendancy, planting explosives in an unstable environment to make it collapse prematurely and as destructively as possible. Yet his connection with Adam is just powerful enough that, at the last minute, Jay regrets what he’s done, and sacrifices himself so that Adam can survive the incident. At the point where he died, Jay was one of only three members of the FBP who’d actually been given names in FBP (along with Adam and their boss Cicero), so killing him off that soon meant taking a noticeable chunk out of the established cast.
With its first storyline, FBP made it clear that things were going to be a bit fluid moving forward. Ideas and characters that had been fully and skillfully introduced were then quickly done away with, leaving everything that remained on somewhat shaky ground. And the series has thus far stayed true to that initial promise of uncertainty, replacing the deceased Jay with the inscrutable Agent Rosa Reyes, adding intrigue to Adam’s life outside of his already intriguing job, and generally remaining narratively slippery, moving in strange ways and along bizarre routes to arrive at unexpected destinations. Yet if the end goal is to tell a cohesive story, it can’t be all surprises. For one thing, that in itself would become predictable over time, but even more than that, there has to be something or someone to follow, something to latch onto, at least one port in the storm of unpredictability. Logically enough, for FBP that port is Adam, the only constant in a world of chaos.
Adam’s used to instability, and perhaps even thrives in it. Before Adam was even born, his father disappeared in a “quantum tornado.” Adam’s dad was one of the first and, therefore, most unorthodox researchers of the coming apart of the laws of physics, and it cost him his life. So Adam grew up with the idea already cemented in his mind that things could change in an instant and for good. He’s not happy about Jay’s betrayal, but he doesn’t let it derail or even distract him. The same goes for the sudden emergence of physics insurance. It may not be what he wanted, but Adam is used to not getting what he wants, used to the universe being just as eager and able to screw him over as cut him a break. While the tides of crazy rise and fall around him, Adam remains calm and focused and, most importantly, the same. He’s is comfortable enough in his own skin, and familiar enough with the kinds of surprises life can serve up, that none of it phases him. He’s not detached or unfeeling, because everything still noticeably affects him, but once he’s processed it, he moves on, ever the motivated FBP agent, wry jokester, and quiet observer.
In Adam can be found the value unpredictable storytelling. It is a reminder that most of what goes down in our lives is out of our hands, that enormous, earth-shattering events can happen spontaneously, and do happen often, and will happen to each of us at some point whether we like it or not. Letting ourselves be exposed to this fact through our fiction is a good way to build up a tolerance for it, or preferably develop a comfort with it as Adam has managed to do. He is what makes FBP’s own unpredictability function, but he’s also an example of how one ought to deal with life’s curveballs no matter where they come from. Take them in, allow them to change your life and acknowledge that they have, but don’t redefine yourself because of them.
Humans often take solace in our own knowledge, in the rules of life we think we’ve uncovered or beaten. That’s an understandable impulse, but perhaps we ought to move in the opposite direction, embracing ignorance and impotence instead. Admitting one’s own lack of agency or control can be freeing, calming, and reassuring if you let it. You can rely on life to be unreliable, expect the unexpected, and roll with whatever punches you end up having to take. FBP’s main character demonstrates the potential power of that attitude, and its narrative methods encourage it in the readers by keeping the series hard to pin down or anticipate.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.