[30 April 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
It’s hard to get excited about Rai #1, but that’s by design—what writer Matt Kindt and artist Clayton Crain have perfected in this opening issue is an over-bloated future where deep existential suffering is a kind of natural state, despite being masked by technologically-assisted opulence. This is very much the noir version of the leisure-driven, suffering-free world imagined in Jeremy Rifkin’s nonfiction The End of Work. Rai presents a muted future that stands among the best kinds of imagined tomorrows; at a literary crossroads that’s more Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and more Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World than Gibson’s Neuromancer.
We’ve written favorably about Clayton Crain’s work in the past, and for good reason. With Shadowland: Ghost Rider writer Rob Williams pulling back and allowing Crain’s artwork to carry most of the narrative load, we saw, for a brief shining moment, Ghost Rider as we never have before—we saw Crain bring out Da Vinci, Hokusai, Dali. What Crain attempts in Rai, and very much perfects, is a visualization of the abstraction of Empire.
On display are the cultural mechanics of Empire, the British, the Spanish, the vast trading networks of the Dutch as far back as the 17th century (there’s an eternal similarity between all of these), where so-called “high” culture must negotiate its place amongst populist experiences of ordinary life; but these same cultural mechanics are extrapolated into a scifi vision of the 41st century, one where information technology holds sway. We see Crain allude to greater, grander things—vast open spaces lit with clean air and beautiful life—but at the same time he hems us in with the murk of a limited existence, the filthy urbanscapes that thrust at our sensibilities from the page in long, vertically-narrowed panels.
Strip away any narrative (visual or otherwise) and what remains is Crain’s beautiful essay on the ongoing battleground of the human condition—the grand cultural war between the kind of leisured hedonism that produces art and intellect, and the sweat-of-your-brow, workaday world of toil and suffering. Unexpectedly then, almost counterintuitively, the visual grandeur, the vast “landscapes” so expressive of freedom that they occupy the largest panels, are also the most intimate; the cutting off a malefactor’s hand for example, or the production of an antique firearm.
As writer, Kindt’s vision of 41st century Japan (not Japan, but actually, the entire world, in Rai mythology, there has been a cultural hegemony and now the entire Earth is considered Japan) is easily the equal of Crain beautiful renderings. Although, Kindt’s world-building is clearly more literary when compared with Crain’s beautiful renderings. When you buy Rai #1 later this week, or maybe today, take your time when you read the scene in the Blackwater Sector dive, where the dead body is dropped into the aquarium. There’s a beauty to narrator Lula’s prose here, one that speaks to the utter cultural complexity of what we from our point of view might consider a place of fine ambience, whereas denizens of 41st century Japan might consider the same space nothing more than an eatery. And yet, what disturbs this normal, ordinary, run-of-the-mill 41st century space is the shock of a dead body being abruptly dumped into the aquarium from above. Juxtapose this scene with Lula’s narration on the importance of using paper only for “old stories…important stories,” and you begin to get a scope of just how breathtakingly metaphysical Kindt’s crafting of Rai actually is.
To that end, the story of Rai, the actually noir-infused detective-fiction that is the grist for the narrative mill is fairly simple. Rai himself is a legacy hero who, much like the Phantom, is perpetuated to be the same person throughout time. He is the Defender of Japan, the dutiful servant of “Father” who runs things. And similar to the Phantom of the daily newstrips, he has become a veritable ghost, appearing only when needed. Spylocke (ostensibly the chief adversary who threatens Rai’s 41st century Japan) is crafted by an almost exact inversion of Rai. Rather than a “real” person who steps into mythical status, Spylocke is a fictional character with a hundred-year pedigree by Rai’s time, who seems to have stepped into actuality. What Kindt posits therefore, is a world where the liminality between fact and fiction is pushing the ordinary into a war with the everyday.
With Rai #1, Kindt and Crain offer more than a promising start—they offer, each in their own way, a profoundly philosophical wrestling with the issues of our day, our lived-in battle between leisured hedonism and workaday toil, between popculture and “high” art, between print and digital. But the flawless beauty of Rai is that you simply don’t need to approach the book only for its philosophical depth. If you’re looking for nothing more than a beautifully visualized, engaging artifact of future noir, something the equal of Ridley Scott’s gorgeous ziggurats in Blade Runner, then look no further. And for that mastery of both popculture and “high” art concerns, Rai #1 comes with the highest praise.