Double-Meaning: Defining “Alien” in “Saucer Country #1”

As the title suggests, Vertigo’s new series Saucer Country is about extraterrestrial aliens and about the Southwest, from which so many urban legends about extra-biological entities’ existence have developed. There’s also another meaning to the title, but understanding that takes an unfiltered understanding of the exact nature of this comic: duality.

The denotative meaning of the word “alien” is as diverse as the connotative understanding of the word. In Saucer Country #1, those various meanings are used to create an interesting effect, in so far as writer Paul Cornell uses both the legal and literary definitions to tackle science-fiction and identity politics. This duality in both narrative and subtext creates a convergence of ideas and points of view, but the real appealing facet of the comic is the attachment we have to the lead character after 22 pages.

Let’s get this out of the way. Saucer Country is about outer-space aliens as much as it is about immigration policy. It’s a traditional use of science fiction, in that the genre is a lens that examines contemporary problems in analogical settings. No social, political or economic problem is out of the range of science fiction. We are talking about our reality in terms that allows us to escape them, but whereas dystopian futurist narratives take us completely away from the present, Saucer Country is tackling these elements head on.

There have been a number of these types of stories recently in various mediums. In comics, as a book like Image’s Xenoholics pokes fun at the various traits of extraterrestrial fiction, Saucer Country looks at its source material rather seriously. Just as zombies and vampires and other horror creatures can be used for varying effects to illicit laughs or scare us to the core, the story developed by Cornell and artist Ryan Kelly leans heavily to the dramatic.

The center of that dramatic movement is New Mexico Governor Arcadia Alvarado. Her political ambitions to be President of the United States, personal back story as the daughter of illegal U.S. immigrants and victimization as an alien abductee are on full display. She is the bridge between identity politics and alien encounters, connecting the seemingly divergent topics so that the dual meaning of “alien” in the context of this comic is fully realized. She is also the linchpin of this book. If her characterization were to fall flat, the entire narrative unravels. Cornell and Kelly center their attention on her while also introducing supporting characters, but the weight to which they add to Arcadia bares the load handsomely. The attachment readers’ form with her enhances the startling revelation on the last page. If that attachment didn’t exist there would be no book.

While there are a wealth of plotlines and subjects you could build a series around, from a divorced Latino politician trying to become President to a college professor whose belief in little green men costs him his job and probably his sanity, to backroom political maneuvering and the politics of ethnicity–Saucer Country’s strength in clarity comes directly from the storytellers.

Cornell lays out a tight narrative, but Kelly’s pencils contribute heavily to the issue’s overall success. While the narrative weight of the debut issue rests on the shoulders of Arcadia, the weight of execution is evenly distributed between the writer and artist. We will remark about this comic that there is a duality in theme, but we must also remind ourselves that there is a duality to comics in general. Nothing in this medium rests solely on one element. Both must contribute equally.

Kelly’s panels are very strong, offering distinct body-types for the characters and discrete facial expressions and body movements to convey the story. The designs are varied so that each character is as unique as their position within the narrative. Each will have a part to play going forward and Kelly has delineated them with details upon details.

The timing of Saucer Country is interesting, in terms of its subject matter hitting as the cycle of presidential politics begins to hit its stride and in terms of its position in the soft relaunch of Vertigo. It is undoubtedly informed by the political upheaval of the present as it is informed by the ever present fear about the Other. A further layer to this comic that will probably develop is the use of the various characters to express and empower the feelings of oppression and alienation solely because of existential circumstances. Each character will have a point of view that will articulate the facets of identity politics. If the level of storytelling between writer and artist remains as equal and assessable, Saucer Country will be one of the more remarkable comics to come along in the last decade.

RATING 9 / 10