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Where Our Rough Roads Lead: Reading Howard Mackie's "Ravagers"

It's shortly before dawn on Memorial Day and I'm thinking about Lt. Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom and Apollo One. Could it be because of Howard Mackie's beautiful Ravagers #1?

Before I even get to the bricks and mortar of this feature, there's a couple of things I want to say up front. One is that Howard Mackie definitely got through to me, with Ravagers #1. Which is to say he found a deep inner place and he's reached out from there, and that act of reaching out from that place struck a chord more deeply within me than most other first issues, or even original high concepts for comicbook series, in a good long while.

Another thing to be said is that effect of Howard's writing is an emotional one. If there's synchronicity to be found, and there is, it's going to be a meaningful, vital connectivity of an emotional sort. There's an inner connectedness being excavated here. This is the act of me reading Ravagers, I'm deeply involved here. But also, it's not simply some checkerboard of random data stores being replayed. I'm deeply involved in Howard's Ravagers. Already there's the imprint of an expert hand Lachesizing the warp and weft on the story's loom. There are connections to be teased out here, to be dug out, to be brought back into the light and they're emotional ones that happen at the the shores of the great oceans of meaning that separate individuals. In this case it's Howard and me, but the moment you pick up a copy of Ravagers, those distant, familiar shores will be your own.

So here I am at the Airport Terminal Hour. Well into the night, blanketed by the dark, but not quite near enough yet to begin to imagine the dawn. And by some strange turn, at a moment in the issue when Howard channels both Frankenstein and John Donne and has his Ravagers stand on an ice-floe and cut themselves off from the mainland, I find myself thinking of Gus Grissom. Commander Grissom, at long last. Commander Grissom after being passed over more than once. Grissom was the commander of the forever-tragedy that was Apollo One. He was also the only member of the Mercury Seven to transition into becoming one of the New Nine. The memorial plaque bolted permanently into the launchpad where the three astronauts burned with the orbiter just a few short hours before mission-go, is emblazoned with a singular phrase. Ad astra, per aspera; the stars, by a rough road.

It's a moment of almost pure momentum, one that defines the vector of the book and the scope of the team that isn't quite yet a team. And it's a moment that resonates deeply with previously built-up mythologies. I suppose the buzzword for this, if you find yourself lost in supermarket with the Clash or trapped in an Ivy League English Lit seminar, would be "intertextuality". But intertextuality is just a buzzword. What it points at, is a world where you can recognize hidden things in texts. And those hidden things are hidden within yourself. They are your meanings and experiences and interpretations of other texts, literary or otherwise, that you bring to the text, and that will allow you to find those cathartic moments.

Was this Ang Lee's memory? I remember an interview with (possibly) Ang Lee reminiscing his days at NYU Film School. Wes Craven had been invited to address the class, and mentioned something about the original Nightmare on Elm Street. The scene with the blood spatter was actually the most costly Special FX. It had required something the order of a team of a half-dozen experts, working variously on synthetic blood and on melding this with actual pig's blood. And surprisingly, the most effective FX, the most jump-out-of-your-seat moment was when a ten-dollar fake tongue projected from a telephone's mouthpiece. Ang Lee's takeaway from this (was it Ang Lee?; the interview I remember clearly, appears in the Stephen Lowenstein edited My First Film, but I can only really remember reading the Lee interview from that collection) was that you never can tell what will "work" and won't.

When Howard invokes intertextuality, he invokes it in this hugely practical sense of it. Like something made by the work of hands. This is not some erudite, rarefied thing, abstracted to a point that would require years of training to before it can be operated. No. Howard's is a practical, immediate, intuitive micro-catharsis-machine. One which allows you to make the obvious connections (obvious to yourself, obvious to more people than yourself as well). So standing on an ice-floe is definitely evocative of Frankenstein. That's how Shelley's novel ends, with the once-promising being old and used up, and being left abandoned on an ice-floe, while monsters are freed to roam the world.

Frankenstein's ending is a particularly poignant connection. Frankenstein himself, even being used up, being disheveled by the act of having lived in such a way as to exhaust his potential, and exhaust his potential in such a way that was of no benefit to either himself or his species, still feels he's getting the better end of the deal. Because the alternative is to be that undying monster, to be that unrelenting thing that stalks the land in pursuit of justice that cannot be named. Adam, Frankenstein's monster, is nothing if not a terrible child of the marriage of messianism and revenge. And this certainly rings true for Howard's Ravagers.

They've lived through hell. Almost literally through hell. They were metahumans kidnapped by a mysterious organization called N.O.W.H.E.R.E. They were thrown into an almost infinite, cavernous somewhere, fire-lit and lava-lit. And they were pitted against each other with surprising regularity. And now the Ravagers have come out of this slaughter, but not yet come through it. The scars are deep and will not heal. And America, the idea of America, the promise of a place where everyone there comes from somewhere worse, is still an impossible thing, rather than merely a distant thing.

Understanding the connection between Ravagers and Frankenstein comes easy. These kids come from slaughter (although maybe not just yet come through slaughter), are themselves caught in the impossible dilemma of needing to effect both a messianism and a revenge. A revenge on their past, on their own victimhood, on their destiny as laid out by the violent-dog-fight-nature of their former captivity. And yet their path to reinterpret that revenge as a messianic act seems equally open to them. To make of that revenge something alike the act of building a better tomorrow. There's work to be done here, and that work is clearly as much on themselves as it is on the world around them.

In the same way, John Donne's refrain of "no man is an island" is both immediate and visceral. We see Fairchild manipulate Lightning's powers to cut them off from the mainland, to cast them adrift on their own ice floe. This is Viktor von Frankenstein's choice. To reenter the natural cycle of living and dying. To at least have a death, if he cannot have had a life. Artist Ian Churchill's beautiful visual rendering of this scene, his choice of viewing angle, his keen selection of focal points, offers us both Donne and Shelley in a single moment. That's the real danger for these kids. That they assume that their lives might being meaningless not with out the violence and the horror that came to define them. That they might choose the proverbial death of self-exclusion. That that might be infinitely preferable to needing to become the monstrous child of messianism and revenge.

So I can understand finding Frankenstein, and finding Donne. And because of the night, when I think about that a little longer, I can understanding finding just a slither of Alice Cooper, of "School's Out" rather than "Feed My Frankenstein" or "Poison" or "Love Is Like a Loaded Gun", and maybe, a little of Lord of the Flies, that part that Stephen King confessed to, in his Hearts in Atlantis, being most scared by. The part at the end of the novel when the battlecruiser comes and King wonders, who will save society from the boys. It's later now, but not light yet. And I can understand finding all those things. But I'll say this about how Ravagers simply defeats me, and in defeating me elevates me, and will elevate you too if you allow it to.

It's by this and by this alone. I could not have imagined sensing that deep connection between the end of Frankenstein and Donne before having spent this time with Ravagers, before having caught those signal flares from the distant shore that is Howard's mind. If Ravagers has given me anything at all, it has given me this. This idea of a useful intertextuality. Of a thing that can be built from, and can be built on. In retrospect, even this connection between Donne and the End of Frankenstein can be found, can be explicated, can be known. But the true gift here is Gus Grissom. Lieutenant Colonel Virgil Ivan Grissom who dreamed of advancement, crossed a generational boundary, and gave his life, as the plaque immortalizing him reminds us all, "so that others may reach the stars."

Is it simply because it's Memorial Day Weekend, and because I Don't Like Mondays of any week, that I'm thinking about the life of a man I clearly define as a hero? What about that scene on that ice floe, what about Frankenstein and Donne, and Alice Cooper and William Golding connects in my mind with Gus Grissom? Is it the idea that after that life-taking fire we could see the stars that much more clearly? Is it because Gus Grissom is An Idea that reminds us that the human journey was always to stand on one world, and look to the next?

That's the inexplicable, that's the defeat of me. Or at least of the subroutine of me, that completely understands the world and my connection to it. So it's something new. And it's something wondrous. And it's me at the birth of something--another me who can begin to see the stars again, who can imagine the dawn that will usher in Memorial Day. And for that (because that will be your experience too), Howard's Ravagers is worth all the two bucks 99's in the world.

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