Monday, August 08, 2005

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart


I freely admit that I'm about seven years behind the power curve on this one. I have a tendency to get stuck behind the times. At this rate I reckon I'll get around to finally buying a copy of Scott Pilgrim around the time we land on Mars.

("We" being "America" or even just "humanity" in general, not Anne and myself, because I do not think the O'Neil household will be landing on Mars anytime soon - unless we're aided by some massively powerful horse tranquilizers, that is.)

Anyway, this is a good book. Hell, this is a great book, far and away the best thing I've yet read from Oni. I can't say I was looking forward to it, because I haven't really dug any of the Queen & Country I've seen. The prospect of another book's worth of Rucka's generally well-done but thoroughly boring adventures in law enforcement / espionage / meter-maiding didn't fill me with glee. So, this has been sitting on the shelf a while.

But, I am pleased to announce that not only did this book defy my expectations, it smashed them into little bits. I'm not usually a fan of murder mysteries, but I loved this. There are a lot of reasons to love this book, but I'll just talk about a few.

Environment is crucial to the story and Lieber makes all the shades of gray come to life.

First, the murder plot itself is nowhere near as convoluted and nonsensical as these things usually go. I realize that might be a rather backhanded compliment, but considering the crap that passes for mystery in most media... I love Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales, and I like watching the occasional Poirot mystery on A&E but those aren't really great mysteries either. For the most part, they're character pieces that just happen to have flimsy mysteries as an excuse for showcasing their protagonists' eccentric personalities. Whiteout is in this vein as well. I'm not going to say that the mystery is a cheat or a fake-out -- Rucka definitely plays fair with all the "clues", excluding the revelation of the actual MacGuffin about 2/3 of the way through the book -- but it is nowhere near as satisfying as the character work that Rucka builds the book around.

I am honestly beginning to wonder why so much of Rucka's other comic work has left me cold, because there's just so much to like about the way he put this story together. In the first place, it's fairly dense, with a lot of attention paid to both the pacing and the tone. It's got a lot of information in it but it somehow manages to avoid being wordy or a slog. It jumps along at a brisk pace. A lot of the credit for this has to go to Steve Lieber. Most artists, when faced with the prospect of drawing an entire story in an environment soaked in whites and grays, would probably balk.

But the real reason this book is so compulsively readable is our hero, Ms. Carrie Stetko. Having been through some very traumatic episodes, we find her living the expatriate's life in the most remote wilderness on the planet - Antarctica. She's living in the coldest place on the planet because she just wants to be left alone. What's so great is the fact that Rucka knows to draw her personality out slowly, without laying all of his cards on the table at the same time. Even though, at the end of the story, we know a lot about what happened in her life before now, we still don't really understand what's actually going on in her head. She is something of a mystery, and creating that kind of plausible enigma is one of the most difficult things for any writer to do.

Regardless of the somewhat trite "I'll have your badge" bit, Carrie Stetko is one of the most convincingly likeable characters you're likely to come across in comics.

And of course, the relationship between Stetko and Lily Sharpe is the centerpiece of the book. It's such an odd, subtle relationship that it becomes absolutely riveting. It's not as if either one of them ever come out and say "I'm a lesbian", but there's definitely some serious subtext here for anyone who cares to find it. And the best part is that it's handled with such a light, spare touch that even though they never actually say anything to each other about it, it manages to fill up every scene they share. But there's a lot here that makes sense - they're both women in overwhelmingly male environments. They aren't entirely comfortable in their limited social worlds but they are at least acclimated to them. The scene of their meeting illustrates this to brilliant effect: Carrie walks into a smoke-filled rec room filled with horny scientists drinking beer watching hardcore porn. Lily's off to the side reading a book - a part of the community even though she's perpetually apart, much like Carrie herself. It would be hard not to see two people in such a similar situation drifting together, despite their initial indifference, and Rucka handles this gradual, almost subliminal attraction with a gorgeous equanimity. The last page of the book is one of the best uses of negative space I can remember seeing in quite some time, and it wonderfully encapsulates everything strangely romantic an hopelessly laconic about this excellent story.

There's apparently only one more Whiteout book after this, and while I'm disappointed that there isn't more, at least I have it to look forward to. At this rate, regardless of how much I loved the first volume, it might be a while before I get around to tracking it down.

"Buy me, I'm really cool."

No comments :