February 17, 2010

  |  

Air Volume 1

Written by G. Willow Wilson
Illustrated by M.K. Perker
Vertigo

I read Air right before going on an airplane. That either makes me brave or stupid, I'm not quite sure. After all, the visual of people in free fall is not the happiest thing to be viewing yourself--or those around you.

But hey, I gotta be me.

The woman falling on the cover is Blythe, a woman who works in the air transportation industry but has a fear of heights after a childhood trauma. You can see why this might be an issue. Blythe manages with some drugs and everything's fine--until the day she gets mixed up between a set of secret organizations who want to take control of the skies. Can she stop a hostile takeover of a plane with only the help of a man who may well be a terrorist himself?

Just as things seem to get better, Blythe and her only friend at work get drawn further into the web, learning that some people have the power to literally remove things from existence. Just what can Blythe do to change that? Plus, what do you do when you learn your boss needs you to be her spy to protect her against those who want to steal Aztec Steampunk technology?

Normally, I wouldn't put that big of a reveal in my summary, but just in case you weren't all that interested, I felt it only fair to mention the coolest part of this book to make sure you know its potential. How often are you going to be treated to Aztec Steampunk?

Neil Gaiman, the Godfather of Vertigo, has a front cover blurb comparing this to Salmon Rushdie, and I think he's spot on. After all, Wilson invites us to draw that comparison in the first line of dialog in the book. Blythe's dreams, the idea of hidden worlds, and referencing the India-Pakistan split (the focus of Rushdie's excellent book, "Midnight's Children") all point to Rushdie's work. I believe the opening scene is a reference to a scene in "Satanic Verses" but it's been thirteen years since I read it, so I'm not 100% sure.

Just as we get settled into the Rushdie groove, however, the story veers in another direction that gives us a more traditional comic book influence, science fiction. The idea of a fuel that can replace oil and technology that's five hundred years old is the kind of thing we might see in one of DC's main universe books. But I think the biggest reveal is on the last page, where we see that this story is going to involve more than a few genres as it goes along.

That's what gives Air the nod for me. Wilson and Perker are listed as co-creators, so I don't know how much each contributed. However, the way in which they've merged several genres into one story--action film, Rushdie, Steampunk, alternative history, to name a few--that doesn't feel like it's a patchwork quilt. There's just enough grounding the story to keep it going without flying into a thousand directions. That's a dangerous path to tread, however, and I wonder if they can keep up that angle without getting spread too thin.

The only weakness I feel the book has is Blythe herself. She's the linchpin, but is very weak. She has no interesting quirk or strong personality. While I wanted to know what happened to the mysterious Zayn and was intrigued by the Dick Chaney-looking villain Benjamin. Blythe's boss is cool and no-nonsense, and even her landlady has her charms. I found myself caring about them far more than I did about her, and that's a problem. I hope that Blythe grows in the rest of the stories and that there is more to her than dreaming and just barely staying out of trouble. It takes more than that to hold my interest in a character.

M.K. Perker's art is very Vertigo house style. There's not a lot of fluid movement going on, and scenes that should be dramatic come off a bit too pedestrian for my taste as a result. When Zayn is going to be tortured, he's not writhing in pain, he's just standing. Bythe is about to be knocked off a building, but we see it in long shot, too far away to care. I feel like a lot of the camera angle choices could have been stronger to help give the story an edge. (That doesn't mean upping the gore, by the way.)

I did like some of the design choices, such as when Blythe stands on a panel and talks to a god who lives inside the borders. Perker's covers are also really good and tell the interior story without revealing too much. Overall, however, I don't think his (her?) art added much to the story. If I read comics for the art, I think I'd come away disappointed.

I have to give Vertigo points for this one, even if it has some flaws. It's definitely different from most of the titles I've read from them. Blythe, the main character, doesn't take her top off to the reader even once, despite several bedroom scenes. There's violence, but it's not gratuitous. This is a non-code story, certainly, but that doesn't mean Wilson and Parker use that freedom to give us pages of gore or cheap thrills. Instead, we get a compelling story.

I often feel like Vertigo thinks edgy must equal naked breasts and splayed entails, so it was nice to see them publish something that--at least in this first volume--doesn't fall into those traps. (It's not that I don't like the other stories, mind you, it's just that I think I'd like them better if they were a bit less gratuitous with the imagery.)

Air has a really interesting story, and I can recommend it for those who who enjoy reading a cool concept and seeing where it leads. However, if you like strong characters, I don't think you'll find them here, and that was a real problem for me. I liked Air enough to keep reading it, but I don't think it would appeal to everyone. The nice thing is that Vertigo prices their first trades at $10, giving you an inexpensive way to see if you might want to take the plunge. Reading Air is probably a leap of faith, but if you like magical realism or steampunk, I'd say give it a try. Just make sure you bring a parachute.