July 9, 2014

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Rai (Series Review)

Rai (Series Review)
Written by Matt Kindt
Illustrated by Clayton Crain
Valiant Entertainment

Over the last few years, Valiant Entertainment has successfully brought back a number of series that were originally published in the 1990's such as X-O Manowar, Eternal Warrior, and Quantum & Woody, with well-regarded creators such as Robert Venditti, Greg Pak, Joshua Dysart and Matt Kindt. One of the most recent of those series is Rai, an engaging science fiction story about the protector of Japan in the 41st Century. Written by Matt Kindt and illustrated by Clayton Crain, the series thus far presents a dense, detailed, visually stunning and complex world that is an unusual and great setting for a mystery. Even if you haven't been reading any of the other Valiant series (or are, as I am, unfamiliar with the original Rai series), this is an interesting, enjoyable read.

Rai throws the reader right in to the story, as the first issue begins with the murder of an unidentified woman. It is the year 4,001 and this is the first murder in Japan in over a thousand years. Japan has been relocated to a huge floating space station, and society has evolved considerably. Japanese society is controlled by "Father," an entity not entirely understood by the population but which provides for all. Each citizen is given an artificial intelligence companion when they come of age, known as a PT (a positronic mind). It's suggested that people receive these companions in order to discourage them from having children (as space is at such a premium in this floating nation). There are those in this society, however, who reject Father and technology. They are known as "Raddies" (Radicals) and it is clear from the outset that they are responsible for the murder at the beginning of the story.
Japan is protected by Rai, an AI warrior/investigator/protector who is something of a legend for the population of Japan, as he is rarely seen. Rai goes where he is needed, and he comes to the restaurant where the dead body is found. There he meets Lula Lee, an ambitious teenager who is bored with her life in Japan and very quickly inserts herself into the investigation, making herself useful to Rai.  During the first few issues of the series, Rai pursues a number of leads at great physical cost to himself, as he is blown up by a bomber taking orders from Spylocke (a mysterious man who shouldn't exist as he is believed to be fictional), he is thrown out of the bottom of Japan by a man-machine monstrosity, and blown up a second time by terrorists (thankfully for Rai, he is resilient).  With Lula's assistance he finds old paper records (of which Rai was unaware) on every citizen in Japan, except for the woman who was murdered.  This brings him into contact with a very old, wealthy and powerful man named Augustus Silk, who has in the past acted as both a hero and villain, both a savior and threat to Japan.  Both Spylocke and Silk appear to know more about Rai than he does. At the end of the second issue, Spylocke has taken Lula hostage to get to the records on the mysterious woman, and Rai has gone all the way to the top of Japan to stop an attempt to blow up the solar collector that powers all of Japan.

In the current issue, Rai thwarts the attempts to destroy the solar collector, and forces a Raddie to take him down to Earth to confront their leader, who turns out to be someone surprising. Meanwhile, Lula demonstrates her resourcefulness by escaping from Spylocke with Rai's secret. Rai learns the true identity of the woman who was murdered, which leaves him (and us) with more questions and answers.
  
This is a dense book, with respect to plot, world-building and visuals. It's not a book that you can just glance over - it requires (and rewards) careful reading.  That sense of complexity begins with the artwork. Crain puts a remarkable amount of detail in each image for a monthly book; there's no skimping on backgrounds here. This amount of detail works perfectly for the depiciton of Japan itself, a place that's incredibly crowded, where every single square inch is necessary to store people or machinery.

The art has a hyper-realistic painted feel (sort of like Alex Ross) which also effectively conveys the shiny, futuristic aspects of the story, while at the same time effectively portraying the fact that most of these people live in a moody, confined space without any natural light. So all of the light in the story has an artificial feel which speaks to the nature of the entire world these characters live in.  Crain's sequential storytelling is very strong here as well.  Notwithstanding the painted appearance of the artwork, there is a lot of action in the first 3 issues of this book (and it escalates as the story moves along) and Crain excels at showing both fight and chase sequences. There are some interesting and innovative panel and layout choices in the story that move the action along and focus the reader's attention where Crain wants it to be.  Rai himself comes across as being not-quite-human in his speed, and the fluidity of his motion. We get his power, and the regard (and fear) with which other characters view him. Rai's appearance itself is remarkably rendered, as he both feels human and not human at the same time.
 

Matt Kindt is building a complex story here. As much information as is provided in these first three issues, it's clear that there's a lot more that's not yet known. It's also an interesting take on a murder mystery; we know who killed the woman (the Raddies) but at the outset it's not clear who she is and why she was killed. Kindt also makes a choice in the case of Lula that's helpful to the reader. Lula keeps a running journal throughout the story, and serves as a "point of view" character explaining aspects of Japanese society. It's useful to have her here, as without her narration (which can be somewhat heavy on a few occasions) it's likely the story would be significantly more confusing. She's also a relatable and likable character, and an easier way into the story than Rai himself. There are also times in the story where Rai provides the narration, and it's also useful to see his point of view. He is faithfully devoted to Father (whom Rai can hear but the reader neither sees nor hears), but also hides things from Father and while Rai may be an artificial intelligence, he is not an automaton and has emotions. Rai is also discovering that there's a great deal about himself and about Japan that Father has not told him, and there are at least 2 different characters that know more about Rai than he himself does.

Kindt and Crain are doing a lot of thorough world-building in this story. The idea of an entire nation transplanted to a giant space station* is a fascinating one, as the story alludes to a number of societal issues. Lula has rarely gone beyond her specific sector, and it appears that the socioeconomic status increases as you move farther up in Japan. Status remains pretty stratified, and society (including birth rates) is tightly controlled, given the space limitations. While the Raddies are clearly terrorists in this story, it appears that they (and others) may have legitimate complaints as to the cost of the peace and security that Father provides them. As the story continues, the creative team will hopefully explore further aspects of this society.

The story has an overall serious feel to it, but the dialogue has wit and there's some nice humor sprinkled throughout the series ("Earth" itself has become something of a curse work, and bonus points if you can spot the visual gag reference to the movie "Demolition Man" in Issue 2). This isn't a light, breezy read, but an interesting science fiction story that feels like it will reward careful reading.

* Japan appears to be located several hundred miles above the earth, but still within Earth's atmosphere.