Mind MGMT (Series Review)
Written and Illustrated by Matt Kindt
"You base your existence on certain givens. The sky is blue. Gravity never fails. But imagine if gravity didn't always work. Or what you called 'blue' everyone else saw as green."
"Ever have a dream that was like a story...? And at the end of the dream there's a twist ending? Some kind of shocking surprise? How can your mind do that to you? You're creating the dream. How can you surprise yourself?"
- Henry Lyme, Mind Management
Mind MGMT is a story about many things, but it is, at least in significant part, a story about our limited ability to perceive the reality around us. Our perception and observations about reality are unreliable, they can be manipulated. We know this, it is science. You are being manipulated right now, in ways you may not even realize.
That (unsettling) premise is the hook for Mind MGMT, one of the most interesting, distinctive, and thought-provoking comic series being published today. To be clear, the idea that your reality is being manipulated is not new. There are a number of recent popular examples of stories where there is a hidden reality that you're not seeing (Lost, The Matrix, Men in Black, The Adjustment Bureau, Inception, etc.), and many others in media. But Mind MGMT stands out, for its gorgeous watercolor artwork, unusual layouts, complex plot, and general sense of existential unsettlement one gets when reading the book.
I'm not going to provide a detailed plot overview for the story because (1) I'd be here all day writing it, (2) you'd be here all day reading it (if you hadn't given up), and (3) it might drive my editor crazy. So, speaking generally, the story significantly involves Meru Marlowe, an investigative journalist. She's had one best-selling book but is down on her luck (and out of money and options) when she decides to investigate a most mysterious occurrence. A few years earlier on Flight 815 every single person on the plane experienced total amnesia. The only passenger unaccounted for was a man named Henry Lyme. As the story begins, Meru decides to pursue this mysterious Henry Lyme and hopefully get to the bottom of Flight 815 mystery. Immediately Meru runs into surprises and danger, gains both allies and enemies, and eventually confronts Henry Lyme. The story only gets much bigger and much stranger from there. Henry was part of an organization/agency called Mind Management, an organization to which Meru has ties as well. As the story continues and expands, Kindt shows us more about the history of the organization and the various people involved. New threats emerge, and old alliances re-form, and battle lines are drawn.
This book looks unlike much anything else on the stands.* It's an engrossing, dense read (this is not a book you can skim or half-read while watching TV, and I also wouldn't recommend trying to read it when you're tired, trust me). What's interesting about the series starts with Kindt's overall look and design for his creation. Kindt illustrates the book using watercolors, and it's hard to imagine the story being told in any other way. Additionally, nearly every page of Mind MGMT appears to be a report page on official stationery to the Mind Management organization (as it contains bureaucratic instructions at the top of each form), so the book reads as if it is prepared by an agent of the organization.
Kindt uses every part of the page to tell the story. Many of the pages are laid out in such a way that the gutters also contain related but completely separate information. These might be excerpts from the Mind Management field manual, the text of an interview of an Agent, a completely different cartoon depicting a related part of the plot. The effect of this creative usage of the gutters is that the book reads a little like a page from the Talmud, with the main text and the supplemental commentaries surrounding it.
Mind MGMT demands something of you, as each page may require multiple rereads in order to understand how the additional text/comic fits in with the main body of the story. The connections there may not always be direct or obvious, but nothing in this book feels like it's there by accident. Kindt also makes creative layout choices in that sometimes the panels are meant to be read across first and then down, and sometimes they're simply meant to be read vertically in order. Part of the fun and challenge of the book is figuring out, structurally, how an issue is meant to be read.
Moreover, from issue to issue there's not necessarily a linear focus on story, so the reader is never quite sure (at the start of an issue) where the story in that issue is going to go. This adds to the general sense of disorientation, which may be unnerving (to someone expecting a more linear narrative) but it's keeping with the themes and ideas of the story. It's less unnerving than getting your memory wiped mid-flight, but only just barely.
Kindt is also willing to take other interesting chances artistically in this book. One recent example of these artistic choices (and chances) was an entire issue which took place without dialogue and only through thought balloons of the characters. An earlier issue concerned an Agent whose ability is to understand the emotional state of animals - a few pages in the story are illustrated as an homage to the art style of Richard Scarry.** A different example concerns a character whose memory is being manipulated - this is captured very effectively by showing the actual captions fading out, and by having the face only be sketched in and not colored (as if this character is fading from someone's memory).
Kindt's washed-out, impressionistic watercolor designs lend a dreamlike sense of unreality to the whole book which is highly effective (and appropriate) given the subject matter. Characters are sometimes exaggerated or distorted in perspective (such as in the panel above which is drawn to show Henry from Meru's perspective) and the line is looser (as in, character design can vary slightly from scene to scene) but the characters are clear and distinctive. Notwithstanding the painted, impressionistic nature of the book, facial acting in the story is expressive (particularly in the case of Meru, who we see go though a lot), though many of the characters (such as Henry Lyme) have an impassive appearance and keep their outer expressions of emotion in check (possibly as a result of their Mind Management training).
Kindt has created a dense, compelling world. The agents who once comprised the Mind Management Organization are an extraordinary group of people with remarkable abilities. Twin sisters who artwork and books are capable of starting riots. A man capable of reading every mind simultaneously within a 5-mile radius, giving him the ability to anticipate the future. A man capable of creating subliminal advertisements capable of starting revolutions. Men and women who can manipulate the emotions and memories of everyone around them. People who have used their minds to conquer their bodies, so they are essentially immortal. All of these people were once part of the government agency known as Mind Management, and they used their abilities to serve those in control of this agency.
They're remarkable people, and the world of Mind MGMT doesn't make clear where exactly these abilities come from, but its not a world of mutants, just people who can use their minds to perform extraordinary tasks. However, with extraordinary power comes extraordinary cost. Much like in Ales Kot's Zero (reviewed here), essentially everyone involve in Mind Management is a broken person, to one extent or another. They often seem to be broken in some ways by the time they're recruited to Mind Management at a young age, as being so very different from their family and peers would be profoundly alienating. Mind Management reshapes them and gives them purpose, but in doing so emotionally breaks them in other ways, as a result of the often very dirty work they do in service of the organization. Sometimes, their own abilities break them. Sometimes, when Mind Management has no more use for them, it gets rid of them (one way or another).
Without giving away too much, Meru's connections to Mind Management have had a profoundly damaging effect on her life. Her ability to overcome this is shown effectively throughout the story, as she demonstrates her strength and determination despite the damage done to her (but the difficulties and struggles in her life can be directly traced back to her connections to Mind Management). Henry Lyme is Mind Management's greatest and most powerful Agent, and a master manipulator of others. Eventually, even he starts to mistrust his own reality. Even he feels manipulated and doesn't know if the feelings of those around him are real, with devastating consequences for him and others. Another character's ability to predict the future essentially causes all of the relationships in his life to lose value. He knows exactly what a person wants, what they're thinking; imagine the boredom that would set in, and the potential consequences of that boredom.
Moreover, in addition to the individual problems of the Agents, Kindt shows ultimately that the people who run Mind Management don't necessarily have any idea what they're doing, both when it comes to the macro-level consequences of of manipulating society, and the individual consequences of training incredibly powerful, unstable people to undertake highly problematic work. If the lives of the Agents seem like collateral damage? They are. And if that makes you uncomfortable? It should.
Mind MGMT is not an easy read (and to really get the story, you should go to the beginning). However, for those looking for a visually unique, engrossing and rewarding story which will make you think about all the ways in which your mind is being toyed with, it's a must-read.
Mind MGMT #27 will be out on Wednesday, October 29th, from your favorite local comic shop or on the Dark Horse Digital App. The first 18 issues are available in trade form across three volumes.
* Full disclosure, I haven't read every book currently on sale.
** You know, Busytown, Lowly Worm, etc.