July 27, 2018

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James' Take: The New World #1 by Ales Kot, Tradd Moore, and Heather Moore

 The New World #1
Written by Ales Kot
Illustrated by Tradd Moore
Colors by Heather Moore
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Design by Tom Muller
Published by Image Comics
If you’re looking for an entertaining comic with (1) funny, insightful, and sharp political and social commentary, and (2) ridiculously good, detailed, dynamic, next-level art, then you should be picking up The New World by Ales Kot and Tradd Moore, with colors by Heather Moore (I will refer to them by their first names for ease of reference). If you’re not looking for a comic with those things, then, well, you might want to do some real self-reflection.

The New World tells the story of a post-nuclear attack America, where 5 major cities (including Washington) have been destroyed as a result of the “Second Civil War”, and what was the US has re-formed into 4 separate nations, the most prosperous of which is a larger, more powerful New California (basically now made up of all the land taken by the US in the Mexican War). We meet Stella Maris, one of the stars of a very popular television show in New California called “Guardians” which is essentially a combination of Cops, The Running Man and American Idol. Guardians are bounty hunters/law enforcement that are given a target and a week to track that target down. 
Stella also happens to be the granddaughter of Herod, President of New California. Stella’s a popular Guardian but she’s not the most popular Guardian; audiences get to vote on whether the Guardian executes the captured fugitive. Unlike other Guardians, Stella never kills the fugitive. Given what we see of her life (her messy house, her desire for some moments of anonymity), she seems to have a conflicted relationship with her fame. Given that conflicted nature, I’m very curious to learn more about how and why she ended up in this very public role, functioning as an aspirational role model and something of a propaganda tool of the state.

We’re also introduced to Kirby, a rebellious anarchist hacker type who sneaks his way into the Guardians headquarters, in order to broadcast a pirate anarchist message. He definitely comes across as an obnoxious, self-satisfied, rebellious bro. But the story shows that there’s more to Kirby than “punk anarchist” attitude, through his sarcastic but loving interactions with his father. During the course of the issue, Kirby and Stella’s lives intersect in some interesting ways (the solicit for the first issue gives away more of this than I would have done) that will put them into conflict and make clear that it’s not likely that things will necessarily end well for both or either of them. The first issue ends with a reveal that you could maybe see coming, but is still jaw-dropping in the moment, and had me immediately wanting to know what happens next.
Ales Kot is a creator whose work always feels very current. It’s also fair to say that he’s a writer about whose work comic readers have pretty strong feelings. He’s an overtly political writer and he’s got a great handle on the zeitgeist. He pushes creative boundaries, and some of his work has been both challenging and polarizing. I’ve enjoyed a number of his stories (such as Material, which stretches the line between documentary and fiction), but in particular I absolutely loved Zero, Kot’s breakthrough work at Image. Zero was a brilliant deconstruction of the spy genre along with being a raw, current commentary on the military-industrial complex. Fairly or unfairly (probably just unfairly), I think I compare everything new that Kot has subsequently created to Zero.

But I’m here to say that The New World is one of the strongest debut comic issues I’ve read this year, and very likely my favorite Kot comic since Zero. As an initial matter, something I appreciated was that it was a huge, oversized first issue (60+ pages for $4.99); I think oversized debut issues are a great way to bring in readers (the creators of fellow Image books Monstress and The Dying and The Dead did something similar). The oversized nature of the issue gives Kot and his co-creators the chance to let the story breathe a little, and really spend some time setting the context for the world the characters inhabit.
There’s plenty of action and plot in this first issue, but Kot takes the time to give us the opportunity to get to know each of the main characters. We see Stella in her high-end but incredibly messy apartment, and we get to experience her pretty hilarious, witty interactions with the “internet of things” robot that exists to take care of her home. We also get to see Kirby and his father. His father is and presumably has been dealing with substance abuse issues, and while our initial impression of Kirby (at least my initial impression) was that of an egotistical hacker-bro, we see some depth and meaning in the relationship Kirby has with his father. Kot definitely knows how to quickly (in collaboration with the artists) establish the personality on a character. Kirby reminded me a little at first of one of the characters in Kot’s Generation Gone, an insufferable hacker who ultimately gets his karmic comeuppance. But I actually found myself feeling fairly sympathetic for Kirby by the end of the first issue.

So there’s some emotional complexity, great action,humor, romance and suspense. Even if you just read this first issue, you’re getting a satisfying, action-packed story arc (and what feels like a fairly full character arc). But I’d imagine that most people who read the issue will want to know more.
Speaking of the story, you know what it turns out I’m a sucker for? Stories involving futuristic reality TV shows (a fairly specific genre). But really it’s a great way to establish a futuristic society, dystopian or otherwise (though they all seem pretty dystopian these days). In stories like The Running Man we see American audiences’ desire for bloodlust pushed to its natural extreme. This is even more true in something like The Hunger Games, where the government uses a death-match among children as a tool specifically to inspire fear among the populace and as a constant reminder of the war the districts lost against the capital, and to exact the ultimate price by continually taking their young people and making them kill each other. 

More recently in comics, I would recommend Starve by Brian Wood and Daniel Zezelj, A series about a cooking competition show in a near-future America where the realities of climate change have made food scarce. In each of these diverse stories, these shows are effective ways for those in power to send a message to those without, whether it is to inspire fear, satisfy bloodlust, or give starving people the dream of gluttony.

Here, the notion of law enforcement as entertainment, where the population gets to vote on who lives and who dies? That’s kind of like Gladiator meets Dog the Bounty Hunter. And while that may sound like a preposterous idea, how different is it from the world we live in right now? Beyond just what’s on reality TV, people will do or say virtually anything for viral clicks. The more outrageous and extreme the better. And the other thing that seems to be all too prevalent these days are example after example of police harassing or committing violent acts against persons of color, or white people more generally calling the police as their personal “person of color removal service”. Is any of what Kot imagines really that outrageous? The Romans knew they could use bread and circuses to keep the people happy and entertained. Ours are just a little more high tech.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in The New World about politics and society, along with some smart interpersonal insights. But none of that would come to life in the way it does without stunning artwork from Tradd and Heather Moore. I believe I first became familiar with Tradd’s work in the pages of Zero, where he illustrated one issue of the book (each issue of Zero was illustrated by a different, great artist), and I remember then being struck by the dynamism of his linework, as he portrayed motion and action so effectively. In the 5 or so years since then I think his art has become even more dynamic and more effective. I don’t mean to exaggerate when I say that Tradd’s work in The New World may be the best I’ve ever seen from him.

I’ve heard Tradd’s style described as Manga-influenced. I will defer to others on that point (as my knowledge of Manga is fairly limited) but I will say that Tradd does have the skill and fluidity that I’ve seen in great Manga artists. Action and violence come alive in The New World. But he’s more than just effective at portraying action, he’s innovative as well. When two people come together in a crowded room, Tradd accomplishes this in a double-page spread in a clever, almost diagrammatic way, where we see each person at multiple locations rotating around each other and coming together towards each other (making something that looks almost like the shape of a cyclone). What really makes this double-page spread (and every other page of the comic) pop is Heather’s effective color work. In this particular example, she colors everyone else other than these two people in a more monochromatic and muted way, so that even in the middle of a crowded club, everyone other than these two people have essentially become background noise.
Heather does terrific color work throughout the comic that really enhances the storytelling. Where we see the first images of the shining New California (above), we see the city in the background and shrubs and other plant life in the foreground. But she just colors the vegetation with a monochromatic, flat black. These plants all have small, jagged points. At least for me, and I imagine for others, this creates the impression that one is looking clearly at the skyline in the distance, while the foreground creates the impression of fuzziness. It’s done in a clever and accurate way (as far as capturing the way our eyes can only focus on one thing at a time), but the foregoing is both fuzzy and pops out almost to the point of seeming 3-D. It’s thoughtful, detailed work.

Heather and Tradd bring equal levels of care and detail to every page of the comic. There are pages in the comic where you’re left to wonder just how long it took to create that level of detail. Where Tradd and Heather really shine is in their character work. Tradd has such a unique style of character design. Each character is highly distinctive, and also exaggerated, but not in an overly silly or cartoonish way. Stella's armor appears functional but also stylish and quite distinctive from anything I've seen in a sci-fi comics.  Within Tradd’s style, each of Stella and Kirby feel like “real” people. Both are attractive but not in some sort of superhero-model way. He uses exaggerated features to great effect in regards to facial expression, both human and feline. There’s a sequence where Stella’s car shows up and just goes to sleep on her head and it’s fun and hilarious and Tradd’s facial acting for both is just delightful.
There is something else, a quality that I was having trouble describing, that I love about Tradd and Heather’s art. It’s an almost tangible quality to the lines. In some panels their art has an almost three-dimensional quality, like the people or objects aren’t so much drawn as they are *constructed*. The thing this effect reminds me most of is not Japanese Manga, but Chinese dragon art, whether through prints or those giant puppets that take multiple people to control. There’s something cylindrical in the pieces that make up the edges of some of those dragons that reminds me of the texture that Tradd and Heather put into a character’s hair or clothing. It’s distinctive and evocative art, and as a comic reader I really can’t ask for more than that.

So if you’re looking for smart, fun, topical sci-fi, I’d recommend The New World both for its engaging story and for some truly stunning art.