May 12, 2020

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The Weatherman (Series Review)

The Weatherman
Created by Jody LeHeup and Nathan Fox
Written by Jody LeHeup
Art by Nathan Fox
Colors by Dave Stewart and Moreno Dinisio
Letters by Steve Wands
Design by Tom Muller
Edited by Sebastian Girner
Published by Image Comics

The Weatherman is an absolute blast of a story from a fantastic creative team that excels at the weird and chaotic. It’s also an incredibly profound story about coping with tragedy, the ultimately futile quest for vengeance or justice, and an in-depth exploration of ideas of memory and identity. And The Weatherman is brought to life by an exceptional artistic team that knows how to balance chaos and introspection and provide an overwhelming entertaining visual experience.

It is the year 2770, and humanity is scattered throughout the solar system, but most people live on Mars. Seven years earlier, there was a catastrophic terrorist attack on Earth where a virus was unleashed [Yes, the timing is weird], killing nearly all 18 billion people living on earth at the time. A terrorist group known as the Sword of God has claimed responsibility for this attack, which was apparently carried out by one of their leaders named Ian Black.

Nathan Bright is a gregarious, entertaining, not-that-bright weather reporter on the local news station on Mars. We first met him as he and his beloved dog Sadie are rushing to make it to work on time. His date with Amanda (who we are introduced to earlier in the issue bringing herself and an older woman, Mrs. Morgan, to a memorial ceremony) goes terribly awry when he finds himself surrounded by people who want to kill him. Amanda (who is armed) saves his life, and he subsequently saves hers. But as a capper to this terrible evening, Amanda places him under arrest for the death of 18 billion people on Earth. You see, she and others have reason to believe that Nathan Bright is in fact Ian Black, terrorist mastermind.

[Warning for dog-lovers: Sadie is violently killed in the first issue as she is caught in the crossfire] 

Nathan is taken into custody, and it seems clear that he believes he's Nathan Bright, and may in fact have been Ian Black. The government's main objective becomes to find the digitally-stored mind of Ian Black, because Black would have valuable intelligence regarding the Sword of God (and any sorts of future attacks they might have been planning). All sorts of craziness ensues, as Nathan and Amanda end up on the run together and are both considered to be fugitives. Their search for the digital files bring them and a whole host of others (including people who'd been previously trying to kill them) on a mission to Earth. As we and the characters in the story learn, some people did survive the virus that was unleashed on Earth, and things have gotten weird there. It's more than a virus, and, well, I don't want to say too much more.  There's strangeness and mysteries to discover.

You might also be thinking to yourself - a story about someone who thinks they're just an innocent nobody living their life, but they may also in fact be a terrorist and/or revolutionary? On Mars?  Sounds like Total Recall.  And you'd be right - there are ideas in The Weatherman that are clearly homages to Total Recall (such as issues relating to identity and self). But beyond that I would only say that if you love Total Recall, you'll love The Weatherman. If you don't love Total Recall (I refer only to the 1990 original), you might need to rethink your life.

As I mentioned above, The Weatherman is a series that's operating at a fairly high degree of chaos at all times. That it is totally bonkers is very much a central part of The Weatherman's appeal. But there's much more going on in the story than just a weird, madcap, sci-fi adventure. There's a lot of sadness and mourning and trauma on an individual and collective level. And our main character is dealing with feelings of grief for his dog and profound alienation from his whole sense of identity. It's a very a funny story, but it's also impossible to ever forget that it's also a tragedy.
All of the people in this story are living in the shadow of the fact that seven years earlier, the vast majority of human beings in the universe were wiped out. Everyone lost someone they knew. It's impossible to have not lost someone. By the 2700's, humanity has spread out throughout the solar system, but the vast majority of people still lived on Earth. So when the population was (basically) wiped out, this left an incredible hole in the human race which is very effectively exemplified by the enormous sculpture in the center of Arcadia (capital of Mars). It's an enormous globe of Earth, but entirely pitch black.

To truly bring something like that to life requires an artist who can show us insane action and adventure while never forgetting the sense of sadness and the stark sense of tragedy, or absence, that's always present. And I think Nathan Fox is a perfect artist to bring all of that complicated energy and emotion to life. I just recently looked at Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (Captain Victory for short) which was another showcase for Fox's incredible work as an artist. In Captain Victory Fox was paired with talented colorist Brad Simpson. Here in The Weatherman, Fox works with two fantastic colorists, the legendary Dave Stewart (Hellboy, Fatale, Gideon Falls, many others) for vol. 1, and the superb Moreno Dinisio (Black Science, Low) on vol. 2.

I spoke at length about how much I loved Fox's work in Captain Victory but I also think that his work has evolved since that book. Fox's linework still feels sort of jagged and organic (such that it is quite distinctively his work) but it also feels like it's gotten more precise and detailed over time. Simply put, his art feels like it is even more himself than it used to be, which is a great thing to see. Fox's sense of design in this world is first rate and fully realized. He's given Mars a real sense of place - it's futuristic and modern, and a little ramshackle, but still very much recognizable as a civilization built by human beings. Buildings, highways, vehicles, noodle shops (I really want to visit Brutal Noodles, a chain that's prevalent on Mars), they all have a well-designed and lived-in feel to them such that I understand and believe this world. Character design is exaggerated, sometimes comically so. But we never once lose the sense that these are real people with real emotions being brought to life. Fox is highly skilled at using facial acting and body language to portray some incredibly precise thoughts and feelings.

But Fox doesn't simply draw a cool-looking comic. All of his work is in service to storytelling, and this is never more true than when looking at his skills with regard to pacing, layout, and panel design. He uses a variety of panel layouts in order to closely control the pacing of the story. For example, very early in the first issue, we see Amanda and an elderly friend who she's brought to the annual commemoration of the attack against Earth. We follow Amanda and Mrs. Morgan as (through a series of page-wide horizontal panels) they enter, buy flowers, and make their way inside the memorial. The focus begins on their entry to the memorial/stadium, and it moves in on them as they buy flowers and them leave them somewhere as part of a memorial, and then it moves back out until the bottom panel shows just a glimpse of the memorial itself.

We turn the page, and are face-to-face with an incredible wordless double-page spread showing the enormous black globe. No words are needed, as the blackness of the globe tells us everything that we need to know about how people are feeling. There's a tremendous absence and darkness and void at the center of everything (it really looks like a hole at the center of humanity). Stewart's colors really bring that home terrifically, as the black just feels so much like nothingness, and is so clearly contrasted with the otherwise bright, sunny day, and the modern, futuristic surroundings.  Fox and his artistic collaborators know how to speed up and slow down time, such as on a somber moment as this, and in other quiet moments, such as when we see Nathan coming to terms with the fact that he might just be Ian Black, or in other moments of sadness, or memory.

Just to be clear, this is an incredibly fun dynamic comic, and it's chock-full of incredibly well-designed and well-paced chase sequences (lots of chase sequences), action, and fight sequences. Even in issue 1 there's a tremendous variety of pacing and layout. When Nathan and Amanda are confronted by mercenaries that killed Sadie and are trying to capture or kill him, we see what Agent Amanda Cross is truly capable of, as the panels speed up and show the focus on pinpoint moments between Amanda and the attacker (named Kade). Through a combination of focused pacing, and fantastic panel design that shows only glimpses of her movement, we see just how effective and deadly Amanda can be. The action, while frenetic, is never confusing. It feels like each panel flows into the next, and there are mini-panes within or around a larger pane, highlighting different spots where Amanda is quickly injuring Kade.

Stewart does remarkable color work during the whole comic, but particularly in this fight sequence. Up until then, the colors have been - if not "realistic", then fairly close to real-world style coloring. But during the course of the fight, this changes, and Stewart switches to atmospheric color backgrounds, and the rest of the world just becomes irrelevant as the only thing we need to be focusing on is the fight in front of us. Those mini-panels within or around the larger panel are all bright red with yellow lettering; they're incredibly striking as they highlight moments of broken bones, or slashes that draw blood.

Kade has grabbed Amanda by the throat and is on the verge of ending her, when, out of nowhere, Nathan stabs Kade through the chest, killing him. The colors in this moment are stunning, as all we see are Kade, a sword through his chest, and Amanda and her throat being crushed. And they are all colored completely in that same bright red (and yellow sound effects lettering), with a completely white background. It is a heart-stopping moment, both figuratively and literally, and a perfect combination of fantastic pacing and layout, and stunning colors. Both Stewart and Dinisio have many examples of detailed, thoughtful and specific color work throughout The Weatherman.
The Weatherman is full of such intense, pulse-pounding sequences. There's a ten-second countdown during the course of an issue that felt as intense and nerve-wracking as the adrenaline shot sequence from Pulp Ficton. And not to worry for fans of ridiculous comic-book violence. There are a few sequences of absolutely disgusting and terrifying violence as well. And those are also brought to horrifying life by Fox, Stewart, and Dinisio.

The entire book feels very well put-together in terms of production. Steve Wands does excellent lettering that conveys all of the incredibly varying emotional tones throughout the story. And the design of the individual paperbacks, including the fantastic logo, are brought to life by the always-excellent Tom Muller, who has done design work on some excellent comics (X-Men, Zero, Motor Crush, Vs., X-O Manowar, Divinity). I've also found that Muller has excellent taste in projects and that his involvement is typically a sign that a project is worth checking out.

The world of The Weatherman is suffused with grief over the tragedy of Earth. How do we cope with grief? It's a timely question, as our world wrestles with great loss. In some ways a terrorist attack is easier to cope with, as it gives us somewhere specific to focus our sadness and anger and grief, and it gives us someone to blame. For the people of Mars (and the remaining human beings), the loss of Earth is not something they can ever forget or ignore. What's left of humanity is a small sliver of what once was. They're just trying to stumble along and survive, and that's not even guaranteed either.

But because loss of loved ones was so prevalent when Earth was destroyed, the society here is griving in a collective way that I'm not sure that we've seen in our world, other than the Civil War or the two World Wars (well, ok, I guess we have seen it). but with an entire civilization bogged down in the stages of grief, it's hard for society to truly move forward. In part this is presumably because of a need for either revenge or justice, and the presumed closure that many people imagine that this might bring.

Which is it that people seek - justice or revenge?  Are they even different?  Is it possible to even attempt to seek some sort of impartial, idealized "justice" when society has been dealt such a crippling blow? It's hard to say, but it's clear that even those tasked with administering justice are not strictly operating based on high-minded ideals. After Nathan is first arrested and he is brought into custody, he's being held bound in a standing position. His life has been upended and he's mourning the loss of his beloved dog. He's talking about Sadie, and in response, Amanda brings him Sadie's corpse and drapes it over his shoulders. It's difficult to see, and it's an incredibly brutal and cruel action by an agent who is supposed to be acting with the motivation of capturing a criminal for the purpose of preventing any future terrorist attacks. Amanda knows that putting Sadie's corpse over Nathan won't "accomplish" anything more than simply compounding his misery and grief, which is precisely her goal.


Amanda's only motivation in that moment is a selfish one - she hurts and suffers (as she lost a son), and she just wants Nathan to suffer as well. And Fitch (her supervisor) calls her out on it. He reminds her of their actual purpose in tracking down the alleged perpetrator of the attack on Earth:
"Almost everyone in the entire system lost someone to these assholes! But what you've clearly forgotten is that our job isn't to punish the people that did this. It's to save the ones that are left."
Fitch has suffered just as much loss as Amanda, but he can see the difference between true justice (which is to capture a terrorist and use what he might know to prevent future attacks) and pure revenge (where the goal is simply to hurt Nathan in order to make him suffer, in the way that all of humanity has suffered).  But this isn't where Amanda's head is at, at least at the outset. And it's certainly not how most people are feeling. There was an annual memorial service to honor and remember those killed in the attack on Earth, and it degenerated into an angry mob. The people are tired of empty promises and words of justice. They want action, they need it. They want someone else to suffer in the way that they are suffering.

Enter the gangster known as The Pearl. The Pearl is a very powerful and influential organized crime figure in this world of humanity that remains. He's also someone who clearly suffered terrible loss when the people of Earth were killed. His agents are able to apprehend Nathan during the course of the first arc of the story. The other thing about The Pearl is that he's also something of a showman.  Broadcasting from an undisclosed location on Mars, he announces to all of the people of the solar system that he has incredibly powerful technology that enables him to be able to connect Nathan's mind to that of another person.

Once inside, the other person can create a fantasy of their own design, in which they can torture and maim and murder Nathan, again and again. He will experience all of the pain as if it were actually happening to him, but without the release of death. And The Pearl is offering the 100 highest bidders the chance to make Nathan Bright suffer for his crimes, over and over again. Eventually he will actually die because the human mind can only take so much. But before that he will be maimed and burnt and tortured, a hundred times over. Fox and (particularly) Stewart bring this to horrifying life, as we see many panels of Nathan being burnt up, over and over again. The vivid nature of the flames that are consuming him is almost overwhelming.

Pearl has brought the people the opposite of what Fitch is seeking. This isn't about trying to protect who's left. This is about feeding their basest, most animal instincts to hurt the person that hurt them. As The Pearl tells everyone "Remember...the more pain he feels...the less we feel." Is it true? I think there's some truth to this, as it's possible to forget your own pain by channeling it into the pain of someone else. There is a competing viewpoint that's offered by the President of Mars. She makes the point that Fitch made earlier, in a televised address. She acknowledges and affirms the anger of the people, and tells them how that anger motivates her administration every day to work to better their lives, and she reminds them that violence is not the answer, and it shows their enemies that humanity is as bad as they think it is.

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, The Pearl has no trouble getting people to bid on the right to make Nathan suffer. But I think that the comfort he offers people is both selfish and illusory. I do believe that The Pearl believes what he's selling. He thinks that by making the man who wiped out Earth suffer, he can lessen his own suffering, and he peddles this easy path to people who are all too willing to accept it. But hurting someone else doesn't make your own pain go away. It just makes you just as bad as the person you want to hurt. And your grief will still be there, unexamined and festering forever.

And what happens after they've tortured Nathan over and over again until he really dies? Will that bring back their loved ones? Will those feelings of vengeance be enough to comfort them for their loss? I suspect not. Not to mention, what The Pearl is offering people isn't going to make people's lives any better on a day-to-day basis. They're still going to be just as sad and lonely as they ever were. Ultimately I wouldn't expect it to make people any happier, nor does making Nathan suffer do anything to contribute to the overall well-being of what's left of humanity. What the Pearl offers is like a drug - it offers a quick hit of vengeance that ultimately will prove to be cold comfort to those that have suffered, and may also just make them seek that feeling again. Making one person suffered seemed to help a little, so maybe that's what they need more of.

Speaking of drugs, given the state in which people are living, it's not surprising that drug use is prevalent (and it's completely unsurprising that The Pearl is one of the chief suppliers of this drug). Where people are suffering, people will do anything in order to lessen that suffering. Here though, in the remnants of humanity, the drug of choice is "Nemo" which is short for Mnemonium, a drug that allows a person to relive their happiest memories over and over again as if they were happening in that moment.  The way people see it, their life now is nothing, meaningless. And The Pearl plays right into this, by offering up a few choices. You can give in to your anger and hatred and act out vengeance fantasies and cause real pain. Or, you can simply give up on the world as it is now and retreat into what once was. Neither of these in any way serve Fitch's goal of saving the people that are left.

We've established that pretty much everyone in the solar system wants to kill Nathan Bright, because they believe he's the terrorist Ian Black. But should they punish him? Is "he" even the person they should punish?  This is a complex question, and thankfully The Weatherman doesn't attempt to give us easy answers.  At first it seems pretty easy, to Amanda and to a number of others who want Nathan punished or dead. Nathan Bright simply is Ian Black, and must therefore be punished for all of Ian Black's crimes. As discussed earlier, Amanda is hostile and cruel to Nathan.  She's driven by her anger, but she's also driven by the idea that "Nathan" doesn't really exist.

First, Amanda assumes that Black is simply pretending to be Nathan. But then she comes to understand that it's a lot more complicated than that. In the future, the technology actually exists to remove a person's entire identity from their brain and store it digitally. It's also possible to create and insert an entirely new identity that has nothing to do with the entire person. So, Ian Black goes away, and Nathan Bright enters the scene. From Nathan's perspective, he's told that he suffered amnesia in an accident, and that his parents were killed in that accident. Anything before that time simply does not exist. So, Nathan goes forward from that time period and attempts to build a life and an identity for himself. And he does that, turning himself into the wacky Weatherman. But as far as Amanda is concerned, none of that matters.

For her, "Nathan Bright" is a construct created by Ian Black as a way to escape culpability for the attack on Earth, and the real person (Ian Black) is stored away on a hard drive. So at least at the outset, for Amanda it is easy. Get the hard drive, load Black's consciousness into his mind, and get the information they need. Will Nathan disappear? Sure, but he's not really a person anyway, he's just a construct. By treating Nathan this way, it makes it easier for Amanda to rationalize being cruel to Nathan. But it also gives her a sense that she is in fact punishing the person responsible for the terrible attack against Earth.

Is that true? Would she be punishing the person responsible for the attacks? I mean, if I kill a bunch of people but then I have no memory of it later on, can I say "well, I don't remember, so I can't be responsible"? That seems dubious. But it's still "me" before the killing and "me" after.  It's much harder to say in the case of Nathan. He doesn't seem to have any memory of being Ian Black. So is he?

These questions become more complicated during the course of the story, for us or for Amanda. Over time, she becomes a little closer to Nathan and comes to maybe even care for him. That's a definite problem though, for her. Because if Amanda cares for Nathan, then he becomes an *actual* person and he ceases to be just some sort of construct created as a way for Black to hide out. It's a fascinating question, and not one with easy answers. And it feels like the creative team will still have a lot more to say about this in the upcoming final arc of the series.

The Weatherman is a fantastic book, dense with ideas, story, and amazing visuals . It's an absolute must-read for fans of exciting and thoughtful sci-fi stories.