October 7, 2020

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Review - We Only Find Them When They're Dead by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo


We Only Find Them When They're Dead
Written by Al Ewing
Illustrated by Simone Di Meo
Published by Boom! Studios

We Only Find Them When They're Dead (WOFTWTD, for short) is only two issues in as a series, but it's already one of my favorite comics of 2020. It's got a recipe for comics that I can't resist - heady, thought-provoking ideas, a compelling plot, interesting characters, and absolutely astounding, gorgeous artwork. Like some of the very best science fiction stories set in the distant future or on a far-off world, it's got imaginative and original ideas that also serve as perfect allegory for the world we're living in right now. So, come for the intriguing ideas and stunning visuals, and stay for the trenchant critique of late-stage capitalism. 
 
The story begins in the year 2323 with a mother and son (a boy named Georges Malik) aboard a starship, in a caravan of ships. They’re on their way to see a God. Humanity has mined all of the asteroids and other resources, even all the way to the edge of the galaxy. But over time, another source of resources has presented itself: Giant dead space Gods. So now, people make their way to these dead Gods, and and strip those Gods of meat, teeth, eye-fluid, bone, precious metals, and anything else of value that can be extracted. 

The story moves ahead to 2367, where Georges Malik is now captain of his own autopsy ship with a crew of four - Ella Hauer, the Coroner, Alice Wirth, the Quartermaster, and Jason Hauer, the Engineer. The story follows them in their ship (the Vihaan II) as a caravan moves to intercept the beautiful corpse of a God. As the caravan arrives, each ship quickly stakes out a claim to a certain part of the God’s body, or armor. This can lead to contentious disputes, or even (as happens in the first issue) a ship attempting to take raw materials and escape without logging those materials with the proper authorities. That ship is destroyed by the Escort One, one of the ships accompanying this caravan which ships are tasked with providing security, mediating disputes, and (probably most importantly) making sure no one gets away without paying their fair share in taxes.As the story continues into the second issue, Malik wants out of this world. He wants to find a living God, and his crew seems willing to join him.


WOFTWTD is many things, but it is first and foremost a stunning work of art thanks to the gorgeous work of Simone Di Meo. I wasn’t familiar with Di Meo’s work prior to this series, but I’ve seen enough to say that I'll probably pick up most anything Di Meo does, regardless of the prject. He’s that good. Di Meo has a number of considerable tasks, even just in the first issue. He’s got to introduce us to the main characters and the world/setting, convincingly portray a ethereally Beautiful Dead Space God, and show the act of harvesting that God for “parts”. He’s also got to show a chase/battle scene in space, which isn’t easy to pull off in a way that’s compelling and not hard to follow. I’m happy to say that Di Meo does all of these things and does them beautifully and richly in a way that brings this story to life. 

Di Meo has a style that’s incredibly accessible and appealing. It feels very reminiscent (to me) of classic Japanese animation from my childhood (Robotech, Voltron, Star Blazers). That isn’t to say that Di Meo’s  line work feels like Manga exactly, only that the influence of Japanese animation (whether in comic or movie form) feels present. But Di Meo’s line work is clean, and his panel layout feels very cinematic, such that you could easily imagine this comic on a huge movie screen (as an aside, I really miss going to the movies). Di Meo has a great sense of detail in bringing all of the hardware and technology of WOFTWTD to life. And perhaps even more so, Di Meo does stunning work in bringing the dead God to life (so to speak). 
 
Di Meo’s space god is ethereal (and in one gorgeous page, almost appears to be made of star-matter) and enormous, and Di Meo really plays quite well with perspective in order to convey the size and scope of the dead God. The coloring throughout the series is bright and vivid where it needs to be, as we see the light inside of the various ships contrasted by the infinite dark that surrounds them. And the light and color choices around the dead God provides a faded and almost haunted quality. Those colors, while faded, are still spectacular and feel more "superheroic" unlike the more natural, real world-seeming colors throughout the rest of the series.

 
Di Meo does something that’s somewhat tough and off-putting to see but really helps us get a sense of the world that we’re examining in WOFTWTD. We see the convoy of “autopsy ships” swarm and move all about the God, and then carve it up for resources. Di Meo examines the detailed process whereby the crew of the Vihaan II proceeds to carve up its piece of the God. We watch as this operation is performed skillfully, a little graphically, and almost clinically, as thick slices of the “good meat” from this God are sliced and stored. The process feels quite dehumanizing and a little unsettling, given that we first encountered this God as a giant being floating in space, almost impossibly beautiful and one with the stars. But this look at the process an autopsy ship goes though is (I think) meant to make the reader uncomfortable and shift our perspective to the way that the crew sees this whole process. This ceases to be a God. This is meat. This is a resource to be mined - and that the process itself is quite elegant is also unsettling.
 
Speaking of the process that turns incalculable beauty into a resource to be strip-mined, let's talk about the big ideas in this issue. You don't have to go all that far to see the ways in which this story precisely parallels the world we live in right now.  In WOFTWTD, the smaller mining ships have been crowded out by the bigger mining companies that receive favorable treatment from the governing authorities. Sound familiar? It sounds like it's become harder and harder for people to succeed in the God-mining business. We too have been dining on the corpses of dead Gods in order to sustain ourselves, given our dependence on fossil fuels.You stop and think about that one for a moment - "fossil" fuels. 
 
Think of the incredible, majestic dinosaurs that once roamed the Earth. Now we have gasoline in our cars. Even more broadly, we do to the whole world (the mountains we detonate, the forests we decimate, our poor oceans) what the autopsy ships do to one of the Gods - we mine it for everything we can extract, and then move on to the next one. The only catch is that with us, we're still on the only planet we have. There is no "next one" to move onto. 
 
 
As we see the convoy of ships approaching the dead God in issue 1 of WOFTWTD, we can see them essentially for what they are: parasites. They're a swarm of bugs, coming in to feast on the remains of something greater that was once there, and is gone. I think Captain Malik sees it too.  His family has been in this business for generations, mining the corpses of dead Gods for resources, scraping by.  We're all a little like Captain Malik, I think. We exist in a system that feels parasitic and unfair but it's also all there is. Or so it seems that way, in our late-stage capitalist society. It's clear that he feels the gears of the system grinding him down. But that's why Malik wants something else for himself and his crew. He has the goal, the dream, of seeing a living God. 

WOFTWTD does set up some interesting questions. Who are these beings? Where do they come from?  Why are they dead?  Why are they only found when they're dead?  Who or what is killing them?  These are questions of both a practical and existential nature that would seem to occur to many people in the world of WOFTWTD. The story doesn't tell us what people know about the Gods, other than the fact that they're only found when dead.  And Malik is intent on being the first to discover a living God. He's both literally and figuratively looking for the divine. 
 
Pretty much as long as there has been human civilization, there has been religion. Religion is one of our main ways of making sense of the world. Faith in the Divine has often been a great comfort for people living in difficult times.  I wonder about the world of WOFTWTD and the religion that people have adopted at this time. Have people incorporated the space Gods into their theology?  It may be the case that most people just think of the Gods as a resource to be mined. But not Malik. We can see the roots of this on the opening page of the first issue, when we see a young Malik and his mother. She (speaking of the Gods) says "they came to save us", and speaks of always thinking of the Gods with respect.  He's intent on finding a living God. I imagine this is about more than just curiosity or even scientific discovery. 

 
We exist in our daily lives and we often wonder "Is this all there is? Is there a purpose? Is there anything beyond the physical, tangible realm?" Of course, many people would say that the existence of this universe is itself proof of the existence of the Divine. The beauty and wonder that we see in the world shows us the power of divine creation. I can't really speak to that specific point, but I will say that Captain Malik is in a slightly different situation. He knows that there is other life out there. He knows that these "Gods" do in fact exist. 
 
Ewing seems pretty interested in ideas of the Divine. In Immortal Hulk, he's exploring (in real depth) ideas of the God of the Hebrew Bible, and conversely, the idea of evil as God's absence. In Valkyrie: Jane Foster (co-written with Jason Aaron) contemplated heady cosmic ideas such as the need for Death to continue to exist as a part of the cycle of the universe. I imagine that WOFTWTD will also serve as a place to explore some of these ideas, of life, death, existence, and the meaning of it all. And Malik and his crew are perfect characters to explore this, as they're seeking more out of life than what they have, and will serve as a great way for us to better understand the universe of this story. The "husks of great former celestial beings" idea also evokes other stories I love, such as the Guardians of the Galaxy movie (with Knowhere, the head of a dead celestial) and Planetary (where whole civilizations inhabit the corpse of a Galactus-type figure).
 
Now, are these Gods *the* God?  We have no idea. But faced with a world (or civilization) that is short on natural resources, and working in a job where one's role is to literally carve up the corpse of impossibly beautiful beings, Malik is confronted with the fact that he wants more out of life. He doesn’t just want to subsist as parasitic flies on the corpses of Gods. He wants to see a living God, regardless of the risks, and without any certainty as to the outcome of his voyage. It's a tremendous leap of faith (and act of courage, or foolishness, or both) by Malik and his crew, and I could not be more excited to join them on their journey in WOFTWTD.