Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, February 14, 2009
      ( 2/14/2009 12:17:00 PM ) Bill S.  


"I WASN'T THE SAME BACK THEN." Tough gals, tough gals. After debuting its option-friendly line of limited run comics with a batch of tough guys (is there anyone butcher than Hercules?), Radical Comics is pulling in the distaff warriors. Two new mini-series, Shrapnel and Warren Ellis' Hotwire, have premiered in the past two months; both feature shapely hard-nosed heroines kickin' ass and lookin' violently sexy on the cover. On Arthur Suydam's alternate cover to Shrapnel #2, for instance, our heroine stands in the midst of raging battle without a shred of the identity obscuring body armor that she actually dons in the story: to do so wouldn't show off her voluptuousness, though it'd probably keep her from getting killed in the first ten seconds of futuristic combat.

Let's take a closer look at Shrapnel (and hold Hotwire for another day): the first of a proposed three-part trilogy created by Mark Long & Nick Sagan, the first mini-series ("Aristeia Rising") is set on a future colonized Venus. There, the colonists face an invasion by the self-proclaimed Solar Alliance of Planets. Though the alliance uses the rhetoric of liberation, it actually has a more imperialistic goal: when a Marine colonel shows up at the Venusian White House, it's quickly made clear that unless the planet "chooses" to let the Alliance take sovereign control over the planet, the "military option" will be used. Because the first ish of the comic opens with a sequence depicting a group of Marines engaging in a simulation battle, we already know what the White House's answer'll have to be.

Between the battle exercises and the political ultimatums, we're introduced to the first mini-series' lead, a gutsy mining dame named Samantha Vijaya. Sam has A Past -- as do most of the miners on the planet -- but in her case, her personal history will come in handy once the fighting commences. Palling around with a pair of rough-hewn fellow miners named Randall & Jammer, Sam goes home nights to a chatty hologram modeled after her dead sister. The holo, we learn, is designed to help ex-soldiers deal with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, though why the figure is modeled after Sam's sibling is something we still don't know by the end of issue two.

We do know that our heroine feels intense guilt over an incident from her old days in the military, something that jeopardizes her friendship with one of her mining buds. The human story of Shrapnel, then, concerns our protagonist's redemption through battle, a familiar enough war story, but it's possible scripter M. Zachary Sherman (no relation) will still throw a spin on things. Sherman's dialog is largely utilitarian, though a brief confrontation between two human factions in a cantina is decently limned. On Venus, we learn, there are two types of humans: Helots, who were born normally, and Splicers or Genotypes, who were genetically screened at implantation. The latter get all the good jobs on the planet, while the former do all the grunge work. Of course, both groups will need to learn to get along if they're to push back the Alliance invaders.

The big question in a sci-fi war comic like this is "What are the battle scenes like?" As is usual for Radical Comics, artist Bagus Hutomo works a painterly approach, which is effective in depicting the dark scenes where our heroine drinks or wrestles with her conscience, but less clear-cut when it comes to presenting battle. Sherman & Hutomo are more invested in communicating the battle feeling than they are the specifics: all we know is that Sam, with her prior battle experience, is helping the Venusian colonists hold their own. "What the hell is she doing?" one rebel leader asks in ish #2. "I dunno, sir," another responds, "but whatever it is, it looks like it's working!"

Emphasizing chaotic battle action over easily parsed movement and tactics have become standard storytelling tactics for Hollywood war movies these days, so perhaps Shrapnel's approach is designed to enhance its movie marketability. I wasn't bothered by the battle murk any more than I was the confusingly mounted dog fights in Top Gun. The basic point -- that heroine Sam is a smart soldier who will use her considerable battle savvy to help her friends and adopted planet -- remains clear, much as we know that Maverick will learn through the course of his story to become a good pilot instead of an egocentric dick. Isn't that what war is really all about? To help each participant become self-actualized?

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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