Stripped down to the panel wireframes and pencil sketches of its storyboard, The Massive: Black Pacific is a classic odyssey tale - lost child seeks parent in dark scary wood. Our grubby child is the Kapital, a "conservationist direct action trawler", its missing mothership the titular Massive and the odyssey our plot's spine, such as there is. Which just leaves Planet Earth as the dark scary wood. That we are far from some perfect Gaian equilibrium is made clear from the (literally) cold open, with the detail of how we got there retold in episodic flashback throughout. Earth has been rebooted here through a satisfyingly complex almost-but-not-quite-end-of-days chain of natural and human disasters. Instead of a Hollywood style single-serving armageddon, we have a complex, cascading breakdown of the global economy both after and during a series of mega storms, earthquakes, eruptions and tsunamis. As this catastrophe peaks the two ships become separated and the story begins.
This is, of course, a hugely ironic start point - what does one do with a boat full of tree-huggers AFTER the last baby seal has been comprehensively clubbed? The crew's attempts to answer that question is perhaps the most satisfying part of this graphic novel.
The Massive does have a "Season 1, Episode 1, feature length opener" feel, with lead players explicitly origin-storied one by one, but this enhances and layers the core narrative rather than disrupting it. Through a series of big-canvas, James Bond style locations - Kamchatka, Mogadishu, Antarctica, an evocatively flooded Hong Kong - the Kapital's struggles are neatly told.
As a reader COMPLETELY new to graphic novels, picking up the form's syntax, tropes and cadences took some time (balloon equals dialogue, rectangle omniscient narration). At first, I was desperate for MORE dialogue on every page, but, steadily, as the episodes unfold within the collection, the "reader" in me receded and I started to appreciate the storytelling subtleties, colour-coding and layered meanings in each art panel. The crash of a huge Red Cross Iluyshin IL-76 is perfectly rendered – every detail of its pointless demise communicated in just 3 widescreen panels over a single spread, without a single word of dialogue. Or, hiding from marauders in a fog bank, the chapter's visual palette is rendered down to a minimalist, oppressive blue-grey - a single red flash permitted just for a key narrative marker.
And, for a medium whose prime demographic is first world teens soporifically suckled on mainstream media, its politics are surprisingly progressive - Mogadishu 1993 is referenced not as a Pentagon wet-dream "leave no man behind" deluded military fantasy, but instead in almost Chomsky-esque terms - the misguided actions of an post-imperial bully. Or, the incredibly depressing global trade in shark fins gets explicitly woven into the plot without the reader feeling they've just taken one to the temple from a Greenpeace-branded piece of rebar.
Occasionally, The Massive doesn't convince. In an otherwise nicely handled "do we arm ourselves?" scene, it's arguably a misstep to hand the "we need to respect these places, not bring more violence to them" POV to the vest and hot-pants wearing, pert-breasted woman, whilst the black t-shirt, buzz cut special forces cliche gets gets to rock a 2nd Amendment riff..
The challenge going forward for The Massive franchise is if the over-arching narrative will attempt to keep the quested mothership ALWAYS just out of reach, which could be problematic. But, if the creators CAN pull off a "How I Met Your Mother, seasons 1-7" sleight of hand where readers happily live in the moment – backgrounding rather than forgetting the big picture, then this will be a satisfying series to dip into.
I don't think I'll ever become an episodic graphic novel fan, but I'll seek out and buy the second anthology when it arrives (hopefully in a better quality reading experience than a lo-res Netgalley PDF).
Politically aware and unafraid to run towards complexity, for a first read of a graphic novel, it seems that in The Massive: Black Pacific I picked a thoughtful and idea-rich starting point.
Copy supplied by Netgalley, opinions are my own.