By Matt Hawkins and Linda Sejic
An end to world hunger through science, as funded by huge conglomerates? What’s the worst that could happen? Oh. Oh, my. How many dead? Well, okay, yeah that’s pretty bad. Considering the breadth of genres, ideas and perspectives currently available in the comic book market, it’s surprising so few are tackling real world issues with the level of care that Matt Hawkins and Linda Sejic put into Wildire. An examination of the GMO debate through the lens of a disaster-movie setting, Wildfire moves at a brisk pace without sacrificing a nuanced perspective on the dangers and motivations of those involved. There a few missteps along the way, but ultimately it serves as a breath of fresh air among the smog of standard superhero fare.
Dr. Beth Silva leads a team of plant biologists (including her daughter Violet, and the brilliant Dr. Dan Miller) dedicated to engineering crops that grow at an accelerated rate and require little more than 5% of nutrients, ostensibly ending world hunger as we know it. Her research, however, is funded by Biogenesis, a powerfully large crop science company equipped with an army of lawyers. After a particularly fiery debate with the leader of an anti-GMO activist group on a local news appearance, Dr. Silva may have exaggerated the progress of her team’s work thus forcing them to go public with an untested demonstration. Cue the “dun dun dun” sound effect. A minor scuffle on stage starts gets the apocalypse ball rolling as the genetic catalyzing agent known as ACR is released into downtown Los Angeles via the spores of a delicate dandelion. The end of the world starts with a gentle breeze and frail flower. Plants begin to grow at an alarming rate, mutating and spreading at exponentially wider radii resulting in fires, sinkholes, cats and dogs living together, you know, the whole nine yards of destruction. Dramatically hurtling towards a doomsday scenario, Wildfire follows the perilous actions of multiple characters primarily Dan Miller as he attempts to undo the damage he has wrought, local news reporter Michelle Crawford on her admirable mission to revitalize journalistic integrity and responsibility, and his sister Ashley and Violet desperately trying to survive what’s left of Los Angeles.
Every action, regardless of intent, has consequences. Science can best serve society by fully understanding the full scope of consequences for every action it seeks to implement. Matt Hawkins outlines one possible outcome for such eagerness and tactfully manages to balance both sides of the GMO debate while still delivering a modern sci-fi thriller. What could easily have come across as a preachy attempt to voice his own position, is instead a very thoughtful piece that considers the wide range of perspectives and intents of those involved with this very real scientific practice.
Dan Miller and Beth Silva may be the root (get it? Sorry) of the disaster unfolding through these four issues, but Hawkins does a wonderful job of developing them as sympathetic and culturally aware characters, fully cognizant of the arguments against their work. Once things hit the proverbial fan, Dan’s reactions ring true, fearing primarily for his sister’s well being and flustered at his powerlessness to help both her and the city. Hawkins paints Dan as believably vulnerable without reducing him to a helpless husk, keeping the reader engaged in rooting for him as the odds continue to mount against him. Hawkins fares equally well with the other leads, virtually all female characters. Michelle is impossible not to like as she rolls her eyes at the frustrating idiocy that surrounds her daily existence in the modern media. Violet and Ashley avoid ever coming across as stereotypical damsels, instead forming a strong bond with each other as they capably handle all opposition in their path.
Unfortunately the background characters aren’t nearly as strong, with several serving solely to conveniently advance the plot and provide exposition. This is particularly true of FBI Agent Mark Chen and Colonel Davis, both of whom are ensconced in a moral obscurity that often takes you out of the story, albeit briefly. Chen would appear to first and foremost be loyal to his assignment, but is willing to break a few rules because he believes Miller is the best chance at a resolution. At the same time, he hardly shows any concern for leaving behind dozens of people in a burning building as he comfortably flies away in a helicopter. If he’s to be understood as fighting for “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” it isn’t presented clearly enough and there’s also one troublesome instance of acknowledging an Asian American stereotype early on that is an attempt at levity that might have been best unused. Colonel Davis is the deus ex machina of Wildfire, appearing seemingly out of nowhere (there was a whole room full of decision makers prior to his appearance that are not seen again) and serves as the final word on how to end the catastrophic events. It’s a minor gripe and Hawkins doesn’t allow for it to overshadow the riveting events or their conclusions, which are thankfully focused on the far more engaging lead characters previously discussed.
Linda Sejic’s art is evocative and vibrant throughout much of Wildfire, sculpting a lush world that is hauntingly familiar. Most visually striking is her color palette, which runs the gamut from the dark, deep blues and fluorescent greens of laboratories to the fierce, lively orange flames of a city turning to ash and finally to the serene, bright yellows and hunter greens of flora overwhelming the landscape. There’s a nice restraint of overdoing effects like lens flares even though this is a very digitized artistic production. Sejic’s character work is strong when it’s on, like the many facial mannerisms of a constantly flustered Michelle or the visible despair cracking it’s way into Dan’s face as the story progresses, but jarring when it’s off such as when faces are overly simplistic in when shown in profile. This is no doubt the result of her process, which would appear to be digitally drawn in color in lieu of color and inks over penciled art. It works remarkably well in places only to completely upend itself in others. The highly detailed backgrounds typically look great, but also unintentionally make the more simplified characters look like colorforms plopped atop a pre-rendered world. Sejic really excels at creating atmosphere that is appropriately apocalyptic and rigorous, creating palpable tension between characters and stifling feelings of dread as a city becomes increasingly unrecognizable. The art may not be consistent throughout, but the tone never wavers and the magnitude of different environments, from office spaces to laboratories to downtown rooftops to ruined city to a sunset pier, are all very well handled.
It’s clear that Hawkins and Sejic care about this issue and that their passion is reflected in the story, as well as the hearty amount of back-matter titled “science class” focusing on the actual scientific facts regarding genetically modified foods. More than just a soapbox to rant and rave about the evils perpetuated by faceless corporations, Wildfire can pride itself in presenting a judicious look at the honest facts that are often beaten into submission from the din of outcry from both sides of the debate. And it manages to do this while still being every bit as fun and engrossing as any disaster-genre story available. There should be more books that look to inform, contemplate and entertain as much as Wildfire does and it makes it a work that is well worth your time. Next time you pick up a fast food burger or generic supermarket canned corn, take a moment to remember the dandelion and make your decision accordingly.