The Massive: A Retrospective and Review Part 1
By Brian Wood, Kristian Donaldson, Garry Brown, Dave Stewart, Jordie Bellaire, Denijel Zezelj, Gary Erskine and Declan Shalvey
“They say history never forgets. But history ended the day the Crash began.”
December 24, 2014 saw the release of The Massive #30, bringing to a close Brian Wood’s environmental epic that began well over two years ago with a series of 8-page shorts in Dark Horse Presents. Asking the question, “What does it mean to be an environmentalist at the end of the world?” The Massive took readers on a journey around a broken world while examining its effects on the psyches and actions of humanity post-Crash, specifically the direct-action environmentalist crew of The Kapital as it searches for its missing sister ship, The Massive. Unrelenting in its starkness, consistently alluring in its visuals and all together colossal in scope, this was and is a series that needs to be read, remembered and reflected upon.
“We stay alive, we stay functional, we help put the pieces back together.”
Sure, the setting is ostensibly a commentary on climate change geopolitics on its surface, but the catastrophic repercussions aren’t up for debate; they’ve already happened before we’re introduced to the cast. Instead, The Massive is an intricately woven patchwork of genres, taking cues from The Walking Dead, Band of Brothers, Whale Wars and even Lost. It’s about survival, it’s about history, and it’s about reconciling past demons. It’s an examination of how to change who we are and our relationships with each other and our world. And, bleak as it often is, it’s also about hope. It isn’t a corny “you have to hold on” or a faith-based “brighter days ahead” type of faith, no, it’s the recognition that both because of who we are and in spite of what we’ve done, there’s a shot at a second chance. The members of Ninth Wave, the activist group founded by The Massive’s lead character, Callum Israel, work to find their role in a new world, where their past experiences and beliefs are often in conflict with their new circumstances, but have to rely, question and adapt them in order to press on.
“I believe The Massive floats, but I do not believe it wants to be found.”
Structurally, the series is largely comprised of three-issue storylines, save for its six-part conclusion, totaling in nine. Appropriately, the pacing story ebbed and flowed throughout, but stalwartly held true to the undercurrent themes and the development of its characters. There was action aplenty and tranquil moments of relief, but there was also a building tension, an omnipresent sense of unease even in moments of triumph. Starting after one catastrophe, Wood instills a feeling that everything is still just experiencing the calm before the real storm. It isn’t until the series’ halfway point that the reader begins to comprehend that Wood has been carefully and tacitly sculpting a mystery tale. There was always the uncertain circumstance of what caused the Crash to occur at such an accelerated rate, but well beyond that there were inconspicuous clues doled out all along the way that hinted at another, though intertwined, set of unasked questions. While The Massive is inextricably rooted in these thematic mysteries and socio-ecological issues, perhaps the greatest success of its run is the great depth given to each and every one of its characters.
“But we need to know what we’re doing now. Are we still Ninth Wave? No one feels safe or secure. Just take care of us, Callum, and we’ll have your back. Always. We can still change the world, right?”
The crew of The Kapital is diverse, not just in nationality or ethnicity, but in life experience. Understood to have banded together under a shared banner of protecting the environment, the post-Crash reality immediately forces each of them to ask how they can possibly hope to save the planet when they’re barely able to save themselves. If the stated mission of the book is to find the missing ship and unravel the larger mystery of how things came to be, then the complementary journeys of each character’s growth are the water that the reader sails on to get there. There’s the young idealist, Ryan, the sole American on board who’s simultaneously guarded, yet trusting. There’s Lars, loyal to a fault; so dedicated to the cause, he’s never even thought about alternatives. There’s Mag, a soldier to the cause and the brother figure to Cal in more ways than one who’s distrust is rooted in an inability to resolve his own past demons. Of course there’s the Captain, Callum Israel (Call ‘em, Ishmael?) whose arc is immense and often painful as he struggles to come to terms that sometimes one’s only options are to change or die even as he chases his own white whale for reasons both altruistic and self-serving. And then there’s Mary. There was always Mary. In all, the journeys that each individual character takes throughout this voyage are radically heartfelt, believable and complex. Each one faces the uncomfortableness of trying to reconcile who they were with who they are going to be in a world no longer familiar.
The Massive Vol 1: Black Pacific (issues #1 – #6)
The series initial volume contains the two arcs, “Landfall” and “Black Pacific”, wherein Wood and artist Kristian Donaldson introduce us to the state of a post-Crash world. Interspersing the narrative with a recounting of the series of catastrophic events that eventually culminated in what is now referred to as the Crash, there’s a cold sterility to the opening arc. Sure, that’s partially due to the frozen setting of the Kamchatka Peninsula and the matter-of-fact newsreel feel to the presentation of Crash-related events, but there’s also a cold efficiency to the characters and their relationships to each other. They’re all capable and seasoned, Lars at the radar, Mag with munitions, Mary leading an away team mission, Cal giving the orders, even if they are themselves still in a very dense fog at this juncture, both literally and figuratively. While things heat-up quickly with the start of the second arc, The Massive is still instantly captivating. Brian Wood begins to dole out his world-building in well-balanced bites, weaving the (fictional) historical information between the current crisis The Kapital is facing (pirates! lack of supplies!) and hinting at the larger mystery of why The Massive can’t be found. Its clear Wood has done his research regarding climate change, but there’s an authenticity to the maritime and military aspects to the book as well, blending terminology and aesthetics that further flesh out the unfolding events.
Kristian Donaldson was an inspired choice for the first three issues, though he would not return to the series thereafter. Visually, there’s something so structural, so finely plotted about Donaldson’s style. It’s as though he’s a master architect and every page is another building. His lines are as sharp as any you’ll ever see, ruled and paper thin, and not a single object is spared of his minute attention to detail. The Kapital looks and feels inexplicably real, every dial, every knob, every dual pane of glass, every line of every metal grate, it’s all painstakingly presented. Beyond just the enormity of ridged detail the backgrounds and landscapes (the cityscapes are particularly astounding) receive, Donaldson’s characters are ridged and angular, surprisingly more expressive than one might expect. The clean efficient style of surgeon-like Donaldson was a perfect choice to bring people into this cold, new world.
Garry Brown would go on to be the series’ most frequent artist, but he makes his debut in issue #4. Over the course of the series the reader can see an evolution to Brown’s art that’s extremely interesting to watch unfold, eventually become much looser than what we see here, which is still magnificent. The wear and tear on the characters is much more evident under the heavy blacks of Brown, who also instills a moodier, near-noir type of raggedness to the world that is at times reminiscent of Sean Phillips.
Connecting it all together are the colors of the perpetually award-winning Dave Stewart, who does what he does best: creates an atmosphere and mood that perfectly matches the tone of the book. Flashbacks are brilliant fully filtered scenes of muted orange or blue or purple and each one resonates with you long after you’ve turned the page. Scenes in the present are often murky and frequently intentionally uncomfortable thanks to his masterful touch.
This first volume instantly pulls you in, even as it is still trying to find its footing a little. There’s so much to introduce and Wood deftly knows when to restrain himself, allowing the focus to be on the characters’ past and the surreal present. This opening trade in one word: survival. And while it’s all pretty great stuff, the real highlight of not only this collection, but of the entire run, is issue #5, entitled “Antarctica.”
“It doesn’t matter now…just be better.”
The Massive Vol 2: Subcontinental (issues #7 – #12)
“Subcontinental” brings our crew to the Deep Space Nine of The Massive’s universe, Moksha Station and all the conflict that goes with it, including grand theft submarine and the sowing of secrets that will continue to haunt characters to the very end. Really, the idea of trust is what’s at the heart of the events that unfold in this volume’s opening three issues. Can Mag trust Georg, can Ryan trust Mag, can Cal trust Mary, does Mary trust anyone? Secrets begin to pile up and a supposed utopian oil rig society that the crew sought for refuge quickly becomes ground zero to internal (and external) strife. Wood is in full control at this point, directing the pace of the series to a crescendo of mystery and action while allowing for a steady development of wonderfully relatable flawed characters. While the first part of this volume focuses on the action-heavy events on the Moksha, the second half, titled “Polaris” is rife with great character work that has a serenity about it as it delves into the psyches of Cal and Mary. This is Cal at his most Ahab, obsessively chasing The Massive to the detriment of himself and his crew; he’s a broken man in a broken world. Mary remains the steadfast and noble voice of reason, strong as anyone left in this hardened world.
Garry Brown and Dave Stewart again masterfully handle the art duties for “Subcontinental” (their collaborative work on the tumultuous storm-stricken sea is phenomenal) only to turn over the reins to a showcase of various artists in each of the three installments of “Polaris” including coloring machine Jordie Bellaire and pencils from Gary Erskine, Declan Shalvey and Danijel Zezelj. Each brings their own voice to the book, Erskine with heavy and vivacious facial-expressions, Shalvey a sharp and kinetic line, and Zezelj a haunting gravity that feels like a punch and a hug at the same time.
Wood and co. blend genres and skillfully shift tones throughout this volume, allowing for every cast member to have their moment, some more devastating than others, but all equally powerful. One mystery deepens and another is forming without the reader even being fully aware, while secrets between the crew begin to swell the tension to palatable heights. It’s smart and satisfyingly depressing storytelling that hooks you in for the long haul.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this Retrospective/Review, featuring the final three volumes of The Massive.