Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Deep Sequencing: Space Crime Scene Investigation

Or a look at the use of setting in The Fuse Vol. 1 and Mercury Heat Vol. 1
by Antony Johnston, Justin Greenwood, Shari Chankhamma, and Ryan Ferrier, as well as, Kieron Gillen, Omar Francia, Nahuel Lopez, Digikore Studios, Kurt Hathaway, respectively

In my day job I have often meet accomplished clinician-scientists who have built careers on studying people with diseases caused by rare mutations. These researchers find interesting, serendipitous comparisons between people that uncover novel facets of biology and also potentially treat people with rare diseases. I think the same principle can be applied to comics: finding comics with some unifying aspect and contrasting how they approach that commonality can be informative. (A classic example is the different approaches to scripting a beach scene between Moore and Ennis.) And I think The Fuse and Mercury Heat are a pretty ideal pair to examine.

The Fuse and Mercury Heat are both Science Fiction comics that revolve around Space Police solving a murder. The Fuse takes place on an orbiting, power-collecting space station and is functionally a detective procedural that provides a social commentary and satisfying mystery. Mercury Heat takes place on Mercury, in a space colony built around exporting solar energy to Earth, and skews toward an Action-Sci-fi adventure with policing elements. While these comics are distinct from a plot/theme perspective, The Fuse and Mercury Heat have similar enough settings that comparing the two comics is interesting. Moreover, I think The Fuse does a much more effective job utilizing it's setting than Mercury Heat and I think it's instructive to examine this in more detail.

Before I do that, though, I'd like to just point out that I enjoyed both of these comics quite a lot. I think The Fuse is maybe the better social critique of the two, and is certainly the better police-comic with a much more granular and engrossing mystery. However, I also think Mercury Heat is a better work of Science Fiction: some of it's ideas, like everyone being freelance contractors working for a central-sorting AI-application, are kind of brilliant. My point is both comics have their strengths and both are worth reading; I just happen to think The Fuse makes better use of setting than Mercury Heat. 

There will be *SPOILERS* for both Mercury Heat Vol. 1 and The Fuse Vol. 1 below.

The cold open in Mercury Heat is that a man is stranded on the surface of Mercury. Mercury is noteworthy because dayside of the planet surface is inhospitably hot while the nightside of the planet experiences temperatures which are unendurably cold. The trick to surviving on Mercury, depends on living in the twilight/dawn region that exists between the two extremes and which, due to Mercury's very long day, moves at something like walking speed. So this man stranded on Mercury is trying to outrun the dawn and avoid frying to death. Except he can't and he dies by solar immolation.

The issue here is that this isn't at all clear from the artwork in Mercury Heat. The camera is focused in so far that as a reader I never get the sense of impending dawn or that the doomed man is running on the surface of the planet. Or really, that the comic is taking place on Mercury at all since what is shown is a non-descript Sci-fi setting. Which is, in my opinion, a shame because I think this could have been a grand, hook the reader kind of moment that doesn't quite work because the setting isn't used effectively.

The issues with communicating setting continue past the opening sequence of Mercury Heat. While the comic takes place inside some sort of Mercury-based space colony, I still can't really describe what that entails or what it looks like. Most of Mercury Heat portrays its world as a series of generic looking space-corridors and while there are some establishing shots (I've tried to gather the best I could find above), they fail to provide good information on what the Mercury Colony looks like, or what the lives of its denizens might be like. Like, I cannot tell you if Mercury has a surface city, a buried city, or as is the case in a few Sci-fi things I've read, a moving city that paces the twilight/dawn zone. Which is a shame, because it deprives Mercury Heat a sense of place, some degree of believability, and fails to capitalize on the awesome fact that it takes place on Mercury.

(I'm willing to concede that the narrow focus and sheer corridor-ness of Mercury Heat *could* be a meta-commentary/nod to other Sci-fi works that, constrained by budget, also go heavy on the corridor and light on the awesome space setting. I'm pretty sure the tight outfit and undesirable "personality type" of the protagonist (among other things) are an unspoken commentary/satire of the Sci-fi girl-with-a-gun trope, so it's not impossible that Team Heat is Doing A Thing. Or that what I'm examining here as an omission may actually be a deliberate creative choice.)

The Fuse, in contrast does a much better job establishing its setting. The comic also opens with a murder, although this sequence is much more mundane and takes place in a fairly nondescript communal space that could literally be anywhere. Immediately following this, however, The Fuse gives us a double page spread showing us the entire space station. This gives the reader an immediate sense of place and established that the reader is in a fantastical, space world. The juxtaposition of the mundane murder with the space station also helps establish one of the thematic cores of the series: despite the futuristic and exotic setting, the denizens of The Fuse are beset by the same squalor, corruption, and immorality as humanity always has been. This contrast between the Sci-fi promise of the premise and the mundane reality of the story really drives home the social commentary of the comic.

The Fuse builds on this setting and continues to make use of the contrast between fantastical and mundane elements. The comic takes us to what is recognizably an inhabited city inside the space station, or a wealthy suburb inclosed beneath a space-dome. It shows us a vagrant camp built into an out-of-the-way bit of station infrastructure. The comic takes the reader to a gravity-free observatory where station inhabitants can watch Earth (and where they explain the super-clever origins of "The Russia Shift). These are settings that manage to incorporate the space-elements of the station and merge them with recognizable, contemporary elements which convey information to the reader about things like economic class, but also carefully maintain the juxtaposition of the mundane and futuristic. It is very effective comics that really makes the most of the setting a socially conscious police procedural in space.

Mercury Heat does have one sequence that makes great use of its setting. In one of the final chapters, the comic's protagonist finds herself marooned on the surface of Mercury and, like the poor soul in the opening sequence, forced to outrun the dawn to survive. In this instance the camera pulls back to give the reader a view of rugged, craterous Mercury and the context to appreciate the predicament of the protagonist. The sequence feels dangerous and suspenseful and great, in large part, I think, because of the large scale portrayal of setting. It is also, I think, one of the most enjoyable sequences in the comic, and I hope, a sign that setting is going to be a more active element of Mercury Heat going forward.

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