Friday, March 28, 2014

1987 and all that 025: this is it

by Matt Derman

Dakota North #5 (Marvel)
By Martha Thomases, Tony Salmons, Max Scheele, and John Morrelli

Before I properly get into the comics criticism, a bit of quick housekeeping. This will be the final installment of “1987 And All That” to appear here on The Chemical Box. As they explained in Episode 24 a couple weeks back, Joey and Alec have decided to stop with written content on the site, so I’ll be wishing them both well in all their future endeavors, and transporting this column over to the good folks at Comics Should Be Good. So look for more 1987 goodness over on that site starting next month.

For my last Chemical Box piece, I figured it’d be appropriate to go with the last issue of a series, and lucky for me 'Dakota North' #5 was not only the title’s final issue, but also the only one published in 1987, coming in just under the wire with a February cover date.  I’m not really familiar with the book or the content of it's first four issues, but writer Martha Thomases gets a lot of credit for filling this final chapter with fairly seamless exposition. There are several characters who only know some of the history and/or only understand part of the present goings-on, so a there are a lot of explanations in the dialogue, but few if any fall into the trap of having one character tell another something they both already know.  Though some of the finer details of what happened before aren’t covered, the long and short of the situation is this: Dakota North, her younger brother Ricky, and her cop friend/love interest Amos have been kidnapped by the evil Sheik Ibn Bheik because he wants to steal the pen full of nerve gas that Ricky has concealed somewhere on his body. Ibn Bheik is working with another foe of Dakota’s named Cleo, though the exact significance of that isn't really delved into. Dakota and company have to break free of Ibn Bheik’s grasp before he can find out where Ricky is hiding the pen, while at the same time Dakota and Ricky’s father S.J. tries to use what is clearly his own romantic history with Cleo to save his kids from that side of the conflict. It sounds a little convoluted when I write it all out like that, but in practice it boils down to the good guys escaping the bad guys in a classic kidnapping scenario. The heroes are literally tied to chairs with ropes on the very first page. It could not be more straightforward.

Unfortunately, the same simplicity that makes this story so easy to understand also prevents it from ever feeling significant or worth any real emotional engagement or investment. To be fair, perhaps I’d have more of a reason to care if I didn't come in four issues deep. But within the pages of this particular issue, nobody in the cast stands out as especially interesting or three-dimensional, and the action is too silly and bogged down with text to ever truly excite. The stakes also don’t feel all that high, in no small part because many of the key players seem to take everything as a joke. Ricky, the young man who’s actually responsible for the potentially devastating nerve gas pen, is more interested in watching cartoons than getting away from his kidnappers or keeping the nerve gas out of their hands. And for a primary antagonist, Ibn Bheik is too much a passive spectator. He spends a lot of the issue with a wide, dumb grin on his face while watching his pet bird get bested in combat by Dakota, who subsequently beats up Ibn Bheik and all of his lackeys with ease before getting away. Had he been a more active participant, actually pursuing his wicked agenda instead of just talking about it from a distance, Ibn Bheik might have added some fear or urgency to the narrative. As it is, he’s more of a clown, just a large, inept doofus for Dakota to trounce. He even causes his own demise in the end, when one of his henchmen manages to steal the nerve gas pen from Ricky, but then decides to use the pen to take control of Ibn Bheik’s criminal operation. The Sheik and his minion fight over the device and it breaks, exposing only the room full of villains to the instantly fatal gas. From start to finish, Ibn Bheik is the least threatening, least serious baddie he can be.

Along the same lines, Dakota North makes for quite the grating hero. She’s not entirely unsympathetic, but there doesn't appear to be any effort spent toward making her all that likable either. She’s abrasively snarky, and not in a good-humored way, but instead motivated by her constant impatience with others and complete, almost arrogant confidence in herself. I don’t mind having a tough, brave, no-nonsense lead character, but there has to be a balance, because if all of the hero’s lines are aggressive, insulting, and mean, it becomes progressively harder to root for them. I don’t know if Dakota is quite that bad, but she’s right on the border, taking herself way too seriously and coming across as cold and callous rather than merely focused. When she discovers the villains’ dead bodies at the end of the issue, her reaction is detached and stiffly sarcastic, like she’s neither happy nor sad that her enemies died, because she thought so little of them to begin with. That’s too harsh and angry a personality for me to understand or empathize with, meaning Dakota never fully has me in her corner.

Her father S.J. is troublesome in the same way. He’s clearly a devoted dad, willing to do anything to save his kids, and that I like. But he’s always so fired up, ever the cantankerous old man, with no moments of calm or thoughtfulness in between. He’s turned up to eleven, in an incessant state of flustered fury, and it makes him into a caricature instead of a real character. I suppose that’s true of most of the cast actually. They’re all too broad for anyone to be believable, but the story itself isn't nearly as wacky as the characters. While the narrative wants to be dramatic action-adventure, the people in it behave more like the ensemble of a goofball slapstick comedy, and those two worlds never merge satisfactorily.

By far the most jarring and legitimately amusing moment in the issue came at the very, very end, not even in the last panel but underneath it. After ending on a bit of a cliffhanger, the issue closes with the following sentence: “This is where we usually put the blurb for the next issue, if there was a next issue, but there isn't.” That’s as impressive as it is obnoxious, bold in it's honesty but aggravating in its suddenness. The story doesn't end, does not even attempt to tie up all of its loose ends, but then the series unapologetically crashes to a halt anyway. I assume this is a case where the cancellation order came in after the script for this issue was already done, or close enough to done that trying to cram in a complete conclusion would have been worse than the ending they went with. Whatever the external circumstances though, that final sentence certainly comes out of nowhere in the issue itself. I admire the creators’ willingness to end in such a surprising, possibly upsetting way, and the brazenness with which they do it. If you’re going to wrap up a series in the middle of the story, might as well be as transparent about it as possible.

Most of the time, if I read a comic this void of meaty material, it irks me strongly for having wasted my time, but 'Dakota North' #5 isn't even bad enough to illicit that powerful a response. It is so empty and silly that to feel any real anger toward it would be more emotional energy on my part than it’s worth. What I do feel is more akin to pity, like, “Poor little comic book, couldn't even figure out its voice before suffering an untimely demise.”

No comments:

Post a Comment