Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Material 1, originally released May 27th, 2015.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Drew: Like most Americans, I first read A Tale of Two Cities in high school, and like most Americans, that experience utterly ruined the book for me. My 9th grade teacher proudly trotted out all sorts of historical information about the French Revolution, making it all the more difficult to keep in mind that its themes of privilege and oppression are, unfortunately, timeless. Indeed, I’d long seen the famous opening paragraph’s use of past tense as an affirmation of that historical distance, but only because I’d forgotten the less-quotable final clause that reminds us that this is mostly remarkable for being “so far like the present period.” It’s that same “present period” that is reflected in Ales Kot and Will Tempest’s Material 1, which offers a tale of many cities that is just as timeless as Dickens’, but also decidedly more of-the-moment.
Like the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, Material opens with the best of times, introducing us to MIT Professor Julius Shore as he offers a philosophical lecture on perspective. Reflecting that academic tone, those pages include a kind of footnoted bibliography, offering context for the ideas exchanged within. Those footnotes continue as the focus of the issue slowly veers towards the worst of times, but lose that hard academic edge. As we focus on a starlet’s would-be comeback at the hands of a hot young director, those reference materials shift to the likes of David Lynch and Jean-Luc Godard; as we focus on a scene of police violently breaking up a protest of police violence, those references simply become the names of victims of police shootings. These references don’t just place this issue in context, they reflect the things the characters most care about.
Which makes the fourth story, that of a recently released detainee of Guantanamo Bay, all the more chilling. His scenes lack footnotes altogether, leaving us without context for his experience. It’s easy to see this as a reflection of the opacity of what actually goes on at Guantanamo, where prisoners are held for years without charges, but it might also reflect his own loss of humanity — if the professor cares about academic books, the filmmakers care about arthouse films, and the protesters care about victims of police violence, this man cares about nothing, not even his dog.
Well, not “nothing.” In a cruel twist of fate, the only thing that allows him to feel anything is being waterboarded, which drives him into the path of a hardened (but not totally unsympathetic) dominatrix.
That’s heavy stuff, but Kot is quick to remind us that that kind of torture isn’t just the stuff of far off places, as his protester finds himself in Chicago’s infamous “black site,” Homan Square. Getting cheeky with the footnotes, Kot implores us to “Google Homan Square, Black Site, Unlawful Detention” before simply offering “your rights” as a reference. It reasserts Kot’s point about perspective — Google and our own civil rights are to the oppressed what great films are to filmmakers and books with impenetrable names are to academics — but also offers a real-world precedent for how a regular kid, protesting the death of another regular kid, might come to face the same kind of horrors our Guantanamo detainee did. The threat of those horrors is enough to make that kid sell out his cousin, even as the kid knows he didn’t do anything wrong.
If the story of these two innocent (and notably nameless) people having their rights crushed by an oppressive system seems utterly disjointed from the story of our professor and actress, that’s exactly the point. Being white and gainfully employed, neither of our “best of time” characters need to think about their rights, or even having a voice. Instead, they concern themselves with Turing tests and when they might get their next high. Shore talks a big game about perspective, but his comfort at the end of the issue suggests that he’s as locked into his own world as that student who walks out of his lecture.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, but it’s remarkably abstract. I suspect subsequent installments may find these stories intersecting, but for now, Kot mines a lot of tension out of simply juxtaposing these stories and allowing their similarities and differences to speak for themselves. There are only a few moments where different classes intersect at all — notably in the two “middle” threads, which arguably don’t reach the existential highs or lows of the “outer” stories — but I didn’t really leave space to address those. I guess I leave that as a hint to you, Patrick, though I suppose it would also be fitting if your response doesn’t acknowledge mine at all.
Patrick: Not only is it not clear that there’s any narrative or thematic connection between the four stories, artist Will Tempest makes the disparity between them even stronger with specific color palettes. Notice that each story has it’s own set of colors, starting with a drab set of grays in the professor’s story, and moving to less literal color choices as the cycle progresses. The filmmakers trade in light blues and tans. The similarity between those blues and the grays of the previous story make this an easy transition, just as it’s an easy thematic transition from academic to artist.
When we move into the protester’s story, the coloring starts to be more stylized, where dark blues and browns are punctuated by bold streaks of yellow. Sometimes that yellow appears arbitrarily, emphasizing something of the storytellers’ choosing, rather than actually trying to convey what color an object or person actually is. Favoring style over literalism even further is the last of the quartet: the Guantanamo prisoner’s story is largely told in alien purples.
And while I think you can construct a small narrative from those color choices alone, it’s almost more meaningful that none of these stories borrow from each other, nor do they stray outside their established palettes. These are discrete experiences by design.
The structure of the issue also contributes to the idea that these experiences are purposefully separate. The issue itself doesn’t make much of an effort to clarify itself in any way, but there’s a superstructure in place to help establish a predictable pattern while reading through the book. Every time we visit one of these stories, we’re always there for two pages — not a panel more, and not a panel less, and never with a little voice over or dialogue spilling over into the next. The stories are also always presented in the exact same order: Professor, Filmmaker, Protester, Prisoner. This happens three times throughout the issue’s 24 pages. Narratively speaking, visiting each story three times makes for a complete experience: beginning, middle and end. But visiting each story three times even works on a subconscious level — a pattern isn’t established by two occurrences of something (that’s just a coincidences). By the time we see each story a third time, the apparent randomness of Kot’s story is replaced with order.
Oddly, the only characters trying to make sense of this order are our filmmakers. The actress Nylon Dahlias and the director Sailor Rossenfield have an interesting, if seemingly pointless, conversation about about the Uranus-Pluto Square. I’ll let Nylon describe it.
I’m not totally clear on what she’s saying — how do two points in space form a 90-degree angle? — but the “square” language should make the point obvious enough. What’s a square? A shape with four sides, all equal in length, and all at 90-degree angles to each other. This issue is a square: we have four different stories, each one the same length. Hell, maybe Tempest’s insistence on the standard comics 3×3 grid is further evidence of the connection between this issue (and presumably this series) and this concept of the “square.” Nylon talks about how the elements of the square represent “extreme contrasts between the old and the new,” which would explain why none of these stories seem to have much to do with each other. However, what they illuminate together is inherently more than the sum of their parts. Like Kot, Nylon wants to let the superficial trappings of each story fade away so we can see “what’s underneath.”
So even if the series never unifies itself on one idea and never marries these stories together, the fact that they all necessarily exist in the same world forces the reader to confront multiple realities at once, and reconcile them all as one. It’s bold and fearless.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?