Today, Drew and Ryan are discussing Mayday 1, originally released November 2nd, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: Logic puzzles often include a clause that all actors within the puzzle are perfectly rational and possess infinite intelligence — a fact that those actors must also understand in order to properly interpret the behavior of other actors within the scenario. Like physics problems that ignore friction, those assumptions lead to simple, elegant answers on the page, but break down completely in the real world. Such is the case with Alex de Campi and Tony Parker’s Mayday, which finds a straightforward Cold War espionage story beautifully complicated by some decidedly non-rational actors. The results spiral out of control in magnificent fashion, carrying this spy thriller in unexpected directions.
As I said, the premise is as straightforward as can be: high-ranking soviet general offering valuable intelligence to the US is killed by a Russian assassin in L.A. This issue is largely about that assassin’s escape, which takes some unexpected turns. First up, his partner/handler/getaway driver isn’t exactly the soviet patriot we might imagine a KGB officer to be.
Coca Cola isn’t her only indulgence — her affinity for British Rock and following dirty hippies into the desert for a happening makes this feel more like a study abroad term than a top secret state mission. Or, as she puts it: “This is our one chance to see America.”
Whether he’s less interested in Americana or just afraid of getting exposed, Felix is far less interested in detours. Whether assumption that the nudist he ultimately sleeps with has “many diseases” stems from a Russian view on promiscuity in general or of Americans in particular isn’t clear, but either way, he’s not having fun. Of course, much of that has to do with the fact that he’s also been heavily dosed with Sodium Pentothal and LSD-laced Vodka.
Which brings me to the other non-rational actor in the story: FBI Palm Springs SAC Pete Stomparelli. We get to know exactly what kind of “bureau yahoo” he is throughout the issue, but Parker and colorist Blond make it clear from his introduction — notice how Stomparelli’s casual blue suit sets him apart from all of the other agents:
It’s a visual gag Parker returns to throughout the issue, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work every single time. This guy’s emphasis on appearances over competence is on display throughout the issue, from his far too lax surveillance practices to his baffling choice to lace the General’s vodka with drugs. Maybe he was just trying to get in the CIA’s good graces, knowing how much they enjoy dosing people with L.S.D. without their knowledge, but it sure seems like an odd security measure when there are so many able-bodied agents that could have just been watching the doors. Point is, Stomparelli is a buffoon, and his baffling decision sends Felix on an unexpected trip.
Parker and Blond render that sequence with some breathtaking imagery:
I know, I know, it’s probably criminal that I didn’t include any of the more psychedelic swirls of color but there’s just so much symbolism on this page, I couldn’t pass it up. I’m fascinated at just how much of a patriot Felix seems to be, so seeing images of hammers and sickles spring up behind him feels absolutely right. These are his most deeply held thoughts, and he’s trying desperately to keep anyone from discovering them. Meanwhile, he’s terrified at the spectre of capitalist excess that is taking advantage of him. He’s far deeper in this world than he ever wanted, and is terrified at both the world itself and the dangers of getting caught. That’s complex headspace for a series to get into so quickly, but this page goes a long way to carrying that off.
Perhaps the most intriguing symbol is that of the line of ants. I’m inclined to suggest that their orderliness, their cooperation, and their red color makes them a stand-in for the USSR, but I’m not sure what to make of that. They swarm over Felix, terrifying him, so he pours the remainder of his laced vodka over them. Is he afraid of being consumed by his country, or was this simply a means of getting him to drown a miniature symbol of himself in the same substance that is currently threatening to wash him away? Either way, the ant gasping the name “Felix” with it’s last breath is a profoundly disturbing image.
By the issue’s end Felix’s competence has been rendered null by the dual incompetencies of Rose and Stomparelli, as the drug-fueled sex romp has landed Felix and Rose in custody. That’s not a situation Felix would be in if everyone had acted in a purely rational fashion, but it’s where he’s landed this time. Will his wits save him, or will he have to rely on someone else’s incompetence? This issue did enough to get me invested in that question, but I’m curious if it had the same effect on you, Ryan.
Ryan D: I think I am interested, Drew. This comic is doing a surprising amount of things, small little choices, that give it a fresh take on the spy genre. This title does not pretend to be Velvet, but instead uses a lot of the same reference points to tell a very different story. Like you said, this is a “when the perfect heist goes wrong” kind of a tale.
One of the small touches which I enjoy is the stylistic use of yellow floating text, seen outside of any caption boxes, used as both exposition and onomatopoeia. While not a major point, I think it goes a long way to give a coherent style to this read to differentiate it from other comics.
Another thing which intrigued me was the use of music in the comic. De Campi, at the end of the issue, writes extensively about the choice of music featured diegetically within the piece. I really love this; the more senses engaged by a work of art, the better (normally). The last title I saw play with this idea of music was Ales Kot’s Material, but there is a huge difference in the function of music between the two. In Material, music was used primarily nondiegetically — i.e. for the reader/audience instead of being experienced by the characters inside the story, or as a sort of didactic means of adding flavor or subtext to the moments. Here, the songs are part of the world of the comic, and influences characters while giving thematic clues to the reader about what to expect.
The music also performs another great world-building function by contextualizing where in this decade we are, and with which group of people. The early seventies were a thrilling time for music. As featured in the pages here, the British Invasion of rock and roll was well underway, with some of the most iconic bands beginning their journey of popularity at this time; however, concurrently, disco appealed as the pop flavor, pandering to a very different crowd. All the while, on city street-corners, the advent of hip hop was underway as yet another point of counter-culture. I am interested as to whether different chapters of this story will feature different soundtracks depending upon the characters, their background, and geographical location….especially as seeing how American music might be the forbidden fruit to the Soviets.
Plus, did this chapter just end? We see the two main characters being arrested and the authorities obtain the inciting objects of plot device. That is pretty much the definition of concluding a story: party A wants something that party B has — when A achieves this thing, the tale has finished. Is this one of those kinds of stories wherein we leap from cast to cast, or do we keep with Felix and Rose as they work their way out of federal custody? I’d assume the latter, and if that is so, then I appreciate how the creators their own job more difficult for themselves; the best work is often written when then creative team refuses to let their characters off the hook easily.
I think that’s what’s going to make sure I come back, Drew. I think it will be a blast to see these characters go through a hard time in this epoch of America, and then pay for it when they get back to the USSR. Let’s see them work their ways out of that puzzle, shall we?
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