Motherlands 1: Discussion

by Mark Mitchell and Spencer Irwin

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

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Mark: I grew up in a fairly regimented househould. That’s not a complaint, it instilled a lot of (to my mind) positive values in me, but it did definitely affect my worldview. My parents are deeply religious, and accordingly, their religion guides them to seek out things that have redeeming value. Growing up, this translated into strong feelings on what is and is not appropriate. To give you an example of where the line lay: The Simpsons? Not appropriate. When I reached a more rebellious age I began to watch, when I could, things I knew my parents didn’t approve of, but usually with one hand on the channel changer in case they happened to walk into the room. Of course, as I’ve grown older, I’ve determined for myself where the boundaries of good taste are tread, but from birth, a sense of good old fashioned Puritanical Shame has been instilled in me, and occasionally my palms still get a little sweaty when reading a smutty comic, like my parents are going to walk in on me at any moment.

Simon Spurrier and Rachael Stott’s Motherlands 1 is smut — it’s shrill and pornographic and grotesquely violent — but it’s principled smut.

Set in a future where an infinite number of alternate realities have been discovered alongside our own, Motherlands is the story of Tabitha Tubach, a down-on-her luck bounty hunter (called Retreivers) in the shadow of her famous mother. And Motherlands works because its crudeness isn’t reveled in — it’s used to point a critical finger at the worst impulses of humanity.

Because despite the science fiction trappings, Motherlands’ world is only a slight exaggeration on our own, and the most dystopian elements are really a natural progression of the culture. On the first page, we’re shown a school where smiley faced emoji holograms drone on to bored, disengaged children. It’s not a criticism of teachers, note that the school administrators that we see are portrayed sympathetically, but it is the logical end result of our current obsession with privatization of government functions and the mercenary stripping of public education for parts.

On the very same page we’re introduced to Tabitha’s mom, a Retreiver called the Scarlet Sylph. Cameras follow the Scarlet Sylph everywhere, documenting her life and streaming to her fans; she’s crude and loud and she has a dedicated following.

That a foul-mouthed bounty hunter pandering to the base lizard brains of juveniles would be the most popular cultural figure of her time is hardly a stretch at all; a casual scroll through YouTube shows channel after channel fronted by shrieking young adults with impossibly neon hair slavishly adored by an impossible number of fans. Oh, and also Donald Trump is currently President of the United States.

It’s that prescient cultural commentary that ultimately won me over to Motherlands. Whether I like it or not, the way I was raised has me usually shying away from movies, TV shows, and comic books that glorify the most base sensibilities of frat boys everywhere. And while it’s too early to know exactly what the message of Motherlands will ultimately be, it is clear that there’s more on Spurrier and Stott’s minds than merely getting a rise out of readers.

What’d you think, Spencer? In our discussion of the first issue of Spurrier’s Angelic, we praised him for his world building abilities. Did you find that same deftness was on display here?

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Spencer: Mark, I’m continually amazed by Spurrier’s ability to quickly and efficiently establish entirely new, unrelated worlds in each of his creator-owned projects, and Motherlands is no exception. Spurrier gets the basics of the premise out of the way on the very first page, but continues to pepper little details throughout the issue, making his world(s) feel like a real fleshed out location with its own culture, customs, and slang.

The slang is especially a Spurrier trademark, and though he doesn’t lean as hard on it in Motherlands as he does in, say, Angelic, it still plays an integral role in making this world feel unique. I’m especially fond of the subtle slang above, the use of the expression “Christs” instead of “Christ.” The world of Motherlands is one where the existence of alternate universes is common knowledge, and the multiverse pools their knowledge and technology. Of course common slang and expressions would evolve along too to eventually be inclusive of all universes (since there’s alternate universe, there’s alternate Jesus Christs, or so the reasoning would go). It’s such a subtle and simple idea to emphasize the ways this premise has changed the very nature of this world.

Yet, the world of Motherlands doesn’t feel as foreign as many of the others Spurrier has created. Stott’s art keeps the series grounded in realism even when it’s at its most outrageous, and despite the multiverse-spanning concept, Motherlands’ techno-dystopia is recognizable in a way that Godshaper‘s alternate timeline or Angelic‘s far future isn’t. In many ways this feels like a future we could quite possibly find ourselves living (hell, Scarlet Sylph is just a cross between Kate Gosselin and Dog the Bounty Hunter), which allows for Spurrier to comment on modern subjects far more directly than he’s been able to in other series.

Mark already mentioned the similarities between Sylph and Youtubers, but this panel specifically reminded me of the more toxic and obnoxious corners of many fandoms. Yeah, sure, it’s tv stations and websites pandering to the lowest common denominator, but it’s also the viewers who think that watching a certain show or getting a certain joke makes them a genius even as the actual point flies right over their head. I can’t help but think about the unfortunately vocal segment of the Rick and Morty fanbase who think that liking the show literally means that they have higher IQs than other people. At first they just seem like a minor annoyance, until all of a sudden they’re standing on a McDonalds counter causing riots over Szechuan sauce. That the character saying all this is also a criminal spouting misogynistic, anti-SJW right-wing rhetoric isn’t too far a cry from where some of these guys end up, or at least from the kind of harm they end up causing.

Of course, at the moment details like this are still more side dishes than main courses. This is also par for the course for a Spurrier book — Godshaper boasted a deep mythology that was purposely left unexplored, while Angelic‘s post-apocalyptic backstory allows for Spurrier to better explore the ideas of religion and blind faith. While Spurrier and Stott seem to be having a blast with the various worlds and designs of their multiverse, it’s very much a backdrop for their story, not the story itself. I don’t know if Motherlands 1 gives us enough to really know what the overarching theme of this story is going to be, but one idea that’s certainly front and center so far is Tabitha’s wildly dysfunctional family.

Thankfully, I adore stories about dysfunctional families. Tabitha and Selina’s relationship is clearly going to be the core of this title — and I’ll get to that in a minute — but I’m also intrigued by Tabitha’s relationship with her so-far unseen younger brother, Buddy. She clearly resents him, but not because she’s in law enforcement and he’s a criminal (she makes it pretty clear that she’s only into this job for the money) — it’s because he left her behind with her hated mother. I can’t wait to see how that sort of decades-old resentment comes to the surface.

As for Tabitha and her mother, I think it’s interesting to note the stark differences between the two, and how they almost all stem from Tabitha purposely trying to distance herself from anything that has to do with her mother. There’s advances in technology, of course, but Tabitha’s clunky, function-over-fashion armor, her distance from her job, even her preference to take down her marks with brutal carnage are all clear contrasts from Selina’s MO as the Scarlet Sylph — Tabitha doesn’t want to be anything that her mother ever was.

Given this title’s focus on the more toxic side of entertainment and technology, I’m interested to see this dynamic unfold. Tabitha took up the same career as her mother despite hating everything she’s ever stood for — why? Growing up in the entertainment industry, did she just feel like she never had a choice? Her violent methods are clearly influenced by the media, even if it’s by trying not to be like what she grew up seeing on television. Spurrier and Stott are painting a complex picture here, a portrait influenced as much by social commentary as it is by the personalities of the family whose story they’re chronicling.

In many ways, Motherlands‘ message isn’t as clear as Spurrier’s other series have been at this point, but that messy complexity is certainly a purposeful choice, because this world and the people in it are anything but clear, tame, or simple. A series this audacious, yet this thoughtful, with its focus on so many different topics, could make almost any point or go almost anywhere next, and its trajectory should be a blast to follow.

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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?

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