Sunday, April 5, 2009

Trying to fill the void...

As you can probably tell from past posts, I am quite a fan of Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica and an card-carrying Trekkie. With the final episode of BSG behind us and the new Star Trek movie still months away, I am in desperate need of a science fiction fix. So, TO THE LONGBOXES! To be honest, I've actually been saving something for just such an occasion. One of my many jaunts to the quarter bins turned up these: Marvel's Open Space #1, 2, and 3. I had never even heard of this series before I bought them, but they did look interesting. They are prestige format books put out by "Marvel Graphics" which I can only assume was some type of Marvel graphic novel imprint in the late 80's and early 90's. Conceptually, the series is the "world's first shared universe SF anthology in comics form" according to the foreward by Kurt Busiek who edited the series and went on to write the Avengers, Justice League, Astro City, and a whole lot more. The series brings famous science fiction writers together with well known comic artists to create stories set in a dystopian future. Think Heavy Metal minus the glowing green ball or the aliens and you have a pretty good idea of Open Space (and if you have never seen Heavy Metal, what are you doing reading this blog?).

Have you ever had so many different comments and thoughts about something that you can't articulate any of them coherently? It feels like a whole bunch of people trying to get through a door at the same time. Reading Open Space has caused this exact phenomenon. I will try to boil it down to the most important points for the sake of you, the reader, and my own sanity. I guess I should probably start with the positives. The art of the series is probably the most obvious strength of the series. While you have to look past the coloring on some of the stories due to fact they did not have the coloring techniques we have today, the pencils and painted works are amazing. Each writer's story is paired perfectly with the artist. Just like Heavy Metal, the art complements each story and shows the contrasts that are needed in any anthology series, even those that share a universe. There are definitely some artists whose names I will be looking for now that I have seen what they can do in Open Space. Of course art is not the only thing. Many of the stories can stand on their plot alone. Even though some fall into common science fiction tropes, they were all interesting enough to keep me reading. My favorite, titled "Heroes" from the first issue, written by G. Harry Stine and Kurt Busiek with art by Bill Wray. "Heroes" revolved around a con man whose ever growing cons eventually lead to his death and the false belief of thousands that he was a martyr for their freedom from the tyrannical supercompanies. Lastly, the last aspect of the series taht I enjoyed was a little more tangential. Obviously, most if not all of the stories are a product of and commentary on the United States and Reaganomics. When this series came out, the US was just transitioning out of Ronald Regan's presidency, but negative feelings of his economic policies still lingered. The whole Open Space universe and its companies taking over the government are proff of that. Comparing the series to the feelings of the country today in our economic crises shows some eerie similarities.

Now the idea of a sci-fi anthology series is not unheard of, but a "shared universe" sci-fi anthology is a very lofty goal and harder to execute by definition. The idea of a shared universe causes one of the most aggravating aspects of Open Space. Now I know that the term "continuity" has become the word that shall not be uttered among comic fans lately, but when the foreword of the first issue makes such a big deal of the fact that all of the stories in the series exist together, then continuity should be considered pretty important. The sad fact is that continuity errors litter the series and drove me crazy. I wasn't surprised though. When you bring famed sci-fi writers in to write their stories and then tell them that they have to shoehorn them into a particular universe, there are going to be problems. First, there is a lack of definition to the universe. What I mean by that is certain facts about the Open Space world were obviously written in some manifesto somewhere that was given to all the writers but explanations for these things were never given. I assume the writer just said "OK" when they read these tidbits and didn't have any desire to explain them in their respective stories. For example, throughout all three books, there are a lot of characters with the last names "Etchison" and "Brody." I wish they would explain why, but they don't. From what you can infer, it seems like the two names are class identifiers with the richest of the rich taking the Etchison name and the dregs of society called Brodys. The other big problem is that some writers just shaped the structure of the Open Space society as it fits the story. While some stories operated according to the timeline on the inside cover of the second and third issues, some just went their own direction. One of the most important factors of universe is that the major companies of the United States have taken over the government. Some of the stories though still mention specifc goverment agencies that other stories have said no longer exist as they were replaced by particular companies. As any nerdy comic reader knows, a shared universe can be a major strength or a major weakness, and I think it detracted a bit for the Open Space series as a whole.

Even considering the frustrations I had, I am glad that I found Open Space because it is good to see that at some point Marvel was willing to try something very unique for its time and 180° from anything they were working on. Original ideas are the lifeblood of the comics industry, and I think the idea of a shared sci-fi universe should be dusted off by one of the indy companies. They could have a very popular book on their hands if it is done right.


Matt said...

sounds cool.

Andrew Steven Harris said...

Oh, hey, I remember this series. The Smoots Drive, right? I actually thought that lots of that stuff was pretty interesting, if a bit uneven (which seems to echo your thoughts). I credit Marvel for trying something out of the box, at the very least, at a time when that really wasn't happening all that much.

And that Marvel Graphics "M" logo is actually the only time it was ever used--an odd little piece of trivia.