By Ales Kot & Will Tempest
Sometimes it pays to be patient.
My initial reaction to the first issue of this series was subdued. I saw some intriguing characters and ideas on display, but nothing really congealing into any sort of narrative (traditional or otherwise). It felt more like scattershot fragments than a whole. However, I stuck with the title and was rewarded with a second issue which I enjoyed much more. Kot’s portraits grew clearer as did the overall shape of his story. The various characters were all lost souls, adrift in a world which made little sense to them. This feeling of dislocation continues in #3, accompanied now by an even stronger emotional resonance.
Where a more conventional narrative might take its time setting up the plot, Kot is concerned with a different type of exposition. The reader spends time getting to know the characters’ states of mind. The emphasis is on ambience, feeling as the characters do. Only then does Kot begin to unfold his story. #3 is where this process really pays off, conveying theme and emotion in equal measures.
For example, the previous issues opened with Professor Julius Shore dispassionately lecturing. In each case, he was entirely disconnected from both his students and the subject matter, speaking to convince himself as much as anyone else. Tempest reinforces this in his art: from the professor’s viewpoint his pupils were one indistinct blur of grey; to the students he was a faceless shade of a man. That changes almost immediately with #3. Once again Shore is lecturing in the classroom, only this time it is while a belt of (fake) dynamite is wrapped around his face. More importantly, he is speaking with enthusiasm once again. This mixture of terror and excitement registers with the students who are depicted for the first time as a group of individuals, engaged in what is happening in the lecture hall.
Shore is not the only one who has uncovered new freedom in defiance. The actress Nylon resists conventional standards by declining to dye her hair any longer and tossing a (prop) gun into the water. The thrill of holding firm to her principles is enlivening. The mousey Nylon of the past is gone, replaced by a high-spirited woman who may be about to step further outside her comfort zone. Meanwhile a young black man is pulled in various directions by his radical uncle, his more cynical mother and a white law enforcement agent. Set firmly in the context of contemporary racial flashpoints, this young man is arguably further away from mental liberation than either the professor or the actress, yet, he still acts as his own agent. He makes a choice, which surely shall have consequences.
The most affective thread in this issue, though, belongs to Adib. A former detainee who suffered torture, he has struggled to resume a “normal” life. After the techniques used on him he can barely look his own pet dog in the face. He sees a dominatrix, then cheats on his wife with her. Issue 2 ended with the wife admitting to her own lover. In issue 3, Kot tenderly depicts that sensitive crossroads where a relationship has been gravely, though not yet mortally, wounded. Few words are spoken by the couple. Tempest ably fills the silence with expressive images conveying the complex emotions of the moment. As with the series in general, almost all the panels contain solitary figures isolated from the world around them.
However, in this sequence the seclusion does not feel quite so lonely; the reader can sense eye contact between the panels, as if the husband and wife were trying to bridge the gap made by the gutters. There is even one view of them seated together at the kitchen table. Their expressions might be downcast, yet, this rare moment of shared space remains a hopeful communion.
Kot returns to the couple at the end of the issue, as they nudge themselves into an uncomfortable, though potentially healing, situation. As throughout Tempest ably conveys the ambiance of the scene. The couple stands together, drawing strength from each other. An air of danger, as well as hope lingers in the air. It is a moving moment, which fittingly draws the chapter to a close. There are plenty of big ideas flowing through Material (from cultural compliancy to the state of civil rights), however just as important are its emotional currants. Combined together, they make for an excellent comic, This Week’s Finest.
As I said, sometimes it pays to be patient.