Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
Brought to a neo-Roman world by the Pillar, Grant’s team cracks. The stress of their personal conflicts only adds to the weight of the moral and philosophical implications of how using the Pillar to jump from dimension to dimension affects no only them but also the worlds they visit, rarely for the better. As Imperial Inquisitors chase members of the team through diseased ruins, Grant, Shawn, Rebecca, Kadir, and the Shaman work to repair the Pillar all while questioning whether it should be destroyed for the greater good. Driven by moral impulses, Grant also works to cure this dimension of a virulent contagion that was brought by dimensionauts, essentially just like themselves.
"To Make Every World Better"
As with previous collections of Black Science, the pleasure of it comes from the marriage of science-fiction adventure, characters motivated by positive and negative but always recognizable human desires, and philosophical inquiry. The setting is stable through this graphic novel, and Roman soldiers with jet packs, flame throwers, and laser weapons amid crumbling Classical architecture is a fantastic background. The reader is taken away from it in flashbacks that focus on certain characters, but much like Welcome, Nowhere, the present action of the story is contained to one particular dimension, which allows for a complete story to be told within the framework of the series.
The flashbacks fill in a few unexplained plot points such as how Grant survived the end of How to Fall Forever. More importantly, a few flashbacks develop the characters of Pia and Shawn, who certainly needed the attention. In particular, Shawn’s recollection also shows the reader how charismatic and persuasive and impassioned and idealistic Grant can be, which serves as a foil to Kadir’s memories or Grant in previous issues. All of these character moments add weight to the tension between them, as readers see Rebecca and Kadir and Grant not necessarily as protagonists or antagonists but as people with conflicting desires, goals and values. Even as some of the actions they take are shocking or hateful, the audience almost always understands why they act as they do, why they’re motivated to take such risks.
As always, the philosophical problems add depth to the book. Shawn’s argument on how they’ve lost sight of their goals to improve worlds and that they lack the will to strive to be better than they are strikes a strong moral tone (issue 14). The Shaman’s valid points on how every action they take carries unintended consequences that doom everything they touch also connote a deontological perspective that is often present in science-fiction stories that contemplate the results of unbridled technological advancement (issue 15). Ironically, the character who has similar judgments is Kadir who is entirely different in his worldview, saying, “Pragmatism doesn’t have time for how things should be. You make the best play with what’s in front of you. That’s why I’m still here” (issue 16). The book doesn’t offer easy answers to these problems. Shawn and Grant often have noble goals, but the results are often complicated or outright catastrophic. The ending of this collection shows how even the good they do for others can be subverted.
“The Pillar’s Not Cursed—We Are”
The moral ambiguity may be a difficulty for readers who want more of the sci-fi action that the early going of the series promised. While there is a measure of it, the constant infighting and philosophical inquiry can make a comic about traveling to new and strange dimensions seem frustratingly claustrophobic. Granted, some of that is thematic, supported by Grant’s suspicion that the Pillar is following a pattern across dimensions that offers a path of least resistance, but a repetitive cycle may become a narrative burden if it persists.
Readers may also feel they don’t have many characters to cheer for as the series progresses. This is partially a byproduct of character complexity. For example, Grant is ambitious, innovative, and often noble in his aims while also being arrogant, self-destructive, and myopic. He’s also aware of the damage done to his family and friends through his choices, yet he continues to behave the same. There are few characters who give the audience room support them wholeheartedly, and those that do come across as genuine and decent often suffer for it. Again, there is nothing wrong with tragic or morally ambiguous narratives, but if characters suffer simply for the sake of suffering, the story shifts from tragedy to sadism without any sort of cathartic release for readers. Black Science isn’t there, but it would be an unwelcome turn should it take that road.
The Next Jump
Black Science remains a strong series that continues to recall Golden Age science-fiction fused with contemporary, complex narratives and characters. Vanishing Patterns, as it is the third volume, would not be an ideal place to start, but it is rewarding for everyone who sticks with the series.
Remender, Rick and Scalera, Matteo. Black Science, vol. 3: Vanishing Pattern. Berkley, CA: Image Comics, 2015.
© 2016 Seth Tomko