Story: James E. Roche
Art: Salomon Farias
Colors: Chunlin Zhao
Letters: Jamie Me
"Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness."
That's a nice quote, right? A good pick-me-up to start off with when you need a boost to get through the day. It's a strong message, encouraging us to hope, to not let negativity destroy us.
But these days may make you wonder...
I think we can all agree 2016 has been a shitty year. Beloved celebrities dying, police brutality, racist violence, misogynistic violence, queerphobic violence, xenophobia, terrorism, hatred, a 3-ring shitshow of a POTUS election, and the ever continuous destruction of our planet and the plant and animals that live in it. It seems that the early years of the 21st-Century have been an endless Bacchanal parade of nastiness, marching uninvited into town and tearing down all love, hope, and kindness. Those left alive in the aftermath either run and hide or join the parade. Mayhem giggles sadistically as it traps humanity between its thumb and forefinger.
Given all this, it's hard at times to hold on to hope. Seems easier to give up and embrace nihilism. Who's to say that isn't an attractive state of being? You can't be hurt if you don't give a fuck.
Sometimes staring into the abyss is too blinding and we turn to fiction for comfort. Escaping into a world of magical kingdoms, rollicking hi-jinks, and grand gestures of romance is relief, however temporary, from the pain of reality. Escapism can also be our means of rekindling hope. Reading a story about great triumph in the face of adversity and positive changes that make the world a better place inspires us. Why can't our world be like our fiction? Happy endings are possible if we try.
Science fiction is a genre ripe with optimism: Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I, Robot, give us a glimpse into what the future may be if humanity plays its cards right. We can make wonderful technology that betters the world, end war and disease, and travel to new galaxies. As long as we embrace science, technology, and humanitarian applications of such, we'll win.
There are doubters though. If you have sci-fi optimists, you also have realists and cynics. Realists like Brian K. Vaughan think there will be good, but there will also always be struggle. Cynics like Ellis, Orwell, and Huxley are pretty convinced humanity is going to destroy itself. We might get highly advanced technology, but that doesn't mean we'll use it correctly. Also, who is to say that technology will be the enhancement of humanity and not the dulling of its senses to make us forget how much we're doomed?
It seems I'm painting the sci-fi cynics in a really bad shade. I mean, yeah they're doubtful for the future of humanity, but one thing they also have is a tiny kernel of hope. Sci-fi dystopia doesn't have to be all negative, though. There is always a possibility for a flower to emerge from the ashes. In fact, dystopias tend to be more positive than utopias. They tell us that the worst scenario can happen and life continues on, no matter how hard or strange it may become.
Wretches leans toward sci-fi cynicism, a dystopia where poverty and conflict forces the protagonists, siblings Sean and Shea, to do what they can to survive, no matter how morally gray. But as I say, there is a kernel of hope. That hope lies in the unbreakable bond between two siblings who have been to hell and back. However, this bond is being challenged, and will love truly be enough to survive this time?
Starting with the cover, Sean and Shea are shown sitting upon a mountain of dismantled robotic bodies. In my review of Rotten Roots not too long ago, I wrote about how comic covers have two important jobs: suggest the content of the story and connect to the major themes. The cover for Wretches #1 nails both. The protagonists are robot bounty hunters on a desolate planet, and the imagery here couldn't make that more apparent. It also invokes the feeling of despair throughout the issue. This is a far cry from shining cities of chrome and scientists in God-like clothing. Wretches is a dog-eat-dog world of morally gray choices and little hope for a better tomorrow. However, the proximity of Shea and Sean suggests that they have each other to get through it all. On the flip side, them facing away from each other could suggest a weakness in the bond. Just how strong can it be in a world like this, especially put to trial? Thematically, the cover is ambiguous, presenting both the darkness of the world and the remaining light in it, always under threat of extinguishment. You'll have to read if you want to see if it works out or not.
As much as I like the cover, I wish there was more to the artwork. It's not very detailed and rather flat. I think it could have been better with minute details like rust on the robot bodies, rock and boulder in the desert; smudges, cuts, and tears on Sean and Shea. The colors are okay but could have been amplified if the illustration had more of the aforementioned details. For an epic genre, like science fiction, you should always bring your A-game on art if you want to compete with all the other pretty looking titles on the shelves.
The opening scene of the comic is a grimy market alley on Planet Zelyon, specifically in the human settlement. The art displayed here is actually more detailed than the cover, which is great. The scene is full of minute details that give it authenticity: cracks, stains, rust, uniquely shaped buildings, and pedestrians that despite a few minor similarities are distinguishable. The sky above has a ugly low glow to it that looks like it's clouded by smog. This section of Planet Zelyon is a living, breathing urban landscape. Artist Farias and colorist Zhao clearly took great care to make this as epic as possible.
A detail that really stands out is the paneled in section at the top with the woman crashing through the window. It focuses the reader's eyes on that scene and then they move to look at the alley below. It's impressive because 1) it shows a disruption to an otherwise normal day in the city. Any 101 script writing professor will tell you that the first step in storytelling is to have something happen that disrupts the normalcy of your story's world. What better disruption than being thrown through a window? 2) The scene shows off some action the comic nearly perfects.
Movement is essential to comics. The story has to feel like the panels have motion despite being static images. There are many different types of motions, action is one of them. Just like in a movie, action scenes (running, fighting, jumping, and their combinations) need to have weight to them like the reader can feel the significance of it. Poorly done action always feel empty. Fortunately, Wretches has action down pretty well. A good example is here on page 5:
The brilliance of this page is not only the progression of the chase scene taking place in the foreground, but the playing of the flashback up on the walls of the background. This scene simultaneously tells the story of Sean and Shea's difficult childhood which, if not justified, makes the reader understand their present actions. Here, action has significance to the story. It advances the story in pace, character development, and theme. Art and writing work together for the best kinds of comic storytelling.
Another aspect of the art I should mention is Jamie Me's lettering. While not as experimental as some other lettering I've seen, Me gives a lot of letters personality, especially when it comes to the action scenes. Sound effects for action scenes in comics can get in the way, at least when done improperly. Me makes sure the lettering is not overwhelming, compliments the scene by being a guide for the eye to witness the action, and adds some unique stylization of its own. I particularly like how lettering for explosions is clear and encompasses the resulting fireballs, like it's giving actual sound to the explosion on display.
Speaking of writing, James E. Roche writes an intriguing, morally gray sci-fi dystopia. It's not exactly original, there are familiar tropes like orphaned children, rogue robots, and space bounty hunters, but it's made fresh with Roche's approach. The story is minimalist, foregoing heavy exposition and only giving hints here and there. It helps then that Roche uses familiar tropes. Personally, I tend to be wary when using minimalism for sci-fi and fantasy stories (mostly because the genres depend on world-building which means letting the reader know important facts about it and minimalism fucks with that), but the application here was easy to follow along, while still leaving out details for me to figure out.
What I could figure out is that there was some kind of war between humans and robots. Whoever won isn't said, nor relevant. It's the aftermath that matters. Humans are now displaced in various settlements throughout the galaxy and robots are slowly rotting away, some of them hunting down a "cure" or trying to blend in with organic beings all while avoiding Tinknockers, another name for robot bounty hunters. In this framework, Roche does a great job of graying up the morality on both sides.
While Shea and Sean are clearly the protagonists of the comic, they're not exactly model citizens. They hunt down living beings and kill them, artificial perhaps, but still living, and for no other motivation than the fact they are robots. Racist murder? Yeah, not cool, especially when Shea admits that the only way she can feel truly happy nowadays is watching the life seep out of a robot when she kills it. Yiiiiiiiikes. However, the reader learns that Sean and Shea were orphaned during the war and becoming Tinknockers was the only way to survive. It's hard to truly hate them given their circumstances.
The robots are given equal grayness. The first robot we meet is the woman thrown through the window in the opening page. She is broken, desperate, and running from a merciless Shea. Instantly, the reader feels concern for her. Then her companion shows up who is a big, leering brute with a knife. Scary, but again understandable, given the circumstance. Later, a motley gang of Tinknockers invades a base and kills a whole bunch of people with sadistic joy. And yet again, their actions are understandable because the people they kill are Tinknockers. No one is a saint here.
What I find interesting is how this eye for an eye conflict frames the theme of Wretches: finding light in darkness. The world of Wretches is suffocated by darkness, mercilessly tearing people apart and motivating more violence. They do it because it feels good, but it is temporary and at the end leaves nothing until someone else comes along to do the same thing for similar reasons. This endless cycle of violence is exhausting and pointless. Can't these idiots see revenge is not working? But what could possibly be the solution?
There is a scene where the weight of everything breaks Shea down to tears. Fortunately, Sean is there and she comforts him. They make jokes, laugh at each other, and play fight, stuff that siblings are prone to do. The effect is that Shea feels good again and carries on, much more effective and long-lasting than when she kills robots.
Sorry to get clichéd here, but I believe the light in the darkness that Wretches is searching for is love. This one moment of the comic where love is most felt is the only real relief from the world's darkness. Also, Shea and Sean continuously reference how love for each other is the thing that kept them together through all the hardships they experienced.
As I mentioned before, escapist fiction can help us find solutions to making the world a better place. A lot of times those answers are simple. If you cannot win war with more war, then maybe you should try love. Put down the guns, talk to your enemy, try to understand them, and figure out a peaceful solution. You've probably heard all this before. Like I said, it's clichéd, but the reason why is that humanity has been through the same shit over and over and over and over and over again and things are not looking brighter. We still think punching back will fix things. The people who say love is the solution are not outdated. It's just that the spectacle of hate drowns them out and their message is ignored. Being the idealists they are, they have to repeat it over and over again.
Any positive message would be meaningless without a struggle to achieve it. Shea and Sean's relationship is put to the test and subsequent issues will reveal whether or not love wins out in the end. It might not even be that positive. Maybe at the end, Shea and Sean will remain the same and not extend their love to the robots. This is a dystopia, and the story can go either path. Whatever happens, I'm interested to find out.
The only problems I had with Wretches was that its influences, primarily Star Wars and Blade Runner, are a little too obvious. We have rogue robots, we have a grimey city that looks like Mos Eiley, another city that's a gas giant with floating stations like Bespin got a Tatooine paint job, and Sean's main weapon is a freaking lightsaber.
Another issue I had is Farias's lack of body perspective. Limbs look too short, hips are unevenly large, abdomens seem to cave into themselves. It's reminiscent of the kind of stuff that plagued '90s superhero comics. It blights the action Farias has mastered for the comic. However, if you're willing to look past these issues, the comics is still a fantastic read.
Wretches is a morally gray look into a dsytopian future desperate for hope. With action-packed art, thought-provoking characters, and a fast-paced minimalist plot that still leaves a lot of heavy thinking, readers will find it engaging for how long it may last.
Wretches #1 available at: http://www.drivethrucomics.com/product/193147/Wretches
James A. Roche's Twitter: https://twitter.com/JamesERoche
James A. Roche's Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/james.e.roche.3?fref=ts
James A. Roche's Website: http://www.jameseroche.com/comic-shop/
Salomon Farias' Twitter: https://twitter.com/salo_art
Salomon Farias' Art Blog: http://saloarte.blogspot.cl/
Chunlin Zhao's Twitter: https://twitter.com/SkySunnymq
Jamie Me's Twitter: https://twitter.com/JamieMeWrites