Black Science is an impressive juggling act of drama, powerful characterization, and ray-guns; a love letter to the days of old school, pulp science fiction, where every page turned has the chance to thrill you, chill you, maybe make you laugh, and then, of course, make you cry. It's a series that doesn't just live in the realm of bizarre, science fiction adventure, but utilizes that space to ask rigorous philosophical and moral questions that, as the series proves, have no easy answers.
Remender, like a lot of comic book writers these days, is known for wearing many hats. Coming from the indie comics world, he's not only had the opportunity to explore myriad branches of comic book genres, but also developed an uncanny knack at pulling them all off. Craving superhero action? Look no further than his work at Marvel Comics, where he's written claws, webs, and capes of all kinds. But maybe you're looking for something a little darker, a little more shadows and teeth? Grab his run on Uncanny X-Force, his bloody run on Punisher, or his newer indie title, Deadly Class. Or maybe you're looking for pure golden age SF, something adventurous and tragic and bizarre all at once? Then you’re going to want one of Remender's first major projects, Fear Agent.
In many ways, Black Science feels like Remender’s graduate thesis. He's taken the distinct flavors of his comic book career and blended them together to create this beautiful and brutal series. The series reads like the lovechild of Quantum Leap and Mad Max, an adrenaline-laced journey through multiple, hostile realities, as Grant McKay and his Anarchist League of Scientists try to find their way home. McKay, a rash and obsessive scientist, has invented a device he feels will change the world, if not save it: the Pillar. Able to travel through the "Onion" (an endearing term for the breathless infinities of realities that overlay one another), the Pillar was supposed to help McKay and his team move between realities, and work to find cures for humanity's ills. There is, of course, a problem: the Pillar has been sabotaged. As a result, Grant—along with his team of scientists, his estranged children, and his cruel overseers—has been sent hurtling through the Onion with a malfunctioning Pillar; there's no way to stop it, no way to fix it, and ultimately, no way to get home. Although this situation is dire, the McGuffin memorable, and the worlds through which they pass alarming, it's the characters—with all of their flaws, obsessions, and loves—that power the narrative and serve to maintain the reader's investment.
No one is more flawed than the protagonist of the story, Grant McKay. His is a brilliant mind, easily bored, and he exhibits a hatred of the strictures into which he feels society and convention have tried to box him; he obsesses over his work and tries to break the applicable rules in everything he does. He ignores his family. He cheats on his wife. He continues to work on the Pillar even with the possibility it might endanger the universe. He continues to push and push and push, hoping that this time when he breaks through, it will all be worth it. He's never satisfied though, and every time he pushes further, he only ends up shoving others away.
Reminiscent of the strong-jawed, morally upright scientists of the Golden Age, McKay represents the dark reality of the science fictional genius convinced they need to push the limits of reality: broody, intense, monomaniacal, and a little detached from the world around him, McKay is not the hero the series needs him to be.
Amid all this emotional turmoil, Remender throws the worst he can at his intrepid adventurers: there are worlds of bioelectric frog warriors at war with fish-like humanoids, living atop massive turtles in a purple sea; there's a world where Native American tribes have discovered advanced technology from another world and are currently embroiled in trench warfare with the armies of Germany, a "reverse Manifest Destiny," as one character puts it; there’s a world of sentient gas lifeforms which inhabit hosts of arctic apes. The Pillar throws the characters into these realities at random, with no sense as to where they’ll end up next or how long they’ll be there: in one world, they might stay ten minutes, in another, three days. Remender's imagination is in full swing as he brings us new worlds to explore and then run away from, terrified.
The twin focus of Black Science—on McKay’s flaws and on the sojourns through the Onion—becomes unified in the shape of the ripples in the Eververse (another name for the Onion) which are occasioned by the Pillar’s usage. As McKay and his team transition from dimension to dimension, they puncture the walls between universes, skewering space/time; as they travel, things begin to bleed through. The Eververse starts responding to them. Alternate versions of the team begin to appear. Some hunt our team, while others try to warn them; the symbol on their uniforms, the black and red "Onion" meant to denote their travels, starts to appear in the background, on different characters, and in different worlds. Their travels are causing shocks throughout the entire Eververse, forcing the hand of reality to act and stop the team’s destructive actions.
McKay starts to come to a terrifying conclusion as he meets other versions of himself and his Pillar. He begins to see the commonality across the Eververse, the tragic flaw he and every other Grant McKay possess: he’ll always push too far. He’ll always make a Pillar, damn the consequences. He'll always gamble his life and the lives of others in the pursuit of his work. In some worlds, he has yet to launch the Pillar. In others, he wreaks terrible havoc. In others still, he loses everything he’s ever loved. And rather than serve as a warning to our Grant McKay, this knowledge only sets his jaw tighter: he continues to push, to prove them wrong. He won’t be a failure; he'll be the McKay that succeeds.
It’s not that he doesn't know he's a mess. He knows that he pushes too much. He knows he's not a hero, not a good man, that he's a bad father, and that he’ll probably never get his team or his family home. But, paradoxically, that's what drives him: the idea that, if he pushes enough, then maybe he'll succeed. Even as broken as he is, McKay is trying. It's that struggle, between who he is and who he knows he has to become, that makes McKay, despite his flaws, a man worth rooting for. As he says to his wife toward the end of the first volume, while reflecting on his choices: "A billion realities out there, there has to be one, Sara . . . One where I didn’t fuck it all up."
The way in which Black Science problematizes and ironizes the pivotal figure of the Golden Age, the driven inventor who will stop at nothing to make a breakthrough, relies of course not just on the writing but upon the art. And while there are many comic artists in the industry who do amazing work, I can't think of anyone who'd be better on this series than Matteo Scalera and Dean White. Scalera brings an insane amount of energy to every page he illustrates, using harsh edges and frenetic figures to convey motion, terror, and adrenaline. His designs for the alien worlds and peoples we meet are truly bizarre and wonderful, and gave me that breathless feeling of wonder that I got when I first watched Luke walk into the Cantina in Star Wars. His covers especially channel the wonderful pulp feel of those older science fiction adventures and movie posters, full of dynamic poses, pulsing weaponry, and strange creatures. There are moments of blurriness in his artwork, of softness, apparent in their contrast to the sharp lines that precede them, but in those moments, it's Dean White who picks up the ball and uses his powerful palette of colors to fill in the gaps, providing more intensity to the emotional weight of a scene. Between the two of them, they have created a comic series that is not only enthralling, but also downright gorgeous and horrifying to look at.
Black Science does more than just provide a romp through the Eververse, however. It asks questions of scientific morality: what right does a man have to go tampering with the universe? It forces readers to care for the characters, and then takes them away just as quickly. It shows the life of a man who finally comes to understand how much he's sabotaged his whole life. In looking for home, each character starts to understand what they've left behind: family, love, purpose, and much more besides. It’s only with the realization they may never get home that our cast of characters truly starts to understand what they've lost, and in their journey, thus begins to labor to find those things again.
Remender, Scalera, and White have produced something absolutely compelling in Black Science, and if you reach the last page of Volume One: How to Fall Forever and don’t immediately go get the next issues, you really must be living in the wrong dimension.
Martin Cahill works publicity by day, bartends by night, and writes in between. When he’s not slinging words at Strange Horizons, he’s contributing to Book Riot, and blogging at his own website, usually about books and/or beer. A proud graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop 2014, he can be found on Twitter @McflyCahill90.