For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve always felt myself drawn to speculative fiction. While I don’t necessarily dislike general fiction, there’s just so much possibility inherent in science fiction and fantasy. There are so many themes that can be explored in the sneakiest of ways. Sure, you can have a book about racism in the Deep South as a historical fiction but what if you examine relationships between humans and robots and see if people still take issue with the racism? Some of the most compelling stories I’ve ever read have been about the divide between human and artificial intelligence because it makes you really examine where you draw those boundaries. The interesting ways in which you can force people to think about the ways in which they view the world but choosing a fantasy or sci fi setting is why I will always love speculative fiction more than any other genre. This week, I picked up Image Comics’ recent teen-oriented science fiction series Mara. Written by Brian Wood and illustrated by Ming Doyle, Mara is a mash-up of dystopian science fiction which seeks to examine humanity and the ways in which we force people to fit a mold and what we do when people defy our expectations.
Mara is the story of a young woman name Mara Prince who is the premiere athlete of a future Earth. Constant war and civil unrest led to a period in which people used sports to distract themselves from the instability and fear of real life. This rise of sports as fantasy and distraction led to a devotion of sports to the extent that young people are trained from toddlers in whichever sport they show the most aptitude in the hopes of making their families and countries proud and gaining corporate sponsorships which will make them rich and famous. Not all that different from now, when you think about it, just taken to the extreme. Not even 18 yet, Mara Prince is already a star volleyball athlete who is known and adored worldwide for her athleticism and winning personality. Until the day that she’s revealed to not just be the girl next door but something extraordinary. And literally superhuman. Mara must deal with how the world reacts to the revelation of her abilities and the affect that it has on her relationships and the ways in which people view her. It all comes down to whether humanity can accept this new Mara who doesn’t fit their boundaries and what Mara will do about it if they don’t.
While I believe I’m in the minority on this, I hated this series. While, as I said at the beginning, I love speculative fiction, I think this series is guilty of all the terrible things that can be done with it. Good science fiction makes you examine your boundaries while still drawing you into a compelling story. Bad science fiction is insanely preachy and is nothing more than a thin veneer of a story over a core message that the author wants to beat into your brain. Mara is the poster child of that latter camp. The military, the government and corporations are uniformly evil. Instead of examining this in subtle ways, Brian Wood basically takes a flashing neon sign and jams it down your throat. Instead of looking into how the sponsorship game affects the relationship between Mara and her best friend Ingrid, particularly since Mara’s stardom far outshines anyone else on the team, Wood spends about two seconds on it before having a long discussion about the evils of corporate sponsorships and the contracts that they make the athletes sign. Instead of having a nuanced discussion about how the military and government see Mara as a threat once her abilities are revealed, they’re basically Dr. Evil without the cat and make unbelievably stupid decision after stupid decision. It’s being evil for the sake of being evil with no real motivation explored. Why even bother? Just have a dude twirling his mustache and laughing maniacally and you’ve got it covered. The story touches on interesting aspects like the ways in which family relationships are sacrificed for the state in the worship of sports and how media will make people turn on each other and then completely abandons them a panel later. At no point during the entire story did I feel any emotion for Mara. She’s a superhuman who goes from feeling betrayed to not giving a damn about humans in the space of an issue. There’s no anguish, there’s no journey for Mara, just “oops, guess I’m not human any more so the hell with all y’all.” Bad storytelling and haphazard, preachy messages make Mara painful to read. It has little glimmers of promise but it’s one of the worst science fiction stories I’ve ever read and hands down the worst thing Image has put out in years.
The solitary upside of Mara is that Ming Doyle’s artwork is actually pretty good. She utilizes color schemes as the scenes switch so that you have distinct palettes for the different arenas in which Mara’s life is balanced. The linework is elegant and simple, with no overloaded panels or wasted space. For all that Wood’s writing is inelegant and terrible, Doyle’s artwork is the complete opposite. Ming Doyle and Jordie Bellaire (colors) deserve all the credit for making this story somewhat tolerable despite the terrible writing.
As you may have noticed over the course of this article, I was not a fan of Mara. I will admit that I may be in the minority here as the AV Club has called it a collision of “Akira, Hunger Games and Superman.” They’re not wrong, but it’s a collision of the worst parts of those influences. I can’t say I have much experience with Akira but I can certainly speak to the other two. Hunger Games was the tale of a young woman upending an unjust, exploitative system and finding herself drawn into a conflict that she was in no way prepared for. Mara is the story of a young woman who suddenly gets super abilities, flips out and abandons humanity because they don’t understand her. Superman is the struggle of the alien immigrant whose abilities make him stand out and who just wants to do the right thing. Mara takes all the humanity out of Superman by being a completely emotionless figure who barely gives a damn about anyone in her life and couldn’t be more cardboard if she was actively trying. In short, Mara tries to be a lesson on the pitfalls of humanity and ends up being an emotionless husk of a science fiction dystopian. Unless you enjoy your sci fic with an extra helping of preachy, skip this one.