Michael Cray. A character I quite like trapped in a book I really haven’t. Or at least not as much as I wanted to. Up to now, Cray’s Skywatch-sanctioned missions to hunt down dark psychopathic versions of some of the DC universe’s best-loved heroes have been rushed, formulaic and consequently somewhat predictable. And dull. Will this issue – the conclusion to a two-parter featuring a genetically-altered, psychotically deluded Arthur Curry – break the mould?
There’s only one way to find out…
Last issue ended with Leon, a character for whom I have no sympathy whatsoever, tied up in a boat being circled by sharks. This issue opens with Cray saving him in a fairly perfunctory manner. This would be disappointing (and, to a certain extent, it still is), but this introductory section is lifted by the inclusion of some white on black text boxes containing dialogue from an unseen character who appears to be talking directly to Cray. Mysterious. And, let’s face it, it’s been a while since there’s been some genuine mystery in this comic. Its emergence here is as welcome as it is surprising. More please!
Leon’s salvation, incidentally, does not come without cost. The loss of his arm is gruesomely portrayed (most of the art is gruesome – in one sense or another) and Cray’s dialogue is callous, almost uncharacteristically so. I’m prepared to let it slide, though. Michael is, after all, undergoing some changes at the moment. He’s entitled to feel a little… chippy.
While Cray gets ready for his confrontation with Curry, the narrative shifts unexpectedly to London and a ‘seer’ reading tarot cards for a client whose identity is not hinted at till the final panel on the page. The unfortunate seer is bound to his chair and looks much the worse for wear. At first, I thought he might be related to the ongoing Curry story – perhaps a flashback to the Currys’ dealings with pseudoscience in the past – but that final panel and its single word of dialogue (“Bollocks”) reveals that we’re dealing with the Wild Storm universe’s very own John Constantine. And, it turns out, he’s even more of a bastard than the DC universe’s version. Who could have suspected that?
But, before we get too excited about this revelation, there’s a genetically mutated ‘King of Atlantis’ to deal with. That Wicker Man/Hammer horror vibe from last issue returns full force here as Curry uses a giant octopus to capture Cray and plunge him into the briny depths. This sounds a bit more impressive than it looks, mind you. The panel of the octopus, Cray wrapped up in its arms, bursting out of the cliff face and plunging into the water just looks a bit silly to me. The less than impressive visuals aside, though, this section is still intriguing because it’s here that it becomes clearer just who that mysterious voice belongs to. It’s Cray’s tumour. Now, a couple of issues ago Dr Shahi (where is she, by the way? I kind of miss her – although not, I suspect, as much as Michael does) speculated that the tumour growing in Cray’s head was somehow preserving him and keeping him safe, manifesting its power through him at moments of extreme stress or danger. Here, though, things have progressed to the point that the ‘tumour’ is now engaging in conversation with Cray, guiding him, advising him, perhaps even manipulating him. And with that rather bizarre twist, this title suddenly becomes interesting again.
The inner dialogue (the tumour is a weird, possibly malevolent, Martin Stein to Cray’s Ronnie Raymond) adds a level of depth to what could very easily have been yet another too-quick dispatching of yet another villain. Particularly noteworthy is the sense that Cray is being forced into making a bargain with a force he does not understand and whose trustworthiness he has no way of judging effectively. Intriguingly, writer Bryan Hill gives the reader glimpses of what very much looks like the Bleed when the tumour talks to him. The tumour at one point says that it has “seen gods”. All very curious – and exactly the kind of thing to give this series the shot in the arm it has needed for the last couple of issues.
That is not to say that the series has suddenly become perfect – or even great. Certain structural problems still exist. Having introduced Cray’s ‘team’ in issue 2 it seems that Hill doesn’t know quite what to do with them. My money’s on him quietly forgetting them and you won’t hear any complaints from me! Dr Shahi and Christine Trelane represent currently unresolved sub-plots and, in the latter’s case, a formulaic structure that’s done nothing for the series’ ongoing storyline. There are, to be fair, signs at the end of this issue that Cray’s relationship with Trelane may be coming to an end. We shall, as always, see. On the whole, though, I’m more optimistic about this series than I have been at any point in the last three months. While the art remains the book’s Achilles heel, there are encouraging signs that Hill is about to break out of the restrictive format of the last five issues and give us something worthier of the Wild Storm name.
This is better. The simmering mystery of exactly how Michael Cray gets his powers unexpectedly comes to the boil this issue and delivers some compelling moments of action and character development. While the art remains substandard, the central character has just become extremely interesting again. With the introduction of next month’s threat for Cray revealed in a more dramatic – and weighty – manner than the usual everything-on-a-plate infodump, I’m feeling the stirrings of excitement in my jaded old gut again. Fingers crossed that this is the start of a big improvement.