“It’s too much fiction to be science-fiction, too much science to be anything else. Whether it’s an invasion from above or a mutation from below, we’re using science to have fun, not make ourselves look smarter. The result? A story that can be enjoyed for what it’s meant to be: entertainment” (Perkins).
Post-World War II America was a time period in which suburbs blossomed, communities became more enclosed, and throughout the 1950s and the early 1960s the scare of nuclear weapons, space travel, and scientific discovery would force people into, well, living in fear based on the Cold War against communism, a constant chess game of deterrence and ideology. This is the time that sci-fi in all mediums grew, to become a way for artists to comment on issues in a palatable, more accessible way through textual and visual allusions. The most popular medium for mass consumption may have been film, as it became a breeding ground for post-war sci-fi ideas that were not only entertaining but lucrative for the film studios that could pump out good and bad films to an audience hungry for escapism (Katy Waldman).
My experiences with the type of sci-fi stories that Beware…comics! present come primarily from those lesser, yet entertaining films, fed to me from watching Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K for the old school nerdy) growing up. Occasionally I have watched “classic” movies on cable that have attained high pop culture status as being the exceptions in a large bunch of bad, or “B-movie” sci-fi, films such as “1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953), Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954),Tarantula (1955), Forbidden Planet (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)” (Katy Waldman). These films are good, but they share the charm that the lesser cousins have that I was more endeared to growing up, that spirit that somehow bled onto the film on the part of the creative people involved to make something at the very least entertaining and allowed you to forget about things for a short bit.
But cinema was not the only place that sci-fi was finding footing, as the prose publishing industry also began to move from the pulps and magazines to more legitimized book formats,and “suddenly we [fans] had dozens of splendid novels in print in book form, among them Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Sturgeon’s More Than Human, and Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky” (Robert Silverberg). It is hard to believe, but in thinking about it as I write this review and reflect a bit, these films and stories were birthed in an America that was shepherded by my grandparents’ generation, the progenitors of the baby boomers who were my parents, my father who would take time to embrace televised sci-fi, as that was birthed from the sci-fi cinema of the ’50s and ’60s, by watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Twilight Zone with his son. In retrospect it was an era filled with as much confusion and uncertainty as exists today, but still possibility lingered in those fanciful stories.
So here in the 21st century what is the appeal of this antiquated idea of entertainment through fanciful stories of science gone wrong and invaders from space encroaching on the human race that began sixty odd years ago? Where do such stories go in this culture where we are obsessed with ephemeral facts, “realism” and everyone is snarky and picky? Is it because the audience has not really changed, that our culture is still, as Susan Sontag wrote in her 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster” trying to escape not only a banal existence but the the terror of the unknown? (Katy Waldman).What can sci-fi stories, in a classical, Golden Age sense really give us in this postmodern deconstructed age of media?
A possible answer to that last question has popped up in the comics recently from the minds of the Perkins brothers (Michael & Will), who give us the most simple explanation of all; these sci-fi stories are, or can be, fun. Their storytelling seems to want to remind the reader (as does the mission statement posted from their website above) that sometimes, especially in comics, it is fun to imagine, to play with the fantastic. You remember that, don’t you? You have the ability to make up all things terrible, lofty, or confused, and it can be fun and create its own logic. Isn’t that why we all got hooked on comics and movies in the first place, because they made the impossible fun?
[Waggling head from side-to-side rapidly.] Sorry, back on point. Where was I? Oh, crafting stories so that they can be entertaining and fun. Sounds good, but this oversimplification is, in the very real problem of telling stories in comics form to people, very difficult to pull off. To communicate capriciousness in comics takes a keen sense of editing, to know how to walk the line between getting enough character beats and enough of the main plot, cutting sub plots tightly, panel and text intermingling and always propelling the story forward, being visually noteworthy but not gratuitous, and keeping the pace entertaining while somehow tricking (and I mean that in the best sense) the reader/audience into relaxing that part of the brain where they don’t pick things apart like a pack of buzzards on a desiccated carcass. And when it is done well, when all the parts are well-oiled and a facsimile existence is created on the page, the cynicism goes and a little magic can happen, as you find yourself enjoying something.
Both Beware… The Frogmen from Neptune and Formula X present the perfect town, Haven Hallows, in a perfect idea of what America was often represented as in those sci -fi stories of yesteryear: a dream of peaceful, placid life. With just two issues, the Perkins brothers and company have succeeded in using the idea of the town, wrapped in a more modern context, as the place for us to find the strange and unusual. The artwork of this ideal America is the right kind of bright and happy, full of green grass and blue skies, symmetrical downtown streets and shops where good old mister so-and-so sweeps the dust off the sidewalk while kids ride by on bicycles on the way to the park where swing sets and slides will fill the bright afternoons. The setup of such scenery is the beauty for when the darkness comes, when the upsetting force tips the scales off balance, the story takes on a tinge of excitement or curiosity to see if it will play out as it should according to previously established story conventions. In these two separate stories the Perkins establish a sci-fi standard plucked from the genre; Frogmen is space invaders, Formula X is about science gone awry, the artwork of Will Perkins does a wonderful job of juxtaposing grotesque aliens (the frogmen), fungal spore coated bodies (Formula X), and tasteful scenes of dread in silhouette (Formula X).
The brothers Perkins have set out to create the Beware… series to be individual one shot stories that always take place in Haven Hallows. Will the one-shot/town umbrella idea hold up for even a handful of issues? Possibly. I imagine that the Perkins could bring on guest writers and artists to present a new tale of the always in peril citizens of Haven Hallows over time. For now though, before we speculate too far into the what if’s of these Beware…comics, let us take the Perkins suggestion to sit back, read these two issues and be entertained.