Failsafe: One to Keep in the Vault

I threw out an entire draft before this one. It was about 500 words and it was picking, bit by bit, at my thoughts about these comics, without ever really digging into the meat of them.

The meat is this: Failsafe is a bad comic book. It’s a bad enough comic book that it angers me. I struggled with that anger for a couple of weeks, because I want to offer a reasoned, fair analysis of the book, something that kept my subjectivity as far removed from the equation as possible. But then, reviews aren’t objective, are they? They’re not supposed to be. When I mentioned my struggles to my editor, she said, “So just write it all down.” Well, okay.

Failsafe is a comic that drew me in based on the cover. It’s why I picked it when offered a spread of issues to review; with no other knowledge, I had to pick the one that most appealed to me. This one offered something vaguely dystopic in a sci-fi kind of way, featuring a blonde woman floating, front and center, caught between two identities; a traditional civilian on one side, a suited soldier of some kind on the other. The framing of it drew my eye; it sets her explicitly apart from the crowd she floats above, and it suggests that conflict of dual identity in a neat, efficient way.

The two other covers are progressions in the theme. The second issue is nearly identical, but the civilian identity has been discarded in favor of just the soldier’s suit. In the third, several members of the sea of people below her have ascended, ominously, to float behind her. The covers themselves are a story; decisions made, stakes escalated. This woman, whomever she is, has sparked something, something that grows. I instantly wanted to know more about her, and about this story that, so I figured, centered on her.

Three issues in, and what I know is this: her name is Eve (because of course it is). Halfway through the first issue, in her first scene, she makes the choice to walk into a bank. It is the last choice she makes on her own with any agency through the entire rest of the three issues I was given to read over. Thereafter when she appears, it is only in moments of violence at the behest of a masked man whom she obeys, unthinkingly, for no apparent reason.

In effect, the comic found inside of this book is not the one being sold on the cover–we’re all thinking of the adage, now. But comic books should be judged on their covers; those covers are part of the overall package of the book, and often (though not in this case) contain art by the same artist or team as the interior. Comic books, lacking thick spines upon which titles can be printed, present their covers first on a rack or shelf, with the sole intention of enticing a sale. They invite judgment, just by existing.

Found nowhere on that cover–any of them–but featured prominently through the interiors, is the story’s apparent true hero; grizzled, aging soldier John Ravane. The story set up is thus: The Government, under the direction of the President, but without the knowledge of the public, has created a program for secret super soldiers (named Insurgents); technologically enhanced combat personnel hidden in plain sight. The idea behind the program is that, with these individuals in the general population, the ability of the Government to respond to crisis situations is greatly improved. Unfortunately, these soldiers almost immediately go rogue, which is how we’re introduced to Agent Ravane; he is supposedly killing the last of these soldiers. Immediately after this opening scene, we’re treated to another where some time has passed and he’s supposedly retired. He has to be, you see, so that we as readers can be treated to a scene where he is reluctantly brought back into active service. There are more Insurgents.

Ravane can do this job in his sleep. Probably the same way this scene was written.

I want to take a step back here to examine the politics at play in this story. We have a secret program, headed and directly authorized by the President, at the cost of what is likely trillions of taxpayer dollars. The technology, which is experimental, is installed into service volunteers, who are then inserted into the general American populace in order to monitor its citizens, extrajudicially. It is specifically tasked with responding to crisis situations on American soil with federal backing, in the jurisdictions of local emergency response and law enforcement, without any kind of declaration from that same President. Once these Insurgents are active, they go rogue, themselves causing a terrorist attack. This, in turn, leads the President to admit his complicity for the program in a press conference, and task government agents in eliminating these Insurgents, again extrajudicially. They are hunted down and killed, without trial, for signing up to serve their country. This is a dark, terrifying concept, and were it all that were present, it would be enough for a compelling story!

Instead, we’re treated with an additional and unnecessary twist: the government forgot how many of these Insurgents it had. We’re told in the opening of the first issue that Ravane is killing the last one, and yet there is a small army of them by the end of that same issue, reawakened soldiers who also somehow forgot they were Insurgents. Somehow, when they forgot, so too did the government, who are caught entirely by surprise at these resurgent Insurgents. This is a critical point where the book has lost me; the reader is expected to believe that the American government, of all entities, is both:

  1. a) capable of forgetting what it owns (to the tune, again, of trillions of dollars) and
  2. b) willing to give up on a program of extrajudicial political assassinations just because its targets have gone passive.

It is within this framework that we’re finally introduced to Eve, in the civilian guise that half of her carries on the cover. It took several pages for me to realize that this was her, even with the matching outfit–the interior art style is so different from the cover that she’s unrecognizable, a fact that only adds to the confusion of her cover placement. That style itself is troubling; I can’t identify any source images, but the whole comic still has the feel of photos run through an ink sketch filter. Studying it causes me to question it, takes me out of the story, which is a dangerous move, given how disinterested I already was.

The choices of panel framing, angles and the like often result in pages full of action that is difficult to follow; while the panel transitions themselves are easy to keep up with, the action within each frame is often muddled. Beats that should be surprising or intense are framed in ways that just leave me tired, as a reader, and the coloring presents issues all of its own; if the art resembles manipulated photos, so too does the coloring seem a lot like someone has just done some simple photo blurring to retain color values in their approximate locations. It’s the kind of thing that only results in more frustration the longer I look at it, and I had to look at it for three full issues.

Eve goes full “Catatonic Murder Doll.”

Eve walks into a bank as it’s being robbed, and her hidden Insurgent programming reacts instinctively to the danger, eliminating and disarming the robbers. Throughout, she’s still unaware of why or how she’s done these things, and with the threat eliminated, she stumbles back out the door, repossessed guns still in hand. The police immediately open fire (we are also expected to believe the police will open fire on a blonde white woman in a hostage situation without any confirmation of identity). The gunfire does not seriously harm her, and she apparently kills the officers present before fleeing, which becomes the justification for the reactivation of John Ravane.

We find out as the story progresses that Eve has a voice in her head; we further discover that this voice is a masked man with some sort of ulterior motive. This man, too, is the tiredest of tropes; he appears to loom menacingly and give cryptic proclamations. He’s clearly some sort of mastermind, but of what we don’t yet know, nor do we know the level of control he holds over Insurgents. It’s presumably quite a lot, as he was able to prompt Eve to commit several murders against her will and still have her fall dutifully in line afterward. He has no personality beyond his rote mastermind role, and she has none beyond loyal subservience.

Our masked villain, who might just be cosplaying a pro wrestler.

Ravane himself is also empty as a character; he has no compassion, no personality. He’s so blank that it almost renders his reactivation scene comical; he exists only to be pointed at a target so that he can kill them, so why would he have ever even retired? The story gives the sense that he’s about to be opened up to some larger understanding, but it’s unclear at this point if he’ll come to that reckoning through a confrontation with Eve or with the masked man controlling her.

The overall sense this book conveys is one of cynicism. It’s poorly thought out, poorly planned, and poorly executed. It treats its characters like automatons, both in the context of the story itself and in the way each of them moves through old tropes as though fulfilling a checklist. It trades on concepts of radicalization and the betrayal of human rights without exploring what those concepts mean and how they can affect the human experience. It wants to be a near future dystopia that has us rooting for the agent empowered by the state, ignoring everything about what gives dystopic fiction its weight and meaning. It is ultimately empty and hollow, just like the characters who populate it.

Nola Pfau

Nola Pfau

Nola is a bad influence. She can be found on twitter at @nolapfau, where she's usually making bad (really, absolutely terrible) jokes and occasionally sharing adorable pictures of her dog.