Air (Comic Review)



G. Willow Wilson’s Air ran for 24 issues, a pretty standard length for a modern Vertigo title. However, it had more ambitious goals than the other comics it was published alongside: It focuses on airplanes while examining our post-9/11 world, with all the concerns of terrorism, security, national identity, and wars for oil brought to the forefront. I want to commend it for the issues it raises, but none of them are ever satisfactorily answered.

The main character, Blythe, is a flight attendant who’s afraid of heights. (Let that sink in for a minute.) When she finds herself in the middle of a fight to control new-found Aztec technology, she learns that she is a “hyperpract”, one of the rare people able to use the new devices. With it, she can access a reality where symbols matter more than physical objects. Most importantly, this gives her the power to move an airplane to another place without using fuel. Everyone, of course, wants control over this post-oil future.

Since hyperpract technology is still secret, the battle breaks down into two conspiratorial groups: On Blythe’s side is an alliance between a private airplane company, a group of carefree outlaws led by a still-living Amelia Earhart, and Interpol. (The ethical implications of this combination are rarely brought up.) The bad guys are a vigilante group named The Etisian Front, who are easily identified by the giant tattoo worn by each member of this secret society. Led by a Dick Cheney lookalike, they represent America’s desire to “make flight safe” at any cost. They are easy to hate, since they keep railing against Blythe’s love interest, Zayne, for looking like a terrorist.

Of course, they are somewhat right to mistrust Zayne. He admits to knowing people in Hezbollah in the first issue, and he constantly travels under suspicious aliases. Air’s strengths come from the way it doesn’t present a black-and-white world, and this is best represented in the thin line that separated Zayne’s choice to join Interpol from his other option of becoming a terrorist. (In one memorable sequence, Zayne’s brother ties religious extremists to the book’s theme of symbols defining the world, explaining that the symbols themselves are like a virus, getting into the heads of fundamentalists when their defenses are low.)

Symbolism as Technology

The comic’s weaknesses, though, are pretty strong. Just like the concept of a flight attendant who can’t handle heights, none of the people act in a remotely realistic manner. Blythe and her fellow flight attendants skip work to go off on strange adventures even before they’re introduced to the secret societies fighting over the future. The plan for starting the age of hyperpract flight is to keep sending Blythe off on missions, even though she almost kills herself (and loses the valuable Aztec device) each time. And Amelia Earhart’s secret society was founded two minutes after she met a drunken, boastful arms smuggler in a bar. She immediately decided that this dangerous man was a kindred spirit who shared her love of freedom, so she trusted him with her identity and her knowledge about hyperpract technology.

The characters’ behavior didn’t make any sense until I realized that this should be viewed as a romance novel rather than the action-adventure it appears to be on the surface. Blythe is a flighty, confused woman who can’t begin to reach her potential until she is centered by the love of a good man. Aside from a few moments of stubborn defiance, most of the plot is driven forward by the fact that she’ll passively do whatever anyone tells her: Going off on strange missions, handing over valuable objects to whichever stranger is currently claiming to be a good guy, and even sleeping with someone else simply because he tells her that Zayne is untrustworthy. Zayne seems suspicious, all right, but it was only their love at first sight that kept her from turning in an obvious con artist who kept flirting with her as he compromised airport security with a series of false identities. (Zayne, of course, did that and drew Blythe into his dangerous world because he felt the same way about her.)

Most of the series is a frustrating mix: hints of clever ideas and a meaningful worldview derailed by a ridiculous plot and characters. The last story arc goes off the rails, with a series of unbelievable adventures that are framed as Blythe’s “flight test”. It includes an unsophisticated time travel story that seems very pleased with its cleverness, and a book with secrets about the future that is never explained enough to feel like it fits into the rest of the story. Those final issues suggest that if the series hadn’t ended at that point, it still would have been out of ideas.

Take that, civilization!

I’ve made it to the end of a comic review without mentioning the art. That’s actually a credit to M. K. Perker, whose style fits this title so perfectly that it rarely registers consciously. His command over body language and expressions is excellent, and it makes the (many) conversations in this series feel as engaging as the action sequences. (In fact, he stumbles occasionally during the action. Perker’s people seem the most natural when they aren’t touching others.) I hope we see more of him in the future: To date, he has only worked on one title that wasn’t written by Wilson. And while I want to see more of Perker’s work, I’m not currently inclined to try more of Wilson’s. She has a lot of good ideas, but doesn’t seem very good at weaving them into a story.

Grade: C-

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