We Have Ignition
by Kurt Busiek,
(Dark Horse, 2004)
The story isn't new. War has devastated a society, destroying domestic infrastructure while driving extreme advances in military technology. In the wake of the destruction, a small group of powerful, wealthy and none too moral groups have seized power and are rebuilding society along their lines.
And through it all flies a group of heroes, the Shockrockets, inspiring the people and saving the day in ships so advanced even their own mechanics hardly understand them. It's grand heroic escapism.
But, in the hands of Kurt Busiek, Shockrockets: We Have Ignition is much more than the standard fare. The heroes are still heroic, the villains snide and megalomaniacal. But they aren't the only players on the screen, and all their actions resound through a fractured and complicated society.
Those chaotic effects are illustrated through the stories' hero, unintended pilot Alejandro Cruz. Born to a family left crushingly poor by Earth's war with alien invaders, Alejandro has grown up both relying on the Shockrockets for protection and envying them for all the advantages their skills bring -- fame, fast planes, unspoiled food. His unexpected ascendancy to their ranks gains him access to all those advantages and the sort of personal freedom he'd never expected. A standard youth adventure character would simply leap on that bandwagon and count himself well out of their past difficulties, with perhaps a narrative nod to supporting the family back home. Alejandro, unfortunately, has some real personality. He's proud of family while knowing that others look down on them, thrilled with his new power and uneasy about the unfairness he's resented his whole life. His early life of poverty gives him the fiction-standard scrappy resourcefulness, but it also gives him a perpetual outsider's viewpoint. No matter what his position in life, Alejandro always sees things with an outsider's perspective. Busiek is skilled enough to make that both his greatest strength and a constant weakness.
The other characters, though naturally not as developed as central hero Alejandro, all have more character instead of gimmicks. Melina Zahos, a pilot left grieving when the death of her partner allows Alejandro Cruz his place on the team, moves from resentment to trust in a halting and believable way . Shin Tsuruta, another star pilot, has a cold reserve that makes him perfect for sneak jobs. Commander Foster comes across as stern to the point of social ineptitude, but devoted to her job and her team. The other two members of the team get little to do in this volume but play the chorus, but it's obvious no one will long be left voiceless in this series. Their relative silence is made up for by the supporting characters who do get an appearance: Alexander's family, a group more diverse than his team but unified by more than training; a ship's engineer, putting an apparent liability to good use; an old friend of Shin's still living in the harder world he left.
The art, with pencils by Stuart Immonen and inks by Wade Von Grawbadger, is ambitiously busy, paced to fit an actual novel's worth of adventure into the graphic novel. Immonen shows a rare gift for making pages busy without making them crowded or unreadable. If a scene is claustrophobic, it comes from the intended mood, not Immonen's vital crowd scenes or blow by blow transitions. Jeremy Cox deserves credit for much of that open feel, letting the inks carry the details while his colors set the mood. Cox uses a palette just a touch more vibrant than realism would allow. Combined with Immonen and Grawbadger's detailed style, it creates a sense of exceptional alertness and an awareness of every detail common to moments of adventure or crisis.
The character designs are unusually distinct for such near-realism. Without relying on any exaggerated features or overplaying racial cues, each member of the Shockrockets is made distinct from the zones of other faces that may be sharing the screen at any point, and from each other. The one rough spot in all of this is a certain awkwardness with Asian features. Pilot Shin Tsuruta and his friend Keiko are almost unrecognizable from panel to panel. It's an odd fumble by an otherwise smooth art team.
But that's the only complaint I can level against Shockrockets, and it's a minor one indeed. With its bright heroes working in the grey time between war and peace, Shockrockets: We Have Ignition offers surprising depth beneath a lovely surface.