“I can never stand up, you will not fall down.”
Stefano Cardoselli is the creative mind behind Planet Caravan, which is published by Scout Comics. He’s the artist and colorist and he came up with the story, which Andrea Amenta scripted. Bram Meehan provides the lettering, and away we go!
Cardoselli gives us a story of Jason, a soldier on an alien planet who’s trying to get back to Earth and his great love, Grace. Now, Cardoselli isn’t exactly subtle, beginning with the names of his characters – Jason after the Argonaut, who went on a quest and had to return home (not as desperately as Odysseus, but that might have been too on the nose), and Grace after what Jason hopes to experience after what feels like a lifetime of killing. He’s kept alive – and, it seems, functionally immortal – by an artificial intelligence called “Love,” which hovers above him, connected to him by several tubes, and gives him directions and weapons and advice. We do get a reason for the war, but it’s unimportant – it’s just the way Jason’s life is, and he struggles to “win” so he can return to Earth.
This isn’t necessarily a “gotcha” kind of comic – I doubt even the creators would think we can’t guess what’s going to happen at the end, when Jason gets a chance to return to Earth. That’s not really the point anyway – we’ve read these kinds of books since the Greek myths, after all, which is why the resonate so well. Some have happy endings and some don’t, but the overriding theme is that war changes someone (almost exclusively a man) so irrevocably that even when the war ends, he can’t go home. Jason is trapped in his war, stuck with a machine that keeps him alive but also keeps him from stopping. As he heads through the hellscape of the planet, he encounters others who are also trapped, and while neither Cardoselli nor Amenta make too big a deal about it, the idea of endless war is always present, as nobody really seems to know what the objectives are. The reason the war began doesn’t seem terribly relevant anymore, and part of the tragedy is that no one has the strength to stop.
None of this is new, to be sure, and unfortunately, neither Cardoselli nor Amenta does anything to make it unique. It’s not a bad read, but it’s very familiar, which doesn’t hurt the brutal point they’re making, but doesn’t help it, either. In some ways, the book is parodic, because the weapons and even people are so over-the-top that it’s hard to take them seriously, but the creators certainly don’t want us laughing, either. So it’s one of these books where the heightened ridiculousness is supposed to reveal the horrible truths, which is a hard line to walk, and they don’t quite make it. The heart of the book doesn’t quite work, either. As in most war stories of this sort, Grace remains a fantasy, not a real person – we get information about her only through Jason, who – understandably – has put her on a pedestal, so while, in the abstract, we can empathize with him trying to get home, their relationship is never as real as we want it to be (this problem, of course, goes back to The Odyssey, so the fact that Cardoselli and Amenta don’t solve it isn’t exactly news). Jason’s fear for Grace and desire to see her are palpable, but not as entrenched in the reader as they should be, so it’s more of an intellectual exercise than anything else. The violence, naturally, is cooler than the love, which is always a problem in any war story.
That doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth a look. Cardoselli’s art is terrific, as it usually is, and it propels the story along nicely. Like the story, the art isn’t subtle – the first image is a rose, which Cardoselli draws with wicked thorns and immediately covers in actual blood rather than leaving the rose’s color to act metaphorically. But that’s okay – Cardoselli’s brutalist style is perfect for stories like this, as his thick lines and jagged hatching give us both a protagonist and a world that’s been shredded to the breaking point. Jason’s AI is a cartoonish monstrosity, something that’s hard to take seriously because of its size but which Cardoselli manages to sell because of the weight he gives it, showing how it’s both lifting Jason up (literally) and pushing him down (figuratively). Cardoselli’s spaceships are ugly, misshapen things, seeming to tear through the sky rather than hovering, and the other soldiers Jason encounters are as destroyed as he is. Cardoselli’s violence is also cartoonish but visceral, heightening the bloodshed to such an extreme degree that, like the story, it borders on parody. It works better in the artwork, though, because Cardoselli actually shows what the violence does to bodies, and while it’s a bit silly, it’s also horrifying. While the story is nothing special, the art makes us feel its power more, as Cardoselli is even able to sell Jason’s yearning more through the art than through the words. Cardoselli’s been drawing for two decades, but he hasn’t been doing stuff that gets to the States very much, so it’s nice that it seems like he’s making inroads here, because he’s quite good.
I don’t love Planet Caravan, but I can’t dismiss it, either. It gives us a familiar story and tries to make it work, and while it doesn’t quite get there, there’s enough here that it might be worth a look, especially for the art.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆