Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Past Tense’

“Have you ideas on how this life ends?”

Past Tense is the latest comic by Jason McNamara, who’s a good writer and a good dude, and it’s drawn by Alberto Massaggia and colored by Paul Little (McNamara lettered it himself, and our old buddy Sonia Harris designed the logo and the cover). It’s a Dark Horse book, and we’re going to take a look at it!

I like McNamara’s writing because he figures out ways to make old things new, or at least new enough that he can use some old tropes and put good spins on them. It’s a good trick, and it makes his comics both a bit familiar (not a bad thing, necessarily) but also fascinating, because of the spin he puts on the tropes. Past Tense is one of those kinds of comics, so I liked reading it!

Technically, this is a time travel comic, but it’s not really – people can view the past, but not interact with it, so it doesn’t make my head hurt like a lot of time travel stories. Our hero, Ashley, works at a company called Past Tense that sends drones back through time so people can check out events – only six minutes at a time, though, and nothing in the recent past because of privacy concerns. McNamara hand-waves away the technology that allows them to do this, which is probably for the best, because the book isn’t really about time travel, so who cares how it works? Ashley gets a new client, Silas Greene, a retired police detective, who wants to look at some cold cases that still bug him, but she soon finds out that he’s actually a serial killer (still a retired detective, though!) who likes to watch the aftermath of his own murders. McNamara explains that the time travel video can’t be used against anyone, so he’s still free and clear, but Ashley, understandably, wants nothing to do with him. However, Greene knows that Ashley sometimes plays fast and loose with the rules of the company, so he can get her fired, and in the world in which she lives, Ashley needs the job. So she’s stuck.

She tries to come up with a way to make him pay for his crimes, but Greene is, after all, an ex-cop, so he has a lot of connections and he knows how to work the system. The book is a cat-and-mouse game between Ashley and Silas, as he becomes increasingly dangerous but is also able to plot against her as well as she plots against him. The book is set in the near future, so McNamara can have some fun with the technology (time-traveling drones, for instance) while still making sure it resonates, as the ubiquity of cameras plays a big role in the book, where nothing is really private. Silas, in the age-old tradition of evil wise dude, is able to manipulate events and perceptions to make it look like Ashley is the bad guy, and she can’t figure out how to get out. McNamara has always been good at this – this idea that people believe what they want, and clever and evil people can twist things so that the hero doesn’t know what to do, and with the layer of modern technology over it, this becomes a nice, paranoid thriller, and who doesn’t love a good paranoid thriller? We suspect that Ashley will win, but we don’t know how, and that’s what makes the book fun. McNamara isn’t terribly subtle about how bad Ashley’s life has been, but that’s okay – he needs to make it clear that she’s had somewhat of a shit life so far, but she’ll fight for what’s hers, so that her battle with Silas feels more desperate. She hasn’t had much, but she now has a lot to lose, and therefore she’ll fight harder for it. Again, not subtle, but done well. Meanwhile, Silas is an interesting character – it’s … nice? to see an older character who happens to be a monster, because he does have a lot of experience getting away with it, so while some of these types of characters feel unrealistic because they’re so all-powerful, Silas is just someone who has been around a long time, so his “powers” feel more earned and realistic. He just knows what he’s doing because he’s been doing it for so long!

Massaggia’s art isn’t superb, but it is solid. Ashley’s world isn’t too different from ours – it’s a bit seedier, as overpopulation is still a problem in urban areas, but he doesn’t go crazy with the rich/poor divide we often see in “science fiction” (I guess this counts as sci-fi, to a degree). His action is a bit stiff, but there’s not a lot of action scenes, so it doesn’t matter too much, and in one emotionally fraught scene one character doesn’t look terribly emotional, which is too bad, but overall, the book looks pretty good. He does a good job with the two main characters – Silas is more rigid, as he comports himself with more discipline, like we generally expect out of older people. He always seems to be moving in slow motion, just doing his thing, which is a difficult thing to do in a comic book, but Massaggia does it well. Meanwhile, Ashley always looks a bit more disheveled, and she seems to stagger through the book a lot, as she’s reacting to Silas even when she has a plan to stop him. It’s a clever trick, although I’m not sure how intentional it is, because Ashley’s odds seem even longer simply by how Massaggia portrays them, visually. Massaggia uses chunky blacks well, too, making the book more noir than an ostensible time-travel story has any right to be. The art might not be brilliant, but it works well for the story.

One Amazon reviewer called this book “everything wrong with the comics industry these days,” which is absolutely insane. I mean, you might not like the book, but dang, dude, ease up on the caffeine (although if I were McNamara, I would put that quote on anything I write from now on). Past Tense is certainly not going to change the world, but it’s not going to destroy comics, either. It’s a clever, pulpy noir story, and who doesn’t love one of those … except that dude on Amazon, I guess. McNamara just knows how to do these, and this is a good take on the slasher trope while also being an exciting duel between two desperate people. Give it a look!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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