Book Reviews
7:03 am
Sun August 31, 2014

Rescuing Science From The Military ... With Comics?

Pouty lips, flowing hair and ... oligonucleotide synthesizers? Two of these things don't seem to belong — at least, not in a comic that seeks to expose high-level Defense Department research to the critical light of day. Human physicality seems somehow out of place in the sterile confines of a government lab.

Comic creator Matt Hawkins has a different view. With Think Tank, collected here in a three-volume box set, he hopes his sexy characters will help bring some of the government's most complex and sinister projects to the attention of a broad audience. Or, heck, even a narrow audience. After all, it's no easy task to make hypersonic technology vehicles and electronic counter-countermeasures accessible to the average reader, particularly one who's inclined to share Hawkins' dovish views on the military. People who understand this kind of thing tend to be part of that forbidding subculture that memorizes the specs of Black Hawk helicopters and is uncritically entranced by new tech.

Hawkins has clearly thought about this problem. His hero is Dr. David Loren, a Bradley Cooper lookalike with a naughty smirk, a sharp wit and a knack for explaining scientific jargon. Recruited by the government before he even entered college, David has since decided he doesn't want to help kill anymore. "I watched what I built punch a hole through a man they just left to rot in the sun," he says. "I'm no liberal whack job. I get the need for defense. ... I just don't want to be the one doing it."

But the government won't let David walk away. He's too valuable a resource, both for what he knows and what he's capable of. Think Tank is largely a chronicle of his rebellions, which range from extreme passive-aggressiveness to outright flight from the high-security facility where he lives. His attempts to back out of his devil's deal — or, failing that, to undercut his own effectiveness as a killing tool — make for a compelling story.

Even so, Hawkins' project would be impossible without artist Rahsan Ekedal. If not for him, Think Tank would probably get bogged down in indistinguishable military personnel and static "talking" scenes. But Ekedal is exactly the kind of artist who can bring warmth and dimension to a book like this. He doesn't bother to draw all the details of aircraft carriers and drones, but he pulls out all the stops with the characters' faces.

And what faces! Except for a couple of irredeemable bad guys, Ekedal's characters all have big, round irises, cute dimples and lips that look ready to kiss. His pen seems bored by straight lines, constantly on the verge of breaking out in a fit of curlicues. (Ekedal gets to let loose with the hair of Mirra Sway, David's unpredictable girlfriend, and his delight is palpable.) There's still a lot of yakking in Think Tank, but each panel has as much going on as Ekedal can manage.

Then there's David himself. Ekedal lavishes care on his cheek stubble, and makes his hair tumble into art nouveau arabesques. David even dresses interestingly, lounging around the lab around in sweatpants and socks like someone's boyfriend on a Saturday morning. Unfortunately, while his government military handlers tolerate his penchant for video games and remote-control toys, they're also determined to get him working again. And "working," in this case, means developing horrifying new ways to kill.

The resulting struggle is a potent metaphor for our country's entanglement with the military-industrial complex. A few bad decisions he made years ago cage David as surely as steel bars. Again and again, he sees his creativity hopelessly corrupted. Even his loose, unmacho physical style expresses the conflict, creating an ever-present contrast between the geek and the soldier-jock, the organic and the mechanical, the flesh and the high-tensile-strength polymer.

David isn't all that great a guy; his curiosity drives him to develop dangerous technologies almost in spite of himself. It's debatable whether he's any more admirable than Mirra, his compliant friend Dr. Pavi, or even his archenemy, Gen. Diana Clarkson. And yet somehow, none of David's flaws lessens his basic charisma — which is just as Hawkins intended.


Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.