One of the biggest issues with science fiction is this: figuring out the balance between ideas and story. Some sci-fi stories have an amazing idea, but the author spends so much time discussing the premise that they don’t take the time to adequately develop characters or plot in a way that gives the reader a sense of stakes, or a reason to care about the premise beyond as a thought experiment. On the flip side, there are a lot of great ideas brought up in sci-fi, but some authors get so bogged down in character and plot that they forget to do anything interesting with the actual concept, leading many to wonder why you would even bother setting the story in that world since it has so little impact on the plot.
A great way to understand this is to look at the Matrix trilogy. The first movie did a near perfect job of both exploring the concept of the virtual world of the Matrix, and developing an interesting set of characters that you get invested in and root for. You understand the motivations of the heroes and the villains, and you enjoy the world building at the same time.
The second Matrix film, though, is where things start to go wrong. The film dives deep into the concept of the Matrix, and gets so up its own behind about the lore and history of this world that it’s honestly hard to remember what the actual plot of the film even is. Seriously, think about it: What is the actual plot of the second Matrix movie? There’s a guy they need to find, to open a door, that Neo was supposed to get through anyways, so he could make a choice to do something, maybe reboot the Matrix or not? It doesn’t matter. There are no stakes in the second film, and honestly I’m hard pressed to even remember half of what happened in that film.
The third movie over corrected in the other direction. Seeming to take the criticisms of the second movie to heart, the third Matrix movie leaned hard on character so much that it literally just devolved into a video game fight scene between God-Mode Neo and Agent Smith, and left the ending such a confusing mess that even the characters in the film don’t know what’s happening at the end. There are few to any reveals about the world they live in, and things just happen and are hand waved away without any explanation. Again, it doesn’t matter.
All of this takes us to this week’s book, The Dark Age from Red 5 Comics, a book that started out with an amazing set of really interesting premises, and well developed characters, and then, well, we’ll get to how well it threads the needle in a minute.
Let’s start with the blurb:
The Dark Age by Don Handfield, Art by Leonardo Rodrigues, Pop Mahn
From the creator of The Rift! In the near future all metal on Earth suddenly turns to worthless piles of rust and dust. With no technology, no guns, no computers, humanity reverts to a violent feudal system. Each pocket of civilization is ruled by knights of wood & glass & concrete. This is the new Dark Age.
Like I said, this book has killer art, and a really interesting premise. Take away all metal and you lose most manufacturing, electricity, and civilization. It’s a post-apocalypse that I’ve never seen before, and I was all in. I bought the variant covers, read each book as soon as it dropped, and sang its praises to anyone who would listen.
And in the beginning it was really good. Handfield introduced interesting characters and gave the reader personal stakes that we could all care about. Ethen, one of our main characters and father to Jonah and Jonnie, is an expert on primitive life and weaponry, and has rallied a fairly strong force behind him because of his knowledge about how to survive a world without metal. The problem, though, is that his daughter had a heart transplant years ago, and needs anti-rejection drugs to survive, drugs that cannot be made in this world and thus must be scrounged from the ruins.
So we have an interesting world, with a unique premise, and personal stakes to get us invested in the characters. We also have a limited run here of seven issues, so the story needed to stay tight and focused in order to keep the plot moving swiftly.
The cracks, however, quickly started to show. See, in the first few issues the premise was pretty simple. We had a father trying to find drugs to keep his daughter alive, and increasingly becoming convinced that the only way he was going to be able to save her life was to go into the heart of New York city, a city that has been taken over by a society of cannibals. It’s a suicide mission that has almost no hope of success, but then a group of soldiers with air powered plastic weapons show up and offer to help in return for Ethan’s help with their issue: Aliens.
Yeah, so, here’s another sci-fi pitfall that goes along with too much focus on the premise: the need to explain. The premise that metal just disappears one day is interesting and unique, and DIDN”T NEED TO BE EXPLAINED! Look at the Walking Dead. When Kirkman pitched Walking Dead, he got support by promising to reveal the zombie plague would be revealed to be part of an alien invasion, but then he never revealed that or did anything with it (other than a cheeky fever dream). Kirkman understood that, when you have a great premise, you don’t always need to explain it. Kirkman’s world was a constant threat to the main characters, and had many twists and turns, but he also never lost sight of the fact that the world was a setting, and should never be the primary focus.
The Dark Age makes that mistake. What started as a tightly focused story in the vein of The Road or The Walking Dead, just dropped it’s penultimate issue with alien mech suits and twin boy king doppelgangers and yeah. It’s gotten so lost in the premise that we’ve lost the plot along the way as well. Suddenly this book about a father trying to protect his kids during the apocalypses turns into an alien invasion story. But not really, because before we can even get to that it turns into Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, with Ethan trading his help defeating the aliens for help raiding New York, where the cannibals have created a weird Aztec style civilization that worships a boy king who also is the identical twin of Ethan’s son who may not be his real son because of an attack and oh my god what happened to this story?!
Alright, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. See, as I said, soldiers arrive and tell Ethan that they need help with making weapons that can defeat aliens that they blame for the destruction of metal on Earth. Ethan is an expert on making obsidian knives and these blades are sharp enough to cut through the alien suits. Ethan tells them that they need a huge piece of obsidian from New York to make blades to fight the aliens, but that means New York and it’s a fight to get support.
Basically we have a lot of genre mashing going on here and it just doesn’t work for me. The idea that Ethan would need to raid a dangerous location to get meds to help his daughter is enough of a story to keep me focused and interested. The inclusion of the “aliens did it” narrative detracts from the story and really doesn’t add enough to make it worthwhile. We don’t need to know what caused this world, we just need to see how characters deal with this. The need to explain, or in this case over-explain, shows that the author is worried about his premise, and that’s unfortunate because he’s a good author with a good idea, and needs to have more faith in what he is doing.
In many ways it feels like the author felt that The Dark Age would be a one and done, and so he’s trying to cram a bunch of stuff in. We discover that in New York there is a boy king that looks like his son, and that his son might not actually be his son, and then…so what? With only seven issues there isn’t really anything we can do with this because the last issue needs to be dedicated to fighting aliens. This idea could have been fleshed out more and some legitimate drama could have been drawn out, about how his son isn’t his real son, but a replacement for his actual son who died, and after losing one child he’ll do anything to keep the other safe. That’s interesting and personal, and the world the story is set in explains the stakes and why this issue is so important.
But instead things are rushed through and not explained, and our focus keeps drifting. Add to that the long, Covid-related pause between issues 5 and 6 and it’s just hard to feel much for these characters.
So, does that mean you should skip The Dark Age? The answer, surprisingly, is no. There is so much good in this book that even though it has serious flaws, it also has a lot to admire. The ambition of this story, and the uniqueness of the premise almost make up for the failings of focus. It’s also very likely that the large gaps between issues has soured me a bit, and when issue seven comes out this Wednesday I’ll go back to the beginning and read them straight through and may enjoy The Dark Age much more.
I also think that books like this deserve our support because they are unique and different and start conversations. I want more books set in this world. I want to see how other groups of humans dealt with these issues. I want to see how other societies dealt with this change. We need to be supporting books that can challenge us like this, because I’d rather read a spectacular failure (which I am not saying this is) than a mediocre success.
A good idea, with so/ so execution and great art still deserves a chance, and as I have said before just because a book isn’t always for me, doesn’t mean it isn’t for you. The last issue of The Dark Age drops this week and I will be buying it, and I have little doubt that a trade will follow which I’d encourage you all to read. Maybe it’ll work better in a trade. I guess we’ll find out together.
Until next time folks, stay safe.