Sunday, July 30, 2006

Rai Trade Paperback

Rai Trade Paperback, reprinting material that originally appeared in Rai #0-4, March-June & November 1993, Valiant
writers: Bob Layton, David Michelinie
pencillers: David Lapham, Joe St. Pierre, Sal Velluto
inkers: Charles Barnett III, Kathryn Bolinger, Tom Ryder
colorists: Dave Chlystek, Jade, Knob Row
letterers: Jade, Brad Joyce, George Roberts, Jr.
editors: Don Perlin, Barry Windsor-Smith
trade paperback design: Simon Erich

Whew. That's a lot of credits.

My girlfriend's uncle was kind to give me a few old TPBs yesterday, and this compilation of Rai was the jewel among them, as I have never read the series before. Today, I had an hour or so to kill while waiting for America's only Monkees tribute band to take the stage at a free concert in the park, so I devoured nearly five issues of material in one sitting. I must confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. (Oh, and the concert was great, too.)

I'm familiar with David Michelinie's writing from his nearly 100 issue run on Amazing Spider-man. When comics were booming in the '90s, Michelinie was driving the Webhead bandwagon; his run included the advent of Venom, the return of the Sinister Six, and the rise of superstar artists like Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, and Mark Bagley. Fortunately, he bailed before the Clone Saga tainted Spidey's good name, but for as much as he accomplished in an era when the spotlight was on comics' "next big thing," I doubt many remember him by name. All eyes were on artists and crossovers. (Remember "Maximum Carnage," anyone? Anyone?) Well, I remember him, and although Rai was written just prior to the height of all that Spider-mania, I was happy to hear from him again.

According to his tell-all intro, when Michelinie received the assignment to write the Rai series, the character had a little bit of baggage. Rai had appeared in a series of popular back-up stories that, as soon as they established the status quo of the concept, shattered Rai's world completely. So, here's the recap: the year is 4001. Japan is governed by a super-computer named Grandmother, which is in turn protected by the Rai, a warrior legacy. (Yes, the similarity to Darkseid's Mother Box is all too obvious.) The current Rai repels an alien invasion by raising Japan from Earth, but the floating city sustains too much damage to return! What's worse, at the end of the conflict, Grandmother literally elopes with another super-computer and disappears! Don't you hate it when that happens?

So, Rai's opening monologue of this TPB sums up the story's dilemmas quite nicely: "Japan floats in space. I float in Japan. Which one of us is more alone?" Although the subsequent captions are just as melodramatic, the tone establishes an mythological integrity to this series. Yes, Rai takes place in the future and boasts the trappings of a standard sci-fi epic, but its characters are rich with legacy, introspection, and political strife. The driving force of these first four issues is Rai's struggle over which faction to defend; he is sworn to protect all of Japan's people, but the "healers" work to restore the old order of things (albeit through terrorism), and the humanists have established a new progressive government. Rai's wife works for this government, so he eventually chooses the humanists, if only to regain the rights to visit his seemingly neglected baby in the Happy Cloud Executive Child Care Facility. This connection with his child is his only link to the way things were, a tragic trace of nobility in an otherwise chaotic civil war.

Again, for a story with the potential to amount to sci-fi fluff, Rai offers moments of intriguing political commentary and allegory. Consider the government's sanction of alternative drug abuse, because the general public seems less apt to fight the system when they're complacently high. When Rai goes renegade and stops the drug trade, even the people turn against him: "[The drug was a] momentary escape from our our fears, from a world changing too fast! It was all some of had!" Later, Rai's father, a former Rai himself, sides with the humanists to distract his son from the real action, the height of their plan (which was, incidentally, to coax Grandmother to return). The idea of father/son legacy, the should-I-do-as-Daddy-did dilemma, is one the modern American political theater knows all too well. In the end, we see Michelinie gain some practice for his stint on Spider-man with Rai's woe-is-me mentality: his Pyrrhic victory inspires him to retreat into exile. Aww.

Unfortunately, this is how the epic ends. I would actually love to find the next installment, to see how Rai redeems himself with his father, his wife, and his country. Wait a minute . . . Japan is floating above the Earth. Where the hell is he going?

My only other experience with Valiant is the
Eternal Warrior, and I must confess, both series' artists seem remarkably bland. The background work is commendable for its detail, but it all seems to textbook, so void of personal flavor. Also, the coloring scheme in all of Valiant's books seems flat. I'm not sure what the common coloring techniques were back in the early '90s, but I remember what Image was producing, and Valiant's impressive cast of characters could have benefited from some visual overhaul. In the #0 story included in this TPB, we see Magnus Robot Fighter, Solar, and Turok, all respected properties, but ultimately lost in the shuffle of indie companies in that era. The market was flooded. As I said before, readers weren't looking for stories then. They wanted action-packed art and cool looking characters.

After reading Rai, remembering that collector-centric time, two words come to mind: their loss.

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