The Revolution Will Be Illustrated: Two SF Graphic Novels Whose Politics Are Most Relevant Than Ever

revolution:It’s an accepted truth that science fiction is only ostensibly about the future—futuristic trappings aside, it’s actually about our current world. That’s why the original Star Trek was drenched with the optimism of the 1960s, while the Cold War era of mutually assured destruction gave rise to so many dystopian futures.

Today, terrorism and revolution permeate our world, from the Middle East, to Europe, to homegrown terrorists in America. Two current comic series, The Omega Men, by Tom King and artists Barnaby Bagenda and José Marzán, Jr.; and Invisible Republic, by Corinne Bechko and Gabrial Hardman, focus on terrorism and revolutions in the far future, but they have much to say about what’s happening today.

The Omega Men takes us inside the mind of an intergalactic terrorist organization as they face an ill-defined, oppressive Empire. There are no good guys here, save captive former Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, as the Omega Men go to desperate lengths in pursuit of their goals. At times, the story’s use of flashbacks and atmospheric art edges toward the surreal. That it feels authentic to terrorist organizations is partially due to co-creator King’s experiences working for the CIA.

Do we believe the Omega Men have a righteous goal? Though we’re currently only six issues in, it’s clear their opponents are not good people, and those surviving under this government are suffering. Should the Omega Men be using the tactics they do—murder, imprisonment, other manipulations—to achieve those ends? They think so. Kyle certainly doesn’t. Until the story is over, we’ll have to wait for an answer. And perhaps there won’t be one—it’s that kind of messy, complicated story.

Invisible Republic takes a different tack, exploring what happens after a rebellion succeeds…then falls apart. Set on a frontier world in chaos after the failure of the recently triumphant rebel government, it centers on Maia, cousin of rebellion leader Arthur McBride. Maia’s story is told via flashbacks contained within a journal uncovered by Croger Babb, a reporter after one last big story. Both their worlds, pre- and post- revolution, are rife with dangerous lies. At the end of the first volume, their narratives entwine, promising things will only grow murkier from there.

Invisible Republic is filled with desperate people doing desperate things. Maia holds onto our sympathy, because while she yearns to be free from indentured servitude, murder is a line that she won’t cross. But killing seems to come naturally to her cousin, the eventual rebel leader. That conflict sets the tone for the rest of their relationship, and their lives. When they face capture, Arthur abandons Maia to survive. In the diary, we meet the budding revolutionary and understand Maia was pulled into his orbit, despite her best judgment. What we haven’t seen as yet is how Arthur rose to power, and what toppled his rule. Given the state of the present-day world at the end of the first volume, it’s clear whatever happened was a failure.

The artwork presents the frontier world as a futuristic wild west, with standout sequences that will stick in your mind: Maia letting a fallen enemy live; Croger clutching the diary close as if it’s a security blanket; Arthur and Maia’s initial parting, as Arthur makes clear he considers himself more important than anyone else.

Invisible Republic reminded me how difficult it is for a revolution to succeed. We need only look to our own history (and present) for ample evidence: the bloody path to democracy kicked off by the French Revolution; Iraq’s descent into chaos in the wake of a dictator’s overthrow; the aborted revolution in Egypt; even the iron control now exercised by Vladimir Putin over a Russia that once seemed on the path to democracy rather than oligarchy.

I’ve come to expect complicated and nuanced stories from Image, publishers of Invisible Republic, but for DC Comics, The Omega Men is a standout in their superheroic line. That it was given a greenlight is a credit to the editorial department, though its low monthly sales show it wasn’t an experiment without risk. At one point, an announcement came that it had been canceled, only to be followed almost immediately with assurances the book would be given the 12 issues needed to complete the story.

It’s a story that might ultimately work best in graphic novel format. Why? The Omega Men not only forces the reader to pay close attention to deduce what’s going on in the heads of most of the rebels, it jumps around in time and switches the character focus from issue to issue. It took four of them for me to realize the full scope and ambition of the story. The art is by turns surreal, atmospheric, and deliberately confusing, setting the tone of paranoia that infuses the book. It’s about peeling back the curtain and revealing all the messy reasons for a revolution, how it warps those who want to change the system, and what people can be driven to do when ruled by desperation and a desire for power.

If you’re looking for a way to understand the rage of the forgotten and how revolutions go awry, these are two series that open a dialogue through fiction. These are important stories. Especially today.

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