Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 Is An Interesting, Atypical, Graphic Novel That Almost Lands It!

The Good: Interesting set-up, Decent plot, Generally good characters, Generally good artwork.
The Bad: Huge character moments are missing, Poor sense of movement in the artwork
The Basics: Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 collects the first two story arcs of the comic book Fathom and presents them with enough goodies to please fans, but leave new readers a little more skeptical.

I refuse to begin my review of Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 with any sort of diatribe on the artwork. The artwork of Michael Turner is hardly anything new: stick-thin women with long legs and huge breasts have been making comic books a masturbatory literary experience for . . . well, for virtually forever. The rise of anime and manga did little to change that, so despite thinking that there are moments in Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 that seem to be drawn just for horny teenage boys and young women discovering their lesbianism, I’m not going to pick on that too much. While artwork is certainly important – it is the quality of the artwork in Justice (reviewed here!) that led me to consider that a perfect book -, artists who comply with the body type conventions of comic books – and popular culture – are not going to (always) take a hit from me.

Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 came to me when I went through everything my local library had by author Geoff Johns. Rather ridiculously, Johns is only associated with Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 from the fact that he wrote the foreward to the book. Not knowing that until the book came in, I decided that Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 afforded me a real opportunity to grow and experience something I was not already familiar with. And I’m not sure yet that I am glad I did.

When Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 arrived for me, I felt two things. The first was taken aback by the somewhat obvious and salacious artwork which featured a scantily-clad protagonist who had a body that was utterly unrealistic by most standards. The other thing I felt was genuine curiosity. Flipping through Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1, the concept sounded engaging and I decided that I would open myself up to a storytelling universe I was unfamiliar with before. I am glad I did, though Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 - which is a collection of Fathom comic books 1 – 14, along with some special preview books – is a much better idea than it is a solid execution. I can see why Fathom might have a cult following, for more than just the artwork, but I suspect that only the most devoted Fathom fans would argue in favor of all that is in Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1.

Aspen Matthews is just a girl when she is rescued by the Paradise, a cruise ship that was mysteriously lost at sea for ten years. While the crew has not aged and none of them seem to know what happened to them, a captain rescues Aspen and protects her as she grows up. Aspen remains absolutely fascinated by the ocean and all life beneath it. So, when she is offered the opportunity to join a joint U.S./Japanese undersea project, she leaps on the opportunity. Unfortunately for her, on her first day in the undersea environment, moments after she is shown the reason for the existence of the joint project (an alien vessel on the ocean floor), the facility is attacked and Aspen is almost killed.

Aspen does not die, however, and she is shocked to discover that part of the reason for her continued existence is because she is not entirely human. She is not given the opportunity to explore her nature, though, until she is abducted. The abduction of Aspen is witnessed by a boy, who informs her roommate and (unwittingly) the U.S. military. But Aspen’s abduction is a reunion of sorts and she is introduced to her people, a suboceanic humanoid race who has existed on Earth for ages. The leader of the undersea people is Killian and he begins training Aspen with a declared vision of saving the oceans and announcing to humanity of their existence. But when Aspen’s training is completed and she goes on her first missions with Killian, even as a war between the United States and Japan breaks out as a result of Killian’s aggressive actions in the Pacific, she quickly discovers that all is not as she was told and that she is being used as a powerful weapon.

Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 begins with that critical story arc and it is an engaging one. Writer and penciller Michael Turner starts out with an intriguing narrative technique wherein Aspen is telling key elements of her story while Killian and a mysterious stranger present their perspectives on the exact same events. This narrative technique is quickly dropped in order to focus on Aspen, but by then the reader is likely to be intrigued enough to continue.

My main problem with Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 is that the story makes irksome storytelling leaps that gut the interest in the protagonist. Aspen is rescued by Killian and only a few pages later, her biggest character journey – integrating with her undersea people – is over. Her training is virtually absent from the book and as a result, she goes from a happy-go-lucky, nervous marine biologist on one page to a soldier for an invasion force from underwater on the next! Sure, Turner plays lip service to the transformation by giving Aspen some doubts when she accidentally kills a person, but it is not enough to salvage the story. This is sloppy writing and would be like Neo from The Matrix discovering he was in the Matrix and then jumping to the all-out fight with Agent Smith.

That would just be shoddy writing. And yet, fans of Fathom seem to accept Aspen going from na├»ve young woman to essentially a human power rod without ever seeing the process. As a new reader with only Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 to guide me, this became a severe detraction to recommending the book. To the book’s credit, Fathom is written with a density and sense of political machinations intended for an adult audience.

As for the artwork, Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 is absolutely beautiful. For sure, the body types are ridiculous. On one page, Aspen’s legs are 2/3 her body and her breasts are utterly unrealistic proportions for an Olympic swimmer. The character design for the undersea race is very cool, with their coral-like weapons and armor looking entirely badass. Throughout the entire book, the panels are vividly colored and this is an exceptionally easy book to look at. Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 also features cover galleries that are similarly stimulating and are likely to be appreciated by anyone who loves the unrealistic idealized version of women the media and comic books present.

Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 continues with a second arc wherein Aspen is visited by a strange man who drives a submarine, chasing a giant undersea life form that humans had not encountered before. This one-shot with Baha does not actually add anything of substance to Aspen's story or the world of Fathom.

The mini-arc that follows is a bit more intriguing and has Taras's mother looking for revenge on Chance. With Chance captured and being dissolved in an attempt to reanimate Taras, Aspen is captured and must fight her way to freedom while saving Chance.

Finally, there is a storyline that opens the next big arc and presents a new conspiracy and enemy for Aspen. But, as it is only the beginning of the story, it is hard to say if it is worthwhile as I've no idea how it ends and whether Turner pulls off effectively what he starts in the book.

For fans of Fathom, Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 is also chock full of "bonus features." These include everything from production sketches to a swimsuit gallery that basically presents Aspen and other characters from Fathom in provocative poses. Some of the artwork there is actually real good, though, ironically the best actually involves surprisingly little nudity or color.

Fathom: The Definitive Edition, Volume 1 is an interesting graphic novel, but ultimately, the problems with it made it slightly below the threshold I would recommend a graphic novel at. The exposition is fragmented, the stories jump and the most important events seem to be missing from the book. This makes it an easy book to look at, but a hard volume to truly invest in.

For other graphic novels, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Jesus Hates Zombies Featuring Lincoln Hates Werewolves, Volume 1
Lost Girls


For other book reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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