Scott Snyder is heralded in the comics-sphere for a lot of things. For example, his excellent work on books like Batman and American Vampire, or even his tutelage of other writers like Matthew Rosenberg and James Tynion IV. But he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for being a genuine master of genres, something that he’s shown off on his slate of various ComiXology titles. Whether it’s the gritty cyberpunk of Clear, the western horror of the brand-new Canary, or the mish-mash that is We Have Demons, Snyder knows how to modulate his authorial voice and play around with structure, tone, etc. to make stories land.
But can he do the same with firefighters?
That’s a question central to Dark Spaces: Wildfire, Snyder’s new project for IDW alongside artist Hayden Sherman. In the book, an all-female group of inmate firefighters (and their C.O.) battle the real-life Arroyo Fire from summer 2020. Amid the catastrophe, they must decide to keep up their efforts or, on the suggestion of a newer recruit, rob “her crooked former associate’s mansion.” It’s certainly got a Snyder-ian angle to it, but does it feel like another successful bout of genre exploration or are there just some things that Snyder’s magic can’t affect?
And, for the most part, the answer is, “Ask again later.”
Because, sure, there’s lots of potential to this book even in issue #1. For one, the premise itself is interesting enough, and the idea of adding a true heist story to his repertoire means that Snyder has another chance to play around with certain tropes and narrative devices. The fact that it’s an all-woman team is also interesting, and Snyder really makes the effort to make their work feel real and organic enough, which helps ground any flights of fancy that might occur.
And, as an extension of that, Snyder also transcends some of the genre work for larger social commentary, portraying the team of inmate fighters –Brooks, Zinn, Ramos, and Sawyer — in a way that emphasizes their humanity and critiques the unfair system that has them fighting fires for mere pennies. (Even if the mere existence of this book also somewhat celebrates that very real, very irresponsible system.)
Yet there’s also some elements or editorial decisions that make it unclear if this book will ultimately flourish like some of Snyder’s past efforts. For one, the explanation of the firefighting techniques takes up a lot of time — the whole extended explainer section plays out like a more wordy version of The Prestige — and some of the dialogue and explanations feel heavy-handed in their efforts to foster a true sense of realism. It’s all the more confounding given that, despite that emphasis on portraying the team’s respective roles, most of the crew feels mostly half-done at this point, and they’re all sort of lumped together thus far as opposed to feeling like real people.
The exception, then, is their leader, Ruby Ma Ning, who we get a greater sense of her maternal role and motivation for going along with the series’ subsequent madness. Yet Snyder also opts to play up a big reveal regarding Ma’s health, and that slightly manipulative factor feels like a common thread among this first issue. Which is to say, it feels like the same kind of deliberate magic that Snyder knows he’s mastered, and he’s busting it out again to hook us as opposed to relying on the inherent appeal of this exciting genre turn to engage readers. He also re-uses that whole “all the people here are dead and let’s re-tell the story, Tarantino style” motif that’s popped up before (most recently, the entertaining Barnstormers.)
That’s not to say things still don’t work — Snyder knows how to tell a story like few others — but rather it feels like a slightly missed opportunity. He could easily do something different in this new and novel setting, and use other interesting narrative devices, which could truly land given the sheer realism that abounds this tale. It feels like a case of an author knowing himself too well, and applying the same spell over and over when we know that he’s capable of doing so many other things (some of which may require a little stretching).
If there’s one part of this book I’m not split on, though, it’s the artwork. Artist Hayden Sherman feels like the perfect choice for this grounded tale, and his line work lends a certain cinematic quality to the book (like showing the scale of the fire itself) without stripping the book of a robust sense of intimacy (like when we’re seeing the lives of some crew members). A lot of that has to do with the color work from Ronda Pattison, who manages to make this book feel utterly gorgeous by balancing both a sense of grit and realism while also opting for certain hues and shades that lend an almost otherworldly, psychedelic quality to the book (which plays up the emotional depth here without taking us out of the story itself). Heck, even the lettering from AndWorld Design is perfectly crafted for this specific story’s overall aesthetic and vibe.
Together, the duo of Sherman and Pattison not only create a really compelling book visually, but also manage to utilize some great devices to enhance their work. Whether that’s helping to visually streamline some of the exposition in the first few pages, or visually representing a sense of monotony and tediousness that informs the crew’s efforts to tackle said heist, these artistic decisions make the book feel truly special. And they’re doubly helpful in maintaining the momentum when some of the story may falter or fall prey to some of its more cliched tendencies. Still, it’s not that they “make up” for Snyder’s work — that doesn’t need to be the case even as he’s not fulfilling his full potential — but rather the visuals feel like a true case of organic, deeply exciting exploration of the chose genre boundaries.
Ultimately, I liked this issue. There’s enough promise here — the art and visuals as well as the beginnings of Snyder’s narrative efforts — even if it did feel somewhat unfulfilled. But if issue #2 doesn’t address some of those issues — expanding the focus on the whole crew, leaning more into the benefits of this specific genre, etc. — then this book could be closer to a mere campfire than a roaring wildfire.
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