Review by Reid Vanier
The titular character’s controversial redesign hangs heavy over what is an otherwise spectacular reintroduction to the world of 41st-Century Japan.
This week marks the debut of Valiant Comics’ “Valiant First” initiative, in which they will debut a new #1 issue for each remaining month of 2014. The stated goal of the initiative is “…to give readers clear and accessible jumping-on points into Valiant’s award-winning publishing line”. How appropriate, then, that the kick-off title is one of Valiant’s most iconic characters: Rai.
Set, in the floating nation of 41st-Century Japan, Rai #1 is ostensibly a murder mystery. For the first time in a thousand years, a human being has been murdered. Rai is summoned by the Father – the cybernetic mind that governs Japan – to track down those responsible, a militant group known as the Raddies. But as he begins to examine the situation, a wave of unprecedented violence erupts and it becomes clear that there is more at stake than a single murder.
This plot is captivating from the get-go: full of political intrigue and a pervasive, nagging dread as Rai starts seeing each successive outbreak of chaos as a carefully orchestrated act of terrorism. But where the plot is something to be fleshed out and uncovered as this series unfolds, the true success of this particular issue is the incredible world-building.
The creative team of Matt Kindt and Clayton Crain does an excellent job of establishing the world of Rai. Visually, Crain captures the enormity of a Japan flying hundreds of miles above the Earth – its massive structures and complex pathways are reminiscent of an ant colony, reinforcing the idea that space and resources are limited, but also subtly implying that the inhabitants are only as valuable as what they bring to the collective.
Crain also plays masterfully with his panel layouts. The art – which, it should be noted, is entirely painted – is very filmic, moving with precision from shot to shot capturing equally well the contained and the expansive; the order and the chaos.
But where Crain captures the horror and beauty of Japan’s enormity, Kindt’s writing provides the detail work that gives us a more specific entry-point to the world. Through Lula, a fifteen year old narrator / aspiring historian, the reader is guided through some of the finer points of 41st-Century Japan: the role of PTs (Positronic Minds, or AI robots) as human companions, the militant philosophy of the Raddies, and some modest background on Rai and his relationship to the Father.
In fact, Kindt gives far more detail about the world and Rai than can be adequately summarized here. Such is the efficacy of his writing and the framing device he uses to structure it. There is as much depth to Kindt’s words as there is in Crain’s brushstrokes, and the result is a beautifully immersive world.
Any discussion of Rai would be incomplete if it didn’t address the rather large, red and white striped elephant in the room that is Rai’s redesign. The choice to incorporate the “rising sun” version of the Japanese flag as a full body tattoo has been controversial, to say the least. And the criticism is not unwarranted; the “rising sun” flag is associated with the terrible atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
On Twitter, Valiant has defended the choice in the vaguest of terms, simply stating that it is deliberate and tied to the narrative of Rai’s first arc. While attempting to be as neutral as possible on the matter, the seeds of Valiant’s claim are, in fact, present within the pages of Rai #1.
Among the things learned about Rai in this issue are two key points: this particular iteration of Rai has only existed for one year and he has not yet fully considered his role in the political stability of Japan. This comes to light when he first encounters Spylocke, who claims to be neither on the side of the Raddies nor of Rai, but rather that of Japan. Spylocke makes Rai consider, perhaps for the first time, whether or not he serves Japan or simply the Father.
Rai himself finds that his encounters through the lower sectors of Japan shatter his image of the Father’s nation as an ideal, something that is beautifully reinforced by Crain’s juxtaposition of Rai’s picturesque Top Sector base – a lone cherry blossom tree in the middle of a pure, green, pasture – with the compartmentalized, industrial sectors below.
Given the rather conspiratorial nature of the Raddies’ attacks and the very clear visual and textual symbolism, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that perhaps this first arc is, in fact, tied to his controversial redesign.
Fans of Rai’s previous comic incarnations will notice the semantic difference between the title “Father” and its literary predecessor “Grandmother”. There is a certain ominous implication to the former, and it should assume that this change is intentional. Perhaps Rai will discover that he is more a tool of the Father than a hero of the people. Perhaps the “rising sun” is a symbol of the oppression of which Rai is an unknowing agent. Perhaps not. Time will tell, but for now a willing suspension of outrage can be afforded to see if the choice is justified.
Controversy aside, Rai #1 is a spectacularly immersive experience. Kindt and Crain have crafted a world of wonder and threat, and characters whose depths are begging to be explored as the series unfolds.
Matt Kindt (W), Clayton Crain (A) ⋅ Valiant Entertainment, $3.99. Released April 30, 2014.