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Aron Warner’s Pariah #1 & 2

Aron Warner & Philip Gelatt
Brett Weldele
Sea Lion Books $3.99

Review by Joe Palmer

Imagine it’s the year 2025. Only a few years away so it shouldn’t be too difficult. Believe it or not, iPads will one day be a charming and antiquated memory. Maybe the Smithsonian will even have one on display. That is if they’ve not been forgotten entirely. All you have to do is look around you to know that technology changes at a quicker and quicker pace, lending support, one could say, to Terrence McKenna’s Novelty Theory and Timewave Zero. it is we humans who change much more slowly.

Most of the time.

In Warner, Gelatt, and Weldele’s Pariah it is the year 2025. Advances have been made in areas like technology and medicine but people’s lives are still ruled by mundane routines and concerns, with one notable exception. Thanks to an unexpected side effect of an  experimental in vitro drug, “Vitros” are born to ordinary mothers. Vitros are indistinguishable from you and me except for one trait that they all have in common: they all developed rapidly increasing intelligence, and thus they became viewed as “other” by the majority. Now in their teens, the Vitros number several hundred across the world. Some, like Brent Marks. try to lead normal lives while others are working on cutting edge R & D on weapons and space technology for the federally funded Marinus Laboratories. Then one day an  explosion occurs in Marinus Labs’ Building 28 where the Vitros conduct research. A deadly virus that starts killing the non-Vitro population is released into the air, followed by an explosion. The unease that has existed for the past few years turns to tension and outright fear as governments declare Vitros to be terrorists and things quickly deterioriate.

There you have the premise of Pariah. Of course a good story is more than a good plot. You need characters that capture the reader’s attention, and with comics an artist to bring it all to life is requisite. We have characters that are sympathetic, engaging, flawed, and somewhat atypical with the aforementioned Brent Marks in issue one and Lila Ellerman in the second. Despite his advanced intellect, Brent very much wants to live a normal life with normal parents in a normal home and be seen as average by the people in his world. He lives at home, a word he admits holds little meaning, not because he doesn’t yearn for the feelings a home engenders, but his parents just make it an impossible wish. They can’t relate to their son – the only thing they seem to relate to is their television which Brent laments is constantly turned on. That certainly seems true as the relationship between people and TV changed from fascination for novelty’s sake to mind-numbing agent. Brent goes to high school though it appears he’s more instructor than student.  As smart as he is — and he is because at night while his parents sleep he secretly works on constructing an advanced deep space craft because he can — Brent doesn’t have a lot of everyday common sense and he’s just like most other teenaged boys when it comes to understanding girls and getting his heart trampled by one whom he wonders if she’s interested in him. Ironically it’s an idea he’s tossed out in class that interests her. He might be flattered until realizing she sees him only as a Vitro. And the day after the Marinus Labs explosion he returns to school because he can’t think of any other options. Bad idea. His overwhelming desire for normalcy doesn’t prepare him for the hostile reactions he encounters, igniting both fight and flight instincts that affect his judgment ending in his capture by a special ops team. Yes, Brent Marks is incredibly smart, but he’s also very human in ways that he didn’t know.

On the other hand, Lila doesn’t want a normal life. She’s proud to be a Vitro working at Marinus and tentatively happy with wondering whether she has a relationship with Brandon or not. Well, till the day of the explosion. A flashback to the fateful day of the gaseous viral release gives us a different viewpoint while bringing up questions. Horror dominates the faces of Lila and the other Vitros as they witness one of their own dying from the virus before their eyes. Questions arise when some fast hacking reveals it was a biological weapon tied to a project supposedly under Lila’s direction. It’s a cold hard slap in their collective faces. Now she and other Marinus Vitros are hiding out in the Bitterroot Forest in Montana, only a scant 20 miles from the labs. Warner and Gelatt zig zag around reader assumptions by making Lila the de facto leader as the otherwise all male group falls into disarray after their hasty exodus from the highly structured routines of Marinus. She knows how to work the kids without tipping her hand unless it’s a necessary tactic to shout down dissent from “scrawny, douchehat” Sam. All her efforts to protect herself and her fellow Vitros are futile when they’re discovered by a well dressed and inscrutable teen identifying himself as a Vitro. The day would be bad enough with his message so vague it would make the Oracle of Delphi proud, but the camp is raided by a black ops team less than five minutes after the mysterious stranger disappears. What’s Lila going to do now? We’ll have to wait to learn what happens with Brent, Lila and the her group because the next issue highlights Vitro obert Maudsley, whom some think is a sociopath. One one hand I hate to wait but at the same time I appreciate the decision to focus on a single character per issue.

A thought occurred to me during and after reading Pariah. How did Neanderthal people view and interact with early modern humans (the former Cro Magnon) and later,more evolved Homo Sapiens? Was there peaceful co-existence? Inter-species breeding? Did they view their modern day relatives as higher beings to be worshipped or as mentors? Were Neanderthals distant and wary? What new rationalizations were invented to demonize the other group? Who waged war on who? Is historical humankind’s fear of the other a throwback relic hardwired into the brain since primitive man lived? Will Vitro and non-Vitro find a way to peacefully coexist and if they don’t, which group will be successful in defending themselves?  An interesting note: so far Gelatt has avoided giving either the Vitros or the general population derogatory words to call each other. The Vitros don’t even have a slang word for the majority, which makes it a bit awkward for me as I try to avoid using “human” or “normal” solely to describe the non-Vitros. Being a gay man, or having another gender identity besides straight, you learn fairly quickly how subjective normal  can be.

An argument could be made for comparison of the Vitros to Marvel’s mutant characters, but I’d rather not. I find Warner’s concept and the overall execution from partners Gelatt and Weldele more compelling and fresh. It’s been many years since I grew tired with the continuing exploitational glut by Marvel of its X franchise and its repetitious cycles of event inspired drama. Here with Pariah the limited number of Vitro characters all share one attribute that sets them apart from the world at large, a much more plausible concept. Decades ago, 1967 to be exact, when the X-Men first came to my attention their numbers were small. Since then Marvel’s mutant population, each with a different variation, grew to the extent that at one point a small nation was founded, and the number will grow again if the events of its House of M are undone in the wake of Scarlet Witch’s return.

While to date none of the characters are LGBT, the metaphor of the “Other” and the struggles that disenfranchised minorities go through in order to find and make a place in society is central to Pariah. Gelatt shares an insight through a bit of internal monologue with Brent when he thinks how Vitros only reveal a small percent of their intelligence to the world at large, as if they are trying to call less attention to themselves. Downplaying their mental capacities isn’t exactlypassing as gay people can do or as some light complexioned African Americans did at one time, but it does seem Vitros make an effort to present themselves in a less intimidating light. So do you try to assimilate as Brent does trying to live a regular teen’s life in Akron or are you a separatist, as Lila represents, living apart in a “ghetto” like the Vitros who worked at Marinus? Does it even matter at all when the government comes to take you? Not to be overlooked is the fact that Vitros were born to mothers who were, in a pre-Vitro sense, normal, as  LGBT people are born to parents who are straight, much to the dismay and denial of conservatives and the devoutly religious.

Brett Weldele’s art first came to my attention with The Surrogates published by Top Shelf  some years back. Never mind the movie version that starred Bruce Willis unless Willis is one of your guilty pleasures. Weldele’s unmistakable style is at once sketchy, graphic, and dynamic. Working as colorist Weldele completes it with a textural, emotive and painterly palette. His work can also be seen in the recent Spontaneous mini series which will be collected in a couple months from Oni. Grab a look at Weldele’s work over at his site.

Like The Surrogates before it, Pariah has the sensibilites of a movie all over. Get in on the excitement now because it’d be a shame if Justin Bieber were miscast as Brent Marks!

Is your curiosity piqued? Go visit the Pariah website!
Visit Sea Lion Books website where copies of Pariah # 1 – 3 are available for purchase if you can’t find them at your comic shop.

March 7, 2015
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