Review: Terminator 2029 #2

Needle-Nose Ninja

Script: Zack Whedon
Art: Andy MacDonald
Colors: Dan Jackson
Lettering: Nate Piekos
Cover: Massimo Carnevale

When we talked to Zack Whedon last month about Terminator 2029 #1, he was coy about some details that were obviously going to play a part as the three-issue miniseries unfolded. This was to be expected, of course– but, having read issue #2, I have to chuckle to myself at just how much he was holding back, and how amused he was at what was coming up. He’s certainly earned it; this issue has elevated the series up a notch from “good” to “great.”

Terminator 2029 is technically centered on Kyle Reese, but Kyle’s lieutenant Ben gets all the love this time around. Ben and Paige’s arc in this issue comprises the B-plot, but they completely steal the show. I try my best not to spoil big scenes in these reviews, but I have to make an exception in this case, so steel yourself for the next paragraph.

How cool is Ben? He takes out a 800-series Terminator… with a pair of needle-nose pliers. Everyone else’s tech-geek cred just went down a few points by comparison, fictional character or not. Stand aside, Gordon Freeman, Ben’s on the scene.

When he’s not being a Leatherman ninja, Ben’s romantic subplot advances satisfyingly as well, intercut with scenes from Kyle’s bombastic A-plot. Kyle remains a strong character for Whedon to play with, but the main plot in this issue is a bit weak and formulaic. A band of renegades, ex-soldiers unsatisfied with what they consider to be the Resistance’s timid pace, bail Kyle’s refugees out of last issue’s cliffhanger… and that’s the problem.

In the immortal words of Bad Religion, these guys are “a pack of wild desperadoes scornful of living,” and Kyle’s stuck dealing with their issues. He’s essentially ego-goaded into helping the band’s leader make a raid on a strange new Skynet compound nearby. What follows is a workmanlike A-to-B progression– spot the base, go to the base, break into the base. It’s fun, but the Paige and Ben arc is so well done that it overshadows this de rigueur action.

Of course, that might be what Whedon intended all along. The ending ties both plots together in a surprise that will leave you smacking your forehead in why-didn’t-I-think-of-it delight. It’s not an M. Night Shyamalan-style twist, leaping on the unsuspecting reader out of nowhere, either– it’s actually neatly concealed inside the things we readers already know about the Terminator mythos. Or, well, if it’s not, it should be, anyway. Depending on how Zack decides to write himself out of the corner he’s just placed himself into, we’ll see what holds up through issue 3.

Also worth noting in this issue is Andy MacDonald’s steadily-improving art. #2 is a much tighter affair on all sides, and Andy’s really hit his stride. Dan Jackson’s use of a two separate color palettes, emphasizing the differences between the cold of the snow and Skynet and the tenuous warmth of the Yankee Company compound, is spot on. Massimo Carnevale’s cover art for this issue is poster-worthy, even as biased to Ben as we might be at the Department.

I was a big fan of Dark Horse’s movie properties in the early 90’s. Aliens, Predator, and Terminator mini-series were regular pulls for me when they were first running. This is the first time in a long time I’ve been this excited about one of them.

A Conversation with Zack Whedon

Zack Whedon title board at Golden Apple Comics

Golden Apple sets up a spread for Zack Whedon.

It was a Dark Horse weekend at Golden Apple Comics in Hollywood– first Felicia Day and the cast of The Guild Friday night, celebrating the release of the first Guild comic, then Zack Whedon on Saturday, signing copies of Terminator 2029. Golden Apple is where we’ve been getting our fix since 2004, and owner Ryan Liebowitz was kind enough to permit me ten minutes to interview Zack about Terminator 2029, what he’s reading these days, and why he thinks we deserve a better Daredevil movie than we ultimately got.

Many thanks to Ryan for arranging this for us, and to Zack for being a polite and gracious guest for our first big interview!

CC: I suppose we should start with the difficulty of writing within the Terminator franchise, specifically the Dark Horse-licensed original film. Where do you find story niches that aren’t already occupied? I talked to Matt Wagner once about Batman, and he said “I can’t write anything after the introduction of the Joker, there’s no room in the timeline.” So if you’re stuck, where are you stuck at? Where do you find those spots?

ZW: Well, you know, it was difficult, but it was beneficial in a way because I had to focus on Kyle. I mean, it was an obvious choice to focus on Kyle because in the first movie that’s the character that’s sort of been explored the least and, you know, that was beneficial because I didn’t end up focusing on John Connor which is I think sort of what everyone else has done and there isn’t a lot of new territory to cover there.

CC: John’s the legend.

ZW: Yeah, there have been four movies and a television series about him, so, you know, there isn’t a lot to do there. So, I focused on Kyle and the time, for these first three issues, before he makes the jump to 1984. Which is something you got tiny glimpses of in the first movie, but you get more into that in the comic. You see the world that surrounds those flashbacks a little bit more.

CC: Actually, I wanted to talk about Ben in that context, because he is a character who obviously doesn’t believe in any crap about fate or destiny. But he’s in a Cameron-inspired universe, and Cameron’s work is so fraught with those concepts. Ben doesn’t seem to be buying in. Can you talk about that a little bit?

ZW: Yeah, well, you know Ben is- Ben and Paige are both much more sort of… grounded people than Kyle or John are. They’re more average, they’re more like you and me. They’re not big military heroes. But Ben’s philosophy- which has to do with the fact that his past is as terrible as it is, and that’ll sort of be touched on in future issues- is that he refuses to look at the past and think about what could be different about the past. Because his past is too horrifying to confront, he just wants to think about the future and how he can make tomorrow better. How he can forge new relationships, as he’s trying to do with Paige, constantly. That’s who he is. He’s about what could be tomorrow and not about what happened yesterday.

CC: And Paige?

ZW: And Paige is a little bit different. I sort of created them as two sides of that coin, where she is very much rooted in the past and focused on the tragedies of the past, and therefore incapable of moving forward and forming a bond with someone because she is terrified of that. Because she knows what can happen in that situation.

CC: I noticed in the first issue that it looks like Paige puts on the brave face a lot.

ZW: Yes.

CC: She seems terrified of losing situational control. She can’t let go with Ben, and both Ben and Kyle are prodding her in that direction. And that has to be uncomfortable, especially with Kyle in that situation, because he’s Kyle.

ZW: Yeah, she’s sort of, you know, she’s oblivious to the thing that’s happening all around, to the thing that’s happening right next to her, and that’s confronted head-on in the second issue.

CC: I thought we could talk the visual language of the comic as opposed to the screenplay. I was thinking about it in terms of Andy Diggle’s The Losers. He’s said before that “This is a love letter to Shane Black.” And you can really see it in those trailers, where everything works like a movie instead of trying to transpose the comics grammar onto the film. Do you feel the same way about your work? Are there screenwriters whose work you’d recommend to people who want to write comics? Who should people be reading if they want to write comics and they want to think in that same visual language?

ZW: I think the greatest example is The Matrix. I mean, when you watch that movie, there are so many parts of that movie where everything becomes still in the frame and everything really looks like a comic painting. They were great at that. I think that, I mean, they’ve obviously had some missteps since then, but they obviously have a great love for comics and I think that both mediums sort of fuel each other in their work. But, I don’t know, any director that’s concerned with shot composition and like that and visual storytelling is a good reference. But that isn’t every director, either.

Zack Whedon, seated.

Zack in repose after the interview.

CC: And your own approach to that? Moving from Dr. Horribleto writing comics?

ZW: It’s difficult because… you don’t want to rely on dialog in film, either. I think the best screenwriting happens when you’re telling stories visually, and the same thing is true with comic books. That really becomes a very conscious struggle in writing comics because you’re describing every panel. You don’t want it to be ‘Ben’s talking now’ and then ‘Paige is talking now’ and back and forth. It becomes a really conscious effort to make things visual and what you’re seeing and hearing certain dialog and everything. I think that Brian Vaughan does an amazing job with that in terms of what you’re looking at when you’re hearing certain things.

CC: I love Vaughan. I love how he handles group dynamics. His Ultimate X-Men was fantastic.

ZW: Yeah, he’s phenomenal. He’s a big inspiration to me in terms of comic writing. And he’s also made a very successful transition to television writing.

CC: Working on Lost.

ZW: Yeah. From everyone that I know who is associated with that show, he really put his stamp on those seasons that he was involved in.

CC: You see some of that meta-awareness of what’s going on in Terminator as well, that people are kind of aware that they’re operating in this universe that plays by different rules than we’re used to. Like when Ben says, “That’s a little creepy that you have a picture [of Sarah Connor].”

ZW: Yeah, because that was sort of a problem as a writer. I was like ‘what was his story behind giving him that picture and how can that not seem weird?’ And so I just sort of had somebody say it to put it out on the table.

CC: When I reviewed the comic last week I was like, ‘hmmmmm, that’s a little editorial. I’ll forgive that, Ben seems like a skeptic.’

ZW: Yeah. And, I mean I think it’s a legitimate reaction to some guy having a picture of some other guy’s mom. It’s just a weird thing to have.

CC: “Cameron, what? What’s your hangup?!”

ZW: Heh, yeah.

CC: Since we’ve got to wrap up, what are you reading these days?

ZW: I was telling someone earlier that I’m always sort of late to the party with comics. Like I let everybody else discover it and then tell me what to read. Like I only finished Y: The Last Manpretty recently and was blown away by that. I just started 100 Bullets;that’s what I’m reading now. I also read Blankets by Craig Thompson recently, which I thought was phenomenal. I’m looking forward to whatever he puts out next.

CC: Your brother Joss is on the shortlist to direct the eventual Avengers film. If you had one comic franchise to yourself, to remake as a film, which one would you take?

ZW: Wow, I don’t know. That would be a hard choice. It seems like something like Thor or Wonder Woman would be a very hard comic to adapt. I don’t know what [director] Kenneth Branagh has in mind for Thor, but I’m interested to see how it’s done. For myself, the big movie experiences have been Die Hard, The MatrixTerminator is actually as close as it comes for me, I think. [Brother] Jed took me to see Terminator 2 twice in the same day when it came out, maybe on two separate days, and that was huge for me.

But, as far as comics go, I think there should have been a better Daredevil film than the one we got. Daredevil seems like such a cinematic character, it seems like it would be a natural transition… and it seems like it could have been adapted into a really good film. Maybe someday.

Review: Terminator 2029 #1

Cover for Terminator 2029 #1, by Massimo Carnevale.

Cover artist Massimo Carnevale knows his heavy metal.

Writer: Zack Whedon
Artist: Andy MacDonald
Colorist: Dan Jackson
Letterer: Nate Piekos

Dark Horse has finally launched its long-awaited Terminator comic, featuring the work of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog screenwriter Zack Whedon and artist Andy MacDonald. Dark Horse has a long history with Jim Cameron movie franchises, and this book continues that tradition pretty solidly. The setting is Southern California in 2029, 32 years after Skynet triggered Judgment Day, and the plot follows Kyle Reese and his lieutenants as they struggle to preserve their human colony from the Machines.

All things considered, this is a good setup; after Terminator Salvation, I know I’m pretty sick of John “I’M JOHN CONNOR!” Connor and his apparent lack of anything resembling a redeeming quality. (Yes, I’m back on Christian Bale Ruins Everything again.) On the other hand, Kyle’s a strong character, in both the original film and in Salvation; he’s heroic without being an iron-jawed caricature, and his arc across both films is genuinely tragic. Focusing the story on Kyle avoids having to reconcile the fundamental “is he a tactical genius, or a raving egomaniac” problem with the various cinematic depictions of John over the years, and lets us explore what’s left of the world without having to deal with the legend.

There’s not much left of Pasadena in 2029, either. Andy MacDonald gives us an appropriately desolate landscape, from the page-one callback to Terminator 2 to the final scene of Reese’s warrior band marching off into the nuclear-winter-blasted wilderness. Traumatized survivors pack up their lives and flee in Road Warrior-esque convoys. The Machines are omnipresent, menacing in both presence and absence throughout the book. The only brightness in the book comes from the snow-blasted hills in the final pages; colorist Dan Jackson sticks closely to the films’ blaze orange and rusted brown palette, conveying his strong grasp of the Terminator universe’s noirish feel with deft use of highlight and shadow.

Amidst the desolation and pervasive terror, Whedon provides readers with two native guides to the universe– Kyle’s closest comrades and sort-of-a-couple-maybe Ben and Paige. Paige hasn’t had too much to do so far other than demonstrate that she’s a Strong Female Character, whooping ass in greater measure than any of the men and proving her combat superiority over her teammates. Ben, on the other hand, is Kyle’s main strategist and confidant… and that’s where things get a little in-jokey. Ben makes some comments about Kyle’s as-yet-unrealized romantic connection with Sarah Connor that are pretty solidly in the realm of authorial commentary, and it’s obvious that Whedon’s putting words in his mouth. Jokes about Cameron’s occasional forays into creepy subtext are funny, yes– I laughed myself sick over the “if I were a horse or a bird, I would be pretty afraid around Jim Cameron” Na’vi-USB-port joke on The Big Bang Theory recently– but, if you’re writing in-universe, you need to exercise some discretion about tone to avoid editorializing.

That caveat being noted, Terminator 2029 is fairly enjoyable; there’s obvious routes for character development, although I understand this is a three-issue arc that will then lead into a new arc set in 1984. That doesn’t seem to bode well for Ben and Paige… and that’s always been the great limitation of Terminator canon. “The future is not set,” Sarah Connor says, but when you’re dealing with story bibles that have been established over nearly three decades, you’ve only got so much continuity wiggle room. Matt Wagner’s excellent Batman: Dark Moon Rising minis from a few years back encountered the same problem; Wagner could only set his stories in the years leading up to the introduction of the Joker, after which Batman’s history is pretty well set in stone. However, Whedon’s a smart writer; hopefully he’ll be able to find some clever routes around the universe’s determinism and give us some untold stories that occur in the tiny cracks between the films.

I expect to have more to say about Whedon’s Terminator run early next week, by the way; keep an eye out.