Cemetery Beach #7: Shattered Visage
Cemetery Beach concluded recently with a banger of a last issue, and the book’s probably one of the best and most economical examples of what makes a good action comic tick.
Story: Warren Ellis
Art: Jason Howard
Publisher: Image Comics
Issue #7 is the perfect time to take a look back and not just because it’s been action from beginning to end – Ellis, Howard and the team work hard to simplify, and thus elevate, the serial narrative. And they do it in the midst of a weird, ramshackle post-colonial nightmare, which is a mean feat.
Cemetery Beach quite literally hits the ground running. From the moment Mike leaves his cell in issue #1, he and Grace are on the move until the book wraps. They pause occasionally to fill in a few backstory details here and there, but the perpetual motion machine sustains a great deal of tension and provides some built-in cliffhangers for each issue. Their downtime is also crafted very skillfully, as we learn that while not much is at stake for Mike in the beginning (due to everyone in his life being, well, dead), there’s too much at stake for Grace. Every shot she takes matters, because every person left alive is a life in her particular subclass lost. This juxtaposition makes Mike’s final sacrifice far more significant than a cool action-movie twist that could set up a potential sequel (although it could!). There’s an emotional truth to that moment that’s built on the dual nature of Grace and Mike’s rapport: lightning quick and frenetic for them, measured and piano-wire tense for us over seven months of issues. Mike acts in the moment because Grace might be the first person he’s known who’s worth fighting for in a very long time, and Ellis also provides this high spot conclusion to make good on our attachment to these characters.
Stretching a single event out over multiple issues is not an easy feat, and while Ellis and Howard cut between Grace and Mike’s frantic dash and the cruel machinations of the hulking President Barrow, the bulk of Cemetery Beach spotlights the various creeps, soldiers, fanatics and bizarre creatures Mike and Grace have to blow up as they race toward the beach. This comic reads like Dante’s Inferno – the adjective “apocalyptic” applies, but it doesn’t get much more infernal than Hell, and this most certainly is a Hell planet. At least if you ask Mike and Grace.
Each circle boasts an entirely unique society and ecosystem full of strange fanatics and genetically modified elites like the Outerfamily, the starving militants in Drum and the frozen limb buffet in March. There’s just enough detail in each area to add flavor – be it through Howard’s excellent frenetic visuals or Ellis’s tactical plote note deployment – and slowly build a picture of a bleak, dismal and all-too-revealing look at what colonialism, industrialization and unchecked greed do to a place. And a people.
Toilet planet, indeed.
However, what’s so compelling about Grace and Mike’s story isn’t just the world that Ellis and Howard build together, but the platonic and equal nature of their relationship. It’s incredibly refreshing to read a high-stakes action book without a love interest, because it centers the conflict where it should be: the moment of escape, the struggle, the violent climax. Mike’s final moment on the beach with Barrow means more because there’s no needless sexualization of either character. Grace and Mike both can share details about their lives and step into their power more fully because the story doesn’t concern itself with wrapping their growing connection into any recognizable package. An argument can be made for connections born in the heat of the moment, but the predominant male and female fantasies in media ranging from sci-fi to police procedurals is a crisis in which two people forge a relationship. 99% of the time, the relationship is sexual. Many creators have done interesting things with that tension, including subverting it, but Ellis eschews it almost completely in favor of having Grace and Mike just trying to survive. Trusting and understanding each other comes as a result of said survival. When we close the comic with Grace making her case to go back for Mike, edged as always with Ellis’s humor, it’s more poignant because there’s no overt romance trope to shackle the intensity and purity of Grace’s intention.
Grace is going to go back and save Mike because he saved her, and Ellis and Howard are saying a lot about our better instincts as human beings in this moment. The simplicity and poetry here are quite something in a book that focuses on all the different bits of machinery, buildings and people you can blow up if you try hard enough. That’s not to say that the violence isn’t earned, because it very much is, but Cemetery Beach would be an entertaining read even without the extra care given to Grace and Mike over time.
Overall, Ellis and Howard made an excellent action comic that provides catharsis and humor in equal measure. Good’s suffered for too long at the hands of evil, and although the outcome’s unclear, the important takeaway is that Mike and Grace became just a bit better. As we all should.