Meka: We Are All Cogs In JD Morvan & Bengal’s Giant Machinery Of War [Review]
Meka took me by surprise. Admittedly, this state of affairs was, in significant part, derived from the previous JD Morvan/Bengal collaboration I'd read: Naja, and a blurb that pitched it as "giant robot vehicle crashes in war-zone leaving human pilots stranded and fighting for survival," causing my expectations of this title to veer from "very excited" to "considerably neutral." And to a degree, that's an accurate summation, but a superficial one, a starting point, because what Meka essentially is, is a thoughtful treatise on the "in-between" of war, lifted into exceptional territory by the sheer, stunning power of Bengal's art.
The book opens with a gloriously impressive, all-action sequence: jeweled azure skies, a sparkling marina, and then a spiraling aerial perspective as something large and red plummets towards the ground. The resulting crash signals the arrival of a group of invasive "meka" robots, soon met by a team of cream colored robots sent out to intercept the enemy machines. Piloted by humans, the mekas operate slightly like the giant robots in Pacific Rim (minus the telepathic "drift" link), with two pilots inside: one a navigator, who maintains systems and weapons throughout, the other controlling the movements of the machine through their own. One of these cream mekas contains our two protgaonists: Lieutenant Llamas and Corporal Onoo. This is Llamas' and Onoo's first mission -- the duo is newly minted, this their debut outing, their equation new, untested. It's as good excuse as any to blame on what happens: in the rush to aid a fellow unit in danger, they fail to observe the gigantic mech that lifts them by the arm like a doll and flings them through the air with equal ease.
It's a truly brilliant sequence, resplendent with dynamism, all manner of angles and perspectives; Bengal making use of slim, tall panels interspersed with larger, wider boxes, to check pace and direct motion: closing in focus tightly, and then pulling back to a half page splash that depicts the intensity and expanse of the battle. A flurry of shapes and motion lines that crescendos with Llamas, Onoo, and their meka all laid out flat on their backs, unconscious.
With their vehicle damaged beyond repair, and the communication systems similarly unresponsive, the pair have no choice but to take what supplies they can carry and venture outside into an unknown, probably hostile environment they helped create.
There can be a tendency today to view genre as a dirty word, but it only achieves undesirability when it becomes a cage, a stringent tick-list. Meka is a play on the "odd couple thrown into strange situation" wrapped in the "crash-landed soldier behind enemy lines," and Bengal's spoken about wanting to avoid going down the conflict/redemption/resolution route, instead telling a story about the "bit in the middle." Which is what we get here: as Llamas an Onoo tentatively make their way around the city, each situation they encounter, the people they come across, makes them question why they're there in the first place, and what they as soldiers believe in, and hope to achieve. There's a generation and ideals gap between the two that impacts on their reactions: just as Onoa is a young, green rookie intent on viewing matters from all perspectives and doing the right thing, Llamas, too, is discovering the reality he's experiencing is vastly different to what he presumed. Having given up his job as a real estate seller and signed up because the situation, the conflict, the good guys and bad guys all seemed so clear when he was sat at home, Llamas is beginning to suspect there isn't even a right or wrong- it's all just swathes of muddied middle- mistakes and misunderstandings, grievances, and intentions and money and power. And those pulled into it- directly or indirectly.
Morvan avoids landing on sides; there are no answers to be found here. Llamas and Onoo are both satisfyingly complex characters -- Onoo's arc, in particular, is deftly crafted. Outspoken , strong, passionate, and decisive, she views Llamas' refusal to engage as weakness, as she begins making decisions more ethically dubious than the other: from killing dying people as an act of mercy, to torturing enemy combatants "because it needs to be done" -- one unspeakable act to prevent countless others. It is Onoo who quietly, gradually erodes away her youth, principles, and idealism, still relatively shiny and untainted at the outset, so steadfast is she in her own surety. Llamas is more resigned, more weary, his suspicions about politics and the world fulfilled, and so he follows her- the light of Onoo.
Morvan rebuts the simplistic "soldier with a troubled conscience doing what he must/following orders" trope currently so beloved by Hollywood, by gradually fleshing out Llamas and Onoo; they don't become suddenly humanised by what they see, there are no singing epiphanies, instead they observe and react in keeping with their personalities. Captured by a group of civilians -- people who have lost families, and livelihoods, Llamas attempts to appease and negotiate, explaining to them how their planet is of strategic importance, that they're trying to help, that he understands their frustrations. "I don't need you to understand me!" retorts a man. "Thanks to you, our dead will be free," says another. What is to be done when even the best of intentions results in the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands? How do you justify intervention? How do you justify doing nothing? Where Morvan has a tendency to veer sharply at mid or third act point -- often jaggedly, confusingly so, he does so with greater success here, namely because it's done more subtly (resisting the urge to go for the big, narrative-turning shock), and it's sewn in as part of the narrative: it's a conceivable development. The dialogue is tight and well-written throughout: provocative whilst leaving enough room for your own thoughts to saturate.
Bengal's art breaches the pinnacle of beauty here, his lines are so sharp and clear, his colours crisp and bright, humming off the page. I could rhapsodize inadequately about Bengal's coloring choices for quite a while: he uses every shade in the spectrum, bringing them together somehow harmoniously -- unexpected choices and combinations that never feel wrong, never plumping for the obvious, yet simultaneously making every colour feel at home. Nor does he take an easier path of pathetic fallacy coloring, a dark shade here to indicate sombre mood -- that's not how the world works. It's as if he's purposedly determined to show off the wonder of the world, even as terrible things happen in it, how it shines on regardless, despite us- in all things from the minor and overlooked, to the taken for granted. It is Bengal who elevates Meka, and he who reminds us that as much as good may come from awful circumstance, the purest, most normal of us all can harbour dreadful potential, and it takes very little to give it rise.