Few things in life are as disappointing as a vacation that goes to pot — taking time off from work only to find oneself in a situation that makes you wish you were actually back at work being the kind of morbid irony I’m assuming nobody has time for — but chances are, no matter how belly-up your worst trip to Disneyland or New York or Vegas, you didn’t end up carting around an ungrateful ship’s captain while trying to avoid a giant dinosaur. Unless, of course, you did — in which case, please forgive me for being so presumptuous.
Anyway, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, such is the predicament that Eunice, the protagonist in Jess Lonergan’s new graphic novel Planet Paradise (Image Comics, 2020) finds herself in when her suspended-animation flight to a vacation/safari planet with her husband crash-lands on a foreboding hellscape of a rock, leaving her to fend for herself in a more-than-hostile environment instead. It’s a story as old as time, of course — or at least as old as Robinson Crusoe — but that doesn’t preclude it from being told in new and inventive ways, or from being slightly re-contextualized to reflect the concerns of a contemporary readership, and it’s on those two fronts that Lonergan steps things up and manages to deliver something that’s as smart, enthralling, and even surprising as any world-weary cynic worth their salt would assume it simply couldn’t be.
And, really, a rejection of world-weary cynicism is this book’s beating heart: being a woman of means (at least presumably, unless interstellar travel spanning light-years to vacation planets is cheaper than logic would dictate), Eunice’s survival skills are immediately assumed to be insufficient by all and sundry, but it’s as if Lonergan himself has an inherent faith in his lead character her cohorts simply don’t. From the aforementioned pain pill-popping captain, to the lazy bureaucrats at outer space search and rescue, who assume everyone on her ship was a goner and are consequently in no hurry to get to them and lend a hand, and even to (not least) Eunice herself in the early going, there just a sense that she can’t cut it. She proves everyone wrong, though, showing a deep wellspring of resourcefulness at every turn, and, subsequently, developing a level of confidence along the way that is entirely her earned prerogative — although, as things transpire, even that is sorely put to the test in the book’s final act when being good enough suddenly isn’t good enough to be recognized as such. Again, it’s the cynicism of the world — hell, of the universe — against our heroine.
By that point, however, she’s something of a dynamo and more than ready to face a final, unexpected challenge that even her husband — who, for the record, she was doing just fine without most of the way through here — figures is beyond her ability to deal with. Like much of the book itself, a lot of the derision communicated by the folks in Eunice’s orbit is silent, but Lonergan’s expert cartooning privileges physicality above all else, and whether he’s drawing a scene featuring Eunice sneaking around a giant sleeping lizard, scaling a rock wall, or being underestimated by someone, it all has import and, perhaps more crucially, impact — whether subtle, overt, or just plain over-the-top, this is a veritable clinic on the art of visual communication that is fluent in every aspect of that language.
No discussion of Lonergan’s cartooning would be complete, however, without mention of the formally exciting techniques he brings to the table in terms of page layout. Whereas his previous Image comic, Hedra, subverted visual convention within the strictures of a tight grid, here he improvises much more, splitting his layouts between single pages and double-page spreads and inventively and effectively experimenting with negative space to lend a rush of excitement to every turn of the page. There is an inner logic to it all, in terms of the grace and fluidity with which the eye of the reader is guided along, but it’s an utterly singular experience in which the size and placement of any given panel are nearly as important as what’s drawn within them. Taken in concert with the looser and thicker line that he employs here in comparison to earlier works, it seems as though he’s pushing himself to produce work with a more organic and intuitive feel, and, so far, I have to say that the results are quite impressive.
As is Planet Paradise on the whole, frankly. If I have one admittedly slight criticism it would be that it’s perhaps a bit of an overly-brisk read for its $16.95 cover price, but each page offers so much to “ooh” and “aah” at visually that you’ll likely be inclined to go back and give everything a more detailed look after you’ve finished reading it — and it’s one of those books that you’ll easily be able to see yourself revisting often. Not just for the pretty pictures, though — Lonergan has crafted an engaging, smart, and topical morality play overlaid by audience-friendly populist sci-fi adventure tropes that keep your mind every bit as engaged as your eyes are. You may have seen most of this done before, but that doesn’t mean you usually see it done this well, and. in the right hands, hey — everything old can seem fresh and new all over again.
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