The best kind of politically charged work of fiction (and there are many fine ones) is the kind in which the politics serve the story, not the other way around. The worst kind, of course, is the latter – the kind that wears its politics on its sleeve and then sometimes proceeds to rub it into your face.
It is perfectly all right to approach a story idea with a political agenda from the outset. It’s also fine to realize, halfway into writing a story that didn’t start out with an agenda, that you do in fact have one. Either way the cardinal rule is that the politics must rest on the foundation of a solid narrative, otherwise non-fiction may be the better vehicle for said politics. Why? Because an overbearingly political approach turns the reader off to both the story and the political message. Likewise with an overly experimental approach. It’s a classic case of negative psychological association: the audience might have been willing to listen to the author had he not been so annoying with his manner of delivery.
Unfortunately, Material is of the breed of fiction that seeks to make the narrative serve its politics. Not only that but it takes an entire two or three issues for its intentions to become clearly evident. Until then many readers will be puzzled insofar as what the comic is trying to do, and in this day and age any comic would be lucky to have puzzled readers stick around for more than one or two issues without giving them something substantial. Comics are just too expensive and time is too sparse.
Material alternates between short vignettes of four disparate characters: an aging and bitter professor, a no-longer popular actress, a boy who finds himself drawn to radical politics and a man tortured by his memories of being detained in Guantanamo Bay. Sometimes called the “network narrative” by critics, there’s nothing wrong with this narrative structure in itself. It’s a technique that has been used to great effect by filmmakers like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, for instance.
But if a reader is going to stay with the comic for several issues of disjointed vignettes, and if that reader is going to be patient with the self-indulgent politics and philosophy, then you need to reward those readers with… something. But Material doesn’t. It just keeps on doing its thing. Like the professor in the story, it drones on with self-importance, oblivious to the fact that half the class is asleep or escaping into their smartphones.
The exception would be those readers for whom the politics are a satisfying end in themselves, but I don’t think most readers fit that category. Perhaps writer Ales Kot could have had the stories of these characters come together in some meaningful way. As it is, the only connection between these characters that I could discern was that three out of the four all seem quietly desperate in different ways. But with the exception of the ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee, there’s too little character development to sustain interest.
Look, I consider myself a socially conscious individual. And I also do what I can within my means to actively make a difference. However, I don’t like pretension and I do not like to be preached at. I think I can safely assume that most other people probably don’t like being preached at either. Part of the problem with a preachy approach is that it seems to assume, by default, that readers either don’t know or don’t care about the subject matter. How else to interpret Material’s never-ending stream of footnotes? I’m willing to accept the occasional footnote suggesting ways I can further inform myself about a given issue or topic. But if every other page is telling me what books to read, what search terms to Google, which writers I should follow, even what music to play while reading the comic, you are testing my patience. Such a tactic seems almost equally designed to show off the author’s erudition and passion for social justice as it is to be a helpful source of reference for the reader.
It’s not just footnotes. The sections of the comic with the fledgling radical boy have lists of the names of young black men killed somehow or other by police in recent years. And the cop who appears in these sections is portrayed as corrupted and malicious. Now I support, in general, the Black Lives Matter movement, and I agree that we have a problem with increasing police brutality (which has been on the rise since 9/11 in ways that are not excusable but are a result of extremely complex, interwoven socio-psychological reasons that won’t be resolved by simply demonizing the very police we once adulated during 9/11 ). Has Kot researched each and every one of the cases for the names that he lists? Is he so certain that they are all simple, black-and-white scenarios in which the cops were the bad guys and the victims were the good guys? Real-life incidents are complex and don’t always fit so easily and readily into our political agendas.
Ales Kot is an intelligent and passionate writer who, when he puts his mind to it, can write a compelling story. Books like Zero and Wolf, both also from Image Comics, are entertaining stories that also subtly point to social issues. Those are excellent books and I think he’s a great writer so I am not trying to bash his work here. Hardly. But his approach here is just too heavy-handed and he lays it on much too thick. I always want to be fair to artists but I also need to be fair to readers and most readers don’t shell out their hard-earned cash for comics just to be preached at.
The art here is also not my cup of tea. I mostly enjoyed William Tempest’s work on Zero (also with Ales Kot) but it takes on more of an underground look here. It’s not even that I don’t like the art in underground comics. I’m a big fan of lesser known, obscure comics (though naturally it also depends on the specific artists). And for ages the work of artists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton have shown that the art in indie comics could be both highly stylish and polished. So it’s not that. I just don’t like the style that’s used here is all.
The coloring may have something to do with this. On occasion it’s interesting in the way it employs a certain contrasting technique across sequential panels. But it’s too simple and minimalist, given the context, to hold my interest for long.
As a reader I have an extremely broad palette of tastes, and most of my reviews tend to slant towards the positive. Even when I review a work critically I make a point of mentioning things about the title that I may have liked, and this review is no different. I can say at least that parts of Material are interesting, particularly towards the beginning when you’re still trying to figure it out and willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. But by the end of the first issue I already found its schtick tiresome, and by the end of the second issue I found it annoying as f**k. Certainly, some of the intellectual ideas that Kot is putting forth are good ones as far as the ideas themselves go, but they would be better served, I think, in a non-fiction format (I think there’s a lot of potential for comics as a non-fiction medium).
Let’s be clear, also, that I am not reviewing this book negatively because my politics differ from Kot’s. In fact, I happen to share some of his politics, if not quite as zealously. Too often nowadays people use subjective disagreement with an artist’s politics as the basis for a negative review and agreement with said politics as the basis for a positive review. I don’t think that is good reviewing. All manner of factors need to be considered: is it fiction or non-fiction? If fiction, does the story have a strong narrative foundation or is it built on political sand? If non-fiction, are the author’s arguments well argued? How well does he support those arguments with examples, logic and verifiable sources? These are just a few of many contextual elements that need to be taken into account.
What it comes down to is that Material is filled with important social issues as well as some thoughtful philosophical ideas. However, they don’t come together in a coherent enough way, the story isn’t compelling enough to hold them up, and Kot’s overbearingly preachy approach will likely turn off many readers, thereby failing to serve the very political causes he seeks to bring attention to.