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‘Deep State Volume 1:’ TPB Review

I wish I had a better review for this collection. It delves into the specific type of sci-fi story I really love, it plays with some big themes (important secrets and the cost in keeping those secrets), alas, while it plays out the beats and tropes one would expect, it never really breaks free to offer the reader something truly dynamic. Writer Justin Jordan (The Strange Talent of Luthor Strode, Spread) and artist Ariela Kristantina (Death of Wolverine) with their comic series Deep State have set out to add their voices to what should be considered a subgenre of sci-fi stories that follows the exploits of secret, slippery government (or not-so-government) agents looking into dangerous paranormal and extraterrestrial incidences to make sure secrets are kept secret. Although, when a police man stumbles upon the scene of the crime, they’re pretty nice about it. Men in Black, X-Files, and Planetary all come to mind. And, while Deep State is a tightly constructed piece of storytelling, the first volume doesn’t add a lot to the conversation.

Our female lead, a workaholic with curious tendencies and tenacity to boot, is referred to as Ms. Branch by her boss, not agent or detective, so we really have no idea what she does, except that she’s working on a missing person’s case in her spare time from . . . forever ago. Within the first couple of pages, she’s confronted by a gentleman government agent, John Harrow (nice name!), who will become her mentor, waiting for her in the shadows of her home. In this first major interaction between our leads, Jordan and Kristantina break from convention and cliché which is nice, but they take it to a point in which I stop believing the relationship between these two characters almost immediately. Why is he seeking her out? What good can she offer him in his quest? We don’t know and we never really find out, except that a computer program spit her name out. And, curiosity isn’t enough of a character trait to hang one’s hat on. It’s not set up as a mystery that we yearn to find out: who is Ms. Branch. Instead, it feels like an oversight. Missing details like this are what steal the personality from the story, which I’ll get to momentarily. I have no idea who or what Ms. Smith is, so I can’t relate to her as she’s brought into this strange and mysterious world. If I can’t relate to her, I don’t care as much about what happens.

From there we’re treated to a classic, B-movie trope of a story that our two agents have to uncover and deal with. In approaching the trope, our creators don’t really attempt to explore anything different or new. The tone of the book is pretty standard - nothing frightening, comedic, dramatic – there is no decisive voice or tone. As the trope unfolds, we’re treated to pages of the two characters talking about what’s happening, which would be fine if, through their dialogue, there was a level of personality, the details I spoke of earlier, that informed us about who these two people are. They banter, there’s a keen rhythm to it, but there’s no personality. It could be anyone exchanging these words.

The book isn’t without its standard enjoyments; generally, it works, and, as I mentioned, the writer and artist know how to pace their book (professionally brisk!), so it’s a smooth ride. They certainly aren’t untalented; his writing has moments of charm, and I really like her artwork. Though, while there aren’t any car wrecks to watch along the way, there also aren’t any moments in which you hold on tight and floor the sucker to see what its got. It’s a pleasant ride.

A story beat is introduced near the end that is supposed to make you question everything you read – but, instead, it made me consider how everything that happened really made no sense if that was the case. It was a beat that made me think, oh, this is the story they wanted to tell and I wondered why they didn’t just tell that story to begin with. If they needed an introductory story, why not step away from using such a trodden-upon trope - go wild! Why not sprinkle in clues to this possible switcheroo, so we don’t know where the story is going? So, there is some mystery between these two characters from the get-go. No doubt there will be layers of secret government agendas, outside forces tinkering, tables turning, complications compiled, and answers revealed; maybe the second volume will be their reason for telling this story, but, as it stands, I don’t know why they chose to bring us into this world. Until we find out, if you want a little old-school sci-fi, something that harkens back to the days of the '70s, episodic sci-fi adventures, it’s entertaining enough.

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