One of the great things about Brian Wood is his ability to see something wrong with the world and address it in such a way that entertains, yet gets under our skin. He makes us care, not by cranking out didactic cautionary tales, but by giving us human characters who make tough choices in the midst of dangerous situations. Dystopia is Wood’s forte, and he knows how to make the dystopian state so unsettling that instead of thinking, “Wow, this could happen one day,” we think, “Wow… This could happen right now.”
We’ve seen dystopian settings in some of Wood’s best work, including DMZ, a series about a journalist stranded in the middle of a demilitarized zone in a future American civil war, and the ongoing series The Massive, which chronicles the adventures of the crew of the Kapital, a trawler seeking its lost sistership after an environmental disaster. Mara also contains elements of dystopia, but differs from the other series in its focus.
Mara is a volleyball superstar whose celebrity status has earned her millions of fans, endless endorsements and worldwide recognition. Not even 20 years old, she plays the sport at such a high level that fans and sportscasters tend to think of her team as Mara and five other players, similar to the way many people used to think of the Chicago Bulls as Michael Jordan and four other guys. It’s not fair, but it’s understandable. Without giving away too much, Mara discovers she can do more than simply dominate volleyball games. Much more. Mara’s new abilities cause problems for her teammates, her relationships, and her career. Wood takes our fascination with sports superstars and asks some interesting questions: How much do we really love our sports heroes? At what point do we begin to realize we’ll never achieve the level of success they’ve reached and turn on them, hoping to see them fail? But what if they don’t fail? What happens if they succeed on levels we can’t even imagine?
Mara certainly works as an effective commentary on our sports-worshiping culture and tries to do even more, but the last two chapters (or single issues, if you will) of the book left me sorely disappointed. Things begin to fall apart when the military takes an interest in using Mara as a weapon. Mara’s commanding officer even states that his treatment of her “is cruel, but it is not insane.” Perhaps, but the events that follow seem too forced to be believable, especially in the final chapter in which a new character is introduced who acts as a deus ex machina to allow the final plot point to develop. By the end of the book, Mara has perhaps learned something about herself and how the world works, but she’s unable to do much with that knowledge, leaving the reader unsatisfied. This ending only works if there’s more story to be told, but as far as I can tell, there won’t be any more.
Ming Doyle’s art does a fine job early on of conveying the glitz and glamour of Mara’s celebrity status and the sports world in general, but her work in the final two chapters feels less compelling. The last few pages of Chapter Five seem unnecessarily prolonged, taking away from the impact of the chapter’s final image. While several isolated panels in Chapter Six create impressive moments, the last several pages convey more sentimentality than is necessary, once again, weakening the impact.
I’m not sure if maybe Wood and Doyle were forced to wrap up the series sooner than they’d expected. The first four chapters/issues are so strong, they make the final two seem hurried and a bit contrived. I can’t help but think that with creators as talented as these two, either some of their other projects got in the way or something unexpected happened forcing a quick wrap-up. Whatever the case, Mara is still a graphic novel worth reading, but you feel it could’ve been so much more. And maybe one day it will be. If Wood and Doyle revisit Mara in the future, count me in.
This trade paperback collects Mara #1-6, which comprises the entire series. Extras include sketches, covers and variant covers by various artists. Rated T for teen readers and up.
Be sure to read Mara as well as other works from Brian Wood and Ming Doyle: