Real Genius: Think Tank #2 Reviewon September 10, 2012 at 8:58 am
I missed the first issue of Think Tank last month; contributor Trebuchet brought it to my attention over car bomb shots a few weeks ago, and I wasn’t able to get my hands on it until this week’s second issue release. And frankly, I wasn’t expecting to get a hell of a lot from it; jumping into an Image-published book by a creator who’s only written a handful of books (the last of those apparently coming out in 1999) can be a dicey proposition when it comes to following what’s going on. When you throw on top of it that the writer is actually a Big Cheese at the publishing house releasing the book, and I was expecting to be thrown off the deep end into an incomprehensible story, where all the setup had happened in the first issue, with no clues as to how to pick up what was going on because no one wanted to edit the boss’s work (that kind of thing seems to be going around these days).
Instead, I found a user-friendly experience where I got the gist of where we were, with some interesting back story about the protagonist, some good character work establishing that character and the supporting characters as multi-layered and interesting, and laying the groundwork for what looks to be a cool escape story coming in the future.
But yeah: writer Matt Hawkins has totally seen Real Genius a bunch of times.
Think Tank #2 appears to be an “origin story” for DARPA scientist / engineer David Loren, who has been captured after apparently attempting to escape his military base home with a seriously long-life battery in the last issue. The comic depicts the military trying to pressure Loren into returning to work via threatening his lab partner with a long stay in Guantanamo, and by arresting a girl he apparently met in a bar in the first issue (Jesus, the military in Think Tank has no sense of humor about their prototypes; they make working for Apple seem like a reasonable life choice), while Loren continues to plan out his ultimate escape. It also intermixes these sequences with flashbacks showing military recruiters expertly setting their hooks into a gifted science student, stringing him along by offering him everything he ever wanted… all the while downplaying that the cost was working on deadly technology, and his very freedom. So I take it back: it sounds exactly like working for Apple.
The main area where the book works is Hawkins’s depiction of Loren. Hawkins makes Loren feel like a fully-realized, actual human being: he’s cocky and funny and arrogant about his skills and intelligence, while demonstrating that he understands that those very characteristics include flaws that have not only left him open to being manipulated into working on deadly technology, but allowed him to remain willfully blind to the consequences of his work for quite a long time. A character whose “power” is being smarter than everyone else runs the risk of coming off unlikable, particularly when part of his justification for using his gift to work on weapons systems is that he was lied to from an early age, but by Hawkins giving the character enough self-awareness to admit that he did it because he liked it, it rounds out the character and makes him satisfying…
…which is important because, at its most basic level, this guy is Chris Knight from Real Genius: a brilliant young man working on weapons against his will, armed with a sharp wit and an ear for a one-liner, who is determined to use his inventions to get out of his projects. Sure, here the project is a missile defense system called Metalstorm (apparently a real thing in the real world) instead of a fanciful laser weapon, but stripped down to its most basic elements, Think Tank is almost exactly the same story as Real Genius.
And the thing preventing me from knocking the book as being a retread are the characters. No one here is one-dimensional; the hard-as-nails soldier, who in other stories would be unthinkingly following orders, here is angry because he’s smart enough to know that Loren is acting out against a system he explicitly has made himself a part of for years. Loren’s lab assistant Mannish, who in other stories would either be an unthinking flunky or some kind of mole, is shown as a guy who is just realizing that, despite his own skills, is seen only as a babysitter for Loren, and we see how that affects him. The one exception to Hawkins’s multidimensional characters seems to be the head scientist (I didn’t catch his name beyond Loren calling him, “douchebag here”), who will be played by William Atherton if Think Tank ever gets made into a movie. But otherwise, these feel like real people in a real situation… although if we meet a guy living in the basement and making his living by gaming, say, the lottery, I will call bullshit.
The art by Rahsan Ekedal is generally very good, with a couple of exceptions. This book features black and white art, and Ekedal gives everything depth and dimension with fine-lined and detailed inks, without any of the stylized crosshatching for the sake of drawing lines that so many old Image artists fall prey to. In addition, his backgrounds are generally detailed, with a “coloring” effect achieved through obvious ink wash (you can see brushstrokes and some blotting) which I really liked. However, I had an issue with his panel placement, which, particularly early in the issue, were confusing; sharply-angled panels on each page, with angles on the next page almost matching caused me to have to stop and figure out if I was looking at a double-paged spread or not. Further, while Ekedal’s faces are expressive, the one expression I didn’t like were his smiles; there are a couple of pages where characters smile and their mouths look like they just took a dose of Joker Venom. These issues aren’t deal-breakers – we’re talking a few images across about four pages – and otherwise, I generally really liked the look of this book.
Think Tank #2 is a comic that is a real risk, in that it is so clearly influenced by a cult movie of some small renown that it could be easily dismissed as a knockoff if it wasn’t done well. Thankfully, it was done well; the characters make the book come to life, and the use of real technology in the story (Hawkins provides a list of links at the back of the book showing the inspirations for much of the tech) grounds it, fleshes it out, and prevents it from being a simple clone. It’s got likable characters in a realistic-feeling jam, and is well worth checking out.
That said: if I see a single kernel of popcorn in this series, I’m gonna demand that Hawkins send Val Kilmer a check. After all, given Val’s recent resume, he clearly could use the cash.