Travels in Saucer Country

Saucer Country #1I’ve been meaning to write something about Paul Cornell’s Saucer Country #1 for almost two weeks now. Sorry about that, I’ve been busy, etc. Though I guess it doesn’t really matter in an age when digital comics are available long after they’ve disappeared from the shelves… Anyway, I really enjoyed this rich and timely offering from Vertigo, a throwback in all the right ways and one which carefully parcels out the foundations of an intriguing mythology. The advance publicity promised us The West Wing meets The X-Files and I’m happy to say that’s pretty much exactly what we get. The fact that it’s from the sometimes writer of Doctor Who and Action Comics (ably backed up by Ryan Kelly on art) is a happy bonus.

Spoilers in the sky from here on out…

Paul Cornell is at his best when he gets to stretch compelling characters beyond what we might expect from them. Take Lex Luther in his Action Comics run, or the ringer he puts The Doctor through in his Who two-parter ‘Human Nature’/’The Family of Blood’. Though of course, in both those cases Cornell was playing in someone else’s sandbox and was beholden to a certain continuity and status quo beyond his control. Sure he accomplished great work within those constrains (seriously, go watch his Doctor Who episodes) but it’s great to see him building a world and a story from the ground up here.

Opening on a lonely New Mexico road in the middle of the night, Saucer Country begins with its protagonist already with a lot on her plate. Arcadia Alvarado is the state’s divorced, Hispanic Governor. A leading Democratic contender for the US Presidency, Alvardo is understandably disturbed to wake up in a car in the middle of nowhere with her ex-husband bleeding from his nose beside her. Haunted by shaky memories, the possibility that she’s just been abducted by aliens might just push Alvardo over the edge… On the other hand, exposing the truth might be exactly the push she needs to go out there and win the election.

Meanwhile, at Harvard, a possibly delusional academic is being set on a path that will soon bring him into Alvarado’s orbit. ‘There is a sort of “expert” in our story,’ says Cornell, ‘Professor Joshua Kidd, a sociology professor who’s about to be sacked from his job for having written a book about UFOs. He’s based on two or three different figures in academia who were threatened with losing tenure because they started talking about abduction lore, and talking about it in a way of relating to people who’ve been abducted.’ Kidd doesn’t get a lot of page space in issue #1, but it’s obvious Cornell is positioning him for a larger role as the story progresses.

More than Stormwatch or even Demon Knights (the latter, for my money, the more engaging of his dual contribution to DC’s ‘New 52’) Saucer Country is a grown-up, adult comic book; though ‘adult’ without that meaning ‘explicit’ or ‘obscene’. No, it’s an adult book in that it focuses on flawed, unsure characters struggling with things they don’t fully understand. Set up to be a slow burn, which feels appropriate for this material, Saucer Country succeeds in blending current events with the more unsettling aspects of UFO lore. The aliens here fit the ‘Grey’ archetype, though Kelly’s art steers clear of the goofy comedy version seen in films such as Paul. Instead, the entities haunting Saucer Country are, in Cornell’s words, ‘more like aborted fetuses, cats being experimented upon in laboratories – all those round-headed things we’ve done coming back in our nightmares to get us’. Seeing Alvarado’s blurry recollections of them, it is difficult not to recall the text card from the pilot of The X-Files so long ago, the one claiming that the story was ‘inspired by actual documented accounts’.

While I saw one or two online commentators making noises about the interest of these creatures in Alvarado – yet another UFO story where a woman’s womb becomes a plot point – I think that’s unfair. The inclusion of uterine politics in Saucer Country results less from a rehash of stories past than it does from the way Cornell marries invasive abduction narratives to the contemporary US discussion of abortion legislation. One strand of Saucer Country seems to foreshadow forces beyond Alvarado vying for dominance over her reproductive system, and I dare you not to see the allegory underpinning that.

Beneath that again is Saucer Country’s study of gender politics. Unexpected, perhaps, but far from ineffective. Alvarado’s ex-husband Michael, ‘Mr. Working Class White America,’ becomes an object in her election campaign. One half of the Governor’s campaign team would like to send Michael away on ‘a long holiday in Europe’, the other favors manipulating his role in her life as a means to achieve success in the polls. The decision comes to Alvarado herself, an empowered female protagonist of a kind which, famously, is still too much of a rarity in comics. Adverse to packaging her story so crassly, Alvarado says no. A messy character – by which, again, I mean adult or realistic – her conflicted feelings over Michael are perhaps the deftest piece of characterization here.  For all their disagreements, up to and including the collapse of their marriage, Alvarado still wishes to part ways ‘shaking hands, as friends, like he deserves’. Michael maintains some hold over her and, while it never compromises her agency as a protagonist, it is a flaw, a deeply human flaw in a story predicated on creatures from beyond this world. If anything derails the Governor’s campaign going forward, it’s as likely to be her relationship with her ex-husband as it is the alien menace.

A book about politics so, it seems this is also a political book which (in a trick as old as the genre itself) uses Science Fiction to make meaningful points about the real world.  Saucer Country’s most profound insight, the fact that the majority of Americans are aliens by definition, is so obvious that it’s amazing it hasn’t been tapped for a story like this long before. Indeed, in an era of controversies over race and birth certificates, this book – the work of a talented British writer – is all about America. The Saucer Country of the title isn’t confined to the crackpots and the crazies who chase lights through the wastes of New Mexico; no, in this election year, the entire United States is Saucer Country… And I’m looking forward to seeing what other corners of it Cornell intends exploring with his story.

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7 Responses to Travels in Saucer Country

  1. Paul Cornell says:

    That’s a brilliant review, for which many thanks. But I’ve obviously failed to make clear: Michael *didn’t* beat Arcadia. That’s just the message Chloe wants to send out.

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