Now here we have some trouble: a story that not only is Sliders first attempt to deal with DRUGS, and the debut of Jerry O’Connell as a ‘creative’ force on the show. Yep, J.O’C. himself wrote the script for this comic. Which sounds terrifying, and I admit that (especially since a lot of these comics were so much worse than I’d remembered) I was really nervous about reading this one.
But hey, life imitates other life, I guess! Just like my experience, Jeff Gomez, Sliders Comics Editor, said that he too was, if not nervous, than at least ‘groaning’ about Jerry writing a comic. But apparently, after a brief primer in “hey dude you gotta tell us what happens in the panels,” Jerry was a pro. FINE JERRY O’CONNELL STEAL OUR JOBS//CLASS WAR.
Okay, backstory aside, what’s going on in this comic?
Kind of a lot! It starts with an idea that I bet they wanted to do like, every week on the show: OH RUNWAY ERRYONE RUN!
But that’s a brief detour until we’re thrown pretty deep into the big difference between this world and ours: DRUGZ
Downtown San Fran is no less weird. People are passin’ J’s in the street! A dude’s huffin’ out his fingernail in an alley! There are fascistic cyber-cops patrolling the streets! Yeah that’s weird and unnecessary, but hey, whatever. It’s really just their boots:
They go to Golden Gate Park (which I’m surprised isn’t called something silly like “Cocaine Straw Park” or “Heroin Prick Park” or, y’know, whatever. Anyways, they discover that all the food is laced with drugs (Quinn is so dense he doesn’t understand what kind of Mushrooms this dude wants to put on his hot dog [also, dude, you put them on Pizza, not Hot Dogs]), and Wade really likes her Cotton Candy. Arturo, being a huge buzzkill, wants to “take it back to the lab” to analyze (this actually happened at work one time. Some woman thought her Turkey Sandwich was “Crunchy,” and said “well, if you won’t give me a refund, I’m going to take this back to the lab to analyze it.” To which we said “you work in a lab?” ANYWAYS).
But on the way to the lab, they get caught up in a anti-drug rally, and everyone is all up in Arturo’s grill. Ugh, it’s like his double was the leader of this world’s original Anti-Drug Rebellion Movement. I bet he used to hang out with Timothy Leary, who on this world is all about chilling out and Not Doing Drugs.
Okay, so before I delve into the issues that this kind of plot line introduces, I have to talk about the thing that most people single this comic out for: the artwork. The original artist (Jackson Guice) had to bow out, and another (Dennis Calero) had to take his place. So from one page to the next, you may as well be reading a different comic. And apparently a lot of people take issue with the latter comic. The suits at Acclaim, the other people who write reviews of this stuff, I don’t know. So yes, it’s a little jarring. And yes, the characters shift from Season One to Season Two, and Arturo’s Rogaine gets out of hand. But, and this is where I reveal my tastes as a cartoonist, I just really really prefer Calero’s darker artwork.
I have big problems with Superhero/Mainstream comics —a world of which these comics are certainly a part of, and should be judged on the criteria inherent to said word. I’ll be honest, a lot of it has to do with the portrayal of Women (which isn’t to say that Indie Comics aren’t immune to drawing huge and disproportionate breasts). But that issue is sort of ignoring most of what’s going on inside (to say nothing of the issue of “who buys Superhero comics,” which is an issue that I’m sure has been better essayed, and thus will not be essayed by me). My biggest problem is generally the artwork, and it’s total disregard for taste. I guess one of the advantages of being an “independent” cartoonist is that your deadlines are more slack (marginally true), and you don’t have the pressure of “DUDE YOU GOTTA FINISH THIS IN A WEEK” all of the time (I mean, putting out a book a month is actually a lot more strenuous that you’d think). But the fact of the matter is that a lot of time the anatomy in these comics looks incredibly lazy. They seem to rely much more on trying to indicate action rather than indicating feeling, or mood, or tone. So you get people’s hands doing fuck-all, or weird, over-exerted faces.
Calero’s work, though, leans towards tone and mood. Sure, there’s still bizarre action sequences, but they seem more appropriate to the comic instead of AND THEN BOOM like some of these comics. And it’s not like the script changed or anything. It’s just that Calero’s approach is much more subtle. And look at this panel:
That panel is gorgeous. The argument that Jeff Gomez uses to defend the disparity in artwork (that the art changes just as Wade’s addiction starts kicking in) isn’t actually ridiculous. The art changes as the tone of the story changes. As the story starts getting more personal to the characters, the art gets darker, more intense. The artwork feeds into the characters— arguably the way it always should. The comic becomes less about spectacle and more about emotion.
So in these ways, “Narcotica” is a success for Sliders as a comic. But you know, I’d make the argument that it’s also a success as an episode of Sliders as well. Yes, it’s message is painfully rote, and yes having an Alt-Wade as the head of the FDA is ridiculous, and yes yes yes it basically recycles most of the plot points of “Fever.” But let me ask you this: what’s “Prince of Wails” other than a re-tread of the Pilot? How many times are the Sliders’ doubles in ridiculous positions of power? And what’s the message of most of the episodes of the show other than “Be Nice, and Always Trust Democracy?” If “Narcotica” was a televised episode of Sliders, I’d argue that it would probably be regarded as second-tier— not the best, but nowhere near “Time Again & World.” All of the characters have something to do (which is better than you can say about half of the actual show’s episodes). Wade’s story, while half-baked, is at least a step in the right direction of tackling some serious issues. Timothy Leary, as the conceptual idea of a character as he is here, is actually pretty inspired, and would be a treat to watch on the show.
And then there’s the plain fact that the ending image is in the running for the most moving image Sliders ever produced. Arturo, having made a televised (and fabulous) speech to the Country about the dangers of Drugs, slides away. The last page of the comic isn’t the Sliders having a beer on the next world, patting each other on the back and holding Wade’s hair back. It’s a solitary image of a young boy watching the TV, needle in hand, arm outstretched.
He’s affected by Arturo’s words, it’s clear. But it’s completely ambiguous as to whether or not he’ll actually put down the needle. It’s entirely possible Arturo’s speech will have no effect on his actions. But the fact that he gave this kid pause is actually more noble than shaking him and saying “drugs suck.” It’s more powerful than just ‘overthrowing the government.’ I’m about to get all Inception on y’all, but an idea is more powerful in this case than an actual movement.
Ambiguousness is something that Sliders often lacks. When it does end up being in the emotional grey (“As Time Goes By” being the best example), it’s always the best. So for this comic to take that turn sets it apart from the pack. If it was an actual episode, I would be singing it’s praises ’til I was blue in the face.
It’s not perfect by any means. But if you ask me, it’s less imperfect than half of the episodes the real show had to offer. And it’s wholly more effective than “Just Say Yes,” but I’ll just have to save that argument for later.
Next Time: Only two more of these things to go (I’m skipping over the Script for “Get a Life,” y’all— I know you’re bummed). Next up is “Blood & Splendor.”