I have now read the first issue of "Air" half a dozen times, and I have a confession to make: I am a little puzzled by it. I'm not saying that G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker have created a bad or confusing comic, but rather that it's a first issue that doesn't seem entirely sure that it wants to grab hold of its audience. And in what is a lukewarm market for comics that aren't fueled by big "events," is that really a smart thing to do?
"Air" uses the familiar tactic of taking an outsider and plunging that person into a larger world that was previously hidden, letting that protagonist be our eyes and ears as we experience the confusion and befuddlement along with them as the story slowly unfolds. Here it's Blythe, an acrophobic stewardess for Clearfleet. The idea of an airline stewardess afraid of heights is one of those pitches that make publishers and studio executive punch their collective fists in the air and shout, "Yes!" but once you get past the initial amusement, it's more than a little hard to buy. Wilson doesn't really sell Blythe's dichotomy very well in this first issue; while an ongoing series certainly needs to hold information and ideas in reserve for later installments, this is such a large head-scratcher that the lack of any extra information is a rough pill to swallow.
As "Air" unfolds, we start learning about two rival organizations that are using the airlines as a battleground, the mysterious Etesian Front, and the group that is represented by the man-of-a-hundred-identities known as Zayn. The problem is, both of these groups come across as lukewarm. In a book where people are hijacking planes, the lack of punch is more than a little problematic. Why should we care about these people? They're all coming across as cardboard and one-dimensional, a very sterile sense of characterization. At the end of the first issue Blythe is supposed to be developing feelings for Zayn, but you'd only gather that because as a reader you are directly told that's what is happening. It's not evident from Blythe's actual behavior; she wanders through the book almost like she's in a daze, cold and distant from the actual events that surround her. By the time she actually starts taking direct action, it's hard to believe she'd be capable of doing anything of the sort, to be honest. The idea of her having some sort of formative transformation feels hard to believe; it happens in the blink of an eye, something feels either like it needed to have already happened (why not start Blythe out as someone with a bit more gusto and strength?) or it needed to actually happen slower and over a greater number of pages for an initial installment.
Of course, the latter approach could only really work well as a graphic novel, rather than as a serialized work where the slow pace of Blythe's change would quite probably drive prospective new readers away. And I think that's when it really hit me that the biggest problem of "Air" is that Wilson writes the book as if it's a graphic novel instead of a monthly comic. This is an approach that isn't working well because of its serial nature, getting pieces in drips and drabs. By the very format "Air" is going to move slow, so to then do so deliberately (perhaps with an eye towards the eventual collection of the book) seems like commercial suicide.
It wasn't until after I'd written this review that I took a look at another review of "Air" (curious to see what other people thought) and gained some additional support towards the idea that the book is faltering because of that approach. At least one reviewer was sent the first six issues of "Air" for review from DC Comics, which struck me as a sign that even the company is a little worried about the fact that the book is starting off at a slow pace. If you need to convince people that it's going to take 144 (or more) pages for things to start coming together, then perhaps it's time to consider a better publication format for your story? The first six issues of "Air" might end up forming a great story that knocks a reader's socks off when read in all one sitting, but if no one is around by the time of that sixth issue, it's probably not going to matter very much.
M.K. Perker's art is probably not a huge selling point on "Air" either. It's like a strange cross between early Brandon Peterson and the Pander Brothers, with elongated, exaggerated expressions and strange tousled bunches of hair. It's not bad, but it's also not knocking my socks off either. There's an early scene in "Air" which made me really feel like Perker just isn't good with action; the two characters parachuting into the water come across as so strangely posed from one panel to the next that there's no real continuity connecting them. Add in water that's so strangely shaded that it looks like blue sand dunes instead of the ocean, and it's off to a bad start.
Fortunately Perker is better with scenes of characters talking and interacting, but the second any sort of action sequence crops up, the book grinds to a halt. In other words, the exact opposite reaction to what you should want in a comic. It's not an attractive book overall, and while it's not bad, it's certainly an odd choice to illustrate a comic that promises intrigue and leaping out of planes on a regular basis.
The strange thing is that I don't hate "Air" by any stretch of the imagination. I'm actually disappointed more than anything else. I wanted to like "Air" very much, and there's certainly a lot of potential here. But it feels like the wrong publishing strategy is being used on "Air," or at least the wrong approach taken to a serialized comic. I'll certainly check back in on later issues of "Air" because I'm hoping the advance praise (including a quote from Neil Gaiman, who seems to have also read multiple issues beforehand) bears out and things rapidly improve. But right now? It feels like a book that is determined to scare off its readers as quickly as possible. A false start can doom a new title from Vertigo; I think Mike Carey and Jim Fern's "Crossing Midnight" fell into that same trap, and by the time things picked up and really got rolling, no one was left to notice. The symbolism of "Air" opening with an airplane plunging to its destruction was not lost on me, not one bit.