*Warning: Contains spoilers*
There is an elephant in the proverbial Twitterverse room. It is shaped like a mermaid but it’s humanoid side has jaws and poison sac eyes. Nobody likes to look at it, nobody would dare interact with it, let alone discuss why it is there.
The Wake is written by one of the best selling writers out there today, Scott Snyder, drawn by one of the most intricate artists of this generation, Sean Murphy and coloured by one of the most life inducing colourists there has ever been, Matt Hollingsworth. The first five issues of the book were phenomenal in their ability to create claustrophobic tension and induce fear of an unknown foe. The classic submerged without hope of rescue, against an invincible foe motif was played out at its best. The dark shades and veritable blue colour palette provides murkiness to Murphy’s heavily pencilled artwork. It was well paced and had that uneasy sense of inevitability. One of the final panels brought back the reality and the all to human consequence of loss. It is an image I keep as my computer background today.
And then it all changed. We entered the second classic motif of a post apocalyptic world submerged underwater, where the evil monsters controlled the planet. The world had changed dramatically and a pirates theme dominated the climate. There were hints at it in the first five issues, because we had already met our protagonist Leeward in earlier panels. The plot progressed into a journey of adventure, where a rebel faction chased a secret location in the middle of the sea, the answer to everything. Once again the art was beautifully rendered with breathtaking imagery of land and sea, with a red and yellow hue to Hollingsworth’s colouring. Leeward looked incredible as our hero and the supporting cast had a glorious mix of pirate and trucker garb. The journey into mystery had begun and there were some exciting battles along the way, and genuinely terrifying images of sea creatures along the way. As we reached our final destination, issue ten was released.
I wish to take a minute here to discuss the core themes and keynotes of the book, before pressing onwards to the finale. There is an underwater mystery that has taken over the planet. This mystery is called a Mer and is the horror-afflicted version of a mermaid. Amongst these mystery and action sequences resonates a central premise, that of a message, a communication if you will. Lee Archer recognised the 52 Hz frequency message of the loneliest whale and it formed the single most important plotline of the first half of the book. Something had messaged these vicious aquatic beings into existence and they were attacking humans. The devastating conclusion to the first half focused upon the crew’s failure to survive. There were hints throughout the book and theories of mythology and evolution that would account for what was happening. At this moment you may be able to piece together a theory, but there were no answers given. It is a fascinating idea that humans may not be the pinnacle of evolution or even a divine birth. There were enough clues to maintain a healthy intrigue and continue your investment of the book. The second half then entered into a completely different environment, one of devastation and desolation because the human race was reaching its end. There were fewer stories to tell and the ideas had run dry but we held onto hope. Leeward had stumbled across a radio receiver of sorts and heard a message, and it was Dr Archer. The crusade that ensued was full of action, adventure, and intrigue, with sacrifices made along the way. The comic crescendoed in tenseness as we reached the location of the message and the big reveal. This was important, this is where we find out what the Mers were and the ultimate fate of humankind. Leeward was going to find Dr Archer and the message would be revealed. Bring on issue ten.
The perils of Leeward were wonderfully drawn and her struggles were epic in nature. However the message that was revealed to her failed to really produce a coherent ending to the plot. In fact it completely convoluted any simple answer that could have been given. Instead it introduced new fantastical theories of creationism and evolution. It tried to relate to the earlier pages of the initial issues. If you had paid close attention to Murphy’s panels, there are multiple types of images depicting fictional historic battles. My favourite ones include the destruction of Mars and the caveman storyteller. As a reader we want it to all fit together because we wish to see the glory of the final jigsaw puzzle. We want to stare in awe at the beauty of the completed tome, even if the journey there was joyous throughout. As readers we invest our time and money into this story and we all try to answer the questions the book posed throughout the way. It is difficult to accept that we may never know the answers, because potentially they may not exist. It’s a difficult truth to swallow and for some, it taints the journey but I think sometimes we need to retain focus that the roads travelled are the real story. This is an exceptional difficult concept to engage with and I personally struggle with it, otherwise I would not be writing this very post. Even though it did not matter the minutiae of the ending, I was still determined to cohese the plot threads. Upon reading all ten issues again, this is what I have concluded is the theory behind the ending.
There is a mix of creationism and evolutionary theories at hand, and it is almost deliberately non-committal from Scott Snyder. The issue discusses the landing of an origin seed and whether it takes to the environment in which it lands. There is a lovely idea that the DNA helix that acts as an evolutionary ladder, where a species can evolve until it reaches the top. The human race is at the top of the ladder and seems to watch these species grow. However before they reach their culmination, that new species is destroyed quite abhorrently. This implies that humans may not be the pinnacle of all species, or seeds, but are the ones that achieved full maturation. The analogy to acceptance of different races is all too pertinent here as Murphy portrays horrid images of xenophobia and genocide throughout human history. As a people we seem to make the same mistakes again and again, and because we forget our previous indiscretions and are doomed to make them once more. This is what the historic panels in the first few issues depict. However the Mers then appeared and they seemed to have jumped a step on the DNA ladder. Their role is seemingly one of remembrance and redemption. There is an idea emerging that they are not the evil monsters they appear to be, but are actually trying to help humans embrace other species and stop them from fighting and destroying life. I really struggle to understand this premise because fighting and destruction is exactly what they seem to do. The loneliest whale was a signal for a Mer to return to the surface and observe the current state of humanity. It then determined whether intervention was required. Seemingly it was and so the planet was destroyed.
The final part of the story involved the salvation of a number of humans throughout the history of time. This included Lee Archer who was kept alive in a vessel beneath the sea, which relates to visions she once had when younger. The Mers had kept them alive for some reason and Leeward had supplied fuel for the ship to leave the planet. This was redeemed from the eye of a wall painting in the cave of the ancient storyteller. And this is exactly what happened at the end of the book. Whether they are journeying to a new homeworld to start afresh is anyone’s guess. The humans that were salved were potentially those that were ready to embrace the Mers and not respond with violence. Leeward decides to not leave with them and stay on Earth as an adventurer and the final panel is testament to that.
From the perspective of the origin of the species, the story holds true to a point. However when the Mers are discussed there are clearly some story aspects that have never been hinted at previously. I fail to believe they play any positive role to humanity and struggle with the idea they are evolutionary shepherds. The less said about the spaceship the better, it could potentially just be one giant hallucination, but it is not treated as such. This is the point at which the plot becomes too wayward to really understand. The believability of a book and its characters are pertinent to its success and for nine whole issues, the comic was astounding. The tension and suspense it built was second to none and for that alone I will always recommend it. The type of book that it is, makes it reliant on the suspenseful plot tactic to sell it, but if the ending does not live up to expectations then it will disappoint. No matter how incredible the art has been or how well written it is. You set out your stall to promote a book and if it doesn’t deliver what it promises, then it will cause upset. The discourse of evolutionary theory is quite well handled but the Mers and spaceship aspects really come from the leftfield. It is a matter of balance and subtlety, two features that could not have been better developed in the nine issues. Suddenly in issue ten we have an extreme amount of information dumping, which really require a pinch of salt. Perhaps we are too regimented by culture tropes and have lost the ability to see beyond the limitations these possess, but there needs to be more of an indication earlier on that there is more to the story. You could argue this was exactly what Sean Murphy was doing in the beginning of the book. The theories were all too relatable to begin with and in presenting an unrelatable theory, we are left a little bewildered. And that is where the book fails to deliver in aspects of its ending.
I read an interview with Snyder and Murphy here, http://comicsalliance.com/wake-exit-interview-scott-snyder-sean-murphy-vertigo/, where they discuss the book in some detail. It is incredibly interesting to hear them discuss the plans for the book and how to end it. There is one line where Snyder states that the ending may not completely factually but it does emotionally, and that was his intention. If you ponder this concept that you will realise that he is correct and that the characters and plot lines do come together nicely and even Leeward’s personal journey comes to fruition. There is a theme of adventure and bravery that permeates through the comic, one that Snyder and Murphy want to use to inspire readers to do something different. That concept features with Archer and Leeward throughout but in the particular context of survival and understanding, I fail to see it elsewhere. Whilst the settings and art are certainly incredibly adventurous and ambitious, I am not sure the underlying ethos of the book is. But once again that is how I view it and others may have taken it on board more readily than I. However there is one part of the story that was just beautiful and ever so delicately written, it was about crying.
Tears form an essential idea to the book and at one moment there was even an evolutionary story regarding why other animals do not cry. Even the lacrimal ducts of the Mers have hallucination inducing chemicals. Snyder implies that crying helps us to forget and fails to prevent us from committing sin after sin. Humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes because we weep to forget. There are two panels that are barely noticeable that provide the key to why Lee and Leeward are so important to the story.
Their inability to cry allows them to remember but it is not any experience they have forgotten, but a voice from the past they are able to hear. Archer’s mother also was unable to cry and needed saline eyedrops constantly, and this has been inherited by Lee and Leeward, meaning they are connected or even related. Or at the very least they suffer the same genetic mutation that allows them the unique ability to communicate with the Mers and the past. Perhaps that is the one feature that all the souls on the ship have in common, the ability to learn from their mistakes because they cannot cry. That is the fundamental part of the book that resonates with me because it is a lovely idea and expressed ever so beautifully. I take that away with me and will remember The Wake as a beautiful book of intrigue and wonder.