Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Alone 4: The Red Cairns: upheaval and revelation ahead

Bruno Gazzotti's and Fabien Vehlmann's understated tale of a world in which all people inexplicably and simultaneously vanish, leaving behind only a scattered smattering of children, gets its big moment in this fourth volume via a cliffhanger ending. The core group of children, Dodzi, Ivan, Leila, Camille, and Terry, return to their hometown after exploring nearby towns to no avail, and settle into making more long-term plans for survival. Their party is now bolstered by children who defected from the Shark Clan, including Alexander and Selena, the strange, dead-eyed blonde siblings who know more about the mass disappearance and its cause than they're letting on. For the moment, attention is focused around building a secure site, sustenance, and continuing the investigation into what prompted the vanishing. The growth of the group, however, makes it difficult for the children to keep tabs on exactly what each person is doing.

Thus far, Alone has handled its more dramatic elements well: abandoned theme-parks with a captive great white shark, young Nazi's, a boy who dresses himself in knives, animals breaking free from zoos. Despite these, it has never really peaked beyond the hill of belief, even in its slightly idealised approach in the children being able to treat wounds and handle weapons with ease. In The Red Cairns, the use of  psychically-controlled(?) monkeys kidnapping a baby as a vehicle to demonstrate the increasing estrangement between the core group of children is a weak plot device, and stretches credulity in a book that has strove to depict a grounded angle on the children-surviving-in-a-post-apocalyptic-scenario. For adults, such a situation is often presented as either utopia or chaos, but the children are so young, that a huddle of uncertainty and spurts of activity to establish safety or acquire tools and food, is the best they can manage. For them, there is no new-found concept of freedom or relishing in it. They want things to return to normal. They want the grown-ups back. 

The children's banding together has been tentative and fragile, and the influx of more people to care for burdens designated leader Dodzi with further responsibility. In the absence of conventional authority and guiding figures, it is left to the oldest children -those who have had the most time to soak up social mores and learned behaviours- to herd and decide on a course of action. This evolving portrayal of the older children -Dodzi, Ivan, and Leila- is particularly interesting, as each child brings with them a newly-thrust position of power coupled with the specifics of their background, experiences, and teachings, and the exploration of how that fostering impacts on their individual response to the situation.

The juxtaposition of Ivan and Leila who are steadily growing up in a 'normal' way, with the still-vulnerable Dodzi, for whom a form of maturity was catalysed by abusive circumstances, is poignant. The other children only see -and look up to- Dodzi's strength, and not the well of hurt and abuse from which it was painstakingly drawn. It's no surprise, then, that Dodzi struggles to balance their expectations with what being strong again means to both him -and them (dealing with fear and trauma once does not mean you want to do it again, or that you are better placed to do so). Meanwhile, Ivan slowly discovers new aspects to himself, whilst Leila seems to be moving from a strong and determined mindset to one of impatience and less empathy: short and sharp to anyone she considers slow and stupid, even as she wants better for the good of the group. The trajectory of her well-meaning but rash personality leaves her poised for manipulation. This sophisticated, gradual unfurling charcaterisation is a pleasure to see, as Vehlmann and Gazzotti continue to poke around in the question of what qualities we are equipping our children with.

Vehlmann and Gazzotti have deftly built the mystery of the vanishing, adding to its complexities little by little. The final page sequence here is genuinely shocking, and marks the story's first real game-changer, indicating upheaval and revelation ahead. Alone is an exceptional comic series, and one you should be reading.

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