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Akira, Hunger Games, and Superman collide in Brian Wood’s chilling Mara #5

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Mara #5. Written by Brian Wood (X-Men, Star Wars) and drawn by Ming Doyle (Fantastic Four, Guardians Of The Galaxy Infinite Comic), it’s a stunning climax to a miniseries that has successfully experimented with superhero conventions. Warning: spoilers ahead.

There are superpowers in the pages of Mara, but this is not a book about a superhero. Mara Prince is a 17-year-old volleyball superstar in a war-torn future where sports have become the primary mode of escape for an oppressed populace. She gains worldwide recognition and loads of corporate sponsors for her prodigious performance in the arena. The first issue was a fascinating look at sports culture and how it can be used for political manipulation—in the future, the armed forces has modified its focus to attract sports-minded individuals seeking glory and endorsements—but the scope of the series has grown with each new chapter. What began as an inventive exploration of youth celebrity has evolved into a tense political thriller pitting a hormonal teenager with unlimited power against the government that wants to control her. That conflict that comes to a head in Mara #5, completing the title character’s transition into something more than human and delivering the final tragic blow that pushes her over the edge. 

Brian Wood is currently one of the most prolific writers in comic books, scripting six different titles ranging from superheroes (Ultimate Comics X-Men, X-Men) to licensed properties (Conan The Barbarian, Star Wars) and creator-owned material (The Massive, Mara). Mara has the distinction of being the only miniseries in that group, and the story has benefited from the limited length. Wood structures a tense, high-octane narrative that moves quickly but doesn’t lose sight of character development as it picks up momentum, keeping the focus locked on Mara to emphasize how isolated she feels from the rest of the world. Living in a world where entertainment and politics have a Hunger Games-like relationship, Mara’s celebrity already sets her apart from the rest of the planet, but giving her Superman’s powers increases that alienation exponentially. 

A homosexual woman of color that is also one of most popular people on the planet, Mara Prince is the anti-Clark Kent. But the fact that she’s a ubiquitous public figure means she can’t hide from the world like Clark, and that popularity quickly turns to anger and fear when she’s caught on camera traveling at inhuman speed and taking off into the sky. That ends Mara’s sports career but turns her into a valuable military asset, and her superiors fake her death so that she can hone her abilities and become their weapon. It’s a plan that works until Mara is denied the opportunity to tell her brother she’s alive, and the government learns the hard way that you shouldn’t cage a teenage girl or take away her phone privileges. As the world responds to her with increased hostility, Mara Prince shifts away from the Clark Kent model and starts acting more like Tetsuo Shima of Akira, another angry teen with psychokinetic abilities. Yet while Tetsuo’s rage is primarily aimed at his best friend Kaneda, Mara holds all of Earth responsible for her troubles. (She also has the benefit of never turning into an out-of-control mutant blob like Tetsuo.)

Mara #5 begins immediately after the end of last issue, with Mara floating in space after fleeing her captors. The chapter begins with a full-page splash from Mara’s point of view, looking at her hands in the ocean of stars as a caption details a sudden realization: “She does not need to breathe.” It’s the last step needed to complete Mara’s detachment from the human race, and when she falls back to the planet, curled into a fetal position in the middle of a fireball, she emerges as something new. The things that kept Mara grounded were her brother Mark and her best friend/lover/teammate Ingrid, and once those things are taken from her, she loses the grip on her humanity. Ingrid has left Mara behind and taken her position as the leader of the volleyball team, but Mara’s tipping point is when Mark dies at the hands of the organization he’s dedicated his life to, beaten to death by military interrogators eager to find out if he has his sister’s abilities. With her biological connection to the human race severed, Mara switches into vengeful-god mode, ending the book with one hell of a cliffhanger as an arsenal of stolen nuclear weapons are dropped on the planet. 

Mara’s fundamental character flaw is that she solely thinks about herself and doesn’t understand how her actions will impact the people around her. She knows her brother’s safety is at jeopardy if she doesn’t stay in line, but she refuses to play along with anyone that won’t do things her way. Granted, all she’s really wanted is to be left alone, but she’s also the one who agreed to work with the military in the first place. Mara is focused on herself, but both the script and art make a point to show the reader the big picture that the character isn’t seeing. News broadcasts provide information about how Mara’s presence is affecting international politics and economics, and Ming Doyle’s art often zooms out to show the complete impact of Mara’s powers. Those long shots serve a variety of purposes. When Mara first takes flight at the end of #2, Doyle pulls way back to show how quickly Mara has traveled a huge distance, and when she flees to Antarctica in this issue, zooming out allows Doyle to emphasize how lonely the character has become. In a nice visual touch, Mara is sitting next to a colony of penguins that mirror her black-and-white uniform, further highlighting the idea that while Mara has all these surface similarities, she’s something completely different from those around her. 

Ming Doyle is an artist who has built a résumé primarily on short stories, and Mara is especially impressive considering it’s her first extended comic-book project. Her work shows an immense talent for imaginative design and dynamic staging, turning the volleyball matches of the early issues into bold action sequences set in a sleek sci-fi environment. As Mara’s powers have expanded, the visuals have shifted to capture the spectacle of her experience, and that sense of splendor comes from Doyle’s aforementioned use of distance. Superman is constantly shown floating above Earth, but rarely is there a zoomed-out profile that shows exactly how far he is from the planet. Doyle understands that negative space creates tension, and the image following that profile panel shows Mara bursting through the ozone layer in a rush of bright blue light, effectively ending a somber opening sequence as the issue kicks into high gear. Jordie Bellaire has become one of the busiest colorists in comics and each issue of Mara reveals why as she uses color to amplify elements of the story. Mara is surrounded by white for most of this issue, giving her an angelic aura as she soars through the sky and hangs out with penguins. When the focus moves to Mark’s torture, the new primary shade is a dirty brown, turning Mara’s enemies into a stain that she’ll wipe clean through nuclear apocalypse. 

The portrayal of women in superhero comics consistently comes under fire, but Mara shows that it’s entirely possible to create a book with a female lead that isn’t suggestive in any way. The most overtly sexualized image of Mara is a splash page in the first issue showing her lying on the floor in her skivvies, a picture that is accompanied by narration describing her intelligence and charisma. The image looks posed because it’s a promotional shot of Mara, and it’s later used on a news program when the topic of her new superpowers comes into discussion. It’s a clever way for Wood and Doyle to comment on the exploitation of the female body in both comic books and the greater mainstream media without making that commentary too explicit. Like Wood’s X-Men, Mara doesn’t try to make any sort of big deal that its main character is a woman or ethnic or a lesbian. These are circumstances of the character that don’t dictate anything about the content of the story, which is instead focused on telling a captivating story about a celebrity suddenly gifted with superpowers. How would that person be changed? How would that power be used? How would the world react? The answers are inside Mara, but they aren’t pretty.