In time for the holidays and the prospect of facing your own family drama comes Motherlands (Vertigo), a comic centering on fraught familial relationships, to put it mildly. The story revolves around Tabitha Tubach, a “retriever” licensed to pursue criminals across multiple universes, and she does so without the helpful enhancements that make her competition far more successful. Early in the book Tabitha is alerted to a new, exceptionally valuable bounty that’s been put out on her brother, and she turns to the only person who she believes can help her find him: their estranged mother. What unfolds is the sort of fast-paced, emotionally draining, and absolutely bizarre adventure that one can expect from a comic that uses the words “neuroboosted placentamorph” with all seriousness. Think Dog The Bounty Hunter meets the most uncomfortable parts of autobiographical work like Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? but with more alien lifeforms.
Fans of Simon Spurrier’s writing on Angelic and Cry Havoc will see some familiar themes in Motherlands. He has a penchant for picking at the role of media and zeitgeist, as well as the complicated relationships people have with their parents (or parental figures). Tabitha’s mother was also a bounty hunter, but unlike her daughter, Selena did rely on a modified eye to help her see the aura of the people she was hunting down. She was also followed by cameras everywhere she went, the star of a “huntertainment” show, known to adoring fans and her bounties as the Scarlet Sylph.
What sets Motherlands apart from work that has tackled similar themes is the unflinching commitment to just how ugly Tabitha’s life and her relationship with her mother are. Though there is an emotional arc and some semblance of resolution in their relationship, it’s still full of venom. Where other creative teams might allow her to be more sentimental about her long lost brother, Tabitha’s rage at her own mistreatment and being dragged back into drama she’s fought hard to leave behind is palpable, contempt for the people around her rolling off the page. Her anger makes her all the more sympathetic, as readers come to grips with just how terribly her mother and brother have impacted her life.
That kind of visceral anger wouldn’t be possible to convey without a talented art team just as committed to showing Tabitha’s fury. Co-creator Rachael Stott did the bulk of the pencils and inks, with Stephen Byrne taking on the second issue and Pete Woods the fourth. Colorist Felipe Sobreiro helps to tie the slightly varying art styles together, but what’s remarkable is that all three artists drew Tabitha thick with muscle and fat and sporting a very short haircut, even on pages where she’s nearly entirely undressed. She’s not pretty, but she is compelling; her story isn’t pretty either. It’s raunchy and angry and funny, instead. There’s often a push to feminize and beautify women in that kind of situation, but Tabitha is allowed to simply be who she was at the start of her story: a solid woman who’s mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore. Despite the camera-hogging efforts of her mother and the dramatic fight scenes that bubble up around her, Tabitha roots Motherlands and takes it from a fun, melodramatic adventure into something cathartic and almost touching.