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GREY AREA, THIS ISLAND EARTH

by Gavin Johnston on January 10, 2018

Writer: Dan Abnett
Artists: Karl Richardson; Lee Carter; Patrick Goddard
Letterer:  Ellie De Ville



Looking back, it's stunning to see how much about our world has changed in only a handful of years. Back in 2012, very few people expressed a solid belief that illegal immigrants would be unable to crowdsource a twenty foot ladder. Popular British newspapers had not, at that stage, called for fleeing refugees to be machine gunned at sea. The far right had not yet starting buying up tiki torches, and were safely ensconced in bedrooms across the world, blissfully unaware even that women were being permitted to play video games.

 

It was into this world that 2000AD launched Grey Area, a semi-regular series based around the themes of immigration, cultural integration and xenophobia.  In his introduction, writer Dan Abnett points out that his intention wasn't to be prophetic, but that world events of the last few years have simply made international politics resistant to satire - absurd idea that artists once used to mock those in power have been picked up as genuine policies.  Still, as concerns over immigration and cultural diversity have caused so much upheaval, its difficuty to read Grey Area: This Island Earth without taking the rise of populist politics into acount.

 

In 2045 Earth has been part of an intergalactic community for more than two decades. After a disastrous first contact experience, when a bacteria based technology altered the DNA of a large number of humans, the Earth authorities sought to greatly restrict and regulate alien contact. This led to the creation of the Exo Control Zone, known as the Grey Area. Functioning as a vast refugee camp/processing centre/airport lounge, all alien species visiting the plant are routed through the Zone, where rules are enforced by the Exo Control Authority.

 

Grey Area follows the day to day work of this border control force, where they enforce often bizarre rules, break up fights, deal with cultural misunderstandings and conduct cavity searches. It's an interesting playground upon which to build stories, allowing both ongoing tales and "monster of the week" adventures, but the results are varied and often a bit of a grey area.  
 

In building this interesting and considered world, the early art by Karl Richardson gives us a grey and limited landscape. Burly characters are dressed identically and sometimes distinguishable only by hair colour. Each scene is viewed from ground level, resulting in a smaller looking and more immediate environment. For all its complexity and variety, the Grey Area feels limited. Later, art by Lee Carter would invest in a more diverse palette and bring greater diversity and scale to environments.

We are almost immediately introduced to our five principles and their roles are made clear.  The weary Captain Janzen, his rule breaking second in command Bulliet, the translater Kym, the tough taking Feo and newbie Birdy.  But beyond a few lines of introduction, none of the characters really feel fleshed out at this stage.  Dialogue is largely interchangable between characters, and Feo and Kym in particular are given little to do.  When, later, the group is trimmed somewhat, there's little feeling that anything is missing.  The disappeared character's diaogue just becomes someone else's.

Grey Area should also be notable for its portrayal of female characters. Of the initial squad of five main characters, two are women, and the intention is clearly that they should be treated with the same level of respect as the men. Whilst many comic book creators still think that the boob-window is a sensible design choice, 2000AD has often been at the forefront in portraying female characters, and indeed characters from many other under-represented groups, in a respectful and straightforward way. However, after building this solid foundation of sexual equality we then get a short story where one of the female officers is naked for several pages, whilst a male counterpart looks on. Whilst it is commendable to have characters, particularly female characters, with such a positive outlook on their own sexuality, it's a scene with little real purpose.
 

The theme of bigotry is at the heart of Grey Area. This is a place where cultures clash, often with violent results. The colourful array of aliens who travel to earth each have their own traditions, their own ethical and moral compass. It’s in this difference that most of the series drama is found – for example in the violent response to a misguided act of charity, or a simple misunderstanding of the rules. While most of the new arrivals to the Grey Area are merely seeking to get by, there are many who would undermine their struggle in pursuit of darker goals. Grey Area directs its sights not at those with a different culture, but at xenophobes and bigots, and those who would profit from unrest.


Whilst Grey Area's portrayal of a racist hate groups as muscular white men with shaven heads might have seemed apt only a few years ago, we now all have a lot more experience with what those people actually look like. They don’t hold secret, shirtless meetings in disused warehouses. Whilst Grey Area might have pre-dated much of the upheaval that would be caused as result of mass immigration and the politics of fear, its targets are far narrower than they could be, relying on a stereotype. 
 

The short, interlinked stories around which greater themes are developed fits perfectly into 200AD’s anthology format, where tales are told in short bursts of five or six pages each week. But in Grey Area we often have a big build up and action filled episode which ends with a somewhat flat denouement. Collected together in a single volume, the pace of the stories can feel quite uneven.

Grey area continues to run in the pages of 2000AD, and later stories would turn the orginal format on its head.  Grey Area: This Island Earth is an interesting introduction to the world and characters that would be transformed shortly down the line, but whilst it is a decent enough action-filled page turner, it feels fundamentally lacking in some key areas.



 

 

Our Score:

7/10

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