comics, comics criticism, writing

You Are The Wall – Character Outshines Spectacle in Vault Comics’ We Ride Titans

“The first thing you need to understand is that it’s going to come at you fast, and you’re gonna freeze. You’re gonna feel fear–real fear, the kind that rattles your bones. Because there will be nothing else standing between it and all that you know. When that happens, I want you to remember this: You are the wall.”

This monologue opens Vault Comics’ We Ride Titans. With a disorienting cacophony of monster and mech, we are introduced to Dej Hobbs–the single protector of New Hyperion city against mindless kaiju monsters.

He is the wall.

He is also drunk. 

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

I love my family but I have to confess I am a terrible sibling and child. I rarely check in on my loved ones or express that love. I don’t even do a good job having casual conversations. I never figured out how to tear down the walls I put up as a kid when the world was tough on me. 

Family is at the heart of We Ride Titans. Somehow, writer Tres Dean manages something nearly impossible, making a story about giant robots fighting giant monsters where the main draw is its characters and their relationships, with the spectacle in service of their personal story.

Kit Hobbs is estranged from her family. She lives with her fiance, away from her brother, father, and mother who continue on in the family business: protecting the city of New Hyperion from 20-foot tall monsters who want to smash the city. Unfortunately, her brother Dej has a drinking problem and when it begins interfering with his responsibilities, Kit is dragged back into her dysfunctional family where she has to reconnect with her struggling brother and overbearing father.

There is a somberness to We Ride Titans. It carries through the writing and the art.  Sebastian Píriz isolates characters in large panels with weighty gutters. Figures are stranded alone on the page. In the first issue, when Kit decides to return home to help, she stands in a blank white void stretching vertically down the length of the page. Alone with only her own words. 

“He’s my brother.”

Family is a strong bond, even when those relationships are strained or, in Kit’s case, or my own, when you are just socially incapable of keeping a functioning human relationship with the sibling you love because of the barriers you’ve put up around yourself. There is no reason–nothing the other person has done wrong.

You are the wall.

I recognize myself in Kit, who loves deeply but cannot articulate it. Given the chance–to help her brother, to do something for her loved ones, she acts. Sometimes actions are better, easier, than expressing how you feel.

Píriz’s layouts accentuate the vertical. Stacked panels move the eye from top to bottom. THis makes you feel the weight and volume of the page. It pays off when the monsters and mechs show up, always towering, always overtaking. Character close-ups pop in as horizontal insert panels, fighting against the dominance of the giants to assert their humanity. Drafting these panels as long, horizontal, inserts allows Piriz to keep the giants imposing in scale and a dominating, intimidating presence. They are never boxed into tight grids or confined by panel borders. They run full bleed, often spreading beyond the edges of the page. The action setpieces are brutal and weighty. The lumbering movements of the robots come across as massive arms crash into their opponents. But the action is always in service to the storry and its characters. 

The fight against the enemy mech in issue 3 becomes a tool to illustrate Dwayne Hobbs’, the siblings’ father, manipulative attempts to dominate over his children. 

Dee Cuniffe’s colors are naturalistic and painterly. Though done digitally, the colorist leaves traces of his work. There is an artifice of the tactile, analog process. It suits the beat-up sci-fi aesthetic, with grungy, hand-maintained mech suits. There is an almost impressionist quality to the coloring that plays against Píriz’s meticulous and clean lines. These choices lend the visuals a sense of humanity, emphasized by Cuniffe’s careful attention to the light and the way it plays against its environment. 

At the start of issue 4, Dej is consumed by the weight of his alcoholism. The page begins with a close-up of his eyes, then pulls out gradually from top to bottom, revealing he is sitting on a rooftop. A warm orange sky fades to a sorrowful blue, the colors intermingling in wild brush strokes. 

In the third panel, Dej is a speck, the skyline of his city consuming him. The orange is nearly gone and fading quickly. Cuniffe’s lively colors give the images a sense of time in motion. The eye lingers on that third panel. 

Dej has lost his role as defender of the city because of his own personal failures. Where once he crowded that skyline now it swallows him whole.

He stands. The final panel, at the bottom of the page, he stares down a blue building. There is no horizon behind him and no bottom below. All is a hopeless blue. 

With no words, Dej’s state of mind is clear.

Later, he writes and deletes a text to his sister, asking her for her help, admitting he is in a dark place.

I see myself in Dej. Consumed by my illness and believing I am alone in it, unable to reach out to the people I love most.

I am the wall.

In a story with giant robots and mutated towering monsters, it can be easy for the spectacle to take over and substitute any meaningful story. But We Ride Titans manages to avoid that trap, engaging in the characters and their family interaction first and the monster bashing second. Ultimately, the familial battle becomes the literal battle as Kit’s father’s past emerges. Their uncle was the wall, once. It ended badly. He attacks the city to reassert his dominance and prove a point to his brother.

In Uncle Orlando, Kit’s estrangement and Dej’s drinking are combined and reflected back at them. They see the extreme end of what closing off their inner worlds against one another can lead to. Bitterness. Violence.

In the end, the Hobbs’ family devotion to being the wall between their city and monstrous destruction has led to their building walls around each of them as individuals. The first issue hints that the Hobbs are a bit of an anomaly, a family and private company defending the city after most kaiju protection has been subsumed by local governments. By refusing to tear their own wall down they have kept one another apart. By series’ end, they realize through shared tragedy what they have done to themselves.

In the final issue, Kit returns home to her fiance, to the life she had created for herself. But things are different now. She is not alone. The walls have come down. Art representing. 

In the first issue, she drinks her coffee alone in sparse isolation. By the end, she welcomes her father into her home to share a cup. The walls need not stand forever. They can be torn down with effort, replaced with an open door.

I don’t have a dysfunctional family like the Hobbs do, but Kit’s self-imposed isolation resonates. My own struggles, my illness, have built their own wall, brick-by-brick. We Ride Titans is a hopeful story about family and the possibility of reconnection. With a not-so-subtle use of giant monsters fighting giant robots to blow up those inner conflicts to epic-sized proportions, the scale of the small inner turmoil is expanded in an effective way.

The story isn’t perfect. Like a lot of Vault’s books, there is a rush in the final issue to spill out a lot of exposition and wrap up several threads that could have been more gradually tied up with another issue or some more thoughtful work in the earlier issues. It seems a common issue with the publisher to fit their five-issue-to-trade pipeline. In particular, the final issue might have hit more emotionally with more time with Uncle Orlando and his history with Dwayne. We buy into the tension of their confrontation because we see it through Dej and Kit’s personal issues. Uncle Orlando’s tragedy could be Dej’s if he and his sister did not commit to staying in one another’s lives.

Piriz is a talented artist but he is more effective in the heavy mech action scenes that are rendered quite masterfully. His pencils in the quiet personal scenes are sometimes flat or too subtle in motion to convey the dialogue’s impact. In a book like this, where the subtlety of the writing is minimal, the characters should be as exaggerated as the literalization of their inner turmoil in the kaiju battles. 

Neither of these shortcomings ultimately stand in the way of the emotional impact of the story or the thrill of the action scenes. The spectacle of the robot action is made all the grander because of the intensely personal conflicts at its heart. We celebrate or fear for our hero’s safety because we can see how the external battles represent the internal ones. The spectacle is second to that emotional, beating heart.  I respect the earnestness of Tres Dean’s writing, its commitment to shattering subtlety with a giant robot fist. 

In the end, We Ride Titans is not about its city-shattering mechs. Like the best sci-fi or fantasy, it uses those trappings to speak to something in the human condition. It would have been easy for the humans in this story to be dwarfed by their titanic weapons. Instead, we are invited share a journey with a daughter and a sister trying to overcome her history of isolation. And the book is all the better for that emphasis.

By book’s end, I find myself ready to send that deleted text to check-in. It’s never too late to open the door.

We Ride Titans #1-5 by Tres Dean, Sebastian Píriz, Dee Cunniffe, and Jim Campbell, are available from Vault Comics online and in comic shops. A trade paperback is no doubt to come.

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