Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Tetra: A Graphic Novel by Malcolm Mc Neill. (Stalking Horse Press)
Westerns had a major boom back in the forties and fifties. Movies in that genre were pumped out in an attempt to catch some of the fervor and take advantage of the popularity. We’re seeing a similar trend now with comic book movies. Marvel Studios puts out three or four movies a year. And when we factor in the other studios, it seems like we’re getting a new superhero movie each week.
This over-saturation creates a system where certain movies will be lost in the shuffle and some notable ones will be remembered. The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Black Panther will be examples of the genre in the same way we look at The Searchers, Stagecoach, and High Noon as they relate to Westerns. The bad ones will be forgotten, like how no one talks about Jonah Hex.
At the same time, because of the over-saturation, some atypical movies will be lost in the shuffle. The popularity of the genre will allow these movies to be produced, but not necessarily saved to our memory. Before James Gunn made the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, he had a fresh take on the genre called Super. This movie has been all but lost outside of cinema-minded people. This is a movie that is different and worthy of our attention, but it’s still hard to find someone who remembers it offhand.
In the seventies, there was a science fiction boom with the help of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. In the midst of this popularity, a magazine called Gallery (referred to as a “Girlie Magazine” in the introduction) hired Malcolm Mc Neill to come up with an ongoing series from 1977 to 1979. He brought them Tetra, a short series they bought quickly. This series could have been lost within the depths of time if it wasn’t for Stalking Horse Press rescuing it from obscurity and compiling the complete graphic novel for the first time.
Tetra subverts the traditional formula by making the protagonist a woman who refuses to take any bullshit from anyone.
Tetra subverts the traditional formula by making the protagonist a woman who refuses to take any bullshit from anyone. At the time, a big crutch was to rely on the hero’s journey, putting the weight of the universe on one individual’s shoulders, a lot like Luke Skywalker supposedly being able to bring a balance to the Force. Tetra uses misdirection in that it is set up as a heroine’s journey, but our unnamed protagonist rejects her preordained mission and instead chooses to go search for the Supreme Being who had originally written the prophecy. To truly save her people, she comes to the conclusion that she needs to be hands-off, letting them defeat the forces that held them down. Otherwise, they’d become reliant upon another supreme being and likely destined to fall into the same traps as before. She rejects her role as savior because she can see the hollow promises that lie within. Instead, she is looking for something deeper and more meaningful.
The first forty pages of Tetra are essentially a behind-the-scenes featurette. Malcolm Mc Neill goes in depth into how his work on Ah Pook Is Here with William S. Burroughs influenced the direction he wanted to go with Tetra. He tells the story about getting the deal with Gallery and his whole thought process behind the structure and form of the story—mainly, wanting to break the fourth wall in a subtle and smart way. The metaphysics Mc Neill employed dictated the direction the story was going to go and how the larger themes influenced the actions of the characters. This section is important not just because it gives insight into Mc Neill’s creative process, but because it shows the blueprint for what Tetra could have been had it been fully realized.
The graphic novel that follows the introduction is a gorgeous piece of science fiction. Mc Neill didn’t want inked line drawings because our reality doesn’t have hard lines—we have edges. All the art has a soft delicacy to it, pulling the reader deeper into the story because it looks different from anything else. Like a groundbreaking piece of cinema, Mc Neill creates a world for us to inhabit and not want to leave. Unfortunately, Mc Neill had to abruptly stop the series in 1979. This causes an incomplete story. And while our unnamed heroine doesn’t complete her self-designated quest, she does give us a good look at where she was headed.
While the story hangs in a limbo, this collection is a fascinating look at what a true artist is capable of when given the freedom to chase their own wild dreams. The story coupled with the art creates an intriguing piece of science fiction and I could see myself being annoyed if it wasn’t for the introduction. Mc Neill showed how ambitious the entire project was from the beginning and now I have the sting of loss, pining for something that never was. It shows the amount of time and patience it takes to create something unique and special. Above all, Mc Neill gives us a glimpse of Tetra; and even this small amount is beautiful and worth our attention.