I've been attempting to write about Matt Kindt's New York Times Best-selling series MIND MGMT for some time, and followed it through the various collected editions published by Dark Horse, and now I find myself facing down the barrel of Volume 4. Volumes 1, 2, and 3 convinced me of the confusing social legacy of the Cold War, the psychology of agents conscripted into overly constructed conflicts, and the very hard time we still have deciding how to view the post WWII era and the scars still prevalent in society. But maybe that's being overly serious in the cultural analysis of the series.
[*Warning: Spoilers below for Mind MGMT Vol. 1, 2, 3, and 4!]
Let's remember that what strikes readers most when they encounter MIND MGMT is the super-spy tradition, the astonishing abilities of the psychic agents concerned, the exotic locales, and in counterbalance to all this, Matt Kindt's tumultuous, intense artwork with its hand-made feel. These are good stories, issue by issue, often handled as asides in short arcs and Kindt explores a particular agent's history before weaving their role back into the narrative. He creates a mosaic-like a bigger pattern of conflict in this highly-planned out and long-running comic series. In that large pattern, Volume 4 clearly plays a key role. There are fewer asides that don't lead immediately back into the story at hand, asides from previous volumes suddenly become significant, and even the meta-matter of the volume plays out as a striking contrast to the narrative on purpose.
This is a crisis volume, key to the movement of the series, and the obvious way in which we can tell this is the case is through observing the ant-like swarming of agents into specific locations, provoking conflict, and, well, the knock down, drag out fight scenes that in their own way rival the events in Zanzibar. It is actually astonishing that in a series fairly violent so far, and certainly full of physical suffering, this arc manages to be the most disturbingly visceral—partly because the fights are so basic and so direct, and also have consequences.
To talk about the structure of the actual agency of Mind MGMT for a moment, in Volumes 1 through 3 we've observed that most agents had similar childhood experiences being trained in extreme ways that often blunted their sense of compassion for themselves or others, and in some ways were victims of trauma themselves. Then we've noted that some agents maintained their qualms about these methods into adulthood, and having done plenty of the dirty work the agency convinced them was for the good of nations or world peace, such as provoking uprisings, assassinating world leaders, starting wars and the like, now look back as if waking up after a dream and ask themselves where they lost their moral compass. At least that's my interpretation.
A character like Meru, saved by Henry Lyme from the ruins of Zanzibar, destroyed when his dark rage got out of hand, and trained as an agent eventually before having her memory repeatedly wiped by Lyme, is someone a little different, though. She comes from a younger generation shortly before the agency was dismantled, and never really undertook missions that forced her to lose her sense of direction in life. Her sense of direction was taken from her by Lyme, but she's in many ways more "innocent" than other characters. Until, when revelations start pouring in with the return of her memory, she seems to take on the full history and guilt of Mind MGMT, pass judgment on it, and spend the next volumes of the series justifiably full of rage. At the end of Volume 2, she declares she will not pick sides between Lyme's dismantled position and the Immortals' desire to reform the agency. She is quite literally the nuclear option holding them both in check because she can and will neutralize their powers.
So, why then is she back, and so fully back in Volume 4? And what does that mean to the plot of the series? We get Meru's missing story in pieces throughout the volume, her time with Bill escaping affiliation by wandering through Flux Safe Houses the world over, and even Bill knows there's a restlessness to her movements that means she won't be able to keep it up forever. She's a commodity running from a conflict. If anything, her anger is going to keep her from remaining neutral. And when she comes back, it is to Lyme and his cause. Their goal, ostensibly, is to prevent Mind MGMT from rising again. She gives up the life she could have had, living at the beach, erasing her own mind in a way, to be normal. She just can't stay out of the conflict. It's important that she realizes that and chooses to face it rather than being forced into picking sides, but even so, this is a weighty and dangerous turn of events. Meru is a very dangerous weapon. Lyme seems to realize that, which is why he wants her help. She's the definitive heavy in any situation, able to take away anyone else's powers and end conflict. But we learn that she doesn't realize it—enough. And she doesn't realize the hatred that her abilities can inspire, nor the foolish assumptions that might be built on having her around.
I said when I reviewed Volumes 2 and 3 of Mind MGMT that Lyme's psychological problems rendered him more dangerous than an atom bomb (and I'm not entirely convinced due to some asides in Volume 4 that he wasn't somehow constructed to be that way, maybe even against his knowledge), but now I'm wondering about Meru. If Lyme can start a war or theoretically end it, but Meru can prevent a psychic agent war single-handedly, who has the greater power? Even Lyme views her like some kind of goddess when her power is in full force. What we, as readers, probably didn't see coming is the way in which Meru can inspire aversion or even revulsion in other agents. After all, she takes away what makes them special. She totally cancels it out, rendering them powerless, and let's remember that these are all people who have been victimized to some extent, controlled, used, ordered, exploited, and often left to fade away because they are not wanted anymore. What could be more insulting than a younger former agent coming along, ripping open the wounds of the past, taking away their powers, and also through sheer weight of her abilities, seeming to force a decision on them that she once opposed herself? Asking agents to join Lyme and co. against the Immortals is the choice she rebelled against previously, line for line.
And if Meru realizes that, perhaps after pondering it in her exile, she does it anyway, but it's unlikely she realizes the damage she can do to the lives of others who want to remain "out of it", the way she initially did. Of course, I'm talking about The Magician, who is the title character of this volume, and whose hugely complex life and personality is a massive lesson in good intentions gone awry. Meru is generally quite a "good" character in conventional terms, and we even respect her desire to remain autonomous and pass judgment on the actions of other agents. Volume 4 seems to show us that an overly simple, absolute position is, in fact, incredibly dangerous. None of the other agents are as clear-cut as Meru, and as we encounter them, we see that everyone has a grittier side and can turn on a dime depending on how they are handled by others. Sympathetic characters become monsters in a few seconds flat under these circumstances.
If there's one thing that Volume 4 seems to prove it's that these people simply cannot all get along. They were built not to. There are reasons they don't work in large numbers and were compartmentalized in their duties all over the world. There are reasons their memories were erased to embed them back in "normal" life. And there are reasons why they are still very, very dangerous people. Getting any of them to work together was always a shaky enterprise only really underway because of the determination of a handful of agents. Enter Meru onto the scene of an already tenuous situation and all hell breaks loose, even if she tries to remain on the periphery.
Now, what Matt Kindt needs to do in this volume in order to tell his story actually requires methods he hasn't employed before in the series so far. He stretches the storytelling to point of needing invention to succeed. I'm referring to the fact that he's never had so many agents in once story arc so pointedly before. Well, you might say that all the "active" agents introduced so far are being pulled together into specific locations for this very purpose as the conflicts in Mind MGMT come to a head. To tell a story involving so many specific personalities Kindt makes maximum use of fight scenes in this arc, and to render them epic we are going to see personal strengths, foibles, and tricks of circumstance writ large. Stepping back from all these fight scenes, we get the impression of very physical, exact, and often very basic moments. That is Kindt's major method here, keeping things basic, to make things work on the page.
These are not suave, controlled conflicts, but the eruption of schoolyard brawls as old angst, old vendettas, and pent up frustration boil to the surface. For that reason, I get the sense that I'm witnessing some of the most "realistic" fights I've ever seen in comics despite the fact that we're dealing with all manner of strange abilities and powers along the way. It's fist meets face, knife meets body, and anything goes. A Mind MGMT cage match where there simply are no rules but survival. If Kindt had not set up the personalities of these agents through all the detailed side-stories (in English Lit we'd call these digressions), then Volume 4 would fall apart. We have to know the characters already when we see them slugging it out and realize they are well-matched and the outcome isn't certain for anyone.
A major factor in that uncertainty is, in fact, Meru. We might have considered her powers inviolable, somehow above all things and all other agents, but we learn a very dark secret here. Perhaps Lyme might have suspected it, and that's one of the reasons, among many personal ones, that he wished to secure her support of his cause. And that is that she can be weaponized in some form. At least, much more than we might have supposed. Whichever "side" has control of her, it turns out, has an outrageous advantage over the other. So far, Lyme's team has benefitted from that even while she's kept some distance from using that ability except as a peace-keeper. We should have suspected that nothing powerful is purely beneficial, but can also be harmful in some ways. As Volume 4 progresses, we see the Magician's expression of that point, accusing Meru of ruining the life she had built for herself, unleashing her very powerful wrath. But if Meru really can be used as a weapon, consciously, directly, and even against her own will, this is a game changer that has been kept ingeniously well-hidden as a possibility up to this point.
There are two other artistically inventive aspects of Volume 4, aside from the gritty fight scenes, I'd like to mention, though there are many others in this arc of the series already characterized by inventiveness. The first is that as the stories of various agents start to converge toward conflict, Kindt starts to overlay dual perspectives using the left half and the right half of the page, which I'm sure readers noticed. To make it super clear what he's doing, Kindt leaves the torn page edges visually in-tact of the two vantages placed next to each other. You might even say that the torn look has meaning, too, suggesting the violently fragmented lives we're seeing in the narrative. Another is the very prolonged and significant narrative of Meru and Bill's personal history and the focus on memory as the agents face the removal of memory. In this case, the story seems to be depicted on possibly bloody chunks of flesh or skull surrounded by darkness. Or maybe we're thinking in terms of Bill's tattoos. Panels are made up of these fragments and give a "life flashing before your eyes" effect which doesn't bode well for the gravely injured Bill. These are probably some of the most emotionally moving pages you'll find in a comic that's also so action oriented.
I've mentioned before how difficult it is to write about Mind MGMT because there is so much going on in every sequence of the narrative and so many points of crossover and increasingly inter-referential material, and yet when you're reading the comic, these elements are not hard to process mentally. Kindt believes in stretching the boundaries of visual narrative in this way, and challenges the reader as well as himself to find new ways of processing storytelling for maximum impact and density of information. This discussion only suggests a few points about Volume 4 out of many that could be made, starting points for thought about the complexity of Mind MGMT. My appreciation of that complexity is only increasing with each new arc of the story.
Mind MGMT Vol. 4 is currently available from Dark Horse.
For people interested in comics scholarship and the super-spy tradition in comics, I contributed an essay on Vol. 1 and 2 of Mind MGMT and the Cold War to a book edited by BC's West Coast Correspondent Michele Brittany entitled James Bond and Popular Culture: Essays on the Influence of the Fictional Superspy and you are actually able to preview that entire essay here for free.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC of Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter