By Jarrod Jones. Paranoia’s a hell of a thing. For most of us fickle humans, paranoia can become more of an impulse than a feeling, especially if we’ve ever been wounded before. It lies somewhere between our pride and our survival instincts, making us look over both shoulders when we walk alone. And there are people out there who are acutely aware of this, and use that knowledge to exploit our paranoia for their own personal gain. Those people are assholes. In The Skeptics however, they may be our salvation.
Black Mask Studios’ latest has moxie. A Sixties-era thriller with a bit of Guy Ritchie’s British sass. Some of the autumnal thoughtfulness of Harold and Maude thrown in for good measure. This is definitely a Cold War story, with all the casual sexism and microaggressions that go with it. The patriarchy is so confident in its might. Its infallible “intelligence.” That’s why we need characters like Dr. Santaclara, Mary, and to a degree, Maxwell. They exist to undermine that unjustified confidence. They’re here to level the playing field, to settle all this knee-jerk paranoia before somebody hurls a nuclear warhead into the sky.
Tini Howard, whose dauntless work ethic has ensured that you’ll be seeing this name all over the place for a good long while, has put in the homework necessary to give The Skeptics a lived-in feel in spite of its historical revisionism. (President Rockefeller? That’s incredibly, fabulously, cheeky.) Howard lends Dr. Santaclara swagger, the perfect character trait for a hustler, but the writer goes one further and gives the character a staggering amount of vanity (“As they say, ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole.’ Except me, of course”), which means we’re in for one hell of a fall further down the line. Suspense wrapped tight as the good doctor’s beehive. A fog of uncertainty thick as the smoke from her always-present cigarette.
As for Mary and Maxwell, the former our POV character and the latter a recipe for a heel turn if I’ve ever seen one, they’re willing pawns in Dr Santaclara’s endeavor. (While Maxwell was coerced into this, he seems to be into it.) Emotionally they couldn’t be further apart, and artist Devaki Neogi makes sure to keep their particular emotional quirks on a simmer throughout. Whenever Maxwell lights up a cigarette and bathes in an air of self-satisfaction, Mary is all nerves and worry, seen at one point ripping a piece of paper into deliberately smaller pieces as time slowly moves towards the consequences.
Of course, they work together magnificently, maneuvering around a particularly blustery President of the United States (of all people) in order to search a private government facility to get to the bottom of this Strangelove-level escalation. Russia is up to something, sure, but so is the United States, and Howard keeps the hypocritical nature of mutual distrust at the forefront of the proceedings.
It raises more questions than it provides answers. A good mystery-thriller should this early in the game. What we’re concerned with is learning as much about these cool kids as we possibly can before Howard and Neogi pull the rug out from under us. And we do. That’s what’s so good about The Skeptics: Even though it’s playing on the world stage, it still manages to make things feel intimate.
Black Mask Studios/$3.99
Written by Tini Howard.
Art by Devaki Neogi.
Colors by Jen Hickman.
Letters by Aditya Bidikar.
7 out of 10