Let’s talk about GMOs, that seems like a great, non-controversial way to start this review. In case you don’t know GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism and is generally used in reference to a recent trend in agricultural science toward genetically engineering crops to ensure higher yields. I should say that by genetically engineering here I mean close manipulation of genetic material on the deepest level as technically speaking we’ve been genetically engineering food sense the dawn of agriculture (seriously carrots were originally purple, we just selectively breed them to be orange.)
Obviously the issue has a lot of complex sides and issues such as the government oversight being outpaced by the technology, questions of human safety, the massive possible gains towards solving world hunger, and of course the question of copyright on seed design. I don’t want to come down to hard on either side here as I’m a comic reviewer not a political pundit I’ll just say that it’d be foolish of us to ignore the risks of this technology, equally as foolish as ignoring the benefits of it. So, what does any of that have to do with Wildfire, the new comic from Image I’m reviewing this week? Kind of everything actually, I’ll explain.
The basic premise of Wildfire revolves around a major GMO outbreak within Los Angeles, that’s not a spoiler it’s literally the first thing you see when you open the comic. Well okay that’s not technically true, the first thing you see is a page with quotes explaining the pros and cons of GMOs, sort of like I just did in that opening paragraph. The central plot of Wildfire revolves around Dr. Beth Silva, a genetic engineer working on a new form of bio-tech that could end world hunger by massively accelerating the growth rate of plants to result in high produce yields. Of course the process isn’t ready yet as any plants it’s tried upon immediately wilt as a result of their accelerated growth, but when Beth goes on a major talk show and is called out by an anti-GMO activist she ends up breaking down and saying the research is done and ready to go. Now her team is under extreme pressure to produce results so they decide to fudge their findings a little and show off the process on a plant with an already naturally brief wilting period: dandelions. But when the anti-GMO activists cause a raucous at Beth’s presentation some of the dandelions escape into the wild and things start going wrong.
I’m incredibly torn on Wildfire for a lot of reasons. On the one hand I do like how much Wildfire does to show it’s not trying to take a basic side. Never does the comic come off as a very simplistic “what has science done” story strait out of a 50s B-movie. In fact the entire situation goes back more to the anti-GMO activists acting like horrible people and treating the scientists like they aren’t human and their work like it can only do harm.
It’s a testament to how their own narrow worldview blinds them to the harm they themselves cause and their tunnel vision results in creating the very scenario they feared so much. On the flipside the scientists are hardly innocent within the endeavor as they did try and wiggle out of their own mistakes through smoke and mirrors instead of taking responsibility but that sort of leads me into my big problem with Wildfire, namely who the main character really is.
During my synopsis I said that Wildfire was about Dr. Beth Silva but that’s not entirely true. For most of the comic Dr. Silva isn’t even on panel, no the real “protagonist” of the story is Dr. Dan Miller, the protégé and fellow scientist of Dr. Silva who is also working on the project. The problem with this for me is that it comes down to optics; Dr. Silva, the leader of the pack and female scientist is forced into the role of irresponsible hot head who both promises too much when she lets her emotions get the better of her and then goes on to push covering up the claim rather than coming forward. This is made doubly worse when you look at Dan Miller’s only defining character action (other than vague science work,) controlling the emotional urges of his sister and girl friend. The narrative ends up shaped to focus on Dan’s struggle trying to keep his work and social boats afloat in the onslaught of female impulses and emotions.
None of this is helped by the fact that Dan has the personality of mud, white, hetero-normative, non-threatening mud. There’s nothing new or interesting about Dan, he’s just there because custom dictates we can’t have a female scientist as our main character or even a strong positive character within the story, and that sucks. I know I generally wheel out a more intelligent and wordy critique than that so I’ll say that this makes Wildfire out as an intensely lazy comic in which the female characters exist solely to be bullied by male ones and make bad decisions because of their emotions. It’s also not a great that thing that of the 3 female characters in Wildfire, 2 of them are only defined by their connection to Dan; his sister and his girlfriend.
(You have no idea how much I cam to loath this bland jerk in the course of writing this review)
It’s a shame because there really is something to the GMO/disaster concept but with the very ugly layer of sexism lathered over it, whether intention or not, makes Wildfire a problematic book. Coming back to it a second time before writing this review it struck me how un-moored I felt reading the comic with no one acting as a strong main character as Dr. Silva was caught up in the story of being a successful and respected scientist being bullied into making dumb decisions and Dan Miller is trapped by having no-personality to engage with. All of this adds up to a very good concept that’s struggling for characters to uphold it so it all comes off at least flat and worst sexist, pass.