September 26, 2013 by Jason Seligson
The world of comics is so vast that as a non-expert, I still find myself intimidated at times. That said, it’s a wonderful feeling when you pick up the first volume of a title and are completely blown away; even more wonderful is when said title reminds you of so many other franchises that you love. For me, that series is Morning Glories.
The book opens with a great teaser—a man waits in what appears to be a hospital holding a paper that contains these seven cryptic words: “The Hour of Our Release Draws Near.” Without much context we quickly changes scenes to a group of students sitting in a Chemistry class. Bored, they whisper and pass notes to one another, only to be caught by their teacher, Miss Daramount—but just as Daramount tries to scold them, all hell breaks loose. As an explosion hits, Daramount realizes that the pyrotechnics were all a diversion—the students are planning an escape. But their plan fails rather spectacularly. Not only does freedom elude them, but one of the students, who has rushed to the school’s basement and discovers a massive spinning cylinder there, meets his untimely death after being attacked by a demonic creature that seems to phase in and out of the room—so you know, normal school stuff. It’s quite a gruesome opening, but it does set an appropriate tone for what’s to come.
As it turns out, the opening scene was a quasi-misdirect: those students that got caught aren’t even the main characters (not that we shouldn’t care about one of them dying, but it’s all about perspective: think about this guy in the opening minutes of Lost. Sorry, Gary. We hardly knew ya). After that opening sequence, things shift to what will become the core cast of six teenagers, all prospective Morning Glory students, getting ready to leave their homes and families. Spencer has crafted six diverse lead characters, each with their own compelling and distinct voice. Impressively, many of the characters are presented in one light and change significantly over time, which is a testament to how smartly the series is written.
Every character represents an archetype that is inverted or tested in some major way. Hunter fulfils the geeky, pop culture-obsessed underdog; Jun, the quiet, mysterious one; Jade, the designated “emo” girl; Zoe, a shallow mean girl/former cheerleader; Ike, the smart-ass rich kid; and Casey, a child physics genius, who despite the large ensemble cast, remains the unequivocal heroine of the story.
If the giant mysterious cylinder and, let’s not forget, the inter-dimensional demon didn’t tip you off, things are not quite normal at the Academy. Morning Glories is honest from the get-go that it’s going to be an insane non-linear story; part sci-fi epic, part horror flick, and part John Hughes movie. Early on, I found myself feeling that the book didn’t know what it wanted to be, but as I read further, the disparate genres began to gel surprisingly well together and I was completely hooked.
While there’s a dense mythology surrounding the Academy itself, the mysteries surrounding the characters are just as interesting. It all starts when they arrive at the Academy. Jade tries to contact her father and is shocked to discover he doesn’t remember her. By the end of Chapter One, Casey receives a devastating personal loss. And the most puzzling to the group: all six students share the same birthday. Things start weird and only get more bizarre from there. But to give away any of the character secrets, historical/literary allusions, or sci-fi concepts would only spoil the enjoyment.
The first arc, “For a Better Future” is an introduction to the world, the school, and the barebones back story for the six main characters. But it isn’t really until the second installment, “All Will Be Free,” where we start to get to know these characters more. Every character gets to star in his/her own story, and these six issues have been some of the best of the series thus far. These Lost-esque flashbacks fill in crucial bits of back story in really compelling mini-arcs—each chapter telling its own enclosed story. So while there are still plenty of massive character moments that are still to come, (think knowing Evangeline Lily’s Kate Austen was a fugitive before finding out in the second season what it was she did), each character has a secret or intrigue that keeps the reader invested; and like the writers of Lost, Spencer knows that even the smallest character moment can be a huge revelation.
Part of what makes Morning Glories so compelling is how episodic it feels—which is also why it would make an incredible television show. The Walking Dead is a ratings behemoth for AMC—and with dozens of projects in development, comic book adaptations are certainly having a moment in Hollywood. With cliffhangers at nearly every chapter, as well as dialogue and complex nonlinear storytelling that so reverently pays homage to what came before (Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, Battlestar Galactica), the story practically begs to be adapted. The end to any given chapter has just as much emotional weight as a “smash to black” for any cable/network drama. And it’s no accident: Spencer has said that Glories is about as TV-inspired a comic as it gets.
Knowing how titles that are compared to television greats like Lost usually are, I was admittedly skeptical when I picked up the first issue. But I was pleased to discover that Glories is not just a clone of Lost, Twin Peaks, or any of the other remarkable creations that paved the way for it. It’s a hybrid, as all stories are. Spencer is telling something that pays respect and is also original. And if you don’t believe me, allow Damon Lindelof to assuage your doubts: Lindelof wrote the forward to the first deluxe edition of Morning Glories and in it, gave his complete support and approval of the book, which Spencer has equated to getting praise “from God himself.”
And for Lost fans, there’s a whole level of enjoyment that comes from locating these Easter eggs. One panel follows Jun at an airport where he passes a driver holding a sign with the name Carlton Cuse (one of the co-showrunners and executive producers of Lost); and Spencer and Eisma even added a scene with Hunter arriving late to his job at “Mr. Cluck’s” and getting fired from his boss, who is undeniably Hugo “Hurley” Reyes (played by Jorge Garcia in the show). There’s also a mysterious biblically-named man named Abraham, repeated numbers, obsessions with time, and countless repeated phrases that carry all the mystique of “What lies in the shadow of the statue?”
Currently, Morning Glories is in its second “season.” As complicated as the narrative gets, I’m still intrigued with each and every twist. The story is propulsive, and Spencer and Eisma have such a rich tapestry to draw on. In many ways, the book feels like it has an embarrassment of riches of story, but Glories is a long-form mystery and is still relatively young in its run (Spencer plans on going 100+ issues), so we have some time before some of the series-defining reveals. Nothing that happens to these characters seems to be accidental, but the endgame remains nebulous at this point. Time will tell whether or not the Glories will come to fully understand their roles in the school’s larger plan and what their ultimate fates are; but for now, they’re struggling, sacrificing, and fighting, with each other and themselves, to survive what is arguably the world’s worst high school experience (again, I direct you to the cylinder and the murderous demon). As for what the purpose for all this is, I defer to the Academy’s rather ominous explanation: “for a better future.