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If you don’t recognize the name, it’s not because you haven’t been paying enough attention to state politics in the southwestern United States, but because she’s the fictional governor of New Mexico, and the lead character in the new Vertigo series Saucer Country.
Susana Martinez is still the actual, real-life, female Latina governor of New Mexico, but she wouldn’t make as good a protagonist for a comic book series like this, as she is not currently running for president of the United States nor, to my knowledge, has she ever been abducted by aliens.
I am curious how much Martinez may have inspired writer Paul Cornell in his creation of Alvarado—Ryan Kelly didn’t seem to take any visual inspiration from Martinez in his character design—although I’m a bit more curious how heavily former Arizona Governor John Symington might have weighed in Cornell’s mind.
Symington was the governor during the March 13, 1997 “Phoenix Lights” incident, in which thousands of people saw either stationary lights or gigantic, soundless aircraft bearing lights in and around Phoenix, Arizona. He called a press conference in which he had an aide wearing an alien mask brought out and “arrested” as the person responsible. He later came forward and said he too witnessed the lights, but was trying to make, um, light of them.
In Saucer Country, Alvarado is about to announce her candidacy for president, because “America is ready for a female, divorced, Hispanic president,” according to one advisor, and her rivals in the Republican party are, according to another, busy “courting nutjobs who poll 15% with middle America.”
When the story opens, Alvarado is found in a car with her ex-husband, having awoken suddenly and missing some time. It slowly dawns her that something terrible happened during that time, and she begins to believe that her ex must have drugged her and done something terrible to her. Until she’s giving a speech and sees an alien that tells her the truth.
The first issue ends with Alvarado declaring her candidacy and, in an aside to her aides, declaring the newly realized nature of the skeleton in her closet, and that the United States of America is being invaded by literal aliens from outerspace.
That’s a hell of a cliffhanger, simultaneously setting up political drama, personal melodrama and the sort of conflict that’s bread-and-butter to superhero comics like the bulk of the stuff Saucer Country’s publisher is devoted to producing.
Cornell’s script is pretty perfectly constructed for the first issue of a serially published comic book, slowly revealing details leading toward the big reveal at the end, while also generously seeding at least one sub-plot (He introduces another character, a Harvard University professor who is given leave for publishing a book on UFO folklore, and who, coincidentally, is pretty crazy, seeing something much, much weirder than aliens from a different planet).
And in Kelly, Cornell has a pretty perfect partner, a gifted storyteller whose designs and rendering lean so strongly toward representational (without even coming close to crossing over into uncannily photographic-looking) that when something out of the ordinary appears, the fantastic seems that much more fantastical. Colorist Giulia Brusco’s work similarly emphasizes different levels of reality, the coloring and lighting indicating different states of consciousness or times of the day.
While their fictional governor may remind me of a few other real-life governor’s from that region of the country, there’s a more obvious reason that Cornell is setting Saucer Country in New Mexico instead of, I don’t know, Hawaii or Alaska or Maine.
Alvarado is Mexican-American, her parents are from Mexico, and she is thus, in some ways, herself an “alien.” She acknowledges this in her speech at the climax of the issues, saying all Americans are aliens in one way or another (Well, almost all of us). This may just be Cornell being cute with language, but he may be planning to explore themes like modern American fears of invasion and native vs. alien conflict, using actual space aliens as a blunt, forceful metaphor.
It’s only the first issue, so there’s not much else we can do but wonder how ambitious the book will end up being. Maybe it will just be a straight-up West Wing meets The X-Files genre hybrid drama. But that’s what’s so exciting about a good first issue of a new comic book series—it leaves you wanting to know what happens next, in the story and in its message, and to pick up the second issue to find out.
At this point in Saucer Country’s just-begun run, the sky is the limit. Fingers crossed it continue its current trajectory.