The Star War Against Cliché: On Malcolm Mc Neill’s “Tetra”


Science fiction abounds with stories of chosen ones, space messiahs, and figures whose stories and histories are inexorably linked to destiny. It’s made for some of the genre’s most well-known works, but it’s also served as an excuse for lazy writing and tropes that, after several decades, can feel utterly exhausting. It’s gotten to the point where the subversion of this can feel revolutionary: numerous reviews of last year’s Blade Runner 2049 singled out its handling of this trope for particular praise, for instance.

That dialogue with clichés, and a constant avoidance of them, stands as the most entertaining aspect of Malcolm Mc Neill’s Tetra, first published between 1977 and 1979 and newly reissued by Stalking Horse Press. The story’s nameless, amnesiac protagonist is introduced escaping from a perilous situation, aided by her male counterpart. Once there, she embarks on a series of adventures, and eventually learns that she is the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy–one that she has no interest in adhering to.

This indifference reaches its apex in a scene in which an alien delivers a long expository speech: over the course of several pages, the dialogue takes up the bulk of each panel, a conscious contrast to the relatively minimal dialogue on display elsewhere in the book. In the background of one panel, our heroine is visible, clearly thinking about other things and, in one particularly memorable panel, stifling a yawn. And while the story later ventures into more familiar terrain, with the protagonist pursued across the galaxy by a sinister and murderous robot, the story here is at its best when it acknowledges the presence of a time-honored cliche and focuses its attention elsewhere.

At times, however, another set of tropes can be somewhat distracting. As he explains in a long introduction, Mc Neill originally produced this for Gallery, which explains why the protagonist eschews clothing for the duration of the book. And while he does make the case for his own subversion of this – “An asexual naked woman was odd, I wanted to see just how odd,” he writes – there are a handful of poses that come off like double entrendres and distract from the storyline. (Alternately: I can only imagine what would happen when this book converges with the Hawkeye Initiative.)

Mc Neill’s artwork in the book is frequently stunning, however. Some of the alien landscapes look properly alien; one, featuring a series of shattered planetoids hovering in reduced gravity, prompted a gasp. And for a sequence late in the book in which several characters watch an animated cartoon, Mc Neill utilizes an entirely different style, one which anticipates the striated forms of Frank Quitely several decades later. It’s an absolutely fantastic display of technique, and leaves one wondering where this book might have gone in subsequent volumes.

While Tetra doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, it does conclude on an ominous note; as Mc Neill notes afterwards, he had numerous plans for future volumes that were put aside when he turned his attention away from comics. Tetra, then, feels like the first chapter of a much larger work, with numerous mysteries still to be solved. But even so, Mc Neill’s technical skill and cliche-evading narrative make for an intriguing read–and a hint of what might have been.


by Malcolm Mc Neill

Stalking Horse Press; 136 p.

Image: European Southern Observatory via Creative Commons

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