Skeptics have a rough go of it. Those who try to critically examine extraordinary claims to see if they can pass scientific muster are usually seen as party-poopers and guileless crushers of wonder. Buzzkills or not, they’re right most of the time. So far, “ghost,” “alien” or “Bigfoot” has never been the right answer to any question. At least in real life.
In fiction, the skeptic is almost always wrong. Not even in a villainous way, but more in a distracting, annoying way that impedes the story’s true hero from finding out the truth. Why is that? Is it because we like to root for the little guy, the plucky upstart ready to show the stodgy establishment how things really are? Or do we just desperately want to believe there’s something fantastic in the universe (as if the duck-billed platypus and diamond planets with cyanide atmospheres weren’t fantastic enough)?
Either way, it’s rare to see the skeptic revered as the hero. Some comics have played with the idea, like Gail Simone’s Clean Room and the 1995 mini-series titled The Atheist, but even those eventually throw their more reasonable protagonists to the lions of otherworldly beings. Miles Greb’s independently-produced After the Gold Rush might be the first book to proudly buck that trend, and it may have some welcome new company with Black Mask Studios’ The Skeptics #1, by Tini Howard and artist Devaki Neogi.
The Skeptics #1 (Black Mask Studios)
The Zener cards on the credits page of The Skeptics #1 will likely summon thoughts of the opening scene from Ghostbusters for most, but the following page firmly roots the book in more distant history. The Skeptics is set in an alternate 1960s, with all the accompanying fashion and cultural foibles. During the Cold War, the U.S. government is desperate to get one up on the Soviets in any way possible, and that includes creating their own psychic spy program to beat the Commie bastards on the battlefield of the mind.
Hold on, we’re not at the “alternate” part yet. That really happened.
The difference here is that the project is actually successful. Or so the researchers think. Little do they know the two teenagers they’ve been testing are trained illusionists, out to show that if even the world’s best scientists can be fooled, maybe there isn’t much to this psychic stuff after all.
Don’t think it couldn’t happen, because this, too, is rooted in truth. Legendary magician and skeptic James “Amazing” Randi did just such a thing when he placed a pair of budding conjurers in a Washington University parapsychology project in 1979. The ruse wasn’t revealed for four years — when the teens themselves came clean.
Is It Good?
The Skeptics‘ Randi stand-in, Dr. Santaclara, enacts this plan to show that if her kids can fake psychic powers, reported feats of a Russian duo are also likely to be hoaxes. There’s some worrying language that implies the Russian psychics will turn out to be legit, but it’s offset by the portraying of Santaclara in a mostly heroic way, not as an arrogant egghead in need of comeuppance, so there’s real uncertainty in how this dynamic will play out.
Neogi and colorist Jen Hickman do a wonderful job of evoking the swinging ’60s aesthetic, complete with big hair, garish leisure suits and constant cigarette-smoking. Facial expressions are used effectively to communicate some story beats, though the individual panels are sometimes framed curiously and the transitions between panels aren’t always smooth.
The Skeptics #1 is a promising start to what could be that most unbelievable of occurrences — a positive portrayal of honest, critical thinking. The protagonists are genuinely concerned about national security and the allocation of resources, rather than just deriving pleasure from raining on parades. Precedent suggests that the honeymoon won’t last long, but for now, The Skeptics gets the benefit of the doubt.