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For more than seventy years, the enigma of UFOs has hung over us. It has continued to intrigue and baffle, inspiring scientists and layman alike to try and answer what it all means. Writers and artists are no exceptions, as the myriad of UFO movies and TV shows reveals. A more recent page bound to take on the enigma came from the DC-owned comics company Vertigo, with British writer Paul Cornell and American artist Ryan Kelly giving us Saucer Country, which ran between 2012 and 2013 and which is now available collected from IDW. It's a tale involving UFOs, conspiracy theories, and American politics.
Cornell focuses Saucer Country on Arcadia Alvarado, the child of immigrants, a New Mexico governor running for President of the United States. On the eve of announcing her run, during a drive with her alcoholic ex-husband Michael, who remains a close friend, something strange happens in the desert that has all the hallmarks of being an alien abduction. The experience and the questions it raises send Arcadia and her campaign team onto the trail of flying saucers as they recruit the UFO-interested former Harvard Professor Kidd to help them investigate.
In a way, Cornell being British might be a boost to the series. Not being American, it affords him some perspective on the mythology of UFO lore. Indeed, Cornell noted the influence of Mark Pilkington's book Mirage Men on the series which looked at how disinformation and pop culture had helped shape what many have come to believe. It's something that he's able to explore through Professor Kidd's investigations and sequences towards the middle of the series where hypnosis is used to try to piece together what happened in the desert that night.
It also allows Cornell to explore aspects of it that might be a little too close for some Americans to look at objectively—one of the big things being his ability to explore the competing theories about the underlying phenomenon from the "nuts and bolts" explanation of real craft put forth by a group calling itself the Bluebirds to Kidd's more sociological based explorations. Is either true; is the reality a mixture of answers, or is it even stranger? There's also the question of deliberate manipulation of perceptions of UFOs as well, from the Men in Black (for whom Cornell gives an immensely satisfying and plausible solution) to "whistle-blowers" claiming to reveal what they know. It makes Saucer Country a surprisingly informative and even sane look at a subject that is meant to be ridiculous.
Even better is that it does so while telling a compelling story. It would have been easy to make this just another rip-off of something like The X-Files or Dark Skies. Instead, by choosing to focus it around an elected official running for higher office, the story becomes as much a political thriller as a conspiracy one as it deals with the ins and outs of an election campaign with all the shenanigans involved. Lastly, while Cornell is British, one would never know it from the characterizations or dialogue which feel correct throughout. It's a thriller that's well told.
Cornell's writing is only one part of the equation. The other half is the artwork from Ryan Kelly. It's easy to imagine that this could have been a slightly surreal piece from an artist's point of view. Instead, like Cornell, Kelly keeps things firmly rooted to the ground. He's not afraid to bring in the surreal, especially when the plot calls for it, but even then there's a tendency to keep even that rooted in reality such as during Michael's attempts to make sense of his "abduction" experience. The result is Kelly's artwork does the same job as Cornell's writing in telling a compelling story without going too far.
Saucer Country is a UFO story with a difference. Cornell as the writer isn't keen on playing it safe by sticking with the tropes of the genre and mythology but instead works to subvert and question it with an outsider's perspective. Aided by Kelly's artwork, it presents the reader with a compelling thriller that plays the incredible along with the mundane, making it all the more plausible. The result?
Saucer Country might be the best UFO series you haven't read.