The idea of "high concept" can, ironically, be a confusing one. The term would seem to imply some sort of intellectual high ground, something really arty and ambitious, but what it actually means is a premise that's easy to grasp and succinctly and simply summarized. For example, we were led to believe the 2002 film Reign of Fire had the high concept of "dragons vs. tanks." Of course, there was only one tank in that film and it didn't even work, so we felt let down by everything that wasn't a bald, tatted-up Matthew McConaughey jumping into a dragon's mouth with an axe. Regardless, "high concepts" is what companies really want for their franchises, but when you hit upon one with great potential, it still feels a bit cheapened when you can sum it up in one sentence.
When I received Saucer Country #1 from writer Paul Cornell and artist Ryan Kelly, I read it and found it interesting. Governor Arcadia Alvarado of New Mexico is on the cusp of announcing her candidacy for president of the United States of America, not without a bit of trepidation and reluctance to enter the public circus that is national campaigning. She's just divorced her husband relatively amicably, although it certainly sounds like there's some unpleasant stuff in their past that her new hardass Republican strategist named Chloe (because every piece of fiction these days has to have someone named Chloe or Zoe) wants to exploit and perhaps exaggerate without exaggerating. It's unclear at this point. When she announces her intent to run, she does so with a big speech touting her father's political history and her grandparents' illegal immigrant roots, and outright stating that "Americans are aliens." Entirely true, but certainly not a popular stance in this nutjob political climate. And, while she's at the podium announcing her candidacy, she has terrifying flashbacks which help her realize she was abducted by nefarious aliens – the space invader kind. And that's not even mentioning the Harvard professor who talks to magical little naked people that only he can see.
So there's a lot of interesting stuff moving in different directions here – science fiction, political intrigue, and the whole 'aliens vs. aliens' dichotomy seems like a rich mine for interesting commentary. A fascinating melting pot of potential. And then I happened to read this and saw that Cornell sums it up as "The X-Files meets The West Wing" and my mind went "goddammit, it's high concept." Thus, it suddenly felt a little less intriguing and a little more gimmicky.
That said, high concepts and interesting ideas are hardly mutually exclusive, and that nitpicky little realization of mine will wear off in time, because X-Files + West Wing does indeed make for a compelling combination, and non-superhero comics need those quick hooks whenever they can to draw eyes away from capes. How would President Bartlet deal with the Smoking Man, especially if Mulder was his estranged First Lady? The drawback to that selling point is that Cornell will now draw comparisons to Chris Carter and Aaron Sorkin, and that's a damn tough row to hoe. With Carter, he's just got to be interestingly weird and craftily convoluted, but Sorkin's a whole other story. Saucer Country is going to have to be thick with quick-witted dialog that we love every second of reading to hit his bar. It's not there yet, but the character elements are in place to get there eventually once it has time to get steady on its feet and start all the mandatory walking and talking.
Kelly's art is a great fit for this, too – moody when it needs to be, creepy when it wants to be, and realistic with an interesting set of perspectives. Cornell gets a lot of credit for his ambitions and the high concept of Saucer Country has certainly earned a few issues to hit its stride. Will he succumb to the prolonged lack of payoff from the Carter influence, or can he temper that with the consistently satisfying political battles that Sorkin gave us and strike a great balance between the two? Will CSC's Sports Night Anchor Dan Rydell meet Governor Alvarado at a fundraiser and try to become her gentleman friend, only to mix up the definitions of secular and non-secular – or perhaps high concept and low-concept?
We can only hope. In the meantime, we'll have a cool book about space invaders and social crusaders to read. Check out Saucer Country #1.