Jeff Lemire returns to the Canadian setting of his early masterpiece Essex County with Roughneck, a story that initially focuses on retired (and disgraced) hockey star Derek Ouellette. Oullette is famous for his fights on the ice–he even describes himself as a thug, rather than a hockey player–and it was an especially brutal attack that ended his hockey career. So he returned to his remote Northern home town of Pimitamon (“the Pit”), where he drinks too much and fights anyone who crosses him.
Meanwhile his estranged sister Beth shows up, on the run from an abusive boyfriend. It’s a tense reunion, but flashbacks soon reveal a history of abuse in the family. Between Derek’s recent violent outbursts and Beth’s drug addiction, it seems best to relocate to a secluded hunting camp in the woods. There the siblings slowly reconnect with themselves and their shared family history, as well as their Cree heritage.
Beth confronts her father, achieving closure there. And Derek confronts the boyfriend (who has followed her to Pimitamon). His surprising actions seem to indicate a conscious end to the family history of violence: an unexpected response from a character who seemed incapable of learning anything. Beth’s embrace of her Cree background at the end of the story is also unexpected, but it feels a bit abrupt–like a sudden, unprepared development. Still a satisfying wrap-up overall.
Lemire does have a tendency to reuse character designs. Derek’s appearance is initially very similar to Jeppard in his Vertigo series Sweet Tooth, although he soon establishes himself as a different character. The Netgalley proof I got for review was in black and white rather than the full color of the final book. While it was certainly a different reading experience, the power of the storytelling shone through.
The setting is Baghdad, 2004; the story begins ten months after the fall of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein is gone, and American occupying forces are in charge. But no one is in control. The city is in chaos, much of it still rubble after the warfare and the looting that followed. Christopher Henry is a former cop who has come to Iraq as a military contractor to train a new Iraqi police force. When one of his new recruits is murdered, Chris is the only person in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone who seems to have any interest in solving the crime.
He reaches out for help, which first brings him to Sofia, an American-raised Iraqi who is sitting on the governing council. She sends him to meet Nassir, an experienced operative from Saddam’s police force. He becomes Chris’s partner, but he is far from a simple “good guy.” We see him murder three American soldiers (as revenge for the death of his three daughters in an American bombing) before he’s even met Chris for the first time. And he confesses to many killings while working for Saddam.
The whole setting is full of murky morality and casual violence. It is “gritty” in a way that few comics even aspire to, not least because it is based in reality. Writer Tom King has real-life experience to draw on, having served as a CIA operations officer in Iraq. Mitch Gerads’ art is realistic and has just enough background detail to set the scene. All of his character designs are distinctive: you can easily tell his Iraqis apart (and his Americans). There’s a mix of talking heads and violent scenes in the story, and he manages to make them all visually interesting. The occasional splash pages are surprising, most often favoring character moments rather than big action. There are process pages at the end of the collection that show his process, which is entirely done digitally.
In addition to fantasy and science fiction Vertigo has a proud tradition of stories featuring social commentary. This is a fine addition to that line, and a gripping story that makes me anxious to find out what happens next.
Co-creators Rick Remender and Sean Murphy get their dystopia on with Tokyo Ghost. They’ve both done stories in this kind of setting, notably Remender’s Low and Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus. So it’s not completely new territory, but their combined storytelling sensibilities make for something novel. The opening setting is the Isles of Los Angeles, 2089, a degenerate place run by gangsters with a human population completely addicted to technology. Robots are doing all of the work, so the only thing left to live for is digital kicks, which tend to revolve around senseless violence.
The enforcers are called Constables–kind of a riff on the Judges–and our “heroes” are a couple named Led Dent and Debbie Decay. The story begins with them chasing Davey Trauma, a kind of evil hacker who can control people via their personal tech. Being dropped into the middle of the action is disorienting at first, but they’re doing the job in exchange for the freedom to leave the Constable job and get out of L.A. They want to escape to the Garden Nation of Tokyo, the last tech-free place on Earth. When their boss Flak sends them there instead of accepting their resignations, alarm bells should have gone off.
But the couple finds themselves accepted in Tokyo, and Led (real name Teddy Dennis) gradually detoxes from his tech addictions. There’s even a brief period of idyllic joy, the lovers united in a garden paradise. But then Teddy’s past reasserts itself, in the form of a gang he took brutal vengeance on as a Constable. Turns out they do not subscribe to the neo-hippy vibe of the place. In the ensuing battle the Garden Nation is left leaderless and in ruins…which was Flak’s plan all along.
Murphy is really firing on all cylinders here. It’s a visual feast, beautiful and wildly inventive. Even the fight scenes are complex, and full of crazy energy. The look of the place is kind of steampunk (reminds me a bit of the movie Bladerunner). Motorcycles are a recurring motif for him: he once again designed a futuristic bike for Led, which figures in climactic scenes at the beginning and end of this collection. When he gets a chance he also shows an affinity for animals. Tokyo has horses, birds, and an especially expressive raccoon.
Certainly good stuff overall, but I have to say that with the creative star power involved I was expecting more. It’s a reasonably coherent world created here, but it sometimes feels like a patchwork of dystopian tropes. Great twist at the end, though. It will be interesting to see where it goes next.
Well, it was bound to happen eventually: an Image series that is almost a complete dud. It’s built on an intriguing sci-fi concept. Roche Limit is a colony located on the cusp of a mysterious energy anomaly, a melting pot of crime and terrible secrets. When Bekkah Hudson goes missing, the search to find her plunges her sister, a group of the colony’s underworld figures, and scientists investigating the anomaly into an odyssey that may involve the future of mankind.
So the story has classic crime noir elements. A woman done wrong, a cop sister out to find her at any cost, an asset who turns out to be her former boyfriend–and all of them character types with little development beyond those cliches. While there are secrets revealed and some twists (mainly due to the science in the story), at heart it’s a predictable story.
Malhortra’s style reminds me a bit of Michael Lark: basically realistic, with generally simple backgrounds. Unfortunately he’s not nearly as skilled, committing such basic errors as unconvincing facial expressions and awkward physical movements in the characters. He does do creative layouts, and the construction of quasi-objective background documents is effective (these include PowerPoint diagrams, magazine articles, and reports, Watchmen-style).
Add in stiff dialog and light lettering that is very difficult to read, and you’ve got a somewhat uncomfortable reading experience. Despite the impressive world-building, for the first time in recent memory I was tempted to bail before the end. But it’s only five issues, so I stuck it out to see the ending. I’m not sorry I did, but I doubt I’ll be back for the other two volumes in the trilogy.