Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Comics Review: November 15

Better late than never, right? ;)

"A History of Violence"

The only other book I've read from Paradox Press was "Road To Perdition", which is actually a pretty good parallel to this book in that violence is practically a character in its own right. Both "Road To Perdition" and "A History of Violence" begin with establishing two separate worlds: you have the domestic sphere, which more often than not is sedate, routine and somewhat idyllic, and you have the outside world where violence is commonplace, practically a supreme value. In both books, the main plot is triggered when violence transgresses into and irrevocably changes the internal, domestic life; we then see how characters who had straddled the boundaries of both worlds react to this loss.

In the introduction to the book, writer John Wagner gives several examples of this kind of disruption - if a man went crazy and started shooting up a crowd, could you push yourself to pick up a gun and shoot him? If you found a stranger in your house who insisted he was your husband, what would you do to protect yourself? This moral dilemma, he explains, is at the heart of "A History of Violence".

And the first part of the book does indeed play this paradigm out: Tom McKenna is living his small-town life, where he knows his customers by name and has them delivering food to sick neighbors. He's even accomodating the two thugs who try to rob his diner... until one of them decides to kill him for the hell of it. Tom reacts seemingly on instinct, killing one while seriously injuring another, without so much as a scratch.

Obviously, this is big news for such a close-knit community, and Tom is propelled to celebrity status. Unfortunately, his newfound fame attracts unwanted attention in the form of three gangsters, led by a half-senile and half-blind old man who may or may not have known Tom in the distant past. They stalk him, making veiled threats of the sort that don't hold up in court. Wagner perfectly captures Tom's helplessness, as well as the greater ambiguity: is this just a case of mistaken identity (as not even the aged gangster, Torrino, is sure whether this is the man they're looking for)? Or is there more to Tom than we thought?

This question is resolved at the end of the first chapter. The second chapter takes us into Tom's past, and we discover the truth about what's been happening. Like the section preceding it, this part of the story is also very grounded in realism; even the idea of two teenage boys eradicating the core of a New York mob (and escaping unscathed) seems like a stretch, but only until one of those boys points to the fact that because it's so unlikely, no one will be prepared for it.

However, "A History of Violence" stumbles at the third and final chapter, where a new antagonist comes out of nowhere and starts causing trouble. If, up until this point, the book had been true to life, Wagner now starts asking readers to suspend their disbelief... not an easy thing to do considering the tone of the story so far. Two characters in particular are displayed with almost cartoonish qualities; for example, can we really bring ourselves to believe in a man who's been tortured and mutilated every day for twenty consecutive years? Think about that span of time. Think about the effort required for such a concentrated period of abuse. It might be commonplace in superhero comics or something in the vein of the fantastic, but it certainly doesn't belong in a realistic book.

That said, "A History of Violence" is still a very well-written book, one that doesn't presume to solve the question of violence but demonstrates, with chilling effect, how violence could and does affect our everyday life. Highly recommended.


Y: The Last Man: Paper Dolls (37-39)

"Y: The Last Man" is still going strong, one of the most exciting and interesting reads on the shelves.

Brian Vaughan has many skills as a writer, but one that serves him particularly well here is his ability to simultaneously introduce new plot threads and characters while never losing sight of what he's already established. You get long-running themes and angles that hadn't been considered before. You get new characters meshing with people we thought we'd never see again. It's a very enjoyable aspect of the ongoing story for someone who's been around since the beginning - every character means something, and just might pop up when you least expect them to. The flip-side, of course, is that it's not particularly accessible to readers looking for jumping-on points, but DC has been very consistent with TPB releases so it's not really a problem.

Another refreshing aspect of Vaughan's writing is that he goes against the trend of six-part arcs (which, more often than not, require a bit of padding). Story length in "Y" tends to range from single issues to five, but even in the standalone stories there's always so much going on that you never feel you're not getting your money's worth.

"Paper Dolls" follows up on the previous arc, with Yorick and his companions finally reaching Australia (last known location of Yorick's girlfriend Beth). Unfortunately, it's only a pit-stop to their next destination - Japan - and Yorick has twenty-four hours to try and track her down. Things become a bit more complicated, though, when relentless tabloid journalist Paloma West finds out Yorick's secret, gets tangible evidence, and exposes him to the world.

As Yorick himself points out, this isn't necessarily the catastrophe his secret agent bodyguard 355 immediately assumes it is. First of all, Paloma's publishers are notorious for faking photographs - they're tabloids, after all, there's always a degree of fabrication there. Beyond that, the existence of the last man on Earth was bound to be revealed sooner or later.

With only a year and a half to go before the issue 60 finale, Vaughan is still keeping up the pace, still providing those delightful last-page cliffhangers, and still maintaining a very high level of quality where most other writers would start to sag a bit.