Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Near Thing: Smoke #1

Smoke #1 – Alex de Campi and Igor Kordey
IDW Publishing

Hyping her upcoming miniseries Smoke in Newsarama, writer Alex de Campi stated “I’m more of an auteur than a mainstream writer, anyway. I’d rather be known for creating five amazing books, and five awful ones, than for being ‘Little Miss Continuity’ who wrote 50 mediocre books.”

I love artistic bravado. Upon reading those two sentences, I knew I’d have to give the book a try, even at $7.50 an issue.

Critics all over the blog-o-sphere love Smoke. They rave about the world it depicts, the slam-bang action, the social and political satire.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

Ms. de Campi and Mr. Kordey earned my respect and my interest by trying to create a book that was about things more importnant than new and inventive ways to make things go boom. This is a fine ambition. They're both skilled creators. It could work.

However, by reaching for a higher goal than brainless entertainment, the book submits itself to a high critical standard. Against this standard, Smoke falls short. It's decent, not great.

There’s a lack of originality in the story and its constituent elements. Boiling the plot to a single sentence, Smoke is about a black ops soldier in the near future who turns against his masters and fights against their corruption of society. Certainly a plot that's darkened many comics, novels and movies over the last few decades.

The assassin, named Cain (ye gods), has an ex-girlfriend for whom he still harbors feelings (ye gods). She almost certainly reciprocates these emotions (ye gods). Who is she? Why, she’s the daughter of his ex-boss, the man whose murder sets the plot in motion (ye gods)! Cain is, of course, an outsider who lives among colorful criminals and is tortured by his memories of a dark past. Ye gods.

Cain is an albino. This was either a canny move (in the visual medium of comics, he stands apart from other characters very effectively) or dumb (An albino assassin? Isn’t that a cheap technique from bad thrillers, like The Da Vinci Code and the Chevy Chase movie Foul Play?)

The female lead of the story is a young reporter (sigh) who’s been overlooked her whole career (sigh) who’s about to get into big trouble pursuing The Big Story (sigh).

Granted, this does not doom the comic. Many classics of the medium are shameless in their recycling of old material. What separates a fascinating reinterpretation from a boring rehash is the artistry used to implement them and the ends towards which these materials are directed.

And that is where Smoke #1 breaks down.

At no point in the issue did I think I was reading a fresh perspective or anything particularly insightful. In short, where is the story going? What are Ms. De Campi and Mr. Kordey trying to say? "Government is filled with corruption?" "Oil money controls power?" "Stupid and deluded people resort to violence to achieve stupid and deluded ends?"

I’d wager everyone reading this blog is well acquainted with all of these propositions. Hey, I live in the Washington DC area, ground zero for corruption, violence, and politically-motivated lunacy. Such ideas are not bold around here; they’re accepted as simple truths.

Then there’s the satire. It also feels unimpressive. Though Ms. De Campi is not British by birth (she’s lived in the UK for a little less than a decade), the book is steeped in British satiric clichés.

For example, the issue starts with the Prime Minister shooting pheasants at the behest of a villainous cad. As the PM kills bird after bird, his face distorts, and he is depicted as reveling in the sweaty, drooling sadism that lay hidden beneath his timid, feckless exterior. Later, the King of England is depicted as a drug-addled degenerate, seen only in the company of numerous unconscious sex partners.

Smoke shows that beneath the surface of powerful men lies not just greed and cruelty, but a slavering bug-eyed depravity, eager to burst forth and commit horrible acts for the sheer pleasure of them. Yeah, yeah. This particular flavor of overblown cynicism is distinctly British, and one very commonly found in the UK’s pop (or at least comic book) culture.

Like an American story showing an industrial magnate coolly ruining lives for a nickel’s profit or a moralizing man of the cloth who secretly molests children, the “revelations” brought by these characters felt less than revealing. They felt instead like stock villains that Ms. de Campi and Mr. Kordey believed, for some reason, we’d find shocking and insightful. The points to be made by these portrayals are blunted by overuse elsewhere.

Also lumped under satire is a terrorist organization manipulated by the villains, the “Right to Beauty Brigade.” The RBB is made up of the beyond-morbidly obese, out to secure cosmetic surgery through violence.

If I may go out on a limb, based on my recollections, using such grotesqueries seems to be a particularly British/Irish approach. Garth Ennis made use of the grotesquely obese in Hitman and Preacher for satiric effect. That icon of British comic book satire, Judge Dredd, faced a similar criminal group known as “The League of Fatties” back in the mid-eighties.

I may be wrong, and this satirical device may also be used by American or Japanese writers. If so, well, my apologies. Regardless, it’s not much of a satiric device. Rather, it’s a visual shock meant to revulse and produce snide giggles. Not the same thing, really.

Finding the satire weak and the political views to be standard-issue disenchantment, Smoke #1 struck me as a book that lacks a compelling viewpoint. What’s then left is a routine thriller plot set in a standard-issue near-future and infused with a healthy dose of English comic clichés.

The comic is not badly made. Ms. De Campi and Mr. Kordey unfold a lot of material into the story smoothly, a not-inconsiderable feat. I love the art. There are also moments of wit, such as the illustration of why one should not fire guns straight up and an excellent use of the phrase “freak pickling accident.” It’s a solid book.

But dang it, it just doesn’t reach the heights at which it aims. Frustrating.

Smoke is a good comic that tried hard to be great.

Postscript: I feel like an asshat writing this. I’ve read some of Ms. de Campi’s writings elsewhere on the internet, and she seems like a cool person.

I can also hear the counter-criticism of “hey, who the hell are you to be so rude?” Who am I? I’m Harvey Jerkwater, roving blowhard, that’s who I am.

If and when I ever finish my own project, I invite Ms. de Campi and Mr. Kordey to publicly criticize it, should they see fit, using the words "vapid twaddle" and "brain-spearingly awful" as they like. It’s only fair.

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Anonymous Kurt said...

Solid review Harvey. Don't ever apologize for an honest opinion. Or your last name.

7/12/2005 11:21:00 PM  
Blogger Bill Reed said...

Hey, man. If a comic isn't as good as it should be, there's no problem with putting it in its place. Nice review.

7/13/2005 12:27:00 AM  
Blogger Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

But dang it, it just doesn’t reach the heights at which it aims. Frustrating.

Amen! I thought I was the only one in the comics blogiverse unimpressed with this, but now I'm thinking that maybe I'm one of a handful that simply couldn't put their sense of underwhelming into words. Thank YOU for doing it.

7/13/2005 01:01:00 AM  
Blogger Stefan said...

It was a tad underwhelming but there was more than enough there for me as a reader. I loved the entire European feel from Kordey's excellent, excellent art, the colors, the lettering, the narrative feel...

I think maybe the Humanoids books made me more accepting of the prose than if I went in cold shoulder. I'm fairly confident that the story read as a whole will make te book much stronger.

7/16/2005 12:45:00 AM  
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