Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Random Reviews: Murderland #1

[Editor's Note: As always, the nowhere near semi-regular feature known as "Random Reviews" should NOT be considered any of the following things: The opinion of anyone who works at DC or Marvel. Brief. Smart. Entertaining. Insightful. Spoiler-free. Or vaguely resembling something resembling actual comics criticism. We cool? - KP]

Murderland #1
Image Comics
Written by Stephen Scott
Drawn by David Hahn
Colored by Guillem Mari
Preview Here
Website Here

I knew next to nothing about this Image Comics mini-series up until the week it came out. Amazing as it sounds, even with my job there are books from the biggest publishers in the direct market that slip my notice, and the first time I had a real idea that I'd want to buy Murderland came when my buddy Andy Khouri noted on Twitter that it was drawn by David Hahn. And hey...I LOVE me some David Hahn art.

From his late-lamented Private Beach series to his occasional Vertigo work on titles ranging from Bite Club to Fables to his brief run on Marvel all-ages books like Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane and Marvel Adventures Fantastic Four, it's been a rare thing for me to find a book by Hahn that doesn't immediately please the eye in some way. The artist has a very refined line and cartooning sense that on its surface falls between Jaime Hernandez on one end and Paul Grist on the other. And while Hahn's most recent work has done well to add some weary layers to what could easily be seen as a more cutesy, "light" style on the basic design level, what really brings me back to his stuff is how his characters betray so much personality in the simplest of actions, inflections and ticks. The eyes say a lot in a David Hahn comic book, which is a rare thing even when it's not coupled with some very clear, very unflashy storytelling.

And while all of that is on display in this first issue, the rest of Murderland comes off as something of a mess by comparison. Actually, scratch that. This would read like a mess no matter who was drawing it.

To jam out the plot-basics as best I can, the series focuses on "Method" – an Alias-like femme fatale who can change her appearance to get close to any target – and "Arabber" – some kind of criminal of some sort who's maybe in love with Method or whatever. It's hard to tell. The pair go out on what seems to be a standard "whack a wealthy ass hole" assassination when we learn that they're in fact there to turn the tables on an actual one-eyed assassin who's in said ass hole's mansion. Oh, and everyone has superpowers where they can grown extra bones for kung fu or some crazy shit, and none of them can be killed even by the most drastic of wounds to their bodies so there's tons of disaffected blood and guts and gore. Or something like that. Not much in newcomer Scott's script seems to make a lot of sense or warrant a tremendous amount of in-story explanation.

Let me give you the perfect example. The knick name of our narrator/hitman type is "Arabber" which comes from the (mostly) Black street merchants of (usually) Baltimore, who sell fresh produce from the back of a horse-drawn wagon. Of course, I didn't learn any of that from the comic. I learned it from Wikipedia. Within the pages of the comic, the Arabber term is given significance by our lead, and his identity as such a vendor (or perhaps the son of a vendor or perhaps one who's laid claim to the name of such a vendor, it's never very clear) is thrown out at the last page hook as some kind of essential hook to follow the story to the next issue. But none of it adds up to anything beyond vague hints at semi-important language wrapped in underdeveloped crime saga ciphers.

It's odd, because the script in general reads very confident in the ideas it's putting forth. Scott has no problem shifting between scenes, years, points of view and story threads at the drop of a hat. In the midst of a particularly strange "let me see how easily my crazy powers can rip your throat out" fight sequence between Method and the one-eyed hitman, the focus cascades between the fight, a winking parallel action sequence of a female Rambo type playing on a nearby TV, the oblivious face of the wealthy target and a bit of Arabber's own plot manipulations. None of these threads get enough development on their own, but Scott drops them all into the pot as if to say, "This is crazy. This is cool. This is what you haven't seen before, so it has to be good enough to like."

It isn't. Even with Hahn's self-assured work which can make the gore feel somewhat in place alongside some street-level cops and robbers tough guy talk, Murderland just zips around with no focus assuming your curiosity will be piqued enough to come along for the rest of this mini and maybe even "more tales from the Murderland universe" as the solicitation promises.

I'm not sure if the talent involved sees the entire four-issue series and its eventual graphic novel as the true introduction/explanation of whatever "Baltimore crime story meets mutant super killers" high concept they're hanging this thing on, but I still come to issue #1 of a new comic looking for any semblance of an idea on what that comics about. This one didn't do it, and I'm unsure Hahn's work will be strong enough a pull to bring me back for a second chance next month.

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