Tony Fyler gets G+.
There have been comic books as we know them since the 1940s and 50s. But every now and again, there’s a massive leap forward in the art-form: practically everything in 2000 AD; Frank Miller’s Dark Knight; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; Alan Moore’s Watchmen and so on.
Based on the collected Volume 1 from Titan Comics, it’s entirely possible that Death Sentence should join the list.
Before we go on, this is a comic book expressly for grown-ups - it’s a properly punk, sex, drugs and rock and roll dystopian slab of kick ass with a distinctly British vibe. There are pages and pages of fairly explicit sexual imagery, heaps of occasionally inventive swearing, and nods to all sorts of sci-fi and horror classics, not the least of which is Scanners – oh yes, strap yourself in, we’re in head-popping territory here.
The central conceit of MontyNero’s story is simple but ingenious – superpowers as a sexually transmitted disease, but with the caveat that you have just six months to live once the G+ virus blossoms in your system. There are three central ‘Super-Gs’ – Monty (nothing like a little self-immortalising), a comedian with the look of Russell Brand and the outlook of Frankie Boyle, ‘Weasel,’ a washed-up uber-addict and one-time rock god, and Verity, the somewhat obligatory semi-cute kick ass and failed artist. Volume 1 collects the whole arc of these three together, and also involves a good healthy dose of military dickwittedness, a secret island facility, a rather Kate Lethbridge-Stewart-style woman in charge, and importantly, a world that’s both contemporary and sci-fi at the same time: Cameron is mentioned, William Hague as Foreign Secretary gets a name-check, the US President is very clearly Barack Obama, Bono is hosting a charity gig, and the British Royal Family are distinctly realised as the actual, current Royal Family. At the same time, there are drones that do things technically just a little beyond our current technological levels. This is the tone of the piece – highly realistic, highly relevant and very current, with just the slightest ripples of sci-fi round the edges where necessary to sell the storyline and the contemplations it contains. Like rock and roll and punk, it also makes a positive style out of the grungy, gritty realities of the world, while managing to comment on art, on life, on what’s important and – which is not necessarily the same thing – what is real.
If the central idea is simple but ingenious, the actual plot development in Volume 1 is simple but seeded – there are developments here that outlive at least a few of the characters and go on to make us want to know more, most particularly the nature of the virus and how it became a reality. There’s great pacing too – odd pacing, to be sure, with one character breaking off from potentially saving the world to go home to see their child, but the escalation of the viral threat is effectively delivered, with rapid progression into the potential millions, and the question no government wants to face being slammed hard into the panels of the book: if you get to a point of having, say, four million people infected, in among the healthy population, how do you neutralise the infection without killing at least as many innocent civilians?
But Death Sentence asks more uncomfortable questions than that on a personal level – if your life was going nowhere, if you felt you hadn’t achieved your potential, or if you felt you were capable of so much more than you had, would you trade in twenty, thirty, sixty years of mediocrity and disappointment for six months of unlimited, spectacular potential? What’s more, if you woke up one morning able to make people do what you wanted, with the power to destroy at will and make people happy to do your bidding – what would you do?
Probably not everyone would do the things done by the villain of the piece here, but the question is writ large throughout the story. People often say you should maximise your potential – Death Sentence seems to ask the question of whether most people’s moral core is actually strong enough to handle their potential.
The artwork here by Mike Dowling helps deliver both the tone, which as we’ve said is gritty and semi-realistic and the characterisation as well as the story – each character has a very visual sense of body language, Monty the strutting cockatoo, Weasel the wiry addict, and Verity above all our avatar of normalcy (she’s the only one of the three who, at the start of the story hasn’t at some point achieved what she set out to achieve). The art also helps deliver MontyNero’s bawdy wit in ways that are effective, occasionally titillating and more often really quite disturbing. There are a series of ingenious ‘cut-aways’ from the main story included at strategic points too – documents, like Verity’s diary page, a censored report on the virus, a webpage for those seeking advice about the G+ virus and so on – that help both to give the relentless thrust of the storytelling some much-needed breathing spaces, and to broaden the scope of the potential disaster out, further than the triangular plot of the main story.
Volume 1 is deliciously definitive, including not just the six issues of this story-arc, but introductory thoughts from MontyNero on where the story came from, and even more usefully, a kind of ‘commentary track’ at the end, with MontyNero and Dowling essentially discussing each scene in the story – a ‘writer’s guide to kick ass comic books’ which will be invaluable for anyone looking to bring their own ideas to the two-dimensional world.
We all know that the world of comic books has been a prodigious feeder medium for movies for years, far beyond the traditional caped or Spandexed superhero field. Based on Volume 1, Death Sentence could deliver a great addition to the world of celluloid comic book adaptations, but the truth is, you’d need filmmakers at the top of their game to match the power, punch and wit of the original, while keeping the sense of humour just the right side of sick.
If you like your comic books thoughtful, punky and yep, there’s that phrase again, kick ass, while offering a grittiness that goes beyond clever lines, you’re going to want to pick up Death Sentence, Volume 1, as though you only had six months to live. Go. Go now. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…
The Death Sentence graphic novel is released June 25th. Individual comic books are available now from your local comic book store or digitally. Some preview art is included below.
Discover the full range of comics and graphic novels supported by Titan Comics Best of British month here.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk