Two Dark Horse Graphic Novels

Kickback, by David Lloyd and Channel Zero: The Complete Collection, by Brian Wood

Kickback cvr

Kickback

David Lloyd is best known as the illustrator of V for Vendetta, and this is a much slighter genre offering, a noirish thriller about a bent cop in a gang-ridden city.  The cop in question is Joe Canelli, a detective serving on a force in Franklin City in America.  It’s a place where the police are no better than the crooks they are supposed to catch, with bribery and extortion everyday currency in the city’s approach to police/community relations.  Dock Green this isn’t.  The term ‘kickback’ is a nice pun, encompassing both the illicit payments and the recoil of a gun that symbolises the violence.

Despite the official corruption, there is an observed peace – that is until a gang gets rubbed out, when all hell breaks loose.  With the rumour going round that the hit was carried out by police officers, the hoodlums fight back, and cops start getting rubbed out in turn.  Naturally the chaos escalates as the police fight back, and Joe, put in charge of the investigation, is in the middle trying to work out what is going on.

At the same time Joe is damaged psychologically, suffering amnesia and strange dreams as the result of a car accident when a boy in which both parents drowned.  He needs to find some way to heal himself of his survivor’s guilt while he tries to bring order to the fractured metropolis.  Joe’s own hands are none too clean, but it is clear that he has a decent streak that will lead him to do the right thing.  With his curmudgeonly old grandpa (is there any other kind in books like this?) as his conscience, and with the support of his loyal girlfriend, he gets to the root of the war that is creating mayhem in the city and at the same time works through his repressed memories to find peace.

It’s a short book with a fairly predictable plot, but the pace makes up for its narrative deficiencies.  Joe is shown to be dirty, part of the team, but he is clearly not a bad person deep down, making his route to redemption a fairly short one.  Where Kickback scores is in its style, though the term ‘noir’ is often translated as ‘murky’ and faces are not always clearly delineated from each other, making it difficult to work out who is who. Keeping track of what going on can be difficult too as the transitions between scenes are often abrupt.

The layout is beautifully rendered, dialogue-heavy sequences interspersed with silent stretches that focus on the dramatic urban elements of the mise-en-scène.  The reader may wonder why members of the police force would carry out a mass slaying while in uniform, but such nit-picking is swept over in the sheer zest of the story-telling.

CZ cvr

Channel Zero: The Complete Collection

Brian Wood’s dystopian graphic novel Channel Zero (CZ) is much more substantial, containing not just the original Channel Zero story but a prequel, Jennie One, and ancillary artwork.  It describes an Orwellian United States in which a quiescent population is sedated by watching television while its democratic rights are curtailed.  All forms of communication are subject to the ‘Clean Act’ which censors any content that does not adhere to the prescribed norms, and dissenters are dealt with severely.

As is typical in totalitarian regimes, the oppression of citizens is cast in the form of paternalistic ‘protection’ for them, with the population kept ignorant of alternative perspectives.  Society is policed rigorously: anybody who engages in antisocial acts, such as littering or spraying graffiti, is at risk of  execution by ‘cleaners’, state-sponsored vigilantes who roam the streets dispensing immediate punishment, with no opportunity for appeal.

Opposing the government is Jennie 2.0, a grungy tattooed hacktivist who takes on the establishment.  She preaches her message to the viewing public by hacking into the television broadcasting system, but while she has bags of attitude, her efforts prove much less effective than those of the state’s propaganda machine.  What the government knows, but which Jennie in her unsophisticated way doesn’t, is that the consciousness of the masses stands little chance of being raised by individual actions but requires wider social engagement.  Such isolated acts of resistance prove to be futile at best, even counter-productive.

Sadly Jennie, when given the opportunity, does not seem to have a coherent message or solution to take back control of society, other than to stop watching television, the very medium on which she is conveying her own message.  Hegemonic governments can easily brush aside and demonise such opposition, as any number of contemporary examples indicate.

CZ began life as an art school project and displays the rawness of someone who has a message but is just learning the tools with which to express it.  Pace is particularly an issue; at one point Jenny is interviewed over the phone, and the action grinds to a halt while the conversation drones on.  The story overall has an abrupt ending and strands that peter out, with characters introduced but not used.

The structure too is episodic and confusing and occasionally lacks logic.  Jennie is captured, briefly imprisoned, goes into exile, but then is able to sneak back in to the US.  Why would they release her?  While the government doesn’t see her as a significant threat, to the extent of co-opting her hacking protests as a form of televised entertainment, and her supposedly individualist appearance is adopted as just another lifestyle choice by those she is trying to influence, this still seems rather slack for a repressive government happy to punish low-level street crime with murder.

The story inevitably evokes comparison with V for Vendetta (though CZ is much less polished) and both share a common disquiet in the ideological stance taken by right-wing governments in the UK and the US in the eighties and nineties.  CZ also identifies an authoritarian strand in American Christian fundamentalism and its unhelpful influence on the American body politic.

The high-contrast, blocky black and white style is powerful, but can feel monotonous and may work better when read in instalments.  Atmosphere is prioritised over character and plot development, but the pace flags towards the end and it has a stridently unsubtle didactic tone.  What is refreshing is that it isn’t a wish-fulfilment with the forces of resistance successful.  Wood shows those against the system having a variety of motives, not all of them laudable.

As well as CZ itself, Wood has included some useful extras with a commentary, not least the original 14-page version he did as a school project, his attachment to the idea showing that it really was a labour of love.  Also included is the prequel he produced with Becky Cloonan, Jennie One, showing Jennie’s backstory, her evolution from conformist art student to rebel when her attempt at the free expression of her ideas is promptly quashed.

Wood acknowledges that CZ is a product of its period and times have moved on, so there won’t be more of Jennie, but its message is still appropriate.  Warren Ellis in his introduction draws parallels between the world of CZ and the one we are in, with its synthetic shallow culture, so even though Jennie loses her particular battle, she at least reminds us that trans-national media conglomerates are not benign entities working for the public good.  Overall this is a lovely package showcasing the evolution of a significant talent.

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