The longer I read comics, the less convinced I become of the usual line of thinking that says, "comics are a medium; superhero comics are a genre."
It's not the first part I disagree with, it's the second part. I'm not sure superhero comics -- as dominant as they are in the comic book shops -- are recognizable as a genre anymore. Not in any meaningful way, and not if we're using the term "genre" to identify a specific category of story that follows a particular set of narrative rules, which is how the term is generally used these days.
(It used to be far more all-embracing, with the earliest literary critics merely using the word to break writing into major categories like poetry and prose, or fiction and non-fiction. It's still taught that way in most elementary schools.)
But when we bandy around terms like "genre conventions" or we talk about cross-genre pollination or we talk about a work "transcending its genre," what we're setting up is a certain group of rules and tropes that are likely to be found in a story, whether it be told in a film or in a novel or in a comic book. And I say you'd have trouble coming up with a clear set of rules for what superhero stories should be, never mind what superhero comics should be.
As much as the bulk of the Marvel and DC output might feel like it follows a prescribed formula, the rules of the superhero narrative have long been thrown away, after being codified during the Golden Age. At this point, after the genre upheavals from the Bronze Age through the Modern Age (and when the superhero genre encompasses everything Daniel Clowes's "Death Ray" and Rafael Grampa's "Wolverine" short story and Mike Mignola's "Hellboy" and Geoff Johns's "Green Lantern," you can see the divergences), the so-called "superhero genre" is little more than a wardrobe preference or a setting. Against that backdrop of costumed characters (and even those are optional), any kind of story can be told. From horror to romance to adventure to mystery to comedy to tragedy.
I think that flexibility and range speaks to the consistent popularity of the superhero narrative in American culture, even if the comics that feature those superheroes might dwindle in sales.
All of this is but a prelude to this week's column in which I will barely talk about superheroes at all.
So why bother to begin this way, with a tangent about a genre of comics that's not really a genre and even if it were, not one I'm going to be discussing in much detail this week?
Two reasons: (1) the three guys I'll be talking about this week have done their most prominent work on superheroes, though their best work may be done in another, more specific genre, and (2) that other genre is the genre of crime comics, and that's a considerably more restrictive genre than superhero comics.
I realize that the crime genre can seem almost as expansive as any other genre, superhero comics included, when you think about films like "The Godfather," "Pulp Fiction," "The Big Lebowski," or "Psycho" and make a case that all four of those movies should be considered crime stories, as tonally and structurally different as they may be. And even if that's true, there have been very few crime comics that have matched the range and diversity of the great crime films. No, crime comics, even after three-quarters of a century have passed since "Detective Comics" #1, are just entering their Golden Age now. Superhero comics stunted their growth for a long, long time.
But I would also argue that there's something fundamental about crime comics that makes them more restrictive than superhero comics, and that's the simple fact that a crime comic prescribes something specifically in its category that's plot-related (um, a, you know, crime) while a superhero comic merely prescribes some clothing decisions. Plus, they exist in different narrative modes, even if both kinds of stories can feature larger-than-life characters and heightened drama. The crime comic, though, relies on a fundamental reality to its world. Anything that punctures that sense of reality can greatly damage the impact of the story. The superhero comic relies on a fundamental Romanticism in its world. Attempts to ground a superhero comic in something resembling reality -- in any meaningful way -- chafe against the kinds of symbolism and metaphor that make the characters work as something more than just people going about their business.
I was thinking about all these things when the preview copy of "Loose Ends" #1 arrived.
"Loose Ends," a four-issue series written by Jason Latour, drawn by Chris Brunner and colored by Rico Renzi, comes out on July 13, and you should be able to track it down then, but when I saw an early copy, I have to admit I was startled.
Startled not because I didn't expect it to be good, but I didn't expect it to be this good. Startled because of how well the creative team stuck to the narrow conventions of the crime comic, yet made the story work so damned well.
And I sat there, after rereading the comic twice, thinking, yeah, as much as we may be in a Golden Age of crime comics over the past decade (with the dual implications that the genre still has a long way to go within this particular medium to stretch its boundaries but also that this is the time when we're getting a great bunch of crime comics overall, from "Criminal," to "Scalped," to the Parker adaptations), this first issue is an absolute gem. And it illustrates how far you can go within a relatively narrow set of rules.
Another way to put it is this: superhero comics may be able to tell any type of story, but they often don't. Crime comics tend to tell the same type of stories, but "Loose Ends" does it better than most, so much better that it will make the other comics next to it on the shelf (superhero, crime or otherwise) seem a bit ashen and tired. "Loose Ends" may dabble in the halls of death, but it feels abundantly alive.
Before I get into some details about the creative team and exactly what they've done in this first issue, there are two facts you should know about "Loose Ends" #1: First, a summary of the story wouldn't even come close to doing it justice, because the basic beats of the story aren't anything that you haven't seen in a crime story before; Second, the story is fundamentally sound, but it's the telling that's impressive. The telling is everything.
And since the comic doesn't come out for a couple of days (and some of you may have to coerce your shop into ordering a replacement copy after you find it sold out by the time you arrive on Wednesday), I won't spoil the ending for you. I won't tell you about the twist or two that might happen in the comic. I'll just explore the first couple of scenes, and talk about how they work and why. Because "Loose Ends" starts off strong and doesn't stop, so if you've seen any preview pages (and Free Comic Book Day featured a few) then you know what the comic looks like and how it starts to unfold the story. The intensity of the conflict increases dramatically in the second half of the book, but the artistry stays as impressive as it is on pages one.
The writer of "Loose Ends," Jason Latour, has been the subject of a previous "When Words Collide" column, way back in 2010, when he was hitting mainstream comics hard as an artist to be reckoned with. At that time, he had a few Marvel stories due to come out, but his Vertigo Crime graphic novel was still six months away from release and his issue of "Scalped" hadn't hit the stands yet. I don't think he'd even started working on his contribution to "Captain America" #616, which was the best-looking story in a great-looking oversized issue. Latour's a devastatingly good comic book artist with a style all his own.
Turns out, he can also write an excellent comic book.
As I mentioned, a story summary is basically pointless for a story that relies so much on the way it's told, so I'll just give you the basic premise: Sonny's been back from Iraq for a little while, and now he's caught up in a bit of drug running. A single job and then he's done, he probably thinks, though we all know it never works out that way. He stops to see a familiar face on his way home from the run. Things don't go well. They never do.
There's more packed into the first issue than just that set-up. You get a flashback to hint at how Sonny ended up in this situation in the first place. You get Rej and Tucker and Rex and a whole lot of trouble with any and all. And Kim. Beautiful, strong-willed Kim, with a past and all the memories that go along with it.
In Latour's story -- because it is a crime story, after all -- anything can happen, but the first issue doesn't collapse under its own solemn weight even as it deals with major themes. As I mentioned, it feels alive with possibility, even as we know that, in this situation, so many of the characters are likely doomed.
But Latour gives the characters room to breathe, to live, at least for a while. He doesn't bog down the story with exposition; he leaves that for elliptical bits of dialogue that imply more than they state, or he layers it into the background details of the panels, leaving it up to his artistic collaborators to carry just the right amount of the storytelling burden. Hell, they carry all of it, but Latour gives them room to work, and weaves scenes together masterfully, with dialogue that has texture and purpose.
I don't think I've ever actually read anything Chris Brunner has drawn before. I've seen his work on covers at DC, or on some BOOM! Studios projects. But I haven't read, as far as I know, anything sequential by Brunner, even though he's drawn a Batman arc in "Legends of the Dark Knight," among other things. He's a revelation. He and Latour used to share a studio (maybe they still do), and there's a certain angular, expressive dynamism they share in their penciling, but after seeing Brunner's work here, I can't imagine ever skipping any of his comics again. He's gone from "guy I don't know," to "guy who has skyrocketed into the Top 10 of artists I would buy anything from." It's not just the way Brunner draws people and places, though he does both of those things as well as anyone -- it's the storytelling choices he makes. The widescreen stage-setting (filled not just with location information, but character details as well, without a single caption or word balloon from Latour to use as a crutch) of page one is complemented by the nine-by-nine-grid-plus-one on page two, filled with insert shots and the face of Sonny, who we never quite get a good look at, as if he hasn't yet settled into his role, or as if his mysterious presence is not yet ready for our closer investigation.
Every character in the first issue moves with his or her own sense of purpose, and in a comic like this -- where the plot and the genre conventions are the framework for emotional impact and character moments -- Brunner's art sells the reality of the story even as the line work pushes further and further into expressive realms.
Then there's Rico Renzi.
At a time when so many comics are over-rendered by the colorist (see 80% of the Marvel or DC titles for examples -- when the bridge of one nose has six different shades, you know you're in trouble) or digitally painted in muted tones, Renzi gives "Loose Ends" a neon noir look all its own. Like Val Staples on "Criminal," Renzi uses bold, vibrant colors to evoke particular moods, but he goes beyond the palette Staples would employ, laying pinks and purples and oranges all over "Loose Ends."
If you're thinking, "Wait, pink? In a violent crime comic?" then you haven't seen what Renzi can do with his virtual brushes. It's Brendan McCarthy-esque, but without the implicit psychedelia. When I read the early copy of "Loose Ends," I mentioned on Twitter that Renzi should just color all the comics. I know he wouldn't really have time for that. But he should get hired to color thirty or forty a month, just for our sake.
By the end of the first issue, (before I went back for the reread, though that didn't make me change my mind), I realized that this comic -- the first I've ever read from publisher 12 Gauge Comics -- not only holds its own among the other crime comics of this Golden Age, but if the four-issue series finishes as well as it begins it could end up being one of my favorite comics of the year. It has that spark that so many comics -- crime, or otherwise -- tend to lack, even if they're slickly produced.
"Loose Ends" is something special. Polished yet raw. Vicious yet heartfelt. A crime comic that follows all the rules while still remaining fresh. And Latour, Brunner, and Renzi are just getting started. They haven't let the narrow confines of their genre hold them back. Watch out, everyone else working in the industry. You have some serious competition.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan