There’s a question that always lies at the heart of most superhero comics, Batman ones especially, weirdly, and it’s this; what happens when the villain finally gets caught? Because almost everyone is brought to justice, has their reigns of terror ended, all the usual schtick. But inside that is another question, one which is far less easily answered and yet far more compelling;
What happens when the villain gets better? Or at least better enough?
Nick Spencer is no secret to a good big idea and his latest series from Image, wrapped around this, doesn’t disappoint. Madder Red is a nightmare of jangled lines and shark teeth, a smiley face with no smile and a hunched, uncomfortable presence. Tied to that, somehow, is the most silken, stream of consciousness, charming dialogue you’ve heard. Red loves to talk, likes what he does, especially likes what he does to people when other people watch and he has no problem with violence of any sort, towards any body. You get the sense he actually finds it restful.
What bothers Red, what drives him, is boredom. He’s bored of the chase, bored of the war, bored of his, as yet unnamed, superhero adversary. He may actually be bored of life. There’s a fascinating moment in here which is almost the polar opposite of the dilemma the Joker poses at the end of The Dark Knight. It’s at least as interesting opens up a fascinating possibility; Madder Red may be trying to commit suicide by cop. Judging by this issue, he may even have succeeded.
Spencer’s script touches on exactly what you’d expect, not only the Joker but V’s charmingly over articulate verbosity and a slight hint of Steve Buscemi in Con Air to create a character who’s an amiable monster one second and something so vile it barely classifies as human the next. It’s also beautifully contrasted with how Madder carries himself in his ‘other’ life as reformed citizen Fillmore Press. Pynchonian names aside, this is one of the most disturbing sections of the comic as the color palette shifts, and we see the man who used to be Madder Red, and may still be, out in the wild. He’s quiet, unassuming, a little stilted and in a beautifully realized moment, has no idea how money works because he’s never needed it before. One’s a high functioning psychopath, the other’s a barely functional wannabe innocent. They fight crime. But they used to cause it.
Spencer litters the script with some beautiful turns of phrase and, most importantly, neatly lays in some mysteries for the series’ run. The identity of Madder Red’s arch-nemesis, whether Red’s final plan was executed, who the Good Doctor who operated on him is, who the dead body was and how it was altered are all neatly set up here in a manner which is one part Doktor Sleepless and one part Dexter. Rightly or wrongly there’s something about the pacing which suggests these answers will be relatively quick to appear, something which the fans of Morning Glories exasperated by that book’s slow reveals may be relieved to hear.
Riley Rossmo’s art is a perfect companion to Spencer’s script. I’ve been a fan of Riley’s for a while and here he excels himself, with the flashbacks to Red’s final arrest rendered in scratchy, feverish black and white with red as the only accent colour. In contrast, the present day is sickly green, the color of headaches and food poisoning, aside from Madder Red, who Fillmore sees every time in the mirror; monochrome, perfect, always smiling with the spray painted teeth of a human shark. The coloring in this book is almost a character in its own right and colouist Jean Paul Csuka, designer Tim Daniel and letterer Kelly Tindall all contribute to the book’s smart, clean design and the barely contained mania that bubbles beneath it.
This is the first comic in a while to surprise me. It’s openly, creatively horrific, has a set-up which is almost impossible to land successfully but it hits the ground running and never once slows down. Spencer, Rossmo and co’s story isn’t pleasant to read in places, but it’s never less than interesting and often quite brilliant. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I’m fascinated to see where they’re going next. I’m guessing, for Fillmore Press at least, the answer is ‘nowhere good.’. I can’t wait.