Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Crossed: Badlands - #1-25

I am an unwavering Garth Ennis fanboy. Which is not as easy a task as I might like. The Irish born writer is notoriously unimpressed with social media and the internet, so unless you're following comics news sites pretty closely, his books can come and go without much fanfare. This leads to a lot of criminally underrated comics.

In the last couple of years, he's finished up his very uneven superhero piss take The Boys and he's done the opening arcs for a couple of other titles: suburban housewife/vigilante Jennifer Blood and a reboot of The Shadow, which were excellent but quickly dissolved into mediocrity after his departure. The former demonstrated his proficiency for mixing the violent, profane and funny while the latter indulged his meticulous knowledge of military history through the lens of a pulp hero. His empathy for soldiers and unromantic attitude towards warfare are also the basis of his rock solid Battlefields series and the fantastic Fury MAX ongoing for Marvel.

However, of his recent work, none was more wild than Crossed. Ostensibly a book about rage virus-style "zombies" taking over the world, it was legitimately shocking while occasionally indulging in some of the darkest, most pitch black humor I've ever read. However, at it's heart, it was a character piece about a small group of survivors coming to terms with the new reality and the harsh, demanding rules that came with it. When any weakness can lead to a hideous death or a hellish un-life, where do you draw the line? It was truly rough stuff, sort of a comics version of A Serbian Film if the movie had any interest in the interior lives of it's characters.

For Crossed: Badlands, they took a slightly different approach. It's a bi-weekly book with Garth again contributing the opening arc but subsequent work done by regular Avatar writers like Jamie Delano, David Lapham, David Hine, and Si Spurrier... and much like Jennifer Blood and The Shadow, the stories in his absence range from inconsistent to utterly tedious.

I have two main problems with Badlands as a series of minis. The primary problem is that they all seem to follow the same pattern: look at us humans... boy, aren't we similar to the monsters when you really get down to it? Which isn't nearly as interesting as a survival story involving people you might actually kinda like. This was at it's nadir for David Hine's arc about a writer's retreat lorded over by a debauched megalomaniac that was so rote and by-the-book that you could predict every beat of the story. Jamie Delano, on the other hand, was the most successful at this, throwing together a series of modern American archetypal characters, but he ultimately lost the fight in making those characters interesting precisely because of their archetype status. The disconnection I felt made the ultimate goal of the story feel muddled.

In the Ennis-penned Crossed, he embraced the absurd (a soldier with a bandaged face who claimed to be Prince Harry) but only to lighten what is otherwise a bunch of relatively grounded characters. His first two leads were quiet pragmatists who bounced off of characters who were either cold and capable or otherwise normal people trying to reassert their normal lives onto a world that doesn't work that way anymore. They were relatable people you could, for the most part, see existing in the real world.

This leads to the second main problem of Badlands: I don't care about anything that's happening to these characters. They are so cartoonish (David Lapham's Yellowbelly from the third arc) or so over-the-top in their hideousness (everyone in Hine's run) that they repel your interest. Badlands essentially opens the Crossed universe to any genre the writer's like so there's certainly room for Crossed as absurdist black comedy (Lapham) or star-crossed romance (Spurrier) but the whiplash in tone you get going from writer to writer makes it hard to invest. I'd be more forgiving if these were all separate mini-series but connecting them all to the same title leads me to expect a consistency of tone that's not there.

It's not all bad, though. While I found his arc involving a Russian criminal falling in love with his parole officer a bit too melodramatic, Si Spurrier's Annual about a mad Scottish soldier trying to trace the beginnings of the Crossed epidemic was a lot of fun and the webcomic where the character originated, Wish You Were Here, are also really good. (Think The Walking Dead in the Crossed universe with a more interesting lead character.) If someone other than Ennis is going to have their hand on the till, Spurrier is the one I like the most.

David Lapham is a tremendous writer but none of the characterization and inventiveness I loved so much in his Eisner winning crime series Stray Bullets has made it's way to Crossed. His Yellowbelly arc was too cartoonish to carry the weight of all the black comedy. His Psychopath mini and it's Badlands follow up were both better in theory than execution and his Family Values mini-series just kind of laid there on the page, inoffensive (by Crossed standards), predictable and kind of boring. At this point, it feels like he's just pulling a paycheck.

Jamie Delano's arc was probably the best of the bunch in terms of overall concept but it didn't quite fulfill it's potential and the less said of Hine's arc the better. This brings us to current day and the return of Garth Ennis to the title. His first arc, about a pragmatic young man who learns that it's much tougher to make hard decisions when you actually have skin in the game, was the best the series had been since his original mini. Given the spotty quality when he's not around, I expected a return to form. So it's surprising how little I was bowled over by it.

The story involves four soldiers, an Irishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, and an Englishman, on a mission to wipe the Crossed from Great Britain and start over. Fair enough. It seems to be everything Ennis excels at: military characters, bawdy humor, and ultraviolence. So why am I not more on board with this?

The soldiers, outside of the Irishman, are a bit too broadly drawn. They're defined by their stereotypes and I've yet to see anything approaching a real personality from them. These are not the "normal people" from his first two stories. Over the course of the issue, the soldiers rescue a priest and a group of children who are painting their faces and cursing to try and pass for being Crossed. Ennis has really hammered home his disgust at superstition as a refuge for the stupid/ignorant over the course of the series, an idea that returns here as the priest is mocked repeatedly for a fool. Most annoyingly, the book makes no pretense that it's being written for trade with a final scene that ends on a reaction shot that's clearly meant to continue on the next page.

The whole issue just feels overly familiar. It has all the standard Garth Ennis characters and tropes but they don't feel like they're being rearranged in some kind of interesting way. You have the introspective narrator, the macho soldiers, the naive priest, innocent children, and a quixotic mission. You have the bad jokes, the blood, and the monsters sticking things in other things that should not have things stuck in them. It just reads as Ennis on autopilot.

That said, this is the first issue of four, so there's enough time left to draw things out and hopefully take the story into uncharted territory. Ennis on autopilot isn't a terrible thing, he's entertaining even when he's repeating himself, but as the creator of this world and the one who made the most lasting impact with his stories, the stakes are a bit higher. Clearly there's no way the soldiers can succeed in their mission, so our interest will have to be in why these hard men fail. Which is an idea I'm interested in.

In an interview I read, Ennis has mentioned that he wants to introduce recurring characters and while I don't think anyone should be "safe," I think this is a stellar idea. This is a book in dire need of a direction and a mandate. Lapham and Spurrier already have recurring characters, though Lapham's seems to have had a logical end point and Spurrier's is still in the webcomic. Finding some kind of consistent through-line is very important in maintaining interest. For awhile there, the only reason I haven't stopped buying Badlands was because I was too lazy to hit "unsubscribe" on the Midtown website, so there's nowhere else for them to go but up. I'm still interested in the idea and the world, they just need to populate it with people I actually want to read about.