Sunday, September 25, 2011

Near Death #1 – A Review

Near Death #1
Writer  Jay Faerber
Art Simone Gugliemini
Color Ron Riley
Publisher Image Comics
Price Point $2.99

An assassin dies for a minute. During his “death” he visits purgatory and discovers that the afterlife does exist and in order to avoid the pangs of hell he needs to try and balance the scales. He starts his balancing act by saving the girl he was trying to kill by killing the man that was hired to finish the job he failed at. An unfortunate twist is the guy he thought he killed to save the girl is still alive and at this point in a coma or something. The employer of our “hero” wants the name of the person who screwed up this assignment. 

It all sounds a little contrived and it read a little contrived. In fact I didn’t like the ending because our central character Markham is supposed to be one of the best at his job in killing people and this last assignment that almost killed him was an aberration, so the fact that he screwed up twice in one issue felt a little too coincidental. The fact that his employer may find him out is something that could have been built over the course of the series. The flip side is with this type of book you may only get one chance to hook a reader in and this choice was one the writer made to keep readers coming back for issue #2.

After reading this issue I added the book to my pull list for a few reasons. Number one Jay Faerber has done some great work with Dynamo 5 and Noble Causes. His love of the noir genre is known to me from reading his “Under the Influence” columns he writes in his book. Second it was well written. Third the artist captured the proper mood for this style of story. I felt like I was in a place and was starting to get to know the city. Fourth I like reading more than one genre and the criminal/noir type material has been slowly, very slowly getting more play. I count Scalped in that group, along with Criminal, Stumptown, Killer and Cooke’s Parker Adaptations. In many ways this genre owes it roots back to pulps and men’s adventure magazines as much as comics can be traced back to that material. Last and most important it was a good story and a good read and eminently enjoyable. 

The book opens with Markham stumbling to a vet’s office and the doctor patches him up. On the operating table he “dies” for a minute when his heart stops. During his death he meets the first person he killed. That person reveals to Markham that an afterlife exists and what you do here affects what happens to you there. We also get a double page spread showing us how much Markham has to atone for in this life, it is a lot. Markham saves the girl he was suppose to kill by killing the other assassin and then sends her off into a new life. Markham’s employer is pissed off about the job that has gone wrong twice and now the girl has disappeared. We see Markham’s boss at a hospital looking at the second assassin who is in a coma or something ranting about wanting to know who did this. Markham is having dinner with his veterinary doctor friend who is quizzing him about how it felt to do the right thing, as Markham has revealed to her he had an epiphany. During the dinner conversation with the doctor Markham reveals he has no qualms with killing people and he says he didn’t feel anything by doing the right thing. 

The reason I give a detailed plot summary is because this reveals a lot of what I think we can expect in the series. Number one atonement has to be more than just the act of switching sides. I expect over time we will see that Markham comes to the realization that killing anyone, unless for self defense or in the defense of others, is not going to be an act that will balance the scales. Also how will he just walk away from this job? Normally in this type of fiction an employer does not like seeing someone walk away from the business alive as they usually know too much. Plus we have the pending waking of the other assassin Markham thought he killed. This sets up tons of story potential and tons of potential for character growth over the course of the series. Can the cold hearted assassin really find redemption? How will his feelings about his experience of near death change over time. Will he try to replicate his near death to see if he is balancing the scales? Jay may take us in different directions, but it is a good set up for the start of an ongoing series. 

Another plus for the book is Jay wrote it as a straight narrative. The story had a beginning, middle and an end. No flashback, no grand ideas with no explanation of what it means to a story, no endless mysteries about every character that walks into the story, just a good story. Jay trusts that he has a good story to tell us and he is telling it.

Now often seeing a new artist name can be scary in that you think this guy is new and is still going to be rough. Simone Gugliemini did a great job. The book had a noir feel to it, tons of detail, a wonderful sense of place and great page designs making the book an easy read. 

Overall this is a series that I think will get better as the first issue had to set the premise in a short amount of pages so some of it felt a little too pat, but this sets the premise and does it well. 

Check out Near Death, if you love good stories, good art and especially if you enjoy books like Killer, Criminal, Stumptown and others of that ilk. 

 This time comic books don’t suck.

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