Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Here’s a recent (well, in English) entry, one that just finished last year. It took a long time to come out, but once you read it all at once, it really works well. Let’s delve right in!
The Killer by Matz (writer; translator, issues #4-10), Luc Jacamon (artist; translator, issues #1-3), Edward Gauvin (translator, issues #5-10), Marshall Dillon (letterer, issues #7-8, 10), and Joyce ElHayek (letterer, issue #10).*
Archaia, 10 issues (#1-10), cover dated October 2006 – July 2009.**
* No letterer is credited for issues #1-6 and 9.
** Technically, issue #4 is cover dated April 2006 and issues #5 and 6 are October 2006, but I have to assume they’re typos, as issue #4 came out in May 2007, while #5 and 6 both came out in October 2007.
SPOILERS, maybe? There’s a sequel coming out, so at least you know the lead character makes it through the book alive. Other than that, be aware! I’ll try to avoid them, but you never know!
The Killer feels like a 1970s action movie, and I mean that as a huge compliment. Even if you weren’t alive in the 1970s or (like me) too young to have seen them in the theater, thanks to the videotape and then DVD market, you’ve probably seen some of them: Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, The Day of the Jackal, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The French Connection, stuff like that. They all have a certain feel to them that earlier and later movies don’t – I often wonder if it’s the level of technology. Later movies were different in tone, certainly, once the Reagan Revolution made patriotism cool again, but even when movies go for the feel of 1970s action movies, they seem to have a layer of sheen to them, and I wonder if that’s due to technology – the cameras and editing and whatnot are just better. I don’t know – I’m not a film historian. But The Killer feels like those movies. The violence is visceral but not overdone, the characters are tropes but have real depth to them, and everyone’s motives are somewhat murky. It’s also very “realistic” in that Jacamon never loses sight of the setting – we feel that the main character, the killer (who never gets a name and therefore will be referred to as such throughout this post), is actually going to these cities and places, whether it’s Paris or New York or Venezuela. The changes in setting change the mood of the book very nicely, and unlike many comics, we have a definite sense of place in The Killer. In that way, it’s also like those 1970s action movies, which feel like they place in an actual world rather than a cartoon world of flying bullets and invulnerable good guys.
With our killer, we get an interesting lead, a character who changes in the way we might expect him to change. We first meet him while he’s waiting for a target to arrive at a love nest, which gives our killer some time to reflect. As he narrates, he informs us that he cares about nothing except the money he gets for his hits. He doesn’t ask questions about why people hire him to kill others, because he doesn’t care. He wants to be left alone, he wants to make his money, and he thinks that there’s nothing terribly wrong with killing people – the world could be better off without so many people, in his mind. He asks for no quarter and gives none. He’s a compelling character in a world strewn with anti-heroes because he is so philosophical – he has thought quite a bit about his life and his beliefs, so we almost think he has a point. It’s so amoral that we shouldn’t be fascinated by the killer, but we are. He lives his life by these beliefs, and so when his façade cracks just a little, as it does at the end, it’s more effective. When a creator writes an anti-hero, he has to make the character’s moral (or amoral) code believable. Matz does this very well. As the killer moves throughout this comic, his life comes into more focus and his philosophy comes through even more. It takes a great deal for him to move, even a little, from this philosophy. That’s what nice about this comic – in lesser works, the anti-hero would have a complete change of heart. But the killer doesn’t, he just modifies his philosophy enough to make him a bit more human. It’s an interesting journey that Matz takes him on, because we don’t expect it. We expect him to have some sort of epiphany and become a better person, or we expect him to remain the hardened assassin, with no character development at all. What Matz does with him is more subtle and far more interesting – the killer remains the same, but he becomes aware that maybe, just maybe, he needs to think a bit more deeply about his ideas. This doesn’t happen easily, and it’s impressive that Matz is able to pull it off in what is essentially a comic about men killing each other.
The plot is interesting, too, because it doesn’t rely on twists or misdirection, but it’s still complex. After the first issue-and-a-half, in which the killer reflects on his life while waiting for the target, the plot kicks into high gear. He reaches a crucial point in his reflections and then moves on, giving us yet another tidbit on how he lives his life. His reflections make him suicidal, which belies the fact that he tells us that he’s basically amoral. He obviously has a conscience, and while his journey down the rabbit hole is a bit fast, it’s interesting that he doesn’t really believe he has a choice in the matter – it’s chance that he continues to live. This is the only moment where we see him relying on randomness, and it sets the stage for his “spiritual” journey. But once he moves past that, we get the plot. He kills his target, but in the process, things go a bit sideways, and he’s spotted by a policeman. The story becomes a cat-and-mouse game – not between the killer and the cop, who is just part of the entire set-up, but between the killer and everyone else who is after him. He becomes involved with a Colombian drug cartel, the head of which believes the killer owes him some work because the first target was somehow tied to them (I won’t ruin it). The killer and one of the cartel’s high-ranking soldiers, Mariano, go on some jobs, with the killer teaching Mariano some tricks of his trade. Eventually, he begins to track down the people who want to kill him and why they do. As I wrote, it’s not tricky, but it is complex. One event leads to another quite organically, drawing the killer further and further in. We think he finds the bad guy early on, but then he realizes that there’s another, higher level to the plot against him. He thinks the Colombians might be after him, but they have their own motives. When the bad guys destroy his house and beat up his girlfriend (who is also unnamed), he flees Venezuela and heads to one of his apartments in France, where he can track the bad guys better. It’s here he meets Antoine and becomes friendly with him, which becomes complicated when he finds out that Antoine is a cop. Every event either reveals part of the plot against him, builds another wall he has to scale, or strips away a bit of his tough-guy exterior. Again, Matz doesn’t rely on shocking revelations (the grand scheme is rather pedestrian), he simply shows a man moving through life, figuring things out based on his life experiences (and a little violence) and doing something about it. He lets absolutely nothing get in his way. The only person he allows to live is a small child in issue #2, but he has no compunction about killing women if it suits his needs. At the end, he needs to make a choice about what’s important to him, and Matz has done a nice job reaching that point, so when he makes the choice, it feels quite natural. Has the killer changed that much? Not really, but perhaps he’ll learn to ask more questions about his targets in the future.
Part of the fantastic feel of the comic is Jacamon’s art, which is stellar. It’s astonishingly intricate, as Jacamon creates a verisimilitude in both the characters and the settings. The characters are interesting because they look real. The killer himself looks a bit dorky, with his thinning widow’s peak, his bushy eyebrows, and his cheesy moustache (which he does shave in the middle of the book, but he’s still dorky). Jacamon (and Matz, to be sure, but a lot of it has to do with the art) manages to make him a bad-ass, though, despite his appearance. Jacamon gives him a cool demeanor and even grace, and his body language lets us know he is not a man with whom you want to fuck. When he does lose it, it feels far more dangerous, because Jacamon’s portraits of his violent outbursts are so out of character. We see this throughout, and the final time, in issue #8, it’s even more horrible. He’s been taken to the men who burned down his house and beat up (and possibly raped) his lover, and he goes absolutely nuts on them. We know it’s coming and we aren’t even shocked, because we’ve seen it from him before, but it’s still disturbing. It’s a wonderful contrast with the way Jacamon draws him. The other characters are drawn very well, too. Mariano and Antoine look like regular men, and while the women are beautiful, they aren’t unrealistic. The killer’s lover is a lovely young lady, but when she gets beat up, she actually looks beat up, and we feel worse for her and we feel that the killer’s reaction is justified. The bruises and cuts on her look like they hurt, so when she and the killer make love, we feel the tenderness between them even more, because they both need to be careful but want each other so much. Jacamon does a marvelous job breaking panel borders when the action gets crazy and frenetic, which does a nice job speeding up the book when it needs to be sped up. His details of the cityscapes and the Venezuelan jungles are amazing, and each panel places the characters in a specific place. Not a lot looks aided by computers, which is even more impressive. In some of the scenes, it appears that he scanned in photographs, then painted them (it appears to be the same kind of thing Bryan Talbot did in Alice in Sunderland, if anyone owns that), which helps make it look less “computerized.” Jacamon’s colors are magnificent, too – he uses bright greens and blues in the Venezuela scenes, more muted colors in the urban scenes, and other nice choices, such as the cool blues in a night club when Mariano seduces an important woman in their quest. This book is also very casual about nudity, which is refreshing. American comics have become less skeevy about showing nudity, but European comics still have a leg up on them. Jacamon enjoys drawing attractive women, but they also look like people who actually exist. In one scene, the killer’s lover lies on a bed, and her breasts aren’t standing straight up, they’re falling to the side. It might not be flattering, but it is real. The sex scenes are also nicely done, with nothing looking too silly – nobody is involved in crazy gymnastics like you often see in movies. There’s a final trick that Jacamon does, and it’s difficult to describe. It appears he cuts strips out of the panels and moves the strips slightly down so that it jars the flow of the panel slightly. He does this in crucial situations, like in issue #2 when the killer feels like he’s going crazy. I don’t describe it well, so let’s check it out:
This is a beautiful book, and adds greatly to the menacing world in which the killer lives. Matz does a great job making the characters sound real, and Jacamon does a great job making the world real.
The first part of The Killer has been released in a hardcover trade, and the second part is due this month (I just received it in the mail, so it might be out this week, for all I know). I don’t know if Archaia has plans to bring out all ten issues in one giant trade, but we’ll see. The sequel is due soon, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the creators will top this series. And be sure to give a look at the Comics You Should Own archives, which will one day be complete! So swear I!
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