A review a day: The Bronx Kill
Peter Milligan seems like an odd person to write something like this, but then you look a little more closely …
The latest in Vertigo’s crime series of graphic novels is The Bronx Kill (okay, others have been released since it was, so it’s not the latest anymore, but work with me, people!), written by Peter Milligan and drawn by James Romberger. DC is retailing this for $19.99. I’m sure you can find it cheaper, though, you bargain-hunting scamps!
Peter Milligan is a chameleonic writer, which might be why he’s never gotten the following of some of his British Invasion peers – it’s very difficult to pin him down, and it becomes difficult to describe him to those who haven’t read anything by him. After 20 years writing American comics, he continues to come up with some interesting and, importantly, different comics, so that he remains as difficult to pin down as ever. The Bronx Kill is part of a recent (or should I say renewed, given that he wrote Skreemer over two decades ago) interest in crime books (see: Greek Street), and the only thing “typical” we can say about it is that Milligan keeps us guessing. Has a horrible crime been committed? Did the sympathetic main character commit the crime? And how does the main character’s family secret impact his present life? Oh, it’s all very duplicitous!
Milligan doesn’t rely on much trickery to tell his tale, instead going for the tried-and-true method of an innocent (perhaps) man caught up in things he doesn’t understand, and as he unravels the mystery, we simply follow along. Martin Keane, a young New York writer, comes from a family of cops. He turned his back on that career, however, much to his father’s chagrin. Martin is married to a nice young lady, Erin, but his second novel has failed to ignite the literary world like his first did. He decides to write a historical thriller that is loosely based on his family’s history, so he goes to Ireland for research. The day after he returns, his wife disappears. That’s never good.
Martin begins searching for her, but he’s also a suspect in the disappearance, naturally. He continues to write, almost pathologically, and he also starts digging into his family’s past, something Erin was curious about but Martin never wanted to know. His great-grandfather was killed at the Bronx Kill (which looks like a charming place, by the way), where he went without his partner, something Martin finds odd. Erin, meanwhile, thinks she looks a bit like Martin’s grandmother, a woman who abandoned her son (Martin’s father) when he was a baby. So many mysteries!
Milligan unspools the story carefully, making sure that he doesn’t hide information unnecessarily and we discover it as Martin does. It’s a tense drama because Martin, we’re fairly sure, has no idea what’s going on (even if the cops think he does), so there’s a real sense of horror as he slowly uncovers the mystery. Milligan, who has always been interested in identity, fiddles a bit with that here, as he wonders how much of a person is formed by things beyond their control – their family, for instance. Martin wants to escape his past, but he finds that more and more difficult. Meanwhile, Milligan writes a nice marriage between Martin and Erin (before she disappears, that is) – it’s real, not perfect, and some of Martin’s shortcomings color the way the story unfolds. The story itself isn’t complicated, and it allows Milligan to examine the idea of the way fate traps us. The resolution of the story shades toward coincidence a bit too much, but it’s interesting how Milligan brings us to that point – it’s not forced, so we accept the coincidence a bit more.
Romberger is an unusual artist, because I don’t love his art in this book, but there are also places where he does very nice stuff. I looked at his web site briefly, and it seems this would have benefitted from coloring – his rough art is a bit too sketchy in places, and coloring probably would have helped. He tells the story well, though, and the fact that this is supposed to take place in gritty parts of New York fits his style well. It’s difficult to describe the art, because some panels and pages are beautiful (in a gritty, twisted sort of way), while others are downright ugly. You can check out the art in this post, though, because I’ve tried to provide a good cross-section of it.
The Bronx Kill is a more thoughtful crime comic than we might expect, because Milligan is far less concerned with the actual committing of crimes and more with the way the impact spirals through time to claim other victims. He’s also very good at blurring the line between victim and criminal – is Martin completely innocent? Is Erin? Milligan’s characters have always navigated a moral gray world, where guilt and innocence is hard to pin down, because the people are often caught up in forces beyond their control. Despite the coincidences in this book, it’s another solid read in the Milligan tradition, and so far the best of the Vertigo crime novels.