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A review a day: The Executor

Here’s a new one of them there Vertigo crime novels that has an interesting hook and then goes lots of nifty ways with it. That’s always cool to see!

See, that's just mean, doing that to his yearbook photo like that!

Boy, I’ve been reading a lot of these Vertigo crime novels, haven’t I? Well, they either have talent I really like (Peter Milligan, Chris Samnee) or really interesting premises (pretty much all the ones I’ve bought, but on some – like this one – I don’t know much about the talent, so the hook is all there is). The latest, The Executor, is written by Jon Evans and drawn by Andrea Mutti, with old pro Clem Robins lettering the whole danged thing. As always with these bad bears, it costs $19.99. And as with the best of this series, it’s quite good.

Like many good crime comics, it starts with a murder. A young woman is running through the woods, and two men bash her, put her in a car that is crashed into a tree, and set it on fire – obviously to make it look like an accident. Then we switch to a city, where a man named Joe Ullen gets a phone call about the dead woman – he’s been named executor of her will and has to return to Elora, the small town in upstate New York where he grew up. She was his girlfriend in high school, so before he leaves, we get some tantalizing panels of flashbacks showing curious stuff from their past – well, the two of them in bed isn’t curious, but the panel of her in her underwear burning something is. Oooh, it’s a mystery!

We learn quickly that Joe was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings (they’re a hockey team, in case you don’t know), had his career cut short by a knee injury, and hasn’t been back to town for fifteen years. We also learn that Miriam – the dead woman – had a boyfriend who’s a Mohawk Indian, and she had gotten involved in “that land-claim nonsense,” as one character puts it. Immediately our ears prick up – surely this is going to be some story about corrupt white men trying to shaft the Indians out of some land and Miriam got in the way, right? I mean, he sees the sheriff and his daughter at the funeral and later speaks to the daughter – Naomi – alone, and Naomi seems like a typical white woman – she calls the Indians “lazy, crooked bastards” who try to get custody of their own children over the wishes of their white mothers. Joe has to deliver pieces of Miriam’s estate to various people, which is how we get introduced to some of the principals in the story – the tribal chief, the boyfriend, and the rich Indian woman. This woman, Dia, even gets angry at Joe when he asks if Irkar – Miriam’s boyfriend – was ever violent toward her, not because he’s not full of rage, but because she refuses to allow Joe to “blame the Injun.” Joe starts to feel like there’s a lot more to Miriam’s death than just an accident. Of course, we already know there is – the book wouldn’t exist if it was just an accident – but Evans does a nice job slowly turning over clues.

Evans is too good to allow the book to devolve into an “evil white man” versus “noble Indian” cliché. Instead he gives us interesting characters who refuse to be pinned down. Dia, for instance, is a smuggler who got rich because the tribal land touches Canada so she can move stuff across the border. She’s also intensely interested in finding out exactly what happened to her brother, who was in Joe’s class in high school and was killed back then. Naomi, who seems like a garden-variety racist, has compelling reasons for hating the Indians. Even as Joe uncovers more about Miriam’s death and seems to discover why she died, Evans shows us that he too has secrets that drive him. About halfway through the book we get some shocking revelations, and then everyone in the book has to deal with the fallout. It’s interesting because Evans ties various seemingly random events together, but he manages to surprise us, even though we’re used to everything in fiction tying together. There are certainly “bad guys” in the book, but they’re not the only ones committing crimes and they’re not the only reason bad things happen. It makes the book far more gripping than we might expect, because while we’re trying to figure out who the “bad guys” are, Evans keeps pointing out that just because someone is a “good guy,” that doesn’t mean good people don’t do horrible things.

The way Evans incorporates the Mohawks into the story is interesting as well. When Joe first enters the reservation, we see that someone has crossed out the “official” name of the land and scrawled “Mohawk” on it – we think these are simply going to be angry Indians demanding land concessions from the government. But Evans isn’t interested in that – instead he shows how the Natives are incorporated into the life of the town, even as many on both sides want to remain separate. They interact, both positively and negatively, and Evans doesn’t allow either side to become stereotypical. The reservation is an unpleasant place for many of them, but Irkar, for instance, doesn’t turn to violence against Miriam to express his frustration, and while Dia lives in a nice mansion on the rez, she is a vital part of the community as well. Evans writes good characters, and the fact that they’re Indian or white is simply a part of their entire makeup.

Mutti’s art is solid if unspectacular. Continuing with Evans’ treatment of the Natives, Mutti doesn’t go with a stereotypical “Indian” look for the characters. Irkar actually has a mohawk, but the sheriff points out that he just got it cut a week earlier. All the characters look appropriate for their social standing – Dia dresses well because she’s rich, but she’s not ostentatious. There are some typically “Indian” accoutrements on the rez, but interestingly enough, others are at Miriam’s place – it’s obvious from Evans’ script and Mutti’s art that she had “gone native,” or at least was interested in all things Indian. Mutti does a good job contrasting the squalor of Elora – which isn’t a bad place, just gone to seed a bit – with the squalor of the reservation, which is different because it never had a heyday, and he also has a good sense of the wilderness around Elora, where some important events occur. We’re really immersed in the scenery, which is partly why Evans’ script works so well.

I realize I didn’t get too much into the plot, because it’s so much fun (well, “fun” is a relative concept, I suppose, because it’s a tragic book) getting to the bottom of things. Everything works perfectly well, but this is definitely one of those book where nothing is as it seems. Following Joe around town, we not only get a fine mystery that has plenty of metaphorical punches to the gut, but we also get a nice portrait of small-town life and America’s uneasy relationship with its conquered people. It’s pretty cool that in a crime novel, Evans gives us a bit of sociology too. Even if you ignore the tense relationship between the whites and the Natives, the mystery keeps ratcheting up the tension, and it makes The Executor quite a good read. Man, this line of Vertigo crime novels, after a slow start, has really gotten a lot better. Check out their latest triumph!

Tomorrow: Is that Ben Templesmith? Well, no, but might it be better?

5 Comments

Evans might stay away from the “evil whiteman” cliché but it seems like he uses another tired one in his protagonist being someone who has returned to the reservation to uncover some sort of plot. Isn’t that also the basic premise of Scalped?

I always mean to read these new vertigo digest style hardbacks. One of these days.

I wouldn’t say that, exactly. It’s more of a “can’t go home again” kind of thing. Joe isn’t an Indian, and he’s not sent to the reservation to uncover a plot, like Dashiell is. It just happens that strange things are going on, both on the reservation and the town itself.

funkmasterdre

June 14, 2010 at 2:18 pm

Greg-

Thanks for clarifying. Guess the fact that both the Executor and Scalped take place on a rez is where the similarities end. The fact that I assumed differently must just be a case of me being an evil white man :)

Another thing to love about Vertigo Crime? They look GREAT on the shelf. :P

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