Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Suiciders 1, originally released February 25th, 2015.
Patrick: I usually resist pulling in creator’s comments about their own material when discussing a comic book — especially a first issue. But I’ve heard Lee Bermejo pitch this series twice now, once at NYCC in 2013 and again at C2E2 in 2014. Both times, he lead with a joke about the premise: “It takes place in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles… which is to say: Los Angeles.” It’s a good line, and far be it for me call someone out for re-using a clever turn of phrase. What interests me about his repeated use of the joke is that there’s really no point in any post-apocalyptic storytelling unless it can tell us about life in the pre-apocalypse. In a manner reflecting his detail-heavy drawing style, Bermejo writes about many specific societal ills that plagues LA, blowing everything out to grotesque proportions. The remarkable thing — and the thing that makes me most uneasy as a reader and resident of the City of Angels — is just how recognizable it all is.
Let’s start with the gladiators from which the series borrows its title: what the fuck is a Suicider anyway? In a literal sense, they’re the athletes/warriors/entertainers that fight each other to the death in a giant arena for the amusement of the masses. It’s a little bit like Hunger Games, only without being so precious or quirkily twisted as to cast children in the roles of the combatants. I hesitate to call Saint our hero, but he’s sort of our main entré into this world. He’s a man that handles his duties in the arena, and his ensuing celebrity, well. He’s evidently charming and quick enough that he can disarm the reporter that’s there to interview him pre-fight, even if his gatekeepers just had her worked up into whirlwind of frustration. He’s a high-functioning cog in this machine, and his dominance in the ring is never, never, never in doubt.
Bermejo loves to show this guy absolutely trouncing his competition. Even when he gives the bad guy a cool, muscular design (and a bitchin’ name), there’s just no way anybody but Saint is going to make a mark on any of these pages. Here’s a sample from their brawl.
Reaper can only really dodge, relegated to small defensive drawings on a page dominated by Saint’s non-stop aggression. Look at the guy! Leap! Attack! Leap! Attack! Even the close up on his foot in the final panel celebrates his agency and ability. The color commentary tells the same story, declaring this particular match “art.”
What I find so troubling about Saint’s uber-confidence is that he’s also well aware of how representative he is of the general oppression in New Angeles. All the stuff surrounding the Suiciders may explicitly be about celebrity and the brutality of living the life of a celebrity, but the competition bears all the rest of the cultural baggage that Bermejo explores in this issue. We meet a family trying to immigrate to the west side of the wall, and every indicator casts them as Mexicans crossing the border into the united states. They’re speaking Spanish, they’re forced to abandon their valuables, they’re concerned with how to assimilate, etc. The Saint, Suicidering in general, and the whole class disparity of Suiciders is all built on the same infrastructure.
The material is pretty grim, and Barjemo doesn’t lend a whole lot of subtlety to his criticisms, but some of the points he’s making are so desperately in need of being made, I’m not sure that the message suffers any for it. That poor couple just trying to make a break for the more prosperous side of time is berated, told they’re going to die, and finally gunned down in a dispassionate hail of bullets.
And there’s that copy — an almost comically evil “Welcome to New Angeles.” Bermejo’s not writing this thing with a scalpel, he’s writing it with a sledgehammer.
I think that kind of bluntness might be a little more in line with the artwork if colorist Matt Hollingsworth let the high contrast nature of Bermejo’s art show through the coloring. That early splash page of the city is breath-taking in its detail, but I can’t help but feel that the hard edges are softened by Hollingsworth’s painterly approach to filling in the evening sky.
Drew, we’ve been talking a lot about grim but assured statements of darkness this week, so let’s keep the ball rolling here. Black Hood might be pulling its darkness from a less obvious place, but any series is going to be hard-pressed to match the tone of this thing. So, let’s have that be the question I pose to you: how do you feel about spending time in a world this dark? It’s not exactly inviting, and I’m not sure we can look to the characters for much support getting through it. Actually, that’ll be my follow-up prompt question: are you interested by the small character mysteries planted in this issue? Why is Saint praying over a photograph on the first page? Why does our nameless border-crossing-guide ready his weapon for a moment before slipping away unseen?
Drew: I think the second one is pretty clear — he considered, however briefly, about coming to the aid of his clients — but I’m still not sure what, exactly, we’re supposed to make of it. Are we getting a glimpse of his morals because he wanted to step in, or the lack thereof because he didn’t? Bermejo plays that beat with as much ambiguity as it can possibly bear, and I think that’s to the scene’s benefit. In an issue that is otherwise full of exaggerated situations and characters, that subtlety is not only refreshing, but stands out as a rare moment of actual intrigue. The same could be said of that picture we see the Saint holding at the start of the issue, though I’m not sure we really have enough information to start hypothesizing what it might be.
Patrick, I think you’ve won me over on the charms of the rest of the issue’s bigness, though I have to admit that I originally felt it was kind of clunky. Dystopian futures built around gladiatorial games is an oddly common premise, but not one celebrated for its subtlety. The Hunger Games has the excuse of being geared towards a teen audience, so playing up the sense of powerlessness and persecution — however absurd — at least has a logical explanation. Those aren’t quite the themes Suiciders is dealing with — so far as we know, all of the fighters are there voluntarily, and otherwise hold a celebrity status in New Angeles — but still, the thought of a sport being so at the center of a society (let alone a blood sport) is a hard pill to swallow.
Maybe I’m underestimating the import of sports in our society, but Bermejo drops enough hints about how the city basically shuts down for games, more so than even the Super Bowl can muster in the present-day.
Or maybe part of my incredulity hinges on the fact that the event that created this dystopia — a massive earthquake 30 years ago — was entirely localized. I, too, have heard Bermajo’s pitch for this a couple times, so while I understand that the US just straight up refused to help in the wake of the earthquake, there’s straight-up no way they (or the rest of the world) would allow for a sport where the express mission was to kill someone. Again, that kind of hand-waving about the outside world is excusable when appealing to myopic teens, oblivious to the context of, you know, actual oppression, but feels a bit more puerile when applied to adults. I can maybe believe that the city accepts the violence of the games (which still seems like a shade too cynical, even for me), but why would the rest of the world? And, if they objected to it, couldn’t they levy sanctions against the apparently sovereign city-state of New Angeles? I mean, New Angeles must be trading with someone, right? Unless they’re somehow producing all of their own food, energy, and raw materials right there in downtown L.A.
BUT, the more I think about it, the more comfortable I am with focusing on the symbolic importance of the games. Why should YA Novels be the only ones entitled to extended allegories? It’s a simplification of the world, for sure, but that isn’t a sin in and of itself. The premise may not strike me as the most effective critique of modern society, but it really doesn’t have to be — it’s just the springboard for the story, where Bermejo has already hinted at more nuanced characters and situations.
So I think this is another case of me being too hard on a first issue. We haven’t seen all of what Bermejo can do — heck, we haven’t seen enough to even guess what he might do — but there are enough glimpses of something smart here to warrant a second look.
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Oh, man, I can’t believe I didn’t respond to your point on Hollingsworth’s colors. I totally disagree — I think the transparent washes Wilson uses throughout are really the only way to color a greytone-heavy style like Bermejo. Moreover, the orangey glow of that sunset is classic LA — I don’t care what your story is about, if your story is set in LA and it doesn’t feature a hazy orange sunset at some point, you’re doing it wrong. Noir stories tend to use that beauty to contrast the blackness at the heart of the story, and while that could be what Bermejo is doing, I think we’ll need to spend a little more time in New Angeles to know for sure. At any rate, I don’t think Hollingsworth made a single bad move here.