Today, Michael and Drew are discussing Savage Things 1, originally released March 1st, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: I live in Chicago, a town that is full of excellent restaurants. If you run a restaurant that doesn’t distinguish itself from the rest, you’re not likely to last long in such a competitive market. In this sense I like my storytelling similar to my restaurants: there’s gotta be something unique and original about it or you’ll probably lose my interest. Unfortunately, Savage Things doesn’t seem to be my kind of restaurant.
Savage Things 1 opens with a boy in a field engaging in a little bit of pyromania. He returns home to find that his parents have been murdered by a man named Mr. Proctor, who offers the boy a job. The boy is recruited into “Project Black Forest” and given the designation “Abel.” Black Forest is a secret operation within the American government that turns children sociopaths into weapons. In the present day, it seems that Black Forest has been long disbanded and its masters Bob and Marty have retired to civilian life. That is until one of their former pupils kills 40 people and they have to bring Abel back in to stop him.
Savage Things writer Justin Jordan calls the mini-series a blend of spy thrillers and horror, likening it to The Bourne Identity mixed with grindhouse gore. Are those two genres that need to be blended together? Debatable. There certainly is a Bourne-ish vibe to this: trained human weapon takes delayed revenge on decommissioned black ops program that trained him etc. The problem is that it feels like it’s all been done before. You’ve got one sociopathic Jason Bourne spy-hunting the other…anything else?
I did like Jordan and Ibrahim Moustafa’s introduction of Abel, however. He enters his home to find that his murdered parents and his first reaction is not one of emotion but of curiosity. Because the way his brain is wired, he doesn’t feel the sadness of his parents’ death but he does feel the need to enact in murderous vengeance on their behalf. Which is why Bob Proctor wants him to join their little team.
Maybe it’s because I have been overexposed to the likes of Hannibal, Dexter and the like, but I’m kind of exhausted with the idea of sociopathy as a villain. I wonder if some day in the future we will look back on our treatment of the subject in pop culture and cringe. We treat a whole set of human beings as demons because of a mental illness. Maybe Jordan is anticipating that kind of reaction — making the government the real villain for preying upon those individuals?
Savage Things 1 intends to be a blend of genres but it ends up being a blend of those genres’ tired tropes. Being a Vertigo title, it has whiffs of similar past titles from creators like Mark Millar, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon. Moustafa crafts a few gruesome pictures of severed heads, split rib cages and de-limbed torsos, but that’s the extent of the gore in this issue. I suppose I should be thankful that the book didn’t feel the need to be overly-gruesome right out of the gate, but that’s typically how these types of stories indicate just how bad the bad guy is.
Savage Things 1 is not a bad comic book — its premise, artwork and goals are all easily understood. I think, however, it’s just not a book for me. I liked the early scenes of young Abel being introduced to Black Forest, highlighting the ferocity needed to survive there, but the present day narrative kind of dragged for me. I can very clearly see how this mini-series is going to pan out and I’m not all that interested.
Drew did you find anything of value here? Am I being too preachy about the clichéd nature of Savage Things? Am I the sociopath here?
Drew: Boy, Michael, I’m so used to being the one criticizing a first issue for being too familiar and generic, it’s a fun change of pace to read it in somebody else’s words. I’m inclined to agree with most of your critiques, but I’m also inclined to think there’s something a little more interesting going on here than pure regurgitation.
My biggest gripe is usually an overreliance on tropes, but it can sometimes be difficult to separate tropes from archetypes or even genre. That is, sure, “sociopath works on the right side of the law” or “serial killer-hunting serial killer” or even “the school for young assassins” have all been done before, but so has “scrappy young lawyer” or “police procedural” — familiarity isn’t in and of itself a sin. I probably wouldn’t argue that Dexter is a genre unto itself, but I might for the Bourne movies.
And I think that’s where this issue distinguished itself a bit. What made the chase scene with Abel wasn’t just that he had Bourne-level skills at evading capture, but that he excecuted it rather specifically with a clinical disinterest in whether his pursuers live or die. That is, this issue can really dig into the calculus that a Bourne or a Bond couldn’t get into without coming off as monsters.
Abel doesn’t keep Richards alive because he didn’t need to kill him, or because he abhors death, but because leaving him alive gave Abel a strategic advantage. Abel doesn’t care if Richards dies, but he also knows that Richard’s people do — he’s using their empathy and compassion against them. It’s only a glimmer of what makes Abel unique from the countless Bourne-copies that have sprung up over the past decade, but I think it’s enough to distinguish him. If Jordan can develop that, I think we really could have a character and situation unique from any we’ve seen before.
That said, there is definitely a frustrating lack of specificity elsewhere in the issue. While our first establishing shot gives us text orienting us in 1991, each subsequent scene change features increasingly less specific information, informing us that a scene is taking place “now” or “25 years ago” before that orienting text disappears completely for the final time jump to presumably the present day. Why introduce an element like that with a specific style if it won’t be used consistently?
I’m very fond of Moustafa’s art in this issue, but even that wasn’t exempt from some lack of specificity. When we first jump to the present day, and see an ominously smiling dude observing the fallout at the hotel, I kind of assumed it was Bob — we’d just been introduced to him as the dude who killed Abel’s parents in cold blood, so is immediately who I thought of when other dead bodies show up. Moreover, when we see Bob again, later in the issue, he’s smoking a cigarette, just as this dude is:
I’m reasonably confident (but still not 100% sure) that this guy isn’t Bob, but the confusion was more than enough to bring the issue to a screeching halt. I’m not sure which design choices are essential here (maybe this guy is actually Cain from that second flashback), but it sure seems like Moustafa could have done more to distinguish this guy from the only other white dude we’d seen in the story through that point.
All of which is to say, Michael, that I’m definitely with you on this issue having some serious problems, but I actually think it does enough to distinguish itself from its inspirations. The execution may be lacking, but there’s something to this premise that can’t be so easily dismissed. I think I’m in for at least one more issue.
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