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Syndrome is a nifty graphic novel, published, as I wrote, by Archaia. It’s created by Blake Leibel (there’s that “creator” credit again), written by Daniel Quantz and R. J. Ryan, drawn by David Marquez, colored by Bill Farmer, and lettered by Dave Lanphear. It costs $19.95 and is 111 pages long, although a few pages at the back are reserved for Marquez writing about his method. And it has a creepy doll with an exposed brain on the cover!
Syndrome is a keen graphic novel that falters at the end, which is unfortunate.
It’s a rather interesting examination of the nature of evil, and Quantz and Ryan do a good job showing all sorts of evil without being too obvious about it. The plot is easy to summarize: At the very beginning, a psychopath is executed … or is he? A doctor, Wolfe Chitel (the dust jacket calls him Wolfe Brunswick, but he identifies himself within the text as Wolfe Chitel), manages to fake his execution and spirit him away to a remote location in the Nevada desert. Why? Well, we don’t know right away, as the story then focuses on an actor, Karen Oats, who has had many minor roles until she’s found by a producer, Alexei Conta, who casts her in a big role … in the Nevada desert. She’s told that she’s in a research project, and she always has to stay in character. She meets the killer, Thomas Kane, who hunts her down one night and tries to kill her before collapsing, unconscious. She gets to meet the doctor, who tells her that he is trying to “cure” Kane’s “evil” disease. So there’s your plot.
The writers do a nice job with the way the book is structured. They begin with Kane’s “execution” as a prologue, then tell us Karen’s story, then go back and look at Conta creating an entire town in the desert, with his obsessive attention to detail. They don’t even show us how he got into the project, keeping that until they show Dr. Chitel putting it together in a later chapter. The doctor himself gets the idea when he defends a young man in court, claiming he’s no longer sociopathic, and then the kid goes out and slaughters a woman. The doctor starts looking at the brain and discovers that the unconscious mind makes a decision before the conscious mind does, and he begins to think he can create a drug that promotes empathy, but he needs to track the brain patterns of sociopaths to discover what’s lighting up.
Dr. Chitel appeals to Conta’s ego by saying he can create a world from the ground up, and Conta takes the bait. We also see the evolution of Thomas Kane from young, impulsive killer to more refined murderer, leading up to his fake execution. It’s a nice way to structure the comic, and it keeps the narrative moving, giving us glimpses of each character and their motivations.
Marquez doesn’t really have an idiosyncratic style – his art works, but it’s very straight-forward without much innovation. He tells the story well, and Farmer’s bright coloring style nicely contrasts with the darker tone of the book. It’s not really a horror comic, but the fact that Thomas Kane is lurking around and being menacing adds some horror to it, and the art does a nice job keeping us out of our comfort zone with regard to the tone. When things go horrible, it’s in a very bright and shiny misc-en-scene, which highlights the horror even more. It’s not great art, but it gets the job done. (He’s currently drawing Days Missing, so if you want to check out his art, flip through an issue!)
Where the book falls apart is in the ending, and I don’t really want to spoil it, but I will say that Quantz and Ryan don’t go far enough. They pull back at the last moment and the story becomes rather predictable and boring, robbing the final image of whatever power it might have. The reason it doesn’t fail totally is because a lot of the book isn’t about the overall narrative. As they examine the overt evil of Thomas Kane, Quantz and Ryan also examine the more “benign” evil of the other characters. How much of a monster is Dr. Chitel for playing God? How much of a monster is Conta, who toys with people to create these amazing worlds for the movies?
Even Karen, who is the “innocent” in the book, has some dark shadows in her soul. It’s well done, because Dr. Chitel is presented as trying to do the right thing, but his methods and his way of thinking show us that he might be just as evil as Kane is. Conta doesn’t get a chance to do evil things, but his entire personality is presented as egomaniacal and borderline sociopathic, and we can’t help but draw parallels between his behavior and Kane’s, and why he turned out “okay” – the writers do a nice job implying that with a few twists and turns, Conta could have easily been Kane and vice versa. It mitigates the botched ending a bit because Quantz and Ryan don’t push these similarities, just allow it to come out through the actions and words of the characters. I always appreciate when the writers don’t push their themes, and Quantz and Ryan do a nice job with that.
Syndrome is an interesting comic that could have been great. It has a nice, unusual hook, decent art, and delves into some dark corners of the human psyche without being too grim. Ryan and Quantz don’t let the book become too horrific, which makes the few terrible moments all the more shocking. I always like that Archaia is doing original graphic novels, too – I wish they would do more!
Tomorrow: Bill Reed’s favoritest character? Could it be true?
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