This book answers the age-old question: Can you do anything worthwhile with a hoary cliché as your central plot?
Okay, The Homeland Directive doesn’t really answer that question, because everyone already knows the answer: It depends on the creator and what he or she does with it. I mean, there aren’t all that many plots floating around (seven, according to some), so it really all depends on what quirks we get out of them. In the case of The Homeland Directive (which is published by Top Shelf and costs $14.95), a great deal of its success can be attributed to its writer, Robert Venditti, and its artist, Mike Huddleston (with Sean Konot along to letter).
These two gentlemen take a fairly conventional plot and fire it with interesting dialogue and paths down which the plot can wander, plus dazzling artwork that elevates it even further. Even if you are surprised by exactly nothing in The Homeland Directive, it’s still a strong comic.
Venditti is best known in comics circles for The Surrogates, a tremendous science fiction comic with Brett Weldele that was turned into a passable movie with maddening hints of greatness that never came to fruition (but it featured Rosamund Pike, so I can’t stay made at it). Huddleston is currently drawing the crap out of Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker, and it’s that style of art (reined in quite a bit, of course, as the story demands it) that he uses in this book. So this has two guys working at the top of their games, and it shows. The plot is fairly standard: In order to make the United States more prepared for a terrorist attack, the head of Homeland Security decides to release a virus into the population to scare the crap out of the president. Yes, it’s a stale conspiracy plot, with Homeland Security trying to tie up loose ends while making sure they can kill the virus when the time comes, but if you like thrillers, this hums along nicely. Where Venditti makes it interesting is, as always, in the details.
The protagonist is Dr. Laura Regan, a top bacteriologist who works for the CDC. When Secretary Keene decides to unleash his virus, he has agents kill everyone who knows about it or could figure it out, and Regan is the only one who survives. She survives because three men come to her aid – Nathan the FBI guy, Gene the Secret Service guy, and Ted the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy guy (I’ll explain him later). They have to keep one step ahead of the assassins gunning for Laura and try to figure out what’s going on. Luckily, right before she was about to be killed, Laura spoke to a doctor in New York who was confronted with some strange cases of infection. When she starts putting pieces together, she remembers that conversation and is able to get some good information about the viurs. Of course, she has to survive first. The book is a cat-and-mouse game, for the most part, but Venditti does a nice job building the tension and making how the government tracks Laura plausible.
The book reminded me a little of Enemy of the State, except that Venditti’s guys don’t use satellites. They do, however, use the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy, which is supposed to deal with complaints about bad businesses and the like. Ted explains to Laura that that’s a very small part of their job, and the rest is building profiles on everyone based on what they buy, where they buy it, and how they buy it. BOCA is a fictitious agency (based on the Bureau of Consumer Protection, presumably), but Venditti makes it very convincing that this is something they could do, so the way the government tracks Laura is perfectly plausible. Venditti also does a nice job showing that the government can be both highly efficient and horribly inept, often at the same time, which is a nice touch (and Laura speaks for the reader when she says skeptically, “Our government has a plan for everything” – it’s not a question, but Venditti lets us know that she can’t believe it). The three men who help her – they’re disgruntled government employees who don’t think killing American citizens is the right way to form policy – are interesting, too, as they explain how the government tracks Laura and what she can do to stay off the grid. While the ending of the book is, unfortunately, a bit anticlimactic, Venditti gets us there with a lot of nifty ideas, some nice wit, and plausible and exciting scenarios. When you’re dealing with a thriller, that’s all you can ask for, really.
Huddleston’s art is fantastic, unsurprisingly. It’s not as batshit insane as it is on Butcher Baker, but that’s because the tone of the book is different. When he needs to be more frenetic, as when our heroes are being chased by the assassins toward the end of the book, he’s sketchier and looser, with more jagged edges and dynamic pacing. While his pencil work is stellar as always, his coloring, which is good on Butcher Baker, is phenomenal here. He colors each scene differently, highlighting the surroundings in which they occur or just the mood of the scene itself. So we get drab grays when bureaucrats are discussing policy in the White House, a washed-out blue in the hospital when the doctor Laura knows first confronts the infection, and a pulsing array of lights when Laura is at the party where she is approached by a bad guy.
When the violence ramps up, Huddleston brings out the darker reds and browns, highlighting the bloodiness, and when we check in with BOCA, he drains the color from the room except for the sickly hues he uses for the computer screens, which is a good way to show the facelessness of bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, when he shows the way the virus spreads (I won’t give it away, but Venditti does drop in pages every so often showing it happen), the colors are bright and as “normal” as it gets, perhaps indicating that life is going on all around these people even though they’re going to get sick very soon. Huddleston also does a nice job dropping in photographs of buildings (including the White House) so that they fit into the scene even though they’re almost painfully artificial – it’s as if Huddleston is embracing the weirdness of photo-referencing without trying to hide it, as some artists do. He does it fairly sparingly and only with some buildings and some trees, so it’s an odd but not unwelcome distraction that doesn’t interfere with his wonderful pencil work.
I enjoyed The Homeland Directive for what it was – a well-constructed political thriller with some interesting ideas and superb art. If you don’t like thrillers, it’s probably not going to change your mind in the least. The nice thing about comics is that, unlike movies, art has a great deal to do with the way someone reacts to a comic. Even if you’re not the biggest fan of thrillers, Huddleston’s art is tremendous and almost worth the price of admission. That I enjoy thrillers and Venditti’s writing makes this even cooler for me. It’s a fun and exciting comic, and worth a look.