A review a day: <i>Area 10</i>

More Vertigo crime fiction! Whoo-hoo!

I've always heard good things about Christos N. Gage, and I've read a few things by him and enjoyed them, but I've never gone nuts over his stuff. But when I saw he was writing a new Vertigo crime novel and it was drawn by Chris Samnee, who kicks major ass, I figured I had to get it. It costs $19.99, and it's very good.

A bit disappointing at the end, but still, very good. Let's check it out!

Okay, the set-up: Detective Adam Kanen and his partner are hunting a serial killer called Henry VIII. Early in the book, he has to intervene in a psychiatrist's office when a man goes nuts, kills the doctor, his wife (or the secretary?), and is about to kill his daughter. Adam talks the guy down from killing the baby, but the crazed man stabs him with a screwdriver ... right between his eyes. It doesn't kill him, just put a hole in his skull and damage his brain. His doctor, a fetching young lady named Eileen Avery, is concerned about him, but once he's allowed out of the hospital, he's back on the case! Then he starts having visions. Oh dear.

Adam realizes he's seeing flashes of the past and the future, and when he stops a robbery/murder before it happens, his boss starts to take an interest and Dr. Avery starts to believe him. She tells him about trepanning, the practice of drilling a hole in the skull to, supposedly, relieve the pressure on the brain, something that some hippies embraced to "open their consciousness." She doesn't believe it, but she does point out that perhaps Adam's pineal gland was damaged, altering his perceptions of time and space. So what's going on?

Of course, there's still a serial killer out there, and he keeps killing. At one point he and his partner track the killer to an abandoned subway station, but Adam can't see the bad guy clearly - he sees a blank white human-shaped space, and it freaks him out.

Of course, as Adam's problems with his brain escalate, the cops start looking at him as the perpetrator - Henry VIII didn't kill while Adam was in the hospital, as we're told at one point. Meanwhile, he tells Dr. Avery about the way his marriage collapsed - his pregnant wife was struck by a bike messenger, and although she seemed okay, she had a miscarriage not long afterward. Of course, a bike messenger ends up dead, so maybe Adam snapped? And, of course, he hooks up with Dr. Avery, who believes he's innocent. Then Adam's ex-wife shows up and tells her side of the story. Maybe Adam is crazy ...?

I might imply that things feel standard, because we've seen enough cop stories where the cop is accused of the very crime he's investigating and where the cop hooks up with a sympathetic listener. However, Gage might use these clichés, but for much of the book, he does a fine job building tension and keeping us guessing as Adam investigates the case. He finds tenuous connections between the victims, which leads him to new suspects, and it's very interesting. Gage's use of the trepanning angle is inspired, because it blends mysticism with pseudo-science to make this a gritty crime book but with some nice, spooky touches.

The problem is the ending. It's set up by an early clue that I actually spotted (I rarely realize these things, but it was SO obvious) but which is ignored for quite some time, and it adds a nice twist to the proceedings (there's also what I hope is a typo dealing with a character's name - he's called something different in one panel than in every other one - and I wasn't sure if it was a mistake, so it led me to a different thought about what Gage was doing) once we reach the climax. However, the book turns into a confrontational punch-'em-out between Adam and the bad guy, and it's a bit disappointing. I'll overlook the way Adam figures out how to match the guy's fighting style, because as much as it stretches credulity, it fits with the rest of the book, but Gage seems to work so hard getting to the climax, and then he just throws in the towel.

This turns from a creepy crime drama to an action movie, and in doing, it becomes far less interesting.

That doesn't mean it's not a good comic. Gage builds the plot well, and he surprises us with some nice developments that we don't really see coming. Samnee's beautiful noir-tinged style is fantastic - instead of using heavy lines, he often uses pools of black and expanses of white to create a figure or a scene. Many of his characters simply don't have "borders" - they merge with the background, becoming part of an entire tableau instead of being set apart from the rest of the scene. When he uses lines, they tend to be delicate and meticulous, allowing the figures to move freely from panel to panel instead of burdening them. I'd say Samnee works best in black and white - his work on Capote in Kansas and Queen & Country is equally good - but then I see his covers for the new Thor: The Mighty Avenger book and it looks fantastic. So maybe he's just, you know, really good. That could be it.

Area 10 (the book takes its title from the part of Adam's brain that is traumatized) is a very good crime comic with some very keen ideas and great art. I just reviewed The Bronx Kill and claimed that was the best book so far in the Vertigo crime line. Well, we have a new #1. Area 10 is a bit better. You could, of course, get them both!

Tomorrow: Oh, Abraham Lincoln. Why were you such a theater buff?

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