Steve Pugh goes nutty. What's not to love?
In case you're new to the blog, I'll get you up to speed on Steve Pugh. A few years ago he did a little book called Shark-Man, which began with a tiny little publisher in conjunction with Image but didn't sell a lick. Shark-Man, if you can't tell from the title, is quite possibly the greatest comic book ever conceived by sentient beings, and I like to think it was just too awesome to survive. (If you're at all interested, I "reviewed" all three issues: #1, #2, and #3, although only the first one is a proper review. The last two are paeans to the awesomeness of Shark-Man.
You'll note it took two years for three issues to come out. That might have had something to do with its demise.) After the death of Shark-Man, Pugh moved on Hotwire, a comic based on a script that a certain Warren Ellis wrote 20 years ago. Pugh explains in the introduction that he kept tweaking it after its original publisher fell apart, and then Radical Comics decided the time had come for the world to know Alice Hotwire! And lo, a four-issue mini-series was released, followed by this trade (which costs $14.95, a good value considering there are a lot of extras). As I wrote when I reviewed the first three issues, if Shark-Man had to die, at least Pugh can work on a story about a detective exorcist. She's a detective exorcist, people!!!!!!!
The concept of Hotwire is a great hook. In the near future, the dead don't go very far after they die. They hang around, attracted by all the electronic devices humanity is addicted to, and become "blue-lights" - forms of electro-magnetic energy. Alice Hotwire is the police exorcist tasked with cleaning them up. London (where the story is set) has suppressor towers which keep them away from the swankier neighborhoods, and they can't break out of ceramic tombs, but they still float around the crappier neighborhoods, occasionally causing trouble. That's when Alice comes in. It's a nice, simple concept that has the potential for dozens of stories.
Pugh is already working on a sequel to this story, after all!
The story is a straight-forward police procedural, as Alice investigates an unusual blue-light incident which seems isolated but really isn't. As she explains, many things about the incident are "impossible," which only makes her grumpy, because Alice lives her life by the rules of science, and anything that goes against those rules vex her. Meanwhile, someone leaked a video of two cops beating up some immigrant kids and the city is a powder keg. Throughout the book, the protesters slowly turn into rioters and move more and more to the forefront. We know that, as this is a fictional tale, everything is connected, but Pugh does a nice job with revealing the machinations of the plot slowly. Alice and her reluctant partner, Mobey, follow each lead to the next and learn a bit more as they go along. The cool thing about the book is that Pugh doesn't do many info-dumps - at every turn, Alice finds something that challenges her idea of the status quo, so we get to learn about the blue-lights and how to deal with them because Alice can't do that in this case. She has to improvise, which she doesn't like. Along the way, we learn a little bit about her family and how she became such a hard-ass. The only really creepy part of the book (the most "ghost-story") is when her dead mother keeps calling her cell phone and leaving messages. This also is a plot point that helps set up the sequel.
While the story is interesting, Pugh also does a fine job with the characters. Alice is a neat invention, in that we think she's going to be a female version of the archetypal Warren Ellis character, but Pugh goes a bit further away from this, which is nice. She's a bad-ass, of course, and she loves her science, but Pugh does a good job giving her a compelling and tragic backstory, from her odd upbringing in a scientists' enclave to the way her mother died and the aftermath.
She's more interesting than many of the Ellisian male characters because Pugh allows her to get flustered and try to work things out using her brain instead of bad-assing her way through things. It's a nice mix of the Ellis archetype and the more humanizing hand of Pugh. The partner he gives Alice, Mobey, is a good cop but definitely isn't pure - he's on a pseudo-suspension because he punched out on of the protesters on camera. Mobey is a salt-of-the-earth cop who Alice recruits as her muscle, and the two of them build a nice relationship throughout the series, with Mobey's superstitions about ghosts playing well off Alice's insistence on dealing with blue-lights as scientifically as possible. Pugh also brings in a Darrow, the new city commander, who has been thrown into a dire situation (what with the rioters and the crazy blue-lights running around) but does the best she can. Darrow could have been a stereotypical corrupt cop (her predecessor appears to fit this mold, but he's not a major character) or someone who is totally sympathetic to Alice, but she's neither. She's someone doing the job however she can, and while she hates the two cops who beat the immigrant family and sparked the protests, she's also damned if she's going to let them get killed by the mob. As with the other main characters (including some of the ghosts), Pugh does a nice job presenting them as real people and not just plot devices.
Pugh's art is, of course, phenomenal. He's always been a good artist, but recently, as he explains in an interview in the back of the book, he's been painting a lot more, and the effect is fantastic. We some of his older pencil work on Alice, and while it's perfectly fine, it's nothing like what we see in this book.
Whereas some painted comic art looks stiff and posed, Pugh does a wonderful job making this book fluid. Everything seems fully integrated into the landscape, and the facial expressions, which are often tough to pull off in painted work, look great. Pugh's work with the blue-lights is tremendous, as well. We get very creepy apparitions, from the girl who possesses the man in the book's opening sequence to the skeleton underneath the cemetery where the worst criminals are interred. There's a dragon ghost that is wonderfully brought to life, and the final sequence is a magnificent work of explosive action and tense violence. Pugh's wacky imagination coupled with his mastery of his tools make this a fantastic book to look at. It's a very cool achievement.
I've liked some Radical books and not some others. This is, so far, the absolute best book they've published. It's a wild ride, full of cool ideas and beautiful art. It's very neat to see such an insane comic that also works as a good story. I'm keen to see what else Pugh has up his sleeve in the sequel.
Tomorrow: Damned Nazis! Always doing evil things!