Ecce liber cum pictoris: <i>Numbercruncher</i> #1

You might have already read this in Judge Dredd Megazine, but you'll forgive me for not subscribing to that fine publication, so I had to wait until it was repackaged as a single issue comic book, like a sucker!

Numbercruncher is from Titan Comics, which is making a bit of a splash around the comics world with some interesting stuff in the offing, even though they haven't released a ton of product yet so the splash is more theoretical than anything.

If the rest of their output is as good as this first issue of Numbercruncher, however, then things are looking up, because this issue is very, very good. Si Spurrier wrote this and Simon Bowland lettered it, and it's brought to visual life by the inimitable team of P. J. Holden and Jordie Bellaire (who has to be one of the 3-5 best colorists working in comics right now, doesn't she?). It will cost you $3.99 or £2.65 if you're one of those odd ducks who doesn't use good ol' American dollars. You're not one of those people, are you?

If we begin at the end of issue #1, we find the "author's note" about the issue. I love backmatter, so I read through this carefully, and one thing that stands out even more clearly than if you've read the issue (which I had, before I read the backmatter - some people skip to the end to read it, but I read things they way they're meant to be read; that is, from front to back!) is that this book cannot be boiled down to a high concept. High Concept is fine for some things, and there's great entertainment that comes from it, but for a comic that toys with some of the usual tropes - the Guy Ritchie-style tough guy is in this comic, and if Vinnie Jones isn't available to play him in the movie, there's no justice in the universe - it defies simple genre definitions. Spurrier, who's a fascinating writer, is far more interested in BIG IDEAS than he is in mashing clichés together, which makes Numbercruncher tough to describe as an Elevator Pitch but makes the actual reading experience far more satisfying.

The way Spurrier structures the story is cool, too. The narrator is Bastard Zane (Vinnie Jones), who's kind of an enforcer for God.

He tells us that he wasn't a terribly pleasant person, as he went around being a bastard until he got shot in the throat. He pledged his soul to the "devil" for one more year with his woman, and "God" took him up on it. After the year was up (and after a not-very-good reunion with the woman), he became the same kind of person in the afterlife that he was in life, now working for someone he calls the "Divine Calculator," who may or may not be God (Zane specifically says it's not, but maybe Spurrier is messing with us?). So Spurrier sets up Zane as, if not exactly a sympathetic character, at least the point-of-view character - he's the narrator, and he has a rough charm because of his plain-spoken bent, unlike the stereotypical Calculator, who never wrings his hands but whom the reader can't stop imagining him doing so. Then, just as quickly, Spurrier gives "#494" - Zane doesn't get to go by his name in "Heaven" - a new assignment. A mathematician, the unfortunately-named Richard Thyme, is on his deathbed in 1969, and he suddenly perceives the divine nature of reality, which transports him to the Calculator. Richard is a smart cookie, and he wants to make a deal with "God" - he wants to be reborn (no problem) but he wants to remember everything from his past life, mainly so he can still be in love with Jessica, his hippie girlfriend. "God" agrees, but doesn't tell Richard the twist - he gets reborn in 2010 in Mumbai, and it's not until 2035 that he's able to track the now-ancient Jessica down in ... London? Anyway, it's far away. And, of course, she's in her eighties. And, once he does track her down, she's on her deathbed. Man, God is a dick. And Zane, as it turns out, is kind of the bad guy. He's not completely evil, but he still tricks Richard too, and he's far more conniving than we think at the beginning. So Spurrier does a very nice job in only one issue of making Zane both sympathetic and a bastard. Zane is telling this in the past tense, too, so Spurrier hints around that Richard has plenty of his own cards to play.

It's a nice, complex story, with an interesting take on the afterlife, a love story gone wrong that is foreshadowed by Zane's own love story that goes wrong, and hints about a big showdown coming between the forces of "Heaven" and the tragic lover. Quite a bit to pack into 22 pages!

Holden and Bellaire are up to the task of illustrating Spurrier's complicated story, beginning with the gorgeous splash page that foreshadows some of the events coming up in the book. Holden has made some noise in the States, but he tends to work in Britain, so his work might not be too familiar to people who read American comics almost exclusively. Holden has a somewhat cartoony style, but he's very good at details, so he can contrast the strange menacing goofiness of the Divine Calculator with the steely determination of Richard Thyme, and it works well. He does a lot with Zane's facial expressions - despite the narration, Zane doesn't actually say too much, so we get to see a lot of what he's thinking on his face, and Holden does a good job with that. Holden gives us a wonderfully weird rendition of the afterlife - on the one hand, it's a depressing bureaucracy, but because it's not bound by the laws of physics, it still looks like a marvelous place even though it's an accountancy, basically. There are some wonderful touches, like the Kirby Krackle flowing from the "rebirthing chamber" and the fact that when Zane smokes, numbers instead of smoke flow from his cigarette. Holden makes this weird place believable but he's adept enough to show wonderful human emotions on the faces of his characters. Meanwhile, Bellaire does something interesting with the colors. I suppose this was originally all in black and white, and Bellaire leaves quite a bit of it that way - "Heaven" remains uncolored, but the "real world" gets colors, and it's an excellent contrast.

There's also a "softness" to the "real world" artwork - more holding lines are missing, and the inks aren't as stark, which helps sell the difference between the cold, hard, numerical reality of "Heaven" with the messier "real world." The artwork does what would be a bit obvious for Spurrier to state out loud, and that's one reason why comic are neat - the visuals can often provide more subtle things that simple prose could, and when they work together so well, you get an excellent issue like this.

I don't know how easy it is to find Numbercruncher in comics stores in the States, but you can always get it digitally at Titan's web site. Issue #1 is a very good beginning to the mini-series, and I'm very keen to read the rest of it. One of the nice things about it is that Spurrier isn't afraid to introduce a lot of stuff, which means the book could go anywhere. I imagine that quite a few people out there already knows how it ends (it appears that it finished in October 2011), but don't tell me, people! I want to be surprised!

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