“I play for keeps, ’cause I might not make it back”
Why Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray chose to name their comic Abbadon instead of Abaddon (the common spelling, although it is translated from Hebrew) is beyond me, but perhaps it’s a snide comment on the intelligence of the Westerners who live there.
But that’s okay – Abbadon is a pretty gripping murder mystery that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but it’s still a fun read. Gray and Palmiotti are joined by Fabrizio Fiorentino on art, Alessia Nocera on colors, and John J. Hill on letters. The book also gives credit to Spencer Marstiller for original screenplay (Palmiotti and Gray don’t try to hide that they want to adapt comics to movies), it’s edited by Joanne Starer, and it’s co-published by Gray and Palmiotti’s Paperfilms and Adaptive Comics. It’s only $12.99, which is not a bad deal.
I like Palmiotti’s and Gray’s comics, even though I admit they’re not all-time great writers. They know how to put a book together, and they entertain pretty much all the time, but when you examine their writing, they don’t really do anything too amazing, and often their books are good partly because they get good artists to draw them (which, in comics, is very important, so I’m not being dismissive). They’re never going to be in my “Top Ten Writers,” but I own a lot of their comics because I know I’ll enjoy them. It’s more of the same with Abbadon, a Western murder mystery.
The writers have a soft spot for Westerns, it seems (writing a lot of Jonah Hex will do that to you), and they know how to create one so that it feels like a “real” Western. There’s even – wait for it! – subtext in this comic, as the mayor of Abbadon (seriously, why would you name a town that?) looks toward the future and wants to leave the rough-and-tumble “West” behind, but a confounded serial killer keeps messing up his plans. It’s not too subtle, this clash of olde-tymey ways and modernity, and Gray and Palmiotti continue their themes that they brought up in All-Star Western – real men looking with scorn upon new-fangledness – but it’s not a bad theme to wrestle with when you write a Western.
I don’t want to spoil this, so I’ll just go over the bare bones of the plot. Someone is butchering people in Abbadon and posing them in a very specific manner. Into town arrives Marshal Wes Garrett, who was summoned by a telegraph … two weeks before the first body was discovered. Before we discover that tidbit, Garrett is met at the train station by Jacob Sullivan, the mayor, who isn’t too happy about a U.S. marshal showing up in town, especially as he’s planning a big meeting of rich folk to invest in Abbadon, and a marshal running around chasing a murderer doesn’t look good (Sullivan would prefer to sweep everything under the carpet). Also unhappy is the sheriff, Colt Dixon (yes, really), who, it turns out, was once Garrett’s partner.
Garrett is convinced that the killer is Bloody Bill, an infamous outlaw that Garrett was supposed to have killed years before (it made him famous, as books have been written about him). So Garrett and Dixon team up once again, uneasily, as they don’t really like each other, and they hunt the killer. Obviously, they’re sure that the man who sent the telegram is the killer, because how would he know that the bodies would turn up, but finding out who sent it is a bit more difficult than you might expect. Meanwhile, the bodies pile up. Oh dear.
The biggest problem with the book is that it’s fairly easy to figure out who the killer is early on. I don’t know if Palmiotti and Gray wanted to make it a difficult mystery, but when I can figure it out, it’s not a difficult mystery (I’m not terribly good at mysteries). If we take that out of the equation, though, this is still an exciting chase comic with a lot of horror elements – there’s nothing supernatural about it, but Palmiotti and Gray are always good showing the depravity that exists within humans themselves. Life is cheap in Abbadon, as you might expect, and Dixon struggles against the tide as a throwback to when men were a bit more honorable (a time that never existed, of course, but which people constantly look back to). The idea of fame driving people is one we don’t often see in Westerns, but Garrett and Sullivan both exemplify it.
Garrett wanted to be the one to take down Bloody Bill, and he was willing to go beyond the limits of the law to do so, and he has staked his fame on it, so when he thinks Bill might be back, it makes him sloppy in his investigation because his entire world might come crashing down if he fails. Sullivan, meanwhile, wants to be a mover and shaker in turning the West into an engine of progress, and he’s willing to hang an innocent man to put the murders behind him (and discreetly kill the real murderer, if he turns up). The self-imposed pressure of fame adds an interesting twist to the story, as it’s not so easy for Garrett to simply do what he needs to do – he has become so beholden to his image that he can’t see anything else.
As I noted above, Palmiotti and Gray often get really good artists, and Fiorentino’s work on this comic is terrific. He makes Abbadon a real place, with small wooden buildings full of dark corners, allowing the horror to creep in slowly, and the bigger places like Sullivan’s brothel, all decadence and mystery. As this is a “mature readers” book, he doesn’t shy away from the butchery and the nudity, making the prostitutes who are killed (they’re not the only victims, but they’re more common than others) look more vulnerable and horrific. He lays the pages out really well to get a lot of information on them – this is not a decompressed book by any means – and uses some nice “camera angles” to heighten the horror and the way it overshadows the populace of the town.
He gets to draw some nice fight scenes, and he does them very well, making them visceral and graphic because these are men of violence, who ask and give no quarter. His characters are distinctive, from the bearded lady who runs the brothel to the weird dude who enjoys torture, and while his prostitutes are a bit too clean, that’s pretty common in comics and movies, where the women are always gorgeous even if they live during times of less-than-ideal hygienic conditions. Nocera’s colors are great, too, as she doesn’t use too much digital trickery – she adds smoke to cigarettes and paints in some flames – and does a good job blending flatter colors with rendered shading, which gives us the best of both coloring worlds. The book is generally dark, but Nocera doesn’t overwhelm the pages with black, so we can always see what’s going on. It also makes the bright pages pop a bit more, which is nice. This is a beautiful comic, which helps it immensely.
It’s tough reviewing something like this, because it’s perfectly entertaining, it looks great, but it still feels a bit shallow. If you’re not looking for too much more than a brutal Western that has a little bit on its mind, this is quite good. It would be nice if Palmiotti and Gray wrote a masterpiece at some point, but until that day, they’ll continue to write solid comics like this. Again, I don’t want to sound dismissive, because they do what they do really well. Abbadon is a nice page-turner – even after you’ve pretty much sussed out who the killer is, you really want to see how it all pans out – and there’s nothing wrong with that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
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