These Violent Delights
“There are 35 pages and 124 illustrations in the average comic book. A single issue ranges in price from $1.00 to over $140,000. 172,000 comics are sold in the U.S. every day. Over 62,780,000 each year.”
– Unbreakable (2000, M. Night Shyamalan)
I don’t know where M. Night Shyamalan got those numbers, but it’s from one of the best movies of the decade so it must be true.
That was the year 2000.
That was before Marvel Studios was pumping out one bland movie after another. Christopher Nolan made Memento a year ago. Vertigo just finished publishing Preacher and kicked-off 100 Bullets. People didn’t snicker when “from the visionary director M. Night Shyamalan” popped up in movie trailers.
I wonder what the numbers look like now?
For better or worse, the bulk of those comics revolve around violent conflicts:
One last bank job before retirement gone wrong. Squid worshipping death cult sacrificing newborn babies. Super powered mutants battling mad scientists with a penchant for 3-page long soliloquies.
Facing a numb audience spoiled with infinite choices of violent delights, making evil memorable is a daunting task.
Most simply bang the drum louder:
No, he can’t just be a serial killer. He’s a zombie serial killer who wields a barb wired baseball bat. Paint a face tattoo. Make him wear a gold grill because it symbolizes his “damaged persona.” Does anyone have Nicholas Cage’s phone number?
Then there are comics like Sheriff of Babylon.
As Mysterious as a Blocked Toilet is to a Fucking Plumber
Sheriff of Babylon (Written by Tom King, Art by Mitch Gerads) is a crime mystery set in post-war Iraq. In the below pages (Issue #2 page 9 – 10), two main characters (Chris and Nassir) of the series are visiting a US military morgue to collect the body of a murdered Iraqi police trainee:
Reading the above 2-pages, you can picture a history:
You can picture a soldier, fresh off training, puking his guts out in a dirty toilet stall after watching a video of a man choking on his own blood. You can picture a soldier regretting all the choices he made in life while scraping the body of a child, who stepped on an IED, off the street. You can picture a soldier, after years of first hand experience with bullet riddled bodies and torn limbs, yawning at a decapitation video as if he is watching a Youtube clip of a dancing cat that his aunt forwarded him for the 10th time.
Given time, horrors of life become mundane daily routines.
We adapt. And it is terrifying that we do. In the hundreds of unwritten pages that breathe between panels, King and Gerad conjure a nightmarish vision of post-war Iraq.
Don’t Look Away Now
Except for the establishing shot in panel 1, the next 5 panels are organized in what Scott Maccloud classifies as moment to moment transition. In a moment to moment transition, which slowly draws out a sequence with minimal action, readers have little new information to process. With little else to distract them, readers are forced to wrestle with how the images make them feel.
By withholding a cut, King and Gerad refuse to give the reader an out. Readers are trapped in the 5 repeating panels that slowly pushes into the most disturbing image in frame.
It almost feels cruel.
The Next Great “Feel Bad” Comics
In the year of 2016, movies and comics often function as white noise machines:
Comforting sitcoms repeating on Neflix while you update your instagram account; 21-page superhero soap operas that you flip through while checking your twitter feeds.
Sheriff of Babylon is not one of those comics.
Vertigo has a wonderful history of “feel bad” comics (Unknown Soldier, Scalped, 100 Bullets, Loveless, Northlanders), and Sheriff of Babylon is the next great feel bad comics of the imprint.
It’s not a comics that will soothe you to sleep after a long and hard day at work. It’s a comic that led me to the wiki page of Abu Ghraib, keeping me awake till 5 am in the morning. Often it’s a punishing experience in which you dread to turn to the next page, knowing the pain and sadness that awaits you.
And it’s worth it.