There's nothing I can do about it. Pat Mills and Clint Langley's American Reaper annoys me. Just catching sight of one of its pages in my peripheral vision irritates all of the good will out of me. In fact, American Reaper exasperates in a way that no comic since the wretched Superman: Earth One has. Just like S:EO, American Reaper sets the teeth off grinding and the fingers paper-scrunching in a manner which out-flanks rational, conscious thought, in a way which inspires an immediate sense of being needled long before any specific reason for feeling that way registers. I know why I loathe a typical Greg Land page; they tend to be porn-facedly offensive as well as ineptly composed. Geoff Johns' Justice League plots and scripts? Shallow, patronising, and slapdash. But American Reaper? It hits like vinegar in a paper cut, inspires intense irritation without any reflection seeming to have occurred, and that's not, of course, an informed opinion, but a prejudice. What is it about American Reaper that makes me feel so irascible ?
It's not the fact that Langley's working in the fumetti tradition here that causes me to shudder so. His panels and pages are conspicuously clumsy and alienating, it's true, but that's not anything that ought to make me leave the room for fear of hissing at the cats. It is, however, enough to make me never want to read American Reaper again. Staring at the faces of Langley's photo-realistic characters just emphasises what it is that a good cartoonist does. No matter how it's manipulated, even a vaguely realistic photo of a human face carries far too much information for any kind of effective emotional precision to be attained. For a successful comics artist doesn't represent the human face as it is, but rather presents us with a caricature of an emotional state. Comics don't present us with reality, or anything approaching it, so much as they tell us how we're supposed to feel about whatever scene it is that's before us.
The fact is that human expressions are often complex, indistinct, and ambiguous, and their meaning is determined as much by the way in which a face changes over a period of time as it is by the qualities frozen in any one single flashbulb moment. Trying to freeze a "real" expression rarely works when a story demands a specific, clear effect, because a "real" expression is usually anything but unequivocal. Consequently, the eye never settles comfortably upon the faces of the people in American Reaper, because there's both too much data on the page and too little. These are, no matter how worked and reworked, characters who are realistic to the point of distraction, of unreality, and, isolated from the context of real life's swirl of time and movement, the reader inevitably feels that they're only getting part of the story. At best, what we're presented with seems awkwardly posed and unconvincing. At worst, it looks as if a GCSE art student has carelessly pasted a few old photos down on the night before a project's deadline. There's very little that Langley's art achieves here that a more traditionally cartoonesque approach couldn't trump, but there's so much that a cartoonist could accomplish that fumetti in this context simply can't.
|There's nothing that the New 52 can't do badly that American Reaper can't and won't match. Here's another full-page splash page, showing what really does look like the Forties Batmobile landing on another car.|
So, if it's not Langley's take on fumetti that makes American Reaper so spontaneously repellent, then what could it be? As hard as it is to focus on the structure of the strip's storytelling when Langley's characters are hissing at the reader to look away, an effort to do so instantly reveals, under all that untypical and flashy surface, our own friend, the empty-headed widescreen indulgence. Mutton dressed as lamb, American Reaper is a textbook example of the modern mainstream book's worst indulgences, a clone-brother of Justice League and all those other New 52 dumb-downs, despite it masquerading as a hard-boiled Brit-comics innovation. Page after page after page of horizontal quasi-storyboard panels, stacked one above the other as if one size of frame really does fit all types of content. Double-page spreads carrying no more information than might be more appropriately fitted into the top third of a page. Storytelling which progresses at an infuriating, glacial, self-indulgent pace. American Reaper is a comic that's as predictable and dull as the common'n'garden superbook which Pat Mills has, quite rightly, spent his career raging against.
|All we're missing after this full page spread is the shot of Mr Reaper raising his fist to the heavens and swearing vengeance.|
It's as if Mills and Langley were targeting readers so unfamiliar with, or so challenged by, the traditional storytelling techniques of comics that they've gutted as much of the form and content of American Reaper as they could. As such, the script is as facilely, unsubtly sentimental as it could be, a series of one cliche after another strung together with shots of cars racing around and entirely unconvincing rock concerts. At times, it's almost amusing to note how often the story recycles without any trace of irony or innovation the banalities common to macho potboilers. Indeed, it'd take a heart of stone, to lift Mr Wilde's phrase, not to laugh at the sight of the weeping Mr A. Reaper as he tearfully cradles the body of the son he's just been compelled to murder.
The comic's wearisomely predictable even down to its gender roles. Wherever a woman appears, she's lingerie-model beautiful, a fact which is never so obvious as when Reaper's daughter appears at the scene of her brother's death half-naked in her sexy, leg-baring nightie. That, I'd suggest, is a textbook definition of gratuitous. Still, at least there are women in the pages of American Reaper. People of colour are conspicuous by their total absence. In the future New York City, it seems, and that goes for even the incidental figures in the strip as well as the leads, everybody's Caucasian. There's not even a token non-White in Mr Reaper's small team of fellow officers. Obviously, Mills and Langley just don't care.
Admittedly, American Reaper has a useful, if hardly unfamiliar, high concept at its core. In the America of 2052, where all social and environmental problems have been overcome, human acquisitiveness drives the corrupt to steal the bodies and supplant the minds of those young, attractive individuals they long to be. It's a typical Millsian concept, allowing a sprinkling of radical politics to inform a comicbook sci-fi romp. Except that there's no romping here, because there's barely a hint of anything more than the most threadbare of plots on show, and there's only a homeopathic trace of radical politics either.
Indistinguishable from the very worst of the American mainstream's product, and shamefully inferior to its very best, American Reaper chafes so because it's cynical, unimaginative, ethically disengaged, and entirely unengaging. I've rarely if ever seen a comic that reads so much like a begging letter for someone - someone please! - to come and make a big stupid movie out of a gimmicky stupid strip as this.