Monday, 20 August 2012
On Jennifer Blood Annual #1 By Al Ewing & Igor Vitorino (The First Time No. 4)
America is full, it seems, of useful mass murderers and dyed-in-the-wool serial killers. How would American society ever get by without them? Martin Blank and Frank Castle, Dexter Morgan and Jennifer Blood, they're all such productive members of the community. Not only do they offer all the convenience of a highly efficient cadre of society-serving executioners requiring no tax-payer's funding, state supervision or liberal hang-wringing over the rule of law. But they're also such good fun too.
It's the convenience offered by the mass-murderer-as-public-servant that makes the whole business so attractive. It's law-enforcement on the cheap, it's social policy as entertainment, it's the lizard-mind's longing to murder repackaged as a supposedly cathartic popcorn experience. Played smartly, the tradition raises a host of questions about what it is to be human and the degree of compassion and responsibility which we want to assume for our fellow citizens, irritating and even despicable as they so often are. At its worst, we're presented with irony-free revenge fantasies which reinforce a sense of social emasculation while glorifying the behaviour of ferociously disordered psychopaths. But however it's played, the tradition nearly always insists that we look away even as we're relishing the sight of the very thing we've paid our money to enjoy. For the torture and slaughter of the victims of our heroically trigger-happy vigilantes and super-psychos to entertain us, we have to collaborate in accepting that there's a fair few people who not only deserve to suffer and die, but to do so for our delectation too.
The eyeballs have been flying entertainingly out of skulls all over the place in Jennifer Blood since Al Ewing arrived as the book's writer, and yet there's always a sense that the removal of an eye is as terrible a thing as it's taboo-shatteringly amusing. Ewing quite evidently finds the idea of the perversely self-motivated, remorselessly inventive social cleanser to be a thoroughly entertaining one. But he also refuses to let us look away from the consequence of the gruesome acts that we're hoping to be thrilled by. At times gently and in good humour, at others in a disturbing explicit and forlorn manner, Ewing's work keeps elbowing away at the question of what it is that we want from our champion lunatics. While I'm not entirely convinced that all of his artistic collaborators on Jennifer Blood's interiors and covers are as thoroughly committed to an ironic examination of the character as Ewing is, the scripts are always aware of the need to criticise as well as celebrate the idea of Our Player On The Other Side. We can watch as the scum of the Earth are eviscerated, we can rejoice as the more-than-just annoying neighbours are atomised in explosions, but we're going to have to remember on one level or another, that these are people as well as folk-devils. It doesn't, after all, take more than a subtle touch to remind us how we might ourselves respond to the prospect of swallowing our own eyes, for example, or of how easily we ourselves might find ourselves swallowed up by a culture which regards extortion and murder as an absolutely necessary, and even virtuous, business.
The first Jennifer Blood annual is by far Ewing's most satisfying work on the ever-improving property so far. Set a quarter of a century ago, it's an origin tale of sorts, and one which takes a far darker tone than is typical of the character's monthly comic. There's no-one in view, beyond a rather endearing if teatime-spoiling Fox Terrier, who isn't at the very least utterly reprehensible, and yet this tale of criminal in-fighting, torture, corruption and madness never once sidesteps the fundamental if profoundly flawed humanity of all involved. Ewing deftly portrays a family subject to a range of pernicious influences which drive all concerned way beyond the bounds of merely loathsome behaviour. From sheer unadulterated selfishness to dysfunctional thinking, from group conformity through denial to hereditary schizophrenia, the Blute's are both pathetic victims and self-defining monsters. As such, the disemboweling that's at the heart of the book couldn't happen to a more apparently deserving subject, and yet, he's still a distinct, if fearsome, individual, and the thought of the disemboweling is still a terrible, shiversome business.
Artist Igor Vitorino offers a competent if rarely inspiring backdrop to Ewing's script. Reliant on photo-resources as he is, Vitorino's characters often lack any sense that their bodies have an underlying and defining structure. Though the expressions he gives his characters are always recognisable, they seem to float on ill-structured faces which lack the sense that they're bound to a specific skull by specific muscles with specific purposes. With page designs dominated by ranks of horizontal panels regardless of the script's content, Vitorino carries us effectively through the events in Ewing's script without adding a great deal to the experience. Yet in his depiction of the terrifying demon which lurks at the periphery of Samuel Victor Blute's vision, Vitorino shows what an effective artist he may well yet develop into, and he delivers the oh-no-they-haven't final page with an admirably unflinching unpleasantness.
1987: My Father, The Hero is a grim, remorseless depiction of how the illusion of fate emerges from a poisonous brew of naked self-interest and irreversible disorder. With this aspect of the character's backstory now so emphatically put in place, even the most apparently light-hearted of Jennifer Blood stories are unlikely to ever seem anything other than fundamentally tragic.