Monday, March 22, 2010

Advance Review: Area 10

A few weeks back, artist extraordinaire Chris Samnee held a contest on his blog to give two advanced review copies of his upcoming graphic novel, Area 10, to lucky followers. I was fortunate to win one of those copies and I’m passing the good luck on to you with an advanced review of this excellent new addition to Vertigo’s original graphic novel line. So, will Area 10 from Samnee and writer Christos Gage be worth your money when it is released in a few weeks? You’ll have to hit the jump to find out.

Written by Christos Gage
Art by Chris Samnee
Letters by Clem Robins
Cover by Lee Bermejo
On Sale April 7, 2010

Area 10 tells the story of NYPD Detective Adam Kamen as he investigates a series of brutal murders. The killer has caught the media’s attention, having been given the moniker “Henry the Eighth” as all of the victims are found headless. As the story opens, Kamen is still reeling from the loss of his child and his recent bitter divorce, making a grisly series of murders the last thing he needs. He’s been on edge and hasn’t been sleeping.

As the body count piles up, Kamen is involved in a freak incident that leads to an accidental trepanation (more on that in a moment). While in recovery, the murders seem to cease, but start back up again the moment he is back on the case. Kamen then finds himself involved in the investigation in more ways than one.

A good chunk of the story centers around trepanation, a practice dating back thousands of years that involves drilling holes into the skull of a live human. Many have believed this to be a way to enlightenment and in this story, Kamen’s trepanation leads to immediate effects that change his world view. The attack not only trepanned Kamen, but also severely injured a part of his brain known as the Brodmann Area 10.

The question then becomes, are Kamen’s visions a side-effect to his injury, caused by the massive sleep deprivation he has faced since his divorce, or could there be some truth to the power of trepanation? It’s up to Kamen to figure out as the body count rises and his life begins to crumble around him.

Given his resume includes writing episodes of acclaimed crime shows Law & Order: SVU and Numb3rs, it is not surprising that writer Christos Gage would do such a great job writing an original graphic novel for Vertigo’s new crime line. Gage does a brilliant job of mixing contemporary crime fiction—very similar to work you’d see on shows like Law & Order—with classic noir sensibilities. Fans of comics like Criminal will feel right at home in Detective Kamen’s world.

What sets this apart though is the interesting twists and borderline supernatural elements that Gage seamlessly slips in. You wouldn’t expect to find subjects like trepanation covered in your average story, but Gage does a great job of backing it up with pseudoscientific evidence and a well-researched rationale to make something so bizarre seem perfectly plausible without alienating the more realistic elements of the story.

Part of the reason why this works so well is that Gage allows for the story to build through a slow burn. The story starts small and focused, then slowly expands to allow for these more peculiar aspects to come into play, but only after he has sucked the reader in with a very strong crime drama plot and engaging characters. Once he has the reader’s attention, however, the gloves come off and the latter half of the book is a non-stop thriller with an onslaught of twists and turns that will keep you guessing until the very end. It is incredibly effective storytelling.

At the center of this is a strong focus on characters. Gage does a great job of building Kamen as a relatable, but flawed character whose own broken view of the world is completely understandable, though when the truth begins to surface it is revealed that the flaws run much deeper than we once thought. Unreliable and somewhat unlikable main characters are nothing new for the crime drama, though Gage is careful not to pass judgment upon the character and to leave all of his actions open to reader interpretation. What you bring to Kamen reflects how you view him and, ultimately, it is really up to the reader to determine whether or not he is a good man. I like that…a lot.

While the story does have a strong supporting cast built from standard archetypes (allowing the reader to build relationships quickly), the only other “main” character is Kamen’s psychologist and love interest. Most writers would fall back upon tired conventions by making her unlikely gorgeous and bland, but instead Gage plays with our expectations by having her be average in every way but intellect. She too is a flawed character, but her insight and intelligence make her vital to Kamen’s search for the truth—again not something you’d expect to see out of a love interest character.

Truthfully, I felt that the romantic subplot was a bit tacked on and, given her role as a sidekick through most of the story, felt a bit forced when it comes to fruition. Unfortunately the breakneck pace of the book’s second half forces Gage to jumpstart the relationship for the sake of the plot. This is one of the few weaknesses to the story.

Then, of course, there is Chris Samnee. Having been a fan of Chris’s for years (ever since reading the incredible Capote in Kansas original graphic novel he did with writer Ande Parks), I was very excited to find that he would be teaming with one of my favorite writers on this book when it was first announced. Samnee’s involvement immediately raised my already-high expectations. I can honestly say, although I’m not surprised to be saying it, that Samnee does not disappoint.

His dark, moody style is the perfect fit for this story. Samnee was born to draw a hard-boiled crime story. As much as I love seeing him on four-color spandex superhero titles, his best work has always been done with thick blacks, deep shadows, and realistic portrayals. There may be no artist today this is more suited for this genre and that includes the current King of Crime Comics, Sean Phillips. Samnee is that damn good.

Samnee’s work here is full of darkness, instantly controlling the mood. Many of the his pages look as though he actually drew them in white on black paper—his blacks are that heavy. He doesn’t just do it for mood though, its part of his style. A major complaint I have about spot blacks is that they aren’t used effectively, but that is not something you have to worry about with Samnee. His bold use of contrasts could not be more effective than it is. If you are an artist looking to draw primarily in black-and-white, this comic could easily become the only textbook you need.

What really impresses me out of this, though, is that the style is never muddy. It is incredibly detailed and Samnee still shows adeptness for a thin line in his very strong, realistic designs. This allows the art to have a greater range of styles and gives Samnee a lot of flexibility. Again, not many artist can pull this off. I hate to keep dropping names to describe what Samnee is doing, but imagine if Mike Mignola started focusing on realism while still retaining his bold contrasts and simple approach. That is what Samnee pulls off here.

There are some moments of inconsistencies with how certain characters are drawn. Facial features shift a bit going from angle to angle and the lack of color does hinder the way differences in how characters look at times. However, quite honestly, these are minimal complaints and given that this book clocks in at 180 pages, you can’t really expect things like this not to be a problem. It’s going to happen and it is going to be more noticeable in a long form story.

Verdict: Must Read. Area 10 is a brutal, engaging, and thought provoking crime story that pushes the boundaries of the genre in all the right ways. Christos Gage is a master storyteller whose ability to play with readers expectations is paramount to this books success, while artist Chris Samnee puts on a clinic for new artists that raises the bar not only for Vertigo’s new line of graphic novels, but for crime comics in general. Move over Eduardo Risso and Sean Phillips, Samnee has arrived and needs you to make room for him on your tier. You’ve got a few weeks to save up for this one, True Believers, as I highly suggest that you don’t miss this book when it is released..

Like this review? Interested in Area 10? Buy it on and help support the Weekly Crisis!

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Anonymous said...

Really liked the preview Vertigo put out. I'm not generally one to buy a hardcover OGN based on a few pages, but I think your review put me over the edge. I'll have to check this out.

Matt Ampersand said...

I usually enjoy both of Gage and Samnee's work in of themselves, putting them together makes this book a must buy for me.

Andri Nugraha said...

Matt, the article mentioned the art is by Christos Gage not Chris Samnee. Maybe you should correct that.

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