Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Hotwire: Requiem for the Dead - Review

Next week sees the release of Radical Book’s collection of the first Hotwire miniseries. The comic completely crafted by Steve Pugh based upon concepts he created with Warren Ellis follows Alice Hotwire, a “Detective Exorcist”, through a thrilling series of twists and turns when everything she could scientifically explain about ghosts starts to be wrong. The folks at Radical were kind enough to send me a copy for review. What’s my take on this high-concept comic? You’ll have to hit the jump to find out.


Written by Steve Pugh
Concept by Steve Pugh and Warren Ellis
Art, Letters, and Cover by Steve Pugh
Book Design by JG Roshell
Published by Radical Books
Release Date: April 28, 2010

One of the first things you find out when cracking open the first volume of Hotwire is that what you are about to read isn’t the original intention for the book. The core concept, which follows “Detective Exorcist” Alice Hotwire, was originally created in the early nineties by up-and-coming creators Warren Ellis and Steve Pugh. For various reasons, the original story was scrapped only to be dusted off nearly two decades later by Pugh, which lead to the volume we are talking about today.

I bring this up for two reasons. For one, it shows that a good idea should never be abandoned. It would have been easy for Ellis and Pugh to give up on Hotwire when the project first fizzled out, but they didn’t and everyone wins. Secondly, it emphasizes who the audience for this comic really is. You dig Warren Ellis? You’ll dig this; I promise.

The story follows the titular Alice Hotwire, a self-absorbed woman of science who is the resident exorcist for the Metro Police in a dystopian future metropolis. You are probably asking yourself how a woman of science could also be an exorcist. In the world of Hotwire, ghosts exist but are scientifically explained as sentient electromagnetic energy, called Blue Light. I’ll let you take a moment to let that settle in because if you can’t wrap your head around this insane concept, this is not the book for you.

Are we good? Alright, let’s move on.

On an average day, Blue Light is little more than a nuisance that can be easily dealt with. Unfortunately for Hotwire, this book does not take place on an average day and the rules that rigidly govern the behavior of Blue Light are breaking down with dangerous and deadly consequences. In the midst of this, the Metro Police are dealing with widespread riots stemming from the savage beating of immigrants by two detectives. The proverbial feces has met the proverbial fan and its hitting the Metro Police on all sides.

As Hotwire’s investigation uncovers the deadly truth behind the abnormalities in the Blue Light, she must convince an already occupied Metro Police force that despises her (more on that in a minute) to back the drastic actions that she must take to save the city. That is, of course, if the city doesn’t rip itself apart as the riots and protests amp up or isn’t destroyed by an overzealous Homeland Security. In other words, Hotwire has her back against the wall, is without support, and is out of time. As you can imagine, action ensues.

What is most interesting about this book is that, despite its very action-adventure oriented plot and the fact that it is about as high-concept as it comes, at its heart, it is really a wonderful character study. Writer/artist Steve Pugh seems obsessively focused with developing a complex character in Alice Hotwire. I can’t say that many comics in this vein are so relentless in their character building, which is a damn shame.

What really sticks with you, though, is the fact that Hotwire isn’t your standard protagonist. In a character-focused tale, your protagonist is almost always likeable. Yes, they have their faults, but they overcome them. Hotwire doesn’t. Instead, she revels in them. If you are expecting her to come out of this story a changed person, you are foolish. People in real life don’t change because of one crazy adventure and neither does Hotwire.

Pugh describes her as being the smartest person she knows and is more than happy to let everyone know that. Her intelligence is off the charts, matched only by her idealism. As with all idealists, though, she lacks patience with the average person’s lack of direction and like most hyper-intelligent individuals, she doesn’t have time for the average person’s stupidity. Her neuroses and absolutely broken life outside of her obsessive approach to her work are believable and compelling, but you don’t want to be friends with her. Most readers would be happy not to even know her.

The key, though, is that Pugh does such a brilliant job at developing her, you won’t be able to stop reading about her and you’ll be pissed when the book ends and you don’t know what happens to her next. If that isn’t the epitome of top-notch character work, then I’m not your favorite comic book reviewer from the state of Iowa.

Pugh pulls double-duty in this book by also handling the art chores, which was originally his only job when the book was first pitched. If you are only familiar with Pugh’s work for Marvel and DC in the 90s (like I was), you might be in for a shock. The art is done in a very realistic painted style more akin to Marko Djurdjevic or even Alex Ross, as opposed to the very traditional comic book style Pugh is known to most for. This was a very wise decision on his part.

As with all art done in this style, there are some very noticeable pitfalls. Most notably, the art can be incredibly stiff, which doesn’t always bode well for action stories. You also run into consistency issues that crop up from a much more involved process. These come with the territory and intrepid readers are going to notice them.

They won’t matter as much, though, when you start reveling in the lush environments, excellent designs, and strong expressions. The more realistic style does have its trappings, but it also makes it that much easier to get sucked into the world of the comic. Some creators get very annoyed when you compare their works to movies, but lets face it, movies have a much wider audience than comics. If your style can emulate the feeling of watching a film and has similar affects on the viewer, then I say you’ve done a damn fine job. This comic reminds me of a very good movie and I think that Steve Pugh should be damn proud of that fact.

I’m also really digging the extras that come with this volume. In addition to the original comic, you get a great forward from Pugh that explains the history of the project and starts things off on the right foot. You also get a gallery of gorgeous covers, an extra Hotwire story that was done before this volume, all sorts of designs and sketches, plus a very revealing interview with Pugh about the project. I love it when you get special features with a collection and this book slathers ‘em on.

I can’t forget to praise JG Roshell from Comicraft for his awesome book design for the collection. This isn’t something most readers even notice, but his great layouts, awesome backgrounds, and sweet fonts do a great job of setting the tone for the comic. Without it, you get a great story in an okay package, but with it, you’ve got a real treat for the eyes.

Verdict: Must Read. To tell you the truth, a lot of the comics that are sent to reviewers really aren’t that good. We get bombarded with PDF files each week and only a handful of the comics are worth the mass email that their publishers send out. I’ve spared you the agony of reading me trashing a good number of them myself. Hotwire, however, stands apart. It is a fast-paced, complex, and incredibly engaging action tale with some of the smartest character writing I’ve read in a long time. The art is lush and exciting. The extras are superb. This is the type of book that I’m glad to find in my email inbox. In fact, this is a book that I’d be proud to have on my shelf and you should too (in other words, if anyone at Radical is reading this, I want a hardcopy of the actual print release!).

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Anonymous said...

This sounds cool. I loved Pugh's work on Sharkman and this looks like a continuation of that style.

Anonymous said...

I should also add that I think Pugh does a really great job avoiding the "boring" aspect that so many of the painterly comics artists fall into (Alex Ross is the worst offender but there are others). His layouts are very dynamic and he's a good comic artist without the paint so the pages flow much more easily to my eyes.

googum said...

Aw, extras! I picked up the singles, but this was a good one. I'm a big Ellis fan, and I don't mind him farming ideas out to other writers and artists that might have more time to make the most of them.

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