8.03.2010

Enjoying The Sweets

Sweets #1 (Image): While working for my last employer, I was assigned to support a FEMA team in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck, which is neither here nor there, but might serve as a braggadocio personal segue into the comic Sweets, subtitle: A New Orleans Crime Story. Kody Chamberlain is the one-man-band who does everything here, writing, penciling, lettering, coloring, etc., so it’s worth noting that the very first thing that catches your eye is on the cover. It’s the graphic design sensibility in the series logo. Not only does it balance the focus of the page very effectively, but it reverberates with a general aesthetic that reminds me of Jonathan Hickman’s early and decorative Image Comics work, the visual flair on titles such as The Nightly News and Pax Romana.

I could tell I was going to like Sweets almost immediately; not only did Chamberlain strike me as grounded and likable in person when I quickly met him at SDCC this year, but while reading Sweets it became immediately obvious that he wasn’t going to insult my intelligence. The devil’s in the details, and you really have to pay attention. Visually, it’s the subtle flourishes of the serifs in the font he used, it’s the way the violence unapologetically bounces off the page, with splashes of red amid black and white sequences. Textually, it’s the subtle way that a man watching a car drive off out a window is a seamless device used to transition to the next scene, it’s the way he informs you without any exposition whatsoever, that a daughter is dead, a divorce is in the works, and dirty deeds are afoot.

There are many writer’s cheats you can use to avoid overt exposition, but Chamberlain does it the old fashioned way, the hard way for the writer, but the best way for his audience – he lets you listen in on a story already in progress, one in which you haven’t been given all of the facts. The happenings aren’t directed at you the reader, you’re merely a voyeur trying to piece it all together. In terms of dialogue, Chamberlain’s characters pause, they interrupt each other, and they’re funny without sounding like they’re spouting a rehearsed monologue that’s actually the writer showing off a clever turn of phrase he jotted down in a notebook somewhere. It’s almost as if Chamberlain took the best parts of Brian Bendis and Greg Rucka and forged the two together, to achieve a hard-boiled realistic thriller, with a David Mamet tone to the speech patterns.

Sweets is part blue collar procedural, part David Fincher dark crime/horror (once you learn of the serial nature of the crimes), and hits a wide range of hot button social issues, from divorce to poverty, to post-Katrina affectation, bird flu, political infighting on the job, alcoholism, corruption, and the unique heartbreak of parents outliving their children – all in one issue! To say the book is intricate or multi-layered or compact with ideas feels like an understatement. It’s clear that Chamberlain has put in the time to create a rich tapestry that feels like an artistic response to the social conditions of the region.

Visually, Chamberlain proves to be pretty versatile as well. Not only do the sepia Earth tones look beautiful, but they provide an emotional core to a fairly bleak reality. There’s even a flashback sequence that’s done in an altered style, which bears some similarities to Rob Guillory’s work on Chew (and there is an early Easter egg noting the existence of this book). Chamberlain seems to come from a school of visual style that reminds me of artists like Matthew Southworth, Michael Lark, Michael Gaydos, Alex Maleev, or even Ashley Wood’s early work on Sam & Twitch. It’s probably not coincidence that the names I just rattled off are primarily associated with their crime work, and Chamberlain can easily hold his own with this roster of talent.

I thought it was interesting that the book opens with the recipe for a Southern dessert stalwart, pecan pralines. One one hand, it’s simply a clever bit of foreshadowing to the serial nature of the crimes the cops eventually contend with (perhaps a nod to the intro of David Fincher's SE7EN). Reading the sequence a bit deeper though, it’s telling to note the intensity comparisons to the noir genre. One of the hallmarks of noir is to saturate the story with an excess of certain thematic qualities. For anyone who’s sampled pecan pralines and tasted this Southern decadent delight, they are extremely rich, almost excessively sweet, made primarily with sugar and butter. As mama always told us, an excess of anything can be harmful, and the analogue linking the dessert to the danger lets us know about the bittersweet intentions of the story. This was one of the better finds at SDCC this year, and you can count me all in. The new name in crime comics is Kody Chamberlain. Grade A.

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