[11 May 2010]
PopMatters Comics Editor
There are no superheroes in the new Boom Studios book Codebreakers. No spandex, no capes. No kids dressed up in masks, inspiring a superhero revolution. Instead, Codebreakers is grounded in the very real world. It reads like an espionage thriller. Flipping the pages of the opening issue is like being immersed in the latest high tech espionage flick. A veritable Bourne Ultimatum or Spy Games or farther back in time, Sneakers or even farther Three Days of the Condor. There really is no doubt that up is down and black is white. Or at least very soon will be.
Series creator Ross Richie offers an almost sedate setting for the opening of the story, an order of things that will soon be disrupted by the demands of genre. The story of Codebreakers (at least for the first issue), revolves around the CRRU, the Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit. This is an office operating out of Quantico, the famed FBI training and command facility.
The story focuses on a single team, whose assignments are all tied to the case being brought against the Provenzano cartel. At first glance, the team seems peopled by pretty standard characters. Donald Foster, the team leader was headhunted by the FBI and snatched away from a promising career as a hacker (cracker, really, Foster was primed to be the ‘bad’ guy). Lindsay Abbot, the hotshot, career-climber whose specialty is linguistic-based code (including body language). Malcolm Whiteweather, the Old Man of the team who back in the ‘70s invented the encryption systems that the FBI now pays him to crack. And Stan, just plain Stan, the genius code-breaker who lives on soda and Doritos. It is Stan who audiences will be lured into thinking of as the protagonist.
Series writer Carey Malloy opens with an interesting gambit, by focusing on Stan as the vehicle for audience investment in the earlier stages of the story. There is a beautiful sequence right at the front. ‘It’s because of the pineapple that he blames me’, Stan mumbles in the moment just prior to waking, and just prior to realizing he is late for work. In a breakneck dash through the morning ritual, and the trek across town to his office, we encounter Stan on the phone with his mom. It’s a usual kind of call a mom would make to a slacker. She has gotten him a job with Grandpa. The job pays well, it will be steady income. But Stan is happy working at Computerworld (Computerworld, Mom, not Computerville). Computerworld is Stan’s private little heaven, his independence. In just a few panels Malloy is able to establish the genre exactly; Stan is Bryan Greenberg in How to Make It in America. Codebreakers is about the Little Train That Could.
Of course, expectations are subverted almost immediately. Even as Stan rushes headlong into the anonymous office block, it becomes perfectly evident that this is not Computerworld. The final clue is the most vital. A sign on the dedicated commuter train that reads: ‘This transport ends at a high security area. Bureau clearance is required at Quantico Station. Ensure you have proper clearance and identification or you will be detained’.
Rather than a slacker-come-good character arc, Malloy is able to illustrate the very necessary deception practiced by CRRU agents. Deceptions practiced even with their loved ones.
However, this is not the opening gambit at all. The gambit lies in the shift of narrator, from Stan to the older, more jaded Don Foster. Pulling off this shift, near the middle of the story, shifting gears from a character arc filled with potential and promise to one of cynical weltschmertz and determined intent, really shifts the base of the espionage genre. While there is definitely a yearning for the slick, camerawork of the modern high-tech thriller, Malloy together with artist Scott Godlewski remind audiences that there is always a human element underneath it all.
Codebreakers then has much in common with the thrillers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, where low-tech effects and shaky camerawork often concealed gems of human emotion and fine storytelling.