(Image; US: 21 Sep 2011)
The gun-wielding thug at the center of Near Death is a bit more complex than your average degenerate who has found his way to “the light”. The new, creator-owned Image series from writer Jay Faerber explores the path of a hitman named Markham, who takes a bullet and experiences the afterlife—or something like it—when his heart stops on the operating table. From there, we’re asked to sympathize with a guy who suddenly changes tack after trading the lives of countless people for a steady paycheck.
Italian artist Simone Guglielmini’s hazy two-page spread from the first issue of Near Death is bathed in blood and warm sun rays. These characterize Markham’s enlightening “dream”, where a score of men, women, and children stand before him in a meadow, prominent bullet holes in plain view. This reinforces the story’s chief plot point: that Markham has been in the enforcer game for years, and the time has finally come for him to “balance the scales”, as he puts it.
Issue #1’s “dream” pages comprise a startling and resonant scene. The story unfolds within the confines of a limited, tranquil color palette and minimal copy. Here, we see Markham’s first hit victim, blood trickling down to his white collar, as he is casually confronted by the hired gun, who explains that he’s “got a lot to make up for” if he’s hoping for a comfortable afterlife. The following several issues work well as compact, standalone pieces, but the overarching story line is strong and unconventional.
Jay Faerber’s crime drama evolves upon somewhat of a supernatural premise. The visions of hell that Markham experiences in Near Death #1 don’t materialize in any subsequent issue. However, the rationale for righting his wrongs is rooted in that initial journey downward, where Markham encounters the people he’s put into the ground. Because hitmen aren’t generally seen conversing with the dead, this isn’t the kind of work for which better known crime comics are heralded. Additionally, in comparison to those figures in literary history who did have a quick look at death, and then raced home to get their affairs in order, the light that Markham sees isn’t all that bright.
Thuggishness is still largely afoot in Near Death—though occasionally an overt turn of phrase relating to the reformation Markham experiences will spring up, it isn’t as if Faerber’s gangster has completely upended his traditional methods of beating information out of people, or ending lives. This is the tale of a hardened triggerman changing his ways, but the narrative draws from a sense of grit as much as it does from the “moral path” ahead. Markham continues in recklessly pissing off detectives, unloading his weapon at will, and crossing his former employers as frequently as the weather changes, all “for a pretty selfish reason.” Selfish? Sure, but it’s reason enough to return to what is becoming an increasingly distinctive take on crime comics in Near Death.
Near Death #6 goes on sale 21 March 2012.