Words don't come easy...
More than a decade ago, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn graced the screen-time of HBO. The cartoon, in contrast to the live-action movie a few years prior, was slick and lush. An opulent essay in the Puritanical devil that still stalks the streets of America, and the darkness we must all battle with if we are to grasp the full scope of freedoms the Home of the Brave has to offer. Spawn: The Animated Series was Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train writ large, particularly the chapter on bluesman Robert Johnson.
Todd McFarlane’s Spawn was also definitive of secondary characters, police detectives Sam Burke and Max ‘Twitch’ Williams. A scene where an overworked Sam knowingly sips from a cup of coffee used earlier as an ashtray springs readily to mind. These kinds of scenes demonstrated the emergence of Sam & Twitch as a concept. Sam & Twitch was not merely background set-dressing to Spawn’s murky and elusive world of human evil, Sam & Twitch was about something.
With the 1999 launch of the Image comicbook Sam & Twitch the detectives themselves where thrust into the foreground. Despite the cartoonish exaggeration of the artwork (which was itself a genius counterpart to the ongoing horror the duo faced), Sam & Twitch would prove to be a drama of overload. Writer and lettering layout artist, Brian Bendis, would produce panels overburdened by dialogue. Having to read and reread the panels, slowing down the reading tempo to a crawl, would mimic in the audience the weariness experienced by the lead characters.
By issue #20, when McFarlane himself replaced Bendis as writer and brought on Alex Maleev as artist for the series’ final storyarc, the fictional duo would find their title rebooted as a hard-core, street level full-blown homicide story. For this storyarc Sam & Twitch would have more in common with NYPD Blue than with the Batman spin-off, Gotham Central.
With The Writer, the new Sam & Twitch four issue mini-series, writer Luca Blengino and artist Luca Erbetta work in perfect tandem, delivering on the best parts of the fictional duo’s earlier evolution. That same stark, visceral nurturing of the original TV show is there. The overloaded panels constructed by Bendis’ dialogue is there. And the hard edged, hard-boiled serial killer manhunt from the McFarlane/Maleev era is there. But Blengino and Erbetta also throw in their own unique flavor.
Blengino begins with a slow simmer of character. The detectives are overworked, again. They are pushed about by bureaucracy, again. The media is hounding them, again. And they are the only ones who seem to care enough to need to solve the case of young homeless, immigrant. And there is a cold-front moving in. The worst weather to hit New York in years. Winter Storm Warnings have effectively put the city under siege.
With all players jockeying for promotion or fame around the case of the serial killer dubbed The Writer, Sam & Twitch have their work cut out for them. The tension (and the dread at the killer’s next strike) is almost palpable.
But the artwork is exceptional as well. Erbetta returns to the slightly more cartooned representations of the characters, and like Hergé‘s Tintin books, offers near photo-realistic background. The masking effect kicks off from the very beginning. But Erbetta’s radical insight is to conceive of the tight, cramped spaces of the investigation, in long, sweeping panels that span the length of the page. Imagine watching an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets shot with the same sweeping vistas as The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
By borrowing from the best parts of earlier versions of Sam & Twitch, and successfully adapting these to their own material, and by offering a unique and disciplined vision, Blengino and Erbetta produce the best version of the characters thus far. That drama of values that has always been simmering just beneath the surface, a drama Bob Dylan might in recent days refer to as “Workingman Blues”, has never been more purposively detailed. Sam & Twitch: The Writer deserves to be read, and reread.