Bleeding on the Page
The most succinct way to describe Vertigo’s comic series Loveless is to compare it to HBO’s Deadwood. Though one is graphic fiction, and the other is a now defunct television series, they share something in common: they are both graphically violent cowboy stories. Whereas Deadwood took place in the Western frontier, Loveless is set in a southern town after the Civil War. The Union soldiers have come carpetbagging, and the protagonist is a Confederate vigilante turned sheriff hell-bent on revenge. And so we find our hero-of-sorts, Wes Cutter, spending the majority of the new Loveless trade “Thicker Than Blackwater” doing what he does best: kinda-maybe-sorta protecting the town, and in-a-general-sense not giving-a-fuck about anyone but his Virginia rose, Ruth.
Brian Azzarello made a name in Vertigo with another series, 100 Bullets, and like 100 Bullets, Loveless does a couple things very well and a few significant things much too poorly. Sometimes the two dovetailed in the aforementioned crime series—Azzarello became so consumed with the minutia of double backstabbing and underhanded violence that the plot disappeared under mountains of characters and divergent plotlines. As such, Azzarello’s characters never seem to gel on the page—instead they spend issue after issue with ambiguous motivations before they are wiped out by a gunshot denouement. The advantage of this kind of loose-and-fast playing with characters is that Azzarello has a sense of stylized violence his contemporaries sometimes miss. Contrast 100 Bullets to the recent Punisher Presents: Barracuda and the difference is evident. Azzarello doesn’t require grotesque (and racist) depictions of minorities in order to convey the underbelly of modern criminal society. He just needs a good artist, and a lot of bullets.
So where Loveless works is on the page itself. Marcelo Frusin has an imaginative mind for this kind of comic book work. He matches the mythology of Western tales with Azzarello’s taste for blood. Like Deadwood, the marriage is one made in heaven. The illustrations look like wood cutouts, carved from timber. The pages seem to drip red with setting suns and spliced veins. In fact, red becomes a motif in Loveless for everything of meaning to Azzarello. His character Ruth, who is called the only courageous woman in town, has a head of flaming red hair.
Ruth also has an incessantly referenced rape backstory, though, that betrays Azzarello’s preoccupation with melodrama. Here, Loveless takes a different path from 100 Bullets. In the latter, character backstories were only useful for setting up firefights. In the former, flashbacks incessantly invade the narrative—at times it seems like everything interesting already happened. That feeling is intentional. Azzarello wants the reader to experience the aftermath of war along with his characters, and as such, even the most vicious enemies—in “Thicker Than Blackwater,” a serial killer—did most of their killing in the past. The most horrific moments in Blackwater occur in the old days. The serial killer slaughters a defenseless Union company and then smiles his satanic grin. In the present, though, he’s a business man in the pay of the local company. When events finally do come to a head, they are deliberately drawn. A man takes five panels and one full page to die from a gunshot wounds, and the climactic moment happens completely off-camera—a gunshot merely heard in the distance by a supporting character. Life happens at a slower pace now that the war has ended.
As far as Azzarello’s message that war leaves us incomplete with the past, Loveless is an antiwar story. But Azzarello is also the Quentin Tarantino of comic books. He enjoys violence because it lets him set his toy soldiers up and then knock them down. Doing a Western feels a lot like Tarantino doing a Martial Arts flick (Kill Bill), or a Blaxploitation film (Jackie Brown). It’s a chance to play around with the setting and the themes. So trying to read into Loveless the kind of political metaphor that Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan presented, or commentary that Rick Veitch’s new Army@Love struggles with is a mistake. Azzarello may have one eye on the news, but his story is eventually more in the tradition of Shane than Iraq. Hell, it’s more in the tradition of Shane than John Wayne, either—the romanticization of cowboys is more about their deaths than their lives. There’s enough blood in Loveless to fertilize Georgia’s war-burnt fields. Except that this story isn’t about healing the past, it’s about getting revenge for it in the present.
If “Thicker than Blackwater” adds anything new to the Loveless narrative, it’s that no one is an innocent. During the first trade, “A Kin of Homecoming,” Cutter faced off against the Union bastard soldiers that had plagued his town. But in “Thicker than Blackwater” everyone becomes implicated in the crimes committed during the War. The town is complacent in allowing Ruth’s rape to happen, and even the people not wielding weapons are in the pay of the company. When a couple is found brutally murdered, Cutter asks a member of the town if he knows who did this. The answer is enigmatic: “Yes. No. Anyone.” But though it gives no insight into the plot, it gives an insight into Azzarello’s kinetic violence. Essentially it doesn’t matter in Azzarrelo’s world who kills who. It’s that killing is done frequently, and often in retaliation for other killings. His sense of morality is hidden just underneath the crust of Loveless—bloodshed begets more bloodshed. I doubt he’ll be satisfied until every page of this series is coated with Frusin’s red ink.