Over 30 years ago, Sergio Leone and a host of other Italian directors re-imagined and revitalized the Western, creating something that was darker than its predecessors, with heroes that were more anti-heroes than the do-gooders of yonder. Today, shows such as HBO’s Deadwood and comics such as Vertigo’s Loveless are revitalizing the Western once again, and just like thirty years ago they are doing so by making their stories, characters, and themes darker and grittier.
Loveless tells the tale of Wes Cutter, a former Union Army soldier who has returned from the remnants of the Civil War to find his home in the hands of the American Government. It is a tale that is being dubbed a “Noir Western” as its content at times is quite dark and invokes a style reminiscent of noir fiction. It is this darkness, however, that makes the story one of the most original and engaging in comics, or any medium this year. Azzarello’s sharp dialogue, reminiscent of David Mamet’s films, gives this western a feel that makes it as relevant as anything set in the 21st century. It is also interesting to note that he is setting the tale in a dark as well as forgotten time in American history, the period right after the Civil War. Azzarello shows a country that did not just return to the glory and charm that perhaps some text books would like to have you believe; rather, it shows a country still divided, where to the victors go the spoils. There are many similarities between this and how Germany was crippled after signing the treatise of the First World War.
The term “Noir Western” may be new, but in terms of its dark content, the Western has been on the verge of arriving at this destination for the past 40 years. In its early days, the Western was mainly about heroes and villains, and, of course, John Wayne. Then the 1960s happened, and so did Sergio Leone, the man who took Clint Eastwood and turned him into one of the Western’s first anti-heroes with the “Man with No Name” trilogy. It was these movies, and Leone’s westerns afterwards, that created a darker mood, showing the protagonists as less heroic and more self-serving. Leone and the other Spaghetti Western directors took their “heroes” into new directions, and even American Westerns became grittier, most notably Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.
One movie that did take the genre into not only a darker world, but also deconstructed the genre was Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It removed the Hollywood glamorization of Westerns and showed what both they and the darker Spaghetti Westerns really were: movies about murderers where things were not always black and white. Today, television and comics have decided to pick up where Leone, Peckinpah and Eastwood left off, and decided to take the grittiness up another notch.
Westerns have always been very visual mediums, and Marcelo Frusin only adds to this by creating gorgeous artwork that invokes both the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, and even film noir, which keeps the book visually in tune with Azzarello’s writing style. Frusin has to depict some very brutal scenes at times, including the rape of Wes Cutter’s wife, Ruth, and he successfully projects the brutality of the moment. It should also be noted that flashbacks are used quite heavily in order to fill in the back-story of the main characters. Sometimes they are given their own panels, other times the flashback blends in with what is going on at that moment. It is in those instances that Frusin and Azzarello show their talent, and prove that while it may not be the easiest read, this is a book that definitely rewards several readings.
It is quite apparent that Azzarello and Frusin have done their homework and want to portray the post-Civil War South as accurately as possible. At the same time, they also show the influences that the Spaghetti Western has had on them by how the story is paced and the look of the panels, including the close-ups on characters that build to a shoot-out. It has transferred the Spaghetti Western to a new medium and added some noir along the way to make something that is as engaging as it is original.
Loveless is by far one of the most complicated stories out there today, in any medium. One cannot grasp all of the details in a single read, and certainly there are things that have not yet been explained but surely will be as the series progresses. For some, this is a bit of a deterrent, and yet this is exactly the type of comic that shows it is just as literate and well-written as anything else in the pop culture medium. What makes it so original in a genre that seemed to run out of steam almost 30 years ago is that it has a gritty tone that adds to the look and feel of the story. The best part is that this is just beginning and Azzarello and Frusin have a while to hone their story and hopefully make this one of the best Vertigo titles not only right now, but overall.