Outlaw Nation

by Kevin Mathews


Outlaw Nation

(Vertigo Comics)

“Vertigo was launched in 1993 to offer innovative graphic stories to adult readers of non-traditional comics. These psychologically compelling, cutting-edge titles have tremendous range, from science fiction to horror to dark fantasy.” From the Vertigo web page.

Vertigo, an imprint of comics book market leader DC Comics targeted at more sophisticated readers — well, more than your average 14-year-old male, has its roots in the swamp. Or to be more precise, Swamp Thing. Created by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson in the early 1970s, the premise revolved around the tragic tale of scientist Alec Holland who had been transformed into a hideous bog creature and had lost his wife to a murderous rival after an experiment went wrong. Casual B-movie buffs may recall the dreadful film adaptation which starred Adrienne Barbeau and the comic book never fared much better. Perhaps that is why, in the early ‘80s, the moribund title was turned over to a relatively unknown British writer named Alan Moore.

Moore, with virtually his very first American comic book, spun Swamp Thing and the entire industry on its head. In “The Anatomy Lesson,” Moore revealed Swamp Thing’s true origin — he was not Alec Holland but a sentient plant that mimicked human form and believed that it was Alec Holland. Moore raised Swamp Thing from the hackneyed horror cliché of a monster trying to regain his humanity to a poetic love story between Swamp Thing, now re-defined as an earth elemental, and Abigail Arcane, the niece of his greatest enemy. What distinguished Moore’s 43-issue run from anything any other previous comic book writer had done was that Moore approached Swamp Thing, not strictly as a comic book with its genre limitations but as ART. Furthermore, Moore drew from external sources for inspiration (film, literature) not merely cannibalizing decades of horror comics.

The critical and commercial success of Swamp Thing led directly to the creation of the Vertigo line, to appeal to this new audience that Moore had almost single-handedly created. In its seven years of existence, Vertigo has continued to produce writer-driven comics that push the boundaries of illustrated fiction. Most significantly, with writers from Britain & Ireland. Writers like Grant Morrison (Animal Man/Doom Patrol/Invisibles), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Garth Ennis (Preacher), Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan) and Jamie Delano (Hellblazer).

Delano in fact, first came to prominence with Hellblazer, which concerned John Constantine, a character created by Moore within the pages of Swamp Thing. Hellblazer, which remains Vertigo’s longest running comic book, is best remembered for Delano’s harsh but honest portrayal of Constantine in its first fifty issues as the middleman in the war between heaven and hell, perfectly willing and able to play both sides at once. After Hellblazer, Delano embarked on various shorter projects but never appeared willing to undertake a long term continuing series until now. That series is Outlaw Nation.

Originally entitled The Great Satan, the inspiration behind Outlaw Nation (and its chief protagonist Story Johnson) comes from Naked Lunch writer William Burroughs’ concept that envisioned “a world peopled either by ‘Johnsons’ or ‘shits’ — good guys versus bad — the stand-up American outlaw spirit versus the venal sneak, the independent individual against the corrupt establishment.”

Quite simply, Outlaw Nation represents the USA and while it’s not evident how the analogy plays itself out at this early stage, it’s clear that Delano is taking aim at the dark heart of America with this series. Told from the perspectives of first person, our “hero” Story Johnson, MIA in Vietnam for the last 25 years and equally crucial, Rosa, the Asian-American girl of Vietnamese descent who happens to be carrying Johnson’s grandchild, this introductory issue skips from present to past and back again frantically, dropping little clues and making references to American history. A strong undercurrent of family ties surfaces now and then, the hint of the great love-hate relationships all relatives have to accept, not to mention greatly dysfunctional units.

But much more than is Delano’s strident sub-text of the writer creating his reality as seems apparent from a powerful episode between Johnson and War Baby his deaf-mute Vietnamese mate. After all, the past is very much a subject of interpretation, the written word often enshrining half-truths, misconceptions and outright lies.

Croatian artist Sudzuka’s linework is a tad cartoony for Outlaw Nation‘s gritty subject matter though its simple naivety may belie and better contrast the tale it is conveying. However, that’s no doubt that his faces are spot on to deliver characterizations – from Story Johnson’s Castro dead-ringer visage to Rosa’s sweet Asian features – the narrative flows smoothly.

As an opening salvo to whet the appetite, this issue succeeds on counts, as Story Johnson returns to the land of his birth to face new challenges, his journey will no doubt provide Delano with the prefect vehicle to express his views, opinions and analysis of the state of the union in the new millennium.

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