“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!”
—William Shakespeare,Richard III, Act V Scene 3
Dark exteriors mirror dark interiors in Michael Avon Oeming & Neil Vokes’ Parliament of Justice one-shot from Image Comics. It is a story filled with lust, hypocrisy, violence, misguided intentions, questionable justice, and questionable motives. In short, it is a very human story.
A masked hero named Parliament watches over a nameless city’s dark streets, protecting it from crime and urban chaos. But it isn’t the crime-fighting that is the focus of this story. The dark alleys of the city are just a backdrop for the dark alleys of the mind.
Oeming’s history is so varied, I never know what to expect from his work. He is most well-known for his artwork on the exceptional Powers, written by Brian Michael Bendis, a comic that explores the world of superheroes from a ground-level view. He is also the man behind Hammer of the Gods, an updated version of Norse and Viking mythology, artist for Bulletproof Monk, a high-adrenaline martial arts story soon to be a major motion picture staring Chow Yun-Fat and Seann William Scott, and creator of the wildly strange world of Bastard Samurai, a psychedelic story about the underground world of Yakuza death matches. With such a broad range of styles, I had no idea what to expect from Parliament of Justice.
Even as I began reading, Oeming continued to confound my expectations at every turn. Set in a timeless Victorian-style setting, complete with funky technology (Parliament patrols the city at night in a strange motorized dirigible), the gothic architecture and shadowy artwork brings to mind classic Batman tales. The relationship between Parliament and his partner, Gypsum, is clearly meant to evoke the old Batman and Robin dynamic, and their initial encounter with the villainous Philistine seems like standard-fare super-heroism. When we learn that, like Batman, Parliament’s alter-ego is an erudite, wealthy socialite, the parallels seem even stronger. But just when it looks like we should settle in for one type of story, everything gets turned on its head.
As we learn more about Parliament and the city he protects, the flaws and imperfections start to become visible. The city, which the hero lovingly depicts as the perfect society, is full of internal conflicts that threaten to tear it apart. While Parliament mingles with the elite, in the streets below the poor, the uneducated, the unwashed masses are struggling to survive. Every act of violence is blamed upon them by the upper classes, who believe themselves to be appointed by God and nature to sit at the top of the food chain. As the story progresses, we see the frustrations of the city’s “dark” side boil over into violence, just as the title character’s own inner demons try to escape.
Neil Vokes captures the many disparate motifs of the story and melds them into a unified and wholly engrossing reality. The action sequences of the first pages evolve perfectly into the gruesome violence that emerges later in the story. The characters are all unique in design, yet still possess a certain archetypal look that makes this a story not just about one person, but about all people and their inherent contradictions.
In a certain sense, Oeming and Vokes aren’t breaking new ground here. Their concepts are not original. As I’ve already stated, the early pages of the book evoke classic Batman images, while later pages possess a feel and look akin to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell. And Oeming is certainly not the first person to go behind the mask and explore these same issues. Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns also asked what could make a man, as flawed as all men are, think that he has the right to dispense justice.
But just because other people may have done something similar before doesn’t mean that Oeming and Vokes haven’t accomplished something special with this story. They have taken familiar ideas and made them unfamiliar again. They’ve created something new out of something tried and true. The last few pages of this story were truly shocking and surprising. Rereading the book, I was amazed to find just how well-crafted it was, how everything that shocked me at the end had been carefully woven into the text from the first page. And isn’t that the purpose of any work of art, to take what has been done, take what you think you know, and confound all your expectations?
My only complaint was that this was a one-shot book, rather than the start of a series. The world that Oeming and Vokes create is fascinating and darkly beautiful. But, perhaps it is for the best that the story ends here. I would rather that they keep me wanting more than water down their creation by artificially stretching it out. I can only hope that Oeming continues to amaze, entertain, and confound readers with his wonderful talent and range.