[19 July 2012]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Character motivation and voice are key elements to any type of story. Without them most stories fall apart very quickly. We need heroes with points of view and reasons for the main action of a plot. Stories can happen to them, but eventually who they are and how they react must come through or the entire effort is lost. And when you’re working with a group of characters, say in a loose procedural like Oni Press’ latest series Bad Medicine, then each character must have their own voice and not be carbon copies of each other.
Like one of Oni’s other excellent series, The Sixth Gun, Bad Medicine launched on Free Comic Book Day with its first issue. For Free. And it wasn’t just a throwaway issue. It launched the series, introducing the main characters and having them tackle their first case as a loose group of medical and law enforcement experts. It was a very smart marketing move in terms of introducing readers to new series. Critically it has no bearing, but establishing a track record certainly helps put books on people’s radars.
While certainly deriving from the case-of-the-week type procedurals made popular by network television, Bad Medicine after now three issues has found a certain amount of footing in being able to deliver something familiar yet also compelling. That effort begins with firmly establishing a diverse cast with strong personalities that don’t overlap, but complement and also drive narrative conflict. It’s a solid foundation created by writers Nunzio Defilippis and Christina Weir, allowing each case—there have been two so far—to be alluring without having to carry the entire comic.
Our lead character Dr. Randal Horne is the right amount of enigmatic soothsayer and redemption seeking genius. When he’s not thinking things through, he’s talking to a vision of a patient whose death he caused. Dr. Hogarth is our comic relief and voice of practicality. Dr. Teague is our doubting Thomas and skeptic. Detective Huffman is our muscle and woman of action. Together they are an investigation team for the CDC and form an interesting dynamic.
Horne is a genius, but his arrogance and lack of humility has led him to a point in his life where he’s shunned by the mainstream medical community. His previous sins are not visible to everyone, but are not too far behind his conscious. This is not a character who has completely recovered from the tragedy he caused, even though his self-imposed exile has given him a focus. We’ve seen this character-type countless times before, but his voice and interactions with the people around him—living and dead—is quite original. His speech changes when he talks to his new colleagues versus when he’s talking with his “mystical” guide. It’s a subtle movement in the rhythm of his cadence, but it certainly gives him an air of relevance and purpose.
The case that begins in issue three involves werewolves and the denizens of a small Maine town. While this would normally illicit comparisons to the X-Files, and Horne and Huffman have potential for the Mulder-Scully vibe, the book centering on medical investigation works to make it different. That’s not to say the comparison isn’t relevant, but rather that it’s part of the book’s familiarity which allows a fairly immediate connection.
The artwork by Christopher Mitten is loose, somewhat sketchy but completely controlled and framed. Mitten is not trying to force the story into big panels although the heavy dialogue could call for that approach. His panels and layout flex with the story drawing reader eyes like a cinematographer would with a camera. Yes, it’s a tradition flow, but the restraint to balance the story with visual and dialogue is a tough task given the nature of the book and the automatic want to build excitement.
Bad Medicine is hardly an exciting book. It’s a slow progression of a case, although the book does have its moments of action. What keeps it compelling and worth going back to is the diverse cast of characters and the mixing of the familiar with the new. There’s a foundation forming with the investigative team that allows the standards of the procedural story to not feel like clichés. The tropes are certainly there in strong supply, but the character voices and well written dialogue make the book far more interesting than many would expect.