[31 January 2014]
PopMatters Comics Editor
Was that Taylor Momsen walking naked into hell? Catching up on Death Sentence, catching up on the brio and the gusto and the Sexual Akira that is issue #4, rattles loose and old memory. A memory of the first time of my having seen the official music for “Make me Wanna Die,” by the Pretty Reckless, the back-in-2010 new band Taylor had fallen in with. Months before I like you had seen the viral video which cast Taylor as a kind of nouveau-riche Debbie Harry, drifting lazily along through what purported to be the reignited punk scene in NYC. Taylor’s transformation from good girl in the scenes of Gossip Girl (well, as good a girl as can be expected on Gossip Girl) seemed to be consolidated in just that one video. Consolidated and vindicated. The raw power of not a makeover but a reboot was in the air. This was the new Taylor, a far cry from the chubby little girl in that Grinch movie, and something that hinted at a kind of punk rage that festered beneath what must clearly have been a veneer for Taylor on GG.
But it turns out that the transformation wasn’t the arresting thing. Not really. And especially not after our last year with Miley Cyrus, a year of extreme transformation that Miley shared in the most public of venues. The really interesting thing about the Pretty Reckless music video, the official video, and the especially interesting thing after Miley, was why the raw, cheap, manufactured energy that that viral video did so well, needed to be funneled into something as safe and predictable and relatable as an over the top 30 Seconds to Mars video that has plot and protagonist and all the usual codes of commodification. (Maybe I’m being a little unfair to 30 Seconds, it’s not as if One Republic or Katy Perry or even, y’know, Miley Herself doesn’t dip into that commercialist pantomime.)
But the memory of that distinction between “Make Me Wanna Die’s” viral video and its official video is shaken loose by Death Sentence not so much out of a sense of “Well, Monty ain’t selling out,” as it is by “Well Monty’s tackling that problem directly.” Monty being Monty Nero, writer of Death Sentence who along with artist Mike Dowling produced a masterwork, we felt last year.
We said some very polite and clever things about the opening chapter of Death Sentence, identifying Monty’s facility at producing a Dostoevskian or Dickensian narrative that confronted existential angst at a societal level. But the truth is, I only said those things because I was being polite, because I was staggered by the sheer scale of genius and audacity of what Monty hath wrought. The truth is, I didn’t yet understand the full scale of what Monty set out to do and was now quietly achieving. He hadn’t equalled Dickens, he perfected Dickens.
Just to catch you up.
Long before anything even happens, as far as story goes, Death Sentence inducts us into a world riddled with the strangest STD ever. The G+ strain will end you life, should you contract it, and end it within six months. But the disease will also give you superpowers. Honest-to-goodness superpowers.
What proved so tantalizing about Death Sentence at first was the idea of Death Sentence itself. Think of it this way. It’s AIDS with a giant payday. Which meant that Monty and Mike could (and in fact did) tackle the larger issue of a Doomed Generation.
The Doomed Generation was that generation (Gen Y?) that was born at just the right time to see the living memories of the sexual and hedonistic excesses of the late 60s and right through the 70s (think of the original punk scene) play out in their childhoods. Naturally the expectation of this Doomed Generation would be that a similarly ramped-up hedonism would hold sway when they themselves came into childhood’s end. (Even if such hedonism would look more like Metallica and Guns ‘N Roses than Led Zeppelin.) But of course, this was not to be. HIV pretty much saw to that, particularly to curtailing the sexual excesses.
By the mid- to late-‘90s, when a Doomed Generation that witnessed first hand the death of Disco without being able to understand its implications came into majority, things were far more sedate. Self-restraint seemed to be the watchword of the day. Kurt Cobain seemed to direct us all to a deeper more spiritual kind of plenty.
On its surface, Death Sentence dealt with exactly that existential angst. How can we be formidable again? Be hedonistic vikings thrilling in the exuberance of lives lived to the fullest? But that Dickensian surface was exactly that, just the surface of it. In truth. What Death Sentence was more complex in a literary sense. Monty Nero was attempting to reconcile the politics of writing.
There are at least two grand political traditions that literature offers, Dear Reader. For the first, think of every writer you love and admire. Everyone from William Shakespeare to Victor Hugo to Yukio Mishima to Dickens himself. The lesson for the first political grand narrative is that history is the history of greatness as evidenced by great people. And all that’s changed over the course of time has been that the greatness has gotten smaller (from a King invaded France to an orphan on the streets of London), and that the stage that is the world has gotten larger. But think of every other writer you adore and fear. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Mailer, Thompson (both Thompsons, in fact), Poe. The lesson from these writers is that everything always tends to psychological interiority. Towards the inner, the smaller, the self.
Dostoevsky’s great insight was to bridge to the former by leveraging the latter. Nero’s great insight was to reverse that process. To show how the personal only makes sense in light of the grander social and psychosocial landscape.
It’s no surprise then, that what we see playing out in the pages of issue #4 is a kind of Sexual Akira. Otomo’s Nobel-worthy 2,400-plus page saga about unbuilding a society that was founded on a lie, becomes the only meaningful way of describing exactly that hedonistic excess seen on the page. But beyond that. We get the meaningful story of Verity’s quixotic Quest (capital cue) to resist the ravages of a flagging biology (we’re all going to die, Verity realizes, but just, y’know, Verity’s going to die first) by producing art that will last. And the most tantalizing twist yet? Right at the end of chapter four, that artwork takes the form of biology.