The High Art of Disownership in ‘Death Sentence: London’

Death Sentence: London is quite possibly the most important work of 2015.

Remember that line from Jerry Maguire? Not that line that everybody remembers, the one about having you at “Hello”, and not the other one either, the comedy and the poignance and the actual pain of showing you the money. But that one right at the very beginning. Well the almost very beginning, the line about the bad pizza as a catalyst for a life-altering event.

The original 2012/13 Death Sentence mini-series addressed exactly the existential crisis that we are the first of generations to not be able to even want everything we want.

Maybe this is a little like that. Maybe it was a bad idea to go back to Cambridge with her while London was lit up by youth culture riots back in 2011. If I hadn’t been in Cambridge, I know I wouldn’t have seen a copy of Tim Harford’s Adapt on the little bookshelf in her bedroom. Maybe this Iconographies would have been different if I hadn’t happened on that Taylor Swift music video on the morning I’m writing this. (As a not-unrelated side-note, there’s something powerful about that video, “Style”, the idea that Swift herself can first become a “white screen” onto which images of nature can be projected, and second images of her paramour. It’s a beautiful spectacle, and a beautiful idea, the kind you want deep down to be true—that we ourselves are a kind of “virtual reality” and that our natures are less important than the content we become media for).

So maybe the Taylor Swift video is my own little piece of Jerry Maguire, my own little slice of bad pizza. Or maybe there’s something fated to all of this.

Either way, it’s hard to read Death Sentence: London, the first issue of which, appearing in June, is also creator Monty Nero and incoming artist Martin Simmonds’s launch of the IP into ongoing monthly comic book territory, and not at some level feel like you need to recover some of the story of Death Sentence just exploded.

Death Sentence, courtesy of writer Nero and artist Mike Dowling, blew onto the scene in the wake of the events of 2011, a year that somehow managed to be both an annus mirabilis and an annus horribilis. It began with the Arab Spring, with events in Tunisia and then Egypt (Egypt was the “Big One”, the one that made us hopeful), then spread through Bahrain, Libya and finally Syria. Wherever it was spread through London, where some government officials began talking about how denuding financial support for youth programs (in the wake of austerity measures after the 2008 financial crisis) left youth feeling vulnerable and isolated and ostracized from mainstream society. And of course, from there it spread to Zuccotti Park, New York, to the Occupy movement.

It scans as just good fortune, mere happenstance, that Levi’s most recent campaign, “Go Forth”, authored by Wieden+Kennedy, captures the exact cultural moment of youth seizing the day. The year 2011 saw the launch of the international campaign for “Go Forth”, a hopeful message of youth trapped in a world growing ever darker, throwing off the shackles of inurement and mass cultural consumption. This time, for the international campaign, the words are courtesy of Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart”, rather than Walt Whitman’s “America” and “Pioneers! O Pioneer’s!” that we’d grown accustomed to since the launch of the American campaign back in 2009.

And coming out of this world, a powerful writer, and a powerful comicbook with a powerful idea—Monty Nero and Mike Dowling’s original Death Sentence. What if, you could catch superpowers through a 100 percent guaranteed, dead-in-six-months STD? Best last six months of your life right? Maybe. This is the cultural terrain the original Death Sentence explored. The Doom in the Doomed Generation, my generation, living in a post-HIV world.

Imagine waking up in the mid-’90s, when HIV was already a thing, and you’ve already had years of government-mandated safe-sex education drilled into you, but worse, that same safe-sex-or-you-die campaign has seeped into the general flow of mainstream society and you know, just know at some visceral level, that that world of Hard Rock excess you aspired when you were young, that world of Guns ‘n’ Roses and Metallica and Poison and Van Halen, that that world was just one you’d never live in. And worse yet, and by all rights, shouldn’t even be one you should even want for yourself anymore.

Remember how quickly Detroit’s finest land-barges from the ’60s and ’70s quickly disappeared in the wake of OPEC and the Energy Crisis as the world transitioned from the ’70s to the ’80s? Exactly the same thing happened to human sexuality transitioning from the ’80s to the ’90s. And all that frustration and anguish and basic disappointment at being the first of generations to not have access to that kind of life of excess, even at a conceptual level (because, let’s face it, not everyone who was single would be able to craft that kind of pure epicurean lifestyle, but it turns out HIV stole even our dream of the very hope of that) began to feel like a little Grand Theft America that took away the basic Promise that comes with being American—that even if you can’t practically get everything you want, you can at the very least want everything you want.

So the original 2012/13 Death Sentence mini-series addressed exactly that existential crisis—that we are the first of generations to not be able to even want everything we want. The idea tied in beautifully with the rallying cries heard in Zuccotti Park; that We Are the 99%, and that the singleminded pursuit of wealth by the 1% and their enhanced means to Rig The System (as both Lester Bangs and Hunter St. Thompson, would describe the concept) have begun making life intolerable for the rest of us. But beyond even that sturdy connection, Nero and Dowling strengthened the iconography of 2011 in the original Death Sentence mini-series by bringing the story full circle to construct an all-out conflict, on the streets of London, no less, between government forces (military, intelligence operatives, police) and civil society. In the science-fictional landscape of the original Death Sentence, London came to look less like the London or even the New York of 2011 and more like the Libya or Cairo or Bahrain from that same year.

So with the release of Death Sentence: London an ongoing monthly series spun out from that original 2012/13 mini, it becomes a fair question to ask, what’s left to tell? The original Death Sentence didn’t end on an irresolvable, if valid, cliffhanger like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (although to be fair, Dick did begin to explore the possibility of The Man in the High Castle being the first in a trilogy as early as the late ’70s, but of course met with an unexpected in 1982). So why should there be a sequel to 2012/13’s original Death Sentence, and in the format of an ongoing, no less? Is it because Monty Nero might be something of a one-hit wonder? Well, no. More the exact opposite of that.

With the original Death Sentence, Nero got professional access to US markets, and US publishers. Returning to the world of Death Sentence speaks more to a core artistic integrity in the Scottish writer—the idea that an earlier artistic vision can be used to meditate on an evolved or perhaps even a mutated one, one from which the artistic vision did not originally emerge.

I could tell you that Death Sentence: London is supercool and that it warrants a good hard look because Art Girl (Verity from the original, who’s now calling herself Art Girl) makes one of the most magnificent appearances since The Question in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again (arguably one of the best moments from that book). Or because, believe it or not, Nero actually has the ambition to take us into the American Heartland, to a ranch outside Austin, Texas and to a Waco-style FBI siege, in a book called London, but that’s B-Movie smoke-screening and misdirection and it’s not worthy of you and it’s not worthy of Nero’s evolution of Death Sentence.

This idea, that high concepts constructed in an earlier period can be developed during later periods and yet still have something meaningful to say about the world of the cultural moment they confront is the heart of comics. Imagine Captain America knocking out Hitler in the ’40s during WWII, then disavowing his Captain America identity during the ’70s in the wake of Watergate, then fighting a politician who weaponized the subprime mortgage crisis in 2009, and you get a sense of the true magic and the true power of ongoing comics—that high concepts can evolve over time, that we can have fictions that are Perpetual Fictions.

This is exactly what Edward Norton was talking about, in a 2008 Under the Influence interview with Elvis Mitchell when he suggested,

…Joseph Campbell, the great philosopher on myth and storytelling, really. He’s got this great point, which is that there really are a limited number of stories and we just retell them over and over and over again. And he says each generation retells those stories for themselves. And he makes this point about transparency which is that the way stories really work are as if you can see through the stories somehow and see how it’s really about you. We made this cop corruption movie called Pride & Glory and I remember saying to the director, “Why do we need to make another New York cop corruption story?”. And he said something astute which is, “Well, I think we need to make our corruption story”. And I knew what he was saying because you can make Serpico in the ’70s and that’s a cop corruption movie for the ’70s. In the sense that what is Serpico really? He’s a beatnik. The character Serpico, Al Pacino in the hat with him living in the Village, it’s transparent for that generation because they see themselves in Serpico. The people of that generation go, “Yeah, he’s one of us”.

But of course great movies tend towards becoming great Cinema and eventually towards becoming great Art. And remakes are rare, and you never really get what you get with comics—the idea of a high concept that’s older than you and that will simply outlast you. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, heck even Spider-Man and Hulk and X-Men are all older than you, and will continue on without you. And for a relative newcomer, in the person of Nero and in the project of Death Sentence, to announce a transformation into perpetual fiction, that’s the real Holy Grail for the comics industry.

Back in the ’90s when Image was founded and creator-rights were fixed permanently on the agenda, and we had a bigger range of comics to choose from and comics sales went through the roof and we thought now comics production could be more democratic and the barrier to entry on making comics would be much, much lower, we were wrong. Because we hadn’t considered the obvious, that the real competition with the Big Two was not sales figures, or lowering the barriers to entry on making comics, but the real competition was a battle against tomorrow, a battle for longevity. Would Spawn and WildC.A.T.s and Witchblade last in the way that Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman had?

Back then in the ’90s only time would tell. But now, with Death Sentence: London Nero, with the sublime artistic visualizations of Simmonds, is undertaking the real challenge of comics, wading straight into that battle against tomorrow, right into the thick of whether or not a high concept can be evolved over time. Think of this as the disownership of Nero’s creative vision—not a writer who’s precious vision demands being honored like High Art, but a creative vision that can infect you like an STD, and give you superpowers, to boot.