In our review of Death Sentence: London #3, we suggested something both tantalizing and a little salacious: that there is one single page in the issue that propels the book to the status of art.
Here it is, that One Page. It’s the kind of page that becomes the one you’ve been searching for all the while you’ve been reading comics. Whether you were aware of searching for it or not. It’s not obvious to see, most of what you’re looking at requires context.
A good way of looking at Death Sentence: London is to measure it against the very high standard of one of the troika of game changer comics that comes from a generation back, in particular Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins’ Watchmen. (The other players are The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley and Maus by Art Spiegelman). In Watchmen, Moore, Gibbons and Higgins built an alternate history in which superheroes were “real” (costumed avengers, without any real superpowers) Nixon was President well into the dying days of 1985, and the world stood on the brink of nuclear self-annihilation. And there’s a twist in the tale.
The world of Watchmen was teetering far more violently on that nuclear brink because of an arms race in acquiring superheroes. An arms race America won, and an arms race that unofficially suspended the Cold War. The beauty of Moore’s worldbuilding lies in his conceptualization of how actual superheroes stem from an alt history of the publishing industry, particularly the segment of the industry focused on published perpetual fictions in the form of comicbooks. Real life superheroes come from an aggressive comics industry without superheroes. Brilliant, right?
Here’s what the original Death Sentence did. It posited an STD, the G-plus virus, that gifted you with superpowers and, in doing this, guaranteed your death in six months. While Watchmen cast wide the cultural focus of comics, tackling geopolitical hazards of the fading 20th century, Death Sentence affected commentary on loyal readers of comics themselves—the fans. I don’t mean to suggest that the demo of comicbook readers coincide with the demo of those dying from an STD. I do mean, however, that deep in the cultural DNA of Death Sentence and its successor title, there’s a creator in MontyNero who’s struggling with the ways in which the comics industry and the fans have changed since the publication of Watchmen.
To get a sense of what I’m talking about, think of the cultural equations set up in the wake of Watchmen. Great freedom, but at a great price. Of course it depends on how you define “freedom”, but many of the things that comics creators wanted from comics have come trough in spectacular and unexpected ways since Watchmen. Creators who wanted a living wage, who wanted to be able to participate in the profits of what they were working on despite working for the third party owners of those properties, creators who wanted a space to their creator-owned work to the audiences they built, since Watchmen all these “freedoms” now exist when before they did not. But the price? A smaller, albeit more engaged, audience.
Think of something the legendary Joe Kubert said. “Well, I believe the biggest change to take place in the past two or three years is our audience. Our reader of 30 or 40 years ago was a cross section of the general population. That is, most of our material was sold at newsstands and most people had access to those newsstands or candy stores. The kind of material we were doing was of a general nature to satisfy and be of interest to that kind of audience. As you well know, our audience today is heavily fan-oriented.
Not too long ago—within the last ten years—if you got a very vociferous letter from a fan and followed his suggestions, you knew that sales were going to drop; the fans were in the minority. So whether fans liked or disliked material bore very little relationship to what a general audience would accept. Kubert said this in 1982, while being interviewed by industry giant Will Eisner, for Eisner’s Shop Talk. He’s talking about a cultural moment when direct marketing, and its signature, Local Comics Shops, were first appearing on the scene.
Direct marketing made a lot of the cultural changes in the comics industry possible, by giving fans a platform and a direct voice in the industry. This is the model that MontyNero and artist Martin Simmonds (and earlier on original Death Sentence artist Mike Dowling) dig into, rather than merely creating an alt history of comics publishing.
Equally, the focus of Death Sentence isn’t something as expansively geopolitical as the need for nuclear disarmament. Instead, MontyNero focuses on something more angst-ridden, more existential and for more personal. For the fans the “price” has always been the expansion of a trust network beyond the intellectual properties to include a “Top Ten” of superstar creators. Before direct marketing you’d buy a book for a character, after you’d maybe buy one for a creator as well. Given this expansion of trust, and the changing face of comics distribution, MontyNero tackled the cultural politics of sex and hedonism.
Imagine you’re born some time between 1976 and 1982. Imagine you’d grown up reading comics since you learned to read. But it’s not only comics in your pop culture oeuvre. It’s Ronald Reagan, a movie star that becomes the Commander in Chief, it’s OPEC and the Energy Crisis, it’s Iran. And by the time hard news starts filtering into your media consciousness, it’s HIV and the last days of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism. At least in those early days of HIV, right when you began realizing that somewhere between 14 and 17, you just might be able to live out that same kind of rock hedonism, you’d have to come to terms with the idea that the cultural landscape had changed and you wouldn’t be able to. No rock gods lifestyle for you. There’s a doomed generation feel to a moment that captures simultaneously this reorientation of hedonism with a smaller but more engaged comics audience. MontyNero finds a metaphor for this in an STD that gives you superpowers but kills you. That was original the Death Sentence.
There was a happy accident was well: the timing of the release of the original mini. Death Sentence was released in the pages of CLiNT in the same year that gave us the Arab Spring, the London youth riots, the Greek anti-Austerity riots and Occupy Wall Street’s occupation of Zuccotti Park. It felt like the tensions were boiling over and that there might be a genuine cultural shift towards the better, the more fair and the more just. For an equal tomorrow. But like any bright and obvious crying out for change, the system didn’t correct itself. So the anguish and the anxiety of this maybe being a permanent condition was written into the cultural DNA of Death Sentence.
In the most sincere way then, the question becomes, where do you go next? After Death Sentence produces this monumental touchstone of 21st culture, how do you protract the art you’re producing without diluting its potency? I was very excited at the prospect of Death Sentence: London for exactly this reason. Because it launched MontyNero into an entirely new artistic dilemma—how do you sustain your creative vision? I’m interested in Death Sentence: London because I’m interested in MontyNero as an artist. You don’t get a project from an idea as singular and powerful as Death Sentence, you get a career. What would MontyNero make of his?
This arc brings us back to that One Page, and to where MontyNero has been taking Death Sentence: London to advance it even farther beyond the original mini. Death Sentence has always been about the lived experience of being a member of a Doomed Generation. Whether that lived experience came by way of insular sexualities, or now with the ongoing series, the daily grind of sexual and other kinds of liberation. Do you remember those opening pages of original Death Sentence, how Verity dealt with her boss’s ongoing sexual harassment after discovering she was positive? That’s always been the heart of Death Sentence, and how the idea propelled itself to the level of art.
What’s changed with Death Sentence: London is how very seriously and studiously MontyNero has expanded on the idea of a postapocalyptic existence. After the orgasmic finalé of original Death Sentence, anything is possible in a G-plus world. Anything, including outliving not only the wreckage of the 20th century, but the wreckage of the 21st. On that One Page you see Verity, now Art Girl, crawling from the wreckage of social media. It doesn’t make sense any longer, sitting in a Starbucks, or wherever she’s sitting, invoking a kind of creative intensity, checking Facebook right before you finish page seven, as Patton Oswalt put it.
In the background we have a social media snake oil salesman boosting his reputation—he’s not just any server, he’s the guy who can guess exactly what drinks the couple want. We watch him profit from cheap trickery to boost his standing. (What will I say about that should we find ourselves living under President Trump, I wonder?). In exactly the same way that this cultural system no longer works, it continues to perpetuate itself. This is how Verity, Art Girl, on that One Page becomes the spiritual and thematic center of the evolution of Death Sentence. This is why that One Page is balanced between scenes filled with the loneliness of characters traversing austere but empty government buildings and scenes of intense postcoital intimacy between lovers who lie to each other.
If Nicholas Carr had protracted the central argument of his book, The Shallows and looked to include the real threat the internet poses to our species, a threat of marshaling our neuroplasticity and weaponizing it against us, it would look a lot like Death Sentence: London.