Friday, February 19, 2016

Recommended Reading for 2/19: Nixon's Pals

In my trades and back issue reading, I've been on a Joe Casey kick lately, and I realized that I had never written about anything Joe Casey before, and I knew that immediately needed to be remedied, as Casey writes some of the most interesting comics on the racks, with his work often about the intersection between current culture, technology, corporations, and super-heroes. His work is sometimes deconstruction (Automatic Kafka and The Intimates), sometimes straight superhero with a twist (Adventures of Superman and Cable), sometimes a mix of the two (Wildcats and Uncanny X-Men), and sometimes something completely unique and interesting (Godland). The book I picked today is a perfect example of Casey's ability to bend and mix genres together in ways that few other writers can: Nixon's Pals, the story of the parole officer for Los Angeles's super-powered criminal set.

Things aren't going great for Nixon Cooper at the beginning of the graphic novel. He's fighting with his wife about the odd hours his job makes him keep, and he's about to do an after hours home visit on one of his parolees who has missed a couple of check ins. And when Nixon goes in to check on The Bricklayer, you quickly learn something about him: while he might work with super-powered criminals, Nixon doesn't have any super-powers of his own, as The Bricklayer basically beast the crap out of him, breaks his arm, and when the house comes down on them, it leaves Nixon far worse for wear.

Nixon's status as an everyman is part of what makes him such an interesting protagonist in this world of supercreeps. He's a good guy who really wants to do right by his parolees, especially when set against his coworker Carlisle who happily admits to enjoying smacking around his parolees. But the couple of days that the story takes place over are those kind of days that push an everyman beyond the point of no return, Falling Down style. He finds out his wife is cheating on him with a supercriminal; all his parolees seems to be sliding back towards their criminal past; and he's having these frighteningly realistic alien abduction nightmares. It's a bad day.

If Nixon wasn't a sympathetic protagonist, you might take some glee in watching his life collapse, but he is one, and so you're rooting for him. But he's also a realistic protagonist, and that means he isn't always the nicest guy. As much as his wife tries to explain to him what was going on with her to get her to the point where she'd cheat, he won't listen; as a matter of fact he's cold and bordering on cruel when dealing with her. It's not an easy situation to be in, but he's not helping it. And eventually he reaches the point where he feels like the system just isn't working, so violence becomes his answer. This is a super-powered character comic, so you expect a degree of action, but this isn't a guy who's fighting the good fight because that's what he does, this is a guy out for revenge much of the time, but while still trying to do right by the people who are his parolees. It's a slippery slope he spends much of the book sliding down.

And in the end, he doesn't solve his problems legally, but he confronts supervillains with supervillains, and he gets a new and different life. It's a noir ending, where not even the hero walks out unscathed in the best noir traditions. I write often about Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip's comic book noirs, and my favorite is still Sleeper from Wildstorm (Joe Caeey also worked on a lot of great Wildstorm titles in that imprint's salad days), and if you're a fan of that book and its grey morality and crazy supervillains, this is right up your alley.

Surrounding Nixon are a group of parolees who are fascinatingly conceived supervillains. Sputter Kane is a man who can't miss with a firearm, and really wants to go straight. Maxfield Reactor is a guy walking around in a super-powered iron lung that gives his super strength and vents rocket fuel from his *ahem* derriere. And Alcehma is a former call girl turned stripper who has faces in her breasts and nipples where her eyes should be. In case you didn't get it before, this is NOT an all ages comic. There is also mad scientist Hugo Blivion, whose parole ended and he's out and about who has a real problem with Nixon, and is behind one of the book's most disturbing sequences.

That sequence is the continually more graphic and brutal alien abduction visions that Nixon experiences. Blivion is demonstrating his dream invasion tech on Nixon for the mob to see, and is doing it by trying to slowly drive Nixon insane with visions of alien experimentation on him. They're truly creepy and disgusting as they should be.

Chris Burnham, best known to me before this for his run on Batman Incorporated, is the artist in the book, and he really does great work here. He keeps Nixon looking like a normal guy even when surrounded by some truly obscene and bizarre figures. I don't know if the book was done full script or Marvel style, and how many of these villains sprang from his mind and how many were specifically designed by Casey, but if you factor in the tons of background villains in the restaurant where Nixon has his final confrontation with Black Eyed Pete, the never convicted super crook whose been sleeping with his wife, you know this is a guy with a wild imagination for grotesques in the best way.

But if you've stuck with this piece this long, here's a bonus recommendation, sine Nixon's Pals isn't the only Casey/Burnham collaboration. And as much about character as that book is, Officer Downe, a one-shot from Image from a couple years ago, is in many ways the opposite. So much of Nixon's Pals is understanding and liking Nixon, while Officer Downe is just a madhouse of chaos and violence.

Officer Downe is an immortalish LAPD officer who goes out and fights crime by killing it. He's brutal, packs a lot of firepower, and doesn't fear death. Everytime he dies, the collective telekinetic power of the world's most powerful psychic puts him back together and resurrects him, and he goes out and fights another day. It's one of the most brutal and bloody comics I've ever seen, and is told with a slapstick sensibility to it. In an interview at the back of the issue, Casey says he and Burnham worked off each other in a free form process, so this insanity is both of their brainchilds. There's not a lot more to say about this book other than if you enjoy a comic that's Judge Dredd meets Deadpool meets Axe Cop, then this is one to try. And a film is in post production starring Kim Coates (Sons of Anarchy) as Officer Downe.

Oh, fun fact, Joe Casey is part of the Man of Action collective, best known probably for Ben 10 and Generator Rex, and both of these books were published under the MoA banner, so for those of you who think that MoA is just for kids... yeah, not so much.

Nixon's Pals and Officer Downe are available at better comic and book stores in a nice premium hardcover format that expands on their original releases.

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