Thursday, May 5, 2016
Recommended Reading for 5/5: Term Life
So, last Friday, I'm collapsed on the couch, watching TV, and one of those ads you see for, "Now playing on Direct TV Cinema, the same day as in theatres," comes on, and it's a commercial, so I'm barely paying attention. But somewhere around the end of the commercial I looked up, because this sounded familiar. And when the title came up, I was running to my shelves, because I knew it was. And lo and behold, there is a comic book based movie that came out that no one was talking about! You'd think, in this day, and age, adding, "Based on the Graphic Novel" would have been somewhere in the trailer, but whatever. So, I reread the book, having remembered liking it, and I decided to make it this week's recommended reading.
Term Life is an original graphic novel published by Image back in 2011. Written by A.J. Lieberman (who I've written about before, as he wrote the quirky Cowboy/Ninja/Viking) and drawn by Nick Thornborrow, it's the story of Nick Barrow (a character name the writer had long before he met the similarly named artist), a guy who plans heists and sells the plans to crews to pull off. When a heist he sells to the son of a Russian mob kingpin leads to the death of said son at the hands of dirty cops who set up the heist and slipped the info to Nick, Nick is on the run from the Russians and the cops, and knows he has no way out, so he makes a Hail Mary: he takes a million dollar life insurance policy out on himself, making Cate, the daughter he hasn't seen in a decade, the beneficiary. But when the Russians catch wind that Nick has a daughter, Nick grabs Cate and it's a whirwind road trip so Nick can survive the twenty-one days until the policy kicks in, while still trying to find out how everything went so far south.
The plot of Term Life seems simple enough, and it's a pretty classic set-up for a crime story with the protagonist caught between two rival crooked gangs and trying to find his way out of it. But the difference is in the nuance here. Nick isn't trying to find his way out. He knows he's dead. The life insurance policy is the clock counting down to zero here, and Nick just wants to make it to that. The whole book has an interesting relationship with time. While there is a linear spine of "the present" scenes shift not just around in space, but in time, and not in the traditional flashback way. A scene may pop up that informs the scene before it on the page that takes place well before that prior scene. It keeps you guessing and thinking, keeps you analyzing exactly what is going on. And in most cases, the time and place shifts are announced by a big banner with a character name or a location, so you do know when these changes happen so it's not confusing to the reader. One exception to this is one of the big twists at the end of the book, which is cleverly done as a reverse angle of an earlier scene that was structured to mislead the readers into thinking one thing while something else is going on; it's like the structure allows the creators to play a game of three card monte on the reader.
Nick is a charming lead. He's a crook, no doubt, and he doesn't make excuses for it. When Cate asks him why he does what he does, his response is simple, "Only thing I'm good at." It would be easy to play on the trope of him being the hands off criminal and have him be squeamish and awkward when it comes to dealing violence, but he's not. When the Russians come after Cate, he shoots them dead without compunction. But he doesn't revel in the violence, and he tries to talk and think his way out of pretty much all the situations he's in before resorting to violence.
Cate starts out the book as a sort of typical, rebellious, snotty teenager, but the more you see her, the more you realize how tough she's had it: no dad and an alcoholic mom who leaves her home alone for weeks at a time at the age of thirteen so she can go detox. And now her dad shows up, uninvited, and men are shooting at them. The slow building of the relationship between her and Nick is the emotional center of the book, and the more time we spend with Cate, the more rounded she becomes, and the more you root for her and Nick to make it; the scene where she finds out about the life insurance policy and Nick's plan is heartbreaking as you see the two have developed a real love for each other.. But this is pretty much a noir, and so you know a happy ending isn't in the cards for everyone.
And while Nick and Cate are the central, most fleshed out characters, the supporting characters and villains of the book are also interesting. Viktor, the Russian mobster after Nick, isn't given a lot of character, but that's ok; he is what he needs to be, a big scary mobster. The Tolstoy brothers, hitmen brothers who work for Viktor, provide some comic relief, as they seem to spend more time punching each other than doing their jobs. Sheriff Braydon, the small town sheriff of a town where Nick and Cate go to lay low, feels like a character who had more going on, and I would have liked to spend more time getting to know him; the same can be said for Chin, Nick's old friend who he used to own a Chinese food restaurant with,
But the highlight of the other characters are the Choirboys, the society of crooked cops who set everything in motion be manipulating Nick and by extension the Russians into stealing evidence against them so they can destroy it and anyone who knows anything about it. Among them, there are two who are key. Matty Miller is the cop who got pinched with the evidence that could send the Choir Boys to jail, and even once it's gone, he's the one having a crisis of conscience, one that will prove deadly for him; in a noir, a conscience gets you killed nine times out of ten. And then there's the big boss; Keenan. Probably the only character who is as good at the game as Nick, he's a cold, calculating bastard, the kind of guy you don't want to get on the wrong side of, and every page he's on is full of tension.
The art for the book suits its gritty crime drama style perfectly. Nick Thornborrow is able to convey the action of the chase and the fights with gusto, and is also able to capture the quieter moments between Nick and Cate. His characters have strong, distinct, faces with a lot of emotion. The backgrounds to most panels are sketchy, which draws the eye more to the action of the characters at the front of a panel, and here feels like a stylistic choice rather than an artist who doesn't feel like drawing backgrounds.
I haven't seen the movie version that drew my attention back to this book yet, and it seems like it was a pretty limited release on the big screen; it is available on Direct TV on demand and for digital download through Amazon and iTunes. The trailer has some dialogue that is lifted right out of the book, and it seems fairly faithful, although it looks like the Russian mob has been replaced by a drug cartel. The cast is pretty a-list, with Vince Vaughan as Nick and Hailee Steinfeld as Cate, Bill Paxton as Keenan, and Terence Howard as Sheriff Braydon. There seem to bee a few new characters in the film, Jimmy Lincoln, a buddy of Nick's, played by Jon Favreau, and Harper, who works with Nick, played by the inimitable Jonathan Banks, whose appearance in anything elevates it to a must see to me.
Term Life is an exciting, enjoyable crime story with a solid story and emotional center. If you enjoy crime comics, this is a book worth tracking down.
Term Life is in print, so should be available or orderable from any comic shop.