Sunday, July 28, 2013

Digging the Goals but Disliking the Results of Loveless

I bought all three trade paperbacks of Loveless at the same time one day a few years back, a pure impulse buy based on almost nothing. I had read most of Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets by then and quite liked it, so his name is likely what drew me to this series, but it wouldn't have been enough for me to get the whole thing. The way I remember it, I had some extra money for one reason or another, there weren't a lot of new comics in the shop I wanted that particular week, and so I thought to myself, "Hey, if I can get this entire series in only three volumes, what the hell?" It was just a 24-issue commitment for the cost of about $45, it was a western by a writer I dug, and paging through it, it seemed to have some interesting artwork. So the full run came home with me.
     I've read it a couple times since then, top to bottom, and what I've noticed about Loveless is this: while a lot of specific scenes and concepts are strong and stick with me, on the whole it's a pretty bad and forgettable book. I think it wants to have more to say than it actually does, about race, war, America, and many other topics of similar scope. But instead, it ends up being about a handful of characters so despicable and one-dimensional that I can't really connect with anyone, so whatever grander messages their stories are supposed to deliver get stifled. At the end of its life, Loveless made some interesting narrative moves, choices I would almost deem brave. Sadly, because the title was canceled, these final few issues end up as more of a tease of what could've been, rather than successfully improving the series overall. There's too much muck to wade through before those final chapters, and the overarching narrative that connects the first 21 issues is too dark and takes itself too seriously for its own good.
     The two protagonists of those issues are Wes and Ruth Cutter, a former Confederate soldier and his wife, both of whom have less-than-stellar reputations in their home town of Blackwater, MO. Wes is hated by pretty much everyone because he's an abrasive ass who could not care less what others think of him, and indeed seems to get some perverse pleasure out of pissing people off. He returns to Blackwater after some time in prison, aiming to reclaim his land from the Union. Failing to do that, Wes demolishes his former home with dynamite, but not until after he's made sheriff of the town in a futile attempt by the local government to smooth things over. Instead, having Wes in charge just gets everyone else's ire up, and gives him cause to be as unapologetic a bastard as he wishes. He gives Blackwater and its citizens no end of grief, and does almost nothing in the way of actually enforcing the law, so in the end the townspeople hire an assassin to kill him. So Wes dies, which leaves the door wide open for Ruth to get the revenge she's always wanted.
     While Wes was fighting for the South and then imprisoned by the North, Ruth got involved in a gun running operation with his brother Jonny. When the Union found out what she was up to, the biggest prick in Loveless, Captain Lord, had every one of his men rape her before dragging her out into the street, pissing on her, and publicly shaming her for the whole town to see. After that, Ruth disappeared, and as far as the rest of Blackwater is concerned, she never came back. In truth, she returns at the same time Wes does, but stays hidden, living in the woods and biding her time while Wes fucks with everyone more openly. Once they have him killed, though, there is nothing in Ruth's life to keep her grounded, no joy to keep her from melting down and attacking Blackwater with everything she's got. So she shoots a bride-to-be, steals her dress in order to infiltrate the wedding, and then blows the whole thing up, killing dozens of people who had nothing to do with her past abuse or her husband's death.
     The Cutters are unquestionably the focus of Loveless, and arguably the book's heroes, though that word doesn't really fit them. If the reader roots for them, it's only based on the merits that they are marginally less unlikable than most of the rest of the cast. That and, because of how brutally she was abused, and because no one from Blackwater did anything to save her, it's easy to understand Ruth's desire for vengeance and, by extension, Wes' anger at what happened to his wife. Even keeping that in mind, though, these two aren't exactly sympathetic characters. They're selfish to the point of narcissism, or like a weird kind of dual narcissism where neither of them cares about anyone but themselves and each other. Wes' sole purpose in life seems to be stirring up the shit, and Ruth's only goal is to help Wes do so. Then, after he dies, all she wants to avenge his death and her own damaged past in the most violent way possible. She specifically targets the one good event Blackwater has seen in ages, and one where she knows there will be an abundance of innocents, wanting to deliver as devastating a blow as she can. Wes and Ruth are vindictive, insanely so, and their unwillingness to let a single bygone be what it is gets one of them killed and makes the other into a mass murderer. They may not be the worst characters in this story, but they're still terrible people, not so much tragically flawed as stubbornly tragic.
     I can see that, like so many members of this series' cast, Ruth and Wes represent the horrific consequences of war, and particularly the American Civil War, which turned members of the same country and community against each other. That conflict is practically its own character in this book; it touched the lives of every character and, for many of them, the fighting continues even though the war is technically over. Boyd Johnson and his crew hide in the woods and murder black people in a futile, immature effort to send the message that the South hasn't given up the fight. In response, Atticus Mann—which has got to be the most uninspired, stereotypical, practically offensive name given to an African-American character in a good long while—hunts Boyd and company for the bounties placed on their heads. When Captain Lord is brought back to Blackwater to try and maintain the peace, he treats every member of the town like an enemy, torturing and killing them with enthusiastic sadism. Loveless seems to be of the opinion that wars cannot end, or at least that in the United States, the nation's problems and inherent evils are too great to be overcome simply because the government says the fighting's over. And that's a fine point to make, one I maybe even agree with, but Azzarello makes it very powerfully very early on, and then keeps making it over and over again incessantly. Things don't even get worse, they just stay as hopeless and despicable as they are when the book begins. There is rampant racism, violence, cruelty, dishonesty, and greed. It never lets up, it never changes, it just goes and goes and goes until everyone and everything in the series becomes intolerable.
     Not to say that this is an unrealistic depiction of the era in question. I'm not historically educated enough to know whether it is or isn't. But from a narrative standpoint, once you've made your points, repeating them ad nauseam serves little purpose. Azzarello buries the reader in one tragedy after another, but he doesn't go anywhere specific with it. Everything builds up to Ruth's massive attack on Blackwater, which is no more shocking or unthinkable an evil than much of what precedes it. Instead of having different things to say about the various topics touched upon, Loveless says the same thing about all of them: they're awful. It is unfiltered negativity, a stagnant cesspool of humanity's worst attributes and America's biggest flaws. I have no problem with a work criticizing this country or examining the human potential for evil, but there's got to be more to it than merely displaying how bad things can be. Unfortunately, Loveless doesn't seem concerned with anything other than piling on the darkness.
     This is true of the artwork, too. Originally drawn by co-creator Marcelo Frusin, the title established itself right away as gloomy and gory. Not that the blood and guts were exaggerated or overdone, but they weren't shied away from, either. And most of Frusin's art on this book is heavy on shadow, so dark and grim as to someimes be unclear. This remained the case when Werther Dell'Edera was on pencils later on, and was even truer of Daniel Zezelj's issues. Zezelj has a style that's sketchier than either of the other two artists, and even darker and more obscured because of it. His first three issues (#6-8) are used to fill in some of the background details of Atticus, Ruth, and Wes respectively, and a lot of the information covered is already established or, at least, could have been guessed at by an observant reader. These are the issues where Loveless begins to wear on me, to feel like it is spinning its wheels in the puddles of its own filth, and Zezelj's extra dark pencils are definitely a factor in that feeling. To his credit, though, he also draws the final three issues (#22-24) and those are the most interesting, original, and standout stories that Loveless ever tells.
     All three of the final issues are standalone tales, and each of them connects in some way to the events of initial saga of the Cutters and their personal war against Blackwater. There is the story of two escaped convicts who hate one another but are chained together, and stumble upon the shallow grave in which Ruth buried Wes in a hidden cave behind a waterfall. The fleeing prisoners kill each other in the same spot, so that the cave holds three corpses rather than one by the issue's close. Following that, we see what became of relatively minor character Jasper, the only citizen of Blackwater for whom Wes felt anything other than disgust. Jasper's tale is no cheerier than anyone else's, but he does at least get to spend a few years as a successful jockey before he dies. Finally, there is an issue centered on Foley, an Irishman who was one of the Union soldiers in charge of Blackwater, and who developed a vicious rivalry with Atticus Mann. In his solo story, Foley is released from prison after serving thirty years for murder, and then explains to a prostitute that the man he was convicted of killing is not only still alive, but wildly successful and rich. So Foley aims to finally commit the murder for which he's already served so much time, a compelling hook and an unexpected development for a character I didn't care about one way or the other beforehand. Loveless' last issue feels more like the first issue of an entirely different series, since none of Foley's time in Blackwater really matters in order to appreciate it. I would have rather liked to see who it is Foley's after, and to learn the circumstances of how he could be convicted if his victim is still alive. It's the most sympathetic any of the asshole characters in this book ever gets to be, and the most interesting story hook. Too bad it came so late in the series' history, and never got to be expanded upon at all.
     Too worried about being as ugly as possible, Loveless fails to contribute much of real value to the discussion(s) in which it wants to participate. After rapidly demonstrating the hideousness of post-Civil War America, the title stalls out, continuing to show the same things and make the same points for far too long. It opens with a lot of promise, and closes with the same, because in its last three issues it finally breaks free from itself and looks at some fresh material. In between, though, it drags dramatically, so that on the whole it's a lot more bad than good. If there was anyone to relate to, or if the book's point of view ever changed, I think it'd be a much stronger series overall. Instead, it's a relentless assault of depression and pain with too little purpose or reason behind it.

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