Friday, August 9, 2013

Violent Messiahs, What Do I Think of You?

I know Violent Messiahs is a pretty bad comicbook. It's derivative and predictable, it wants to be cleverer than it is, and there aren't many truly likable characters present. The whole thing feels amateurish, and indeed it does represent one of writer Joshua Dysart's first professional projects, and from what I can find, it falls fairly early in the timeline of artist Tone Rodriguez's career as well. Perhaps that's part of why I'm somewhat forgiving of the title's shortcomings, because I know that the creators were relatively fresh when they made it. Not that I love Violent Messiahs—I'm not even convinced that I like it. I'm just aware that I don't dislike it as strongly or firmly as I feel like I should. The series does have a few things I enjoy, topics or concepts it actually handles well. There are some solid if poorly expressed/underdeveloped ideas in there about the different types of and motivations for evil. It's what every cape comic would look like if only the bad guys got to have superpowers, and though it's hardly the only series to do that, something about this book's particular outlook works for me, in spite of its shoddy construction.
     Before I get into specifics, I should note that I haven't technically read all of the Violent Messiahs material that exists. For example, I've never seen the original, black-and-white, William O'Neil-drawn story, and my understanding is that a handful of other shorts and prequels and such are also out there somewhere. All I'm talking about in this post is the twelve-issue Image series, as collected in the volumes titled "The Book of Job" and "Lamenting Pain." It's the bulk of what was published under the Violent Messiahs name, but it's not everything, so I thought I'd mention it.
     If the story has a hero, it's police lieutenant Cheri Major. At the start of the book, she's transferred to fictional Rankor Island to head up a team tasked with bringing in a new serial killer known as "Citizen Pain." Her investigation quickly leads to the discovery that Pain's real name is Job, and he is brothers with another prolific local murderer called "The Family Man," whose real name is Jeremiah. Job and Jeremiah were raised by a shadowy evil organization known as The Family, who work to create chaos in the world so that they can they can manipulate and control the masses. In their youth, the brothers were trained to be killing machines, but also apparently taught just enough poetry for them to maintain some small shred of humanity. As adults, they finally push back against their upbringing and The Family, leading to a final confrontation that destroys a Family stronghold and several high-ranking members of the group. Cheri is there for this battle, and gets to see behind the curtain to a certain degree, learning at least that The Family exists and getting a sense of the breadth of their influence. This knowledge sort of breaks her, painting the world as hopeless, implying an evil so old and so large that any efforts to combat it are fundamentally pointless.
     That's about as quick a summary as I think I can provide for "The Book of Job," which is the name of the opening eight-issue arc. By the time it ends, all the significant players are dead except for Cheri and her partner Ernest, a bumbling but well-intentioned detective who was originally assigned to the Family Man case. Well, the supposition is that Job and Jeremiah die in the same explosion that kills the people who raised them, but we don't necessarily get confirmation one way or the other. Since neither character resurfaces in the four-issue storyline that closes the series, though, I'm going to call them dead. So "The Book of Job" is basically a villains-versus-vilains story. Though in their minds their killing is justified—Job targets criminals while Jeremiah murders unfit parents in order to "save" their children—and they seek redemption in the end by attacking The Family, the brothers are still mass murderers who can only really express themselves through violence, and therefore land on the side of evil. They're sympathetic for sure, and not entirely or maybe even at all to blame for their bloodthirsty nature, but they're not good guys by any stretch. That's not a complaint. On the contrary, I think pitting somewhat less horrible baddies against truly despicable ones is a strength of this book, one of the few things that stands out to me. Not because it's a new idea, but because Dysart goes into such detial about the different motivations and desires of each villain that the entire series ends up being a kind of breakdown of villainy. Several different bad guy archetypes are present, and they're all at odds with one another, even Jeremiah and Job who ostensibly have the same end goal.
     But they are definitely one-dimensional characters, which is why Violent Messiahs ultimately flops. Job's only role is to yearn to feel love but instead have only rage. Jeremiah is always the angry young man thrashing futilely against the system. The Family are the most simplistic version of the typical enormous evil cabal from innumerable other stories. These are not deep or difficult-to-understand people, even though as a group they become a somewhat interesting examination of how supervillains are made.
     This theme carries over into "Lamenting Pain," which is the tale of a new killer, Scalpel, showing up on Rankor in the wake of Job's death. Citizen Pain has become a sort of vigilante folk hero, and Scalpel fancies herself in love with him, even hallucinating that Job is hiding in her house. By day, she works as professional dominatrix Ling Kawaguchi, and Scalpel is a separate personality, another facet of her disconnect from reality. She's also the most fleshed out and interesting character in the entire book, a considerate if exaggerated look at insanity. Her multiple personalities and delusions make her a tragic figure, but as Ling she's so comfortable in her own skin that I actually admire her. So does Cheri, which leads into the best-written aspect of this series: Cheri's exploration of her own masochism.
     Once by force, and then later voluntarily, Cheri finds herself tied up and under Ling's control, and it brings up some difficult and troubling memories for her. But they're also cathartic, moments she hasn't let herself revisit in a long time and that have become a massive emotional burden for her. She's intrigued; having never been the kind of person to let go of control before, she finds herself enjoying submission and helplessness. Though the details of her dark past are not particularly enjoyable or original, the general concept of her slowly discovering a new part of herself and her sexuality is handled very well by Dysart and Rodriguez both. It happens gradually, because Cheri is so resistant to it, but she can't avoid her true self forever. It's captivating to watch her let go of her defense mechanisms and distrust little by little, until she reaches the point of willingly handing herself over to someone she knows is a killer. It's easily the best and most involved work done with Cheri, and as I said, Scalpel/Ling is the fullest member of the cast, so the slowly shifting dynamic between them is interesting to watch.
     Sadly, Cheri's journey toward self-actualization is cut short by Ling's craziness and The Family's ongoing machinations. As someone who faced them and survived, Cheri has become The Family's enemy number one, and they promise to mentally torment her for the rest of her days. They even save her life when Scalpel is about to kill her, so that she can live a long time as their victim. This bittersweet salvation is the last thing that ever happens in Violent Messiahs, bringing the book to a close in a particularly dismal place. This utterly bleak ending is another detail I enjoy, because so often when a supposedly unstoppable evil organization is established in a story, the hero finds a way to stop them. Here, the hero ends up even as afraid and helpless as she's ever been in the face of her enemy, a foe she never wanted and didn't even know existed until she was already in their radar. It's an unexpected resolution, one of the title's only legitimate surprises.
     Although I'm not positive this was the intended conclusion. There's not a lot of info about it online, but reading Violent Messiahs, it feels more like a book that was canceled than one which reached its natural stopping point. "Lamenting Pain" wraps up pretty abruptly, and with several threads left dangling, so maybe Dysart wanted to keep writing the series beyond Cheri's point of total desperation. As it stands, though, I'm glad things end where they do, because it makes for a stronger and more believable final beat than having Cheri overcome all of her demons and opponents.
     I guess I like more about this title than I realized. But don't get me wrong, the stuff I have pointed out above is basically all the good material there is, and it comes in the middle of a lot of old hat and tired tropes. Job and Jeremiah are boring and uninspired figures, from their Biblical-for-no-real-reason names to Job's outfit looking like a pretty overt Grendel rip-off. Actually, the notion that Citizen Pain left behind a legacy of violence and anger that spread through the culture is also reminiscent of later Grendel stories, so Job comes across as a flavorless copy of a much richer character. Jeremiah, meanwhile, is even blander, not stealing from any specific fictional predecessor so much as being just another clichéd serial killer in an endlessly long line. These are the central characters of most of the series, along with Cheri who, while on the brothers' trail, also lacks much to recommend her. In those issues, she's just the overly stern and bitchy female cop trying to prove she belongs in the boys' club. That'd be a fine role if something worthwhile was done with it, but it never is. She starts that way and stays that way, and it's never used to really discuss gender politics in law enforcement or anything of merit. The strongest bits of Violent Messiahs come in the last four of twelve chapters, meaning the opening 2/3 of this series are significantly more bad than good.
     I wouldn't go around suggesting others read this, but I wouldn't advise anyone to avoid it, either. Violent Messiahs definitely has some solid things to offer a potential reader, so I'd never rob anyone of that. But discerning comicbook fans easily could and probably should find something better to spend their time on.

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