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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Kyle reads Indie Comics sometimes: Red Handed - The Fine Art of Strange Crimes

This is the first in a series that I'll be pulling together on an irregular basis. As Shane has taken over our comic reviews that focus more on the Big Two of DC and Marvel, I've taken it upon myself to stretch out into the areas that I find that I enjoy the most in the sequential art world which is the fabulous stuff being produced by the indies! Companies like Image, IDW, Dark Horse and even publishers have been producing the kinds of product that don't get the same level of attention as books starring the Avengers or Batman, but are far more thought provoking and compelling. These are titles that play with the form and advance the medium far beyond the near soap-opera elements that often bog down the superhero genre. While I'm still an avid reader of all types of comics, I hope I'm able to introduce you, dear reader, to a few new comic creators and their often mind-bending ideas whenever the mood strikes me to pull one of these together. First up is a creator that I've come to adore over the past year.

Matt Kindt is my kind of writer. He first came to my attention when he took over the much-missed "Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E." over at DC from Jeff Lemire and turned a slight homage to Hellboy into a spy/heist serial the likes of which you rarely see in mainstream comics. This tends to be the area that Kindt would likely see as his safety zone, having had phenomenal success with his "Super Spy" graphic novel at Top Shelf, and his "should have been nominated for an Eisner" on-going series "Mind MGMT" that both cover this very fertile ground in different ways (and I cannot recommend either enough). I've never read a writer who combines the cold, "massive in scope aura" of Christopher Nolan, with the ensemble casts of early Paul Thomas Anderson. You could easily replace those names with Fritz Lang and Robert Altman, but I digress. Matt Kindt is definitely the most promising talent that's on the verge of breaking loose with either Marvel or DC but he's holding his own quite well in the independent world. His latest release is "Red Handed...", a title I devoured in a night, I was so engaged in what I was reading.

"Red Handed.." is at its essence, a detective story. The lead character, Detective Gould, is a Dick Tracy pastiche and under his oversight, crime in the city of Red Wheel Barrow is basically solved. Gould becomes a sensation throughout the city, making headlines every time he brings another criminal in. At the same time, the disconnect between he and his wife begins to grow, as she feels a certain sense of neglect and begins to escape into the art world, opening her own gallery. At the same time, a strange phenomenon is occurring. While the rate of unsolved crimes is going down, the actual crime rate is rising, as Gould finds himself faced with a number of odd crimes. A woman steals chairs from random sites, a repairman sets up elevators to break down so he can take pictures of women in compromised positions, a man makes his fortune in goading people to assault him, a man cuts up a famous Picasso painting that he stole from a lover's home and sells the pieces. Each of these crimes, and a few more, make up the chapters in which "Red Handed..." is broken up into, "The Performance Artist" "The Fire Starter" etc...and much like Anderson's "Magnolia" every character is tied together in some way, with the subjects of previous chapters showing up and interacting with the focal point of the current one.

One of the central treatises of the book is that it utilizes a detective at its center to examine what exactly makes a crime a criminal act. Between the chapters we see dialogue that takes place all in darkness between two characters that debate just that very notion, seemingly the Detective and the mastermind behind the crime wave. This is where Kindt's point becomes underlined. Why do we have the code of rules we have? Is there a such thing as a victimless crime? Would stealing a piece of bread to keep from starving a crime in of itself, or is it simply a crime because society of the time has deemed it so? Is there a such thing as a "moral crime"? These are HUGE questions, the kind of things I'd expect to see in Lang's "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse", not in a funnybook, yet here I am, captivated by this thesis. Throughout "Red Handed..." we get just enough background on each criminal, giving us their origin in crime in a sense, that we understand the perspective on why they do what they do (but not enough that Kindt necessarily takes a side in the debate, which is important).

The thread that ties all the crimes together is also writ large in the sub-title, "The Fine Art of Strange Crimes". Each crime is somehow tied into the art world, or what some may call art, which in of itself is almost as loose a term as crime. When one of the characters steals chairs and piles them in a room, is it a junk pile of stolen goodies or a modern art piece? When a character takes his pictures of young women's skirt shots to a smut peddler, he's selling pornography, but on the other hand, when his work is stolen by another photographer (another gray area crime) and placed in an art exhibit, it becomes a well regarded series. Kindt recognizes that there's a fine line here between the concept of art and criminal activity and walks it beautifully. Other than the crime that sets everything into motion, many of the other crimes are of a debateable stance. You may think stealing an electric chair from the state is malum in se, yet when you consider the number of lives that may have been saved, or not, by its theft, the perspective shifts a bit.

Kindt provides both the scripting and art for the series, and thus far, much like his contemporary Jeff Lemire, his most exciting work is that which he provides the art for himself. Kindt delivers his story a number of different ways, utilizing archived newspaper clips, back and forth interrogation scenes that cut into the narrative, paperback book covers and Sunday funny style strips that give background on both Detective Gould, his wife, and the character of Tess that match with a particular style (hard-boiled crime and romance). I'm a sucker for meta tricks like this, and Kindt's work here is right up my alley without it becoming ever too cumbersome or text heavy. While his art may take a little getting used to for some, its his ability to shift styles so effortlessly (see above), that makes his watercolor work stand apart and be something wholly his own. The subtle use of color changes is one of my favorite tricks in his arsenal.

By the conclusion of the narrative we return to what is the central focus of the entire narrative and that we received in small bursts throughout without ever realizing it, and that is the relationship between the Detective and his wife. As everything ties together by story's end, we get a gut-punch of an ending that provides the emotional context that may have been the final missing piece to make this story work as well as it does. As noted above, we're made quite aware of the marital strife occurring within his wife Annalyse despite that the ever-observant Detective is oblivious to it. When circumstances change in the conclusion, everything that we've learned about Gould is up-ended, including his own ethics of which he had been their strongest advocate. I'll say no more, but the conclusion is incredibly satisfying if somber, and maybe even heartbreaking.

Matt Kindt is a writer that's growing in stature every day. With more and more work coming from mainstream comics, I'm excited that more people get a chance to experience his wonderfully creative mind. I only hope though that he has a few more Red Handeds in him before he goes capes and tights full-time. I can't recommend you pick this up enough. If you order it from his website, he'll even burn it for you in a place that enhances a particular page, like he did for me at Heroescon.

Also, buy Mind MGMT, it's only one of the most interesting comics coming out monthly right now.

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