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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Review: LADY KILLER Has Ladies, Killers, Little Else Of Note

In author Chelsea Cain's introduction to Lady Killer, the new trade paperback collection of Dark Horse's recent Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich miniseries, there's an interesting observation: 
Midcentury America was all about style. That's what happens when you shackle people to social norms: Everything becomes about appearances.
As a broad statement about America in the 1950's and early '60s, that's an insightful way to look at things. For much of the country, the post-World War II boom was a time of unparalleled growth and prosperity, and it was easy to ignore the rapidly approaching civil rights battles in favor of continuing to gather exterior signs of success, hence the iconic styles and perfectly polished images of Americana that arose right around this time. But Cain is also talking about Josie Schuller, the lead in Dark Horse's new graphic novel Lady Killer, a housewife who embodies the merciless internal quest for external perfection... and, unfortunately, about Lady Killer itself.

Welcome to the world of Lady Killer. Josie Schuller is a mother of two beautiful blonde angels, a homemaker who keeps things spotless and has dinner ready for her hard-working husband. She's also a cold-blooded contract killer. To her, this double life is essential, something that allows her to live life on her own terms. But not everyone believes that a stay-at-home mom can be an effective member of the workforce, despite her record, so the agency that hired her burns her, demanding her handler kill her and dump the body. Josie finds out and fights back, in a bloody battle that culminates at the Seattle World's Fair.

Unfortunately, Lady Killer doesn't have much to say about its fantastic premise beyond just setting it up. "Mad Men meets Dexter" is a solid foundation, but the peculiar strength of Mad Men wasn't just in its milieu or in its costuming - though both were vital - but in its dedication to weaving sophisticated, character-driven short stories together to craft an intimate look at the life and times of one man. Lady Killer leans too heavily on Dexter, offering well-made pulpy repetition more interested in the gruesome spectacle of murder than in character or story.
Thankfully, that spectacle is well done. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of Joëlle Jones and colorist Laura Allred to the book's success. This sequence here, for instance, displays the book's greatest strengths and, in a way, it's core weaknesses in a single page. We don't know anything about Mrs. Romanov except that she's Russian, and there's no reason for our protagonist to tell this presumably dangerous woman her plan ahead of time except for exposition's sake, which suggests that she's bad at her job. That's not what we're supposed to take away from it, but the book's scripting can't help but make her look bad over and over and over again. To me, this reads as a cheap ploy for audience identification - Jones & Rich don't want us to turn on Josie, so they give the woman a Russian name, intimate at some awful misdeeds in her past. They can't trust the audience to follow a truly cold-blooded killer, so instead Josie must look silly.

On the other hand, the art. The decor is gorgeous, scene-setting; the clothing even more so. Look at that overhead shot, spanning two rooms, bringing with it a sense of impending, inevitable doom as Josie and all the dogs converge on the single doorway. The second panel highlights that sense of inevitability, using Josie's body to create a panel within the panel - she's in complete control of the space, closing in on her target, who has nowhere to go. A quick shot of Mrs. Romanov, still trapped in the tacky confines of her new life, even in the face of danger; a reversal in our close-up on Josie, with a blood-red background that doesn't match anything in the scene. Finally, the two in silhouettes. It's not just a beautiful shot, it's also an intimidating one - and one that highlights our heroines willingness to kill in cold blood. There's nothing here to empathize with in Josie; she's nothing more than a silhouette posed casually over a soon-to-be victim, weapon - brutally, a hammer - clearly visible.

The page tells a story. Remove the words, and you still have it. Hell, remove the words, and you have a better story. None of Josie giving away the game, no cliche 'Romanov' reveal, just the glossy veneer of civility peeling back to reveal that there is no mercy to be found beneath that sheen, just rock-solid confidence. So which is it? How am I suppose to read that scene? Josie looks cold-blooded, confident, like a woman who enjoys the hunt and the kill... but Jones and Rich clearly don't want me to think she's too confident, that she enjoys this too much.

So yeah, Lady Killer has the looks down pat - Jones makes this one of the best-looking comics out there - but those looks are constantly at war with a script that veers wildly between trite and blunt. The book may be about the hidden depths behind the glossy sheen of idealized 1960's femininity, but the book mostly avoids them in an effort to pursue rote plotting and over-explanatory dialogue. Which isn't entirely a negative; the first issue, as we've discussed on the site before, is thoroughly enjoyable, a study in contrasts that adds a bleak undercurrent to Jones' beautiful world. But the series never takes the premise anywhere else, never adds anything that might move us forward from that core premise: she's a lady, she kills. Who are her targets? Why does someone want them dead? Why does her agency turn on her? Who employs her? What is her home life really like? What kind of woman is her mother-in-law? These questions are all given some mild consideration and may be picked up in the follow-up miniseries, but unless Jones begins trusting her own art to tell the story without needing to spell everything out for readers, it will likely fall prey to the same issues. The book is interesting and undeniably gorgeous, but ultimately, volume 1 of Lady Killer is too slim to support more than a surface reading.

Volume 1 of Lady Killer was written by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich, with art by Joëlle Jones and colors by Laura Allred. Published by Dark Horse Comics, volume 1 of Lady Killer costs $17.99.
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