guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

March 2006

Brian Azzarello, Marcelo Frusin, et al., Loveless (Vertigo/DC, 2005-). monthly. $2.99

by Alex Boney

It appears that DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint is experiencing a renaissance of sorts.  After lynchpin series such as The Sandman, Preacher, and The Invisibles ended in the late 1990s, Vertigo lost a bit of its luster and indie cred.  Fables, Y: The Last Man, and 100 Bullets emerged as flagship titles (and Hellblazer has remained an institution since the imprint began), but none of these books has quite matched the buzz and familiarity of Vertigo in its mid-90s prime.  Late last year, though, Vertigo launched four new ongoing series that each carved out a new, distinct niche in the comics market.  Of these four, the genre of Loveless is probably the most familiar.  Set in small-town Missouri in 1867, Loveless is being pitched as a western series.  The book’s promotional description reads:  “Wes and Ruth Cutter are running from the horror of the Civil War and its savage aftermath.  Now wanted, they’re drawn to life as outlaws as they travel through the untamed West.”  The problem with this pitch is that, now four issues along, it’s becoming clearer that this book belongs more in the deep South than it does in the wild, wild west.

Brian Azzarello is well-known for his aggressive dialogue, so Loveless generally plays to his strengths as a writer.  The language of Loveless is dark, sparse, and hard-edged.  The characters live in a post-Civil War wasteland, and their speech matches their collective sense of defeat and disillusionment.  In this book, Azzarello’s dialogue seems to owe a debt to William Faulkner, who (despite his excessive wordiness in exposition) created bare and unadorned direct speech for most of the characters in his Yoknapatawpha novels.  One-liners abound in Loveless, but the inevitable clichés unfortunately get pulled into the mix and undercut the effectiveness of the dialogue.  Lines like “You was born bad, Wes Cutter” (1:20) fall flat and distract from the tension of the scene.  This sort of line fits a standard western, but it doesn’t fit Loveless.

Another interesting technique that Azzarello seems to borrow from Faulkner is the layering of past and present.  But visual narrative makes this technique particularly effective in the comics medium.  Whereas Faulkner writes many characters as living simultaneously in the past and in the present,
Loveless presents the same type of simultaneous experience in single panels.  Beginning in issue 2, bits of the Cutters’ past are told concurrently with the story’s present so that brighter, more hopeful elements of pre-war life blend with and contrast the dark destructiveness of Reconstruction reality.  Frusin’s art is well-suited to the atmosphere Azzarello establishes.  Frusin’s pencils and inks—even Patricia Mulvihill’s colors—are dark and naturalistic.  Shadows and contrasts predominate each panel.  But this ambiance has its limitations in a book that relies so heavily on characterization (both textual and visual).  It is often hard to distinguish between characters whose wardrobes are so similar and whose faces get lost beneath the shadows of their hats.  In many panels, we see only grimaces and sneers (what respectable hardboiled western would be complete without a surplus of grimaces and sneers?), but too often the sneers are indistinguishable.  The wide, diverse cast of characters in the book isn’t the problem; rather, it’s that Azzarello and Frusin need to distinguish them more clearly from each other.

Part of what sets
Loveless apart from traditional westerns—and the part of the book that works best—is that it directly, unflinchingly confronts the complicated politics of Reconstruction America.  Freed slaves, former Confederate landowners, Union “peacekeepers,” and carpetbaggers are all trying to figure out their roles in a newly reunified country that is far from actually unified.  Social taboos that defined (and still define) the South inform Azzarello’s vision of cultural topography as much as political conflict does.  Issue #2 opens with a reenactment of Ruth’s rape at the hands of Union soldiers (both white and black).  Lynchings are on the rise in Blackwater because former Rebel soldiers are resisting the new order.  Blacks don’t trust whites, whites fear blacks, and everyone hates the northern presence even though there’s not much anyone can do about it.  Wes Cutter tries to take his land and home back from government soldiers, and he is offered various deals that might allow this to happen.  But at the end of issue 4, after having been pulled in every direction by various factions since his return to Blackwater, he finally decides to blow up his house and leave town.  It seems as though the Cutters are headed westward.  But that would be the worst direction in which Azzarello could take this book.  Westerns have been done well for decades now.  DC’s current Jonah Hex book offers a particularly solid treatment of the genre.  Loveless would be far more interesting if the Cutters were heading not into the west, but further into the South, to try to make sense of the social turmoil that defined the Reconstruction.  Otherwise, the book runs the risk of slipping further into cliché and redundancy.