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Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Filler by Rick Spears and Rob G.
In this new graphic novel from the creators of the excellent Teenagers from Mars, published by AiT/PlanetLar, John Dough is a filler. He makes his living by standing in police line-ups and by selling his blood. He is, in effect, an extra. A walk-on bit player with no lines in the stories of everybody else's lives. When he meets Debra, a roughed up hooker with a sob story, he makes the mistake of getting involved in her story. From there he quickly becomes involved in an escalating series of set-ups, murders and frame jobs before, seemingly, settling back down to his natural role in the world as "filler" for other people's lives.
It's a good hook for a noir story. John Dough is a nicely symbolic name for a lead character, and Spears and G capture his alienation and isolation from the rest of humanity well. Dough is a hard character to relate to, as he has withdrawn so far into himself. We're not given very many reasons to sympathize or identify with him, but that's largely the point of his kind of withdrawal. It's not that he necessarily wants to be just filler, but that's the role he has found for himself, and he's comfortable with it. His one lapse out of character, his attempt to "help" Debra, seems as much a mystery to him as anyone.
The popular tack at the moment seems to be to compare this work to Sin City, particular because of the limited, one-color printing. That may or may not be a fair assessment of the look of the book, but in terms of narrative I think this is actually a bit more complex than Miller's adolescent pastiche (and I mean that in a good way). The work that actually came to my mind while reading this is Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, a proto-noir novel that also uses the idea of people on the edges of society finding themselves in situations beyond their control. Spears and G present a similar kind of alienated protagonist, and put him into a situation beyond his understanding. Dough is almost the anti-Everyman, fully aware that most people, as much as they would like to pretend that they are the heroes of their own lives, are really just background for other people's lives. When his fatalism is used against him, his best revenge, and the solution to his problem, is to turn the tables again, and make his enemies into pawns of his.
Now, while these are the strengths of the writing, the problem with using an alienated protagonist, especially when you place him in the middle of a complicated plot based on bluffs and betrayals, is that the story can become too suggestive. And unfortunately that's what happens here. Spears suggests, rather than tells, important details, and it doesn't quite work out the way he seems to have wanted it to. It's a good story otherwise, but the lack of focus and clarity, while in service to the mood Spears is trying to establish, hampers the narrative aspects of the book.
Rob G's art here is very rough and sketchy. There's a lack of deep detail, and a certain sameness to many of the characters. It serves the story well, and highlights the themes of alienation to the work. The most visibly notable aspect of the art in this work, however, is also the one I found distracting, and that's the red highlights on almost every page. When they're used sparingly, the details picked out in red draw the reader's eye across the page and highlight important details. But many of the pages have so much red it ends up over-powering the rest of the art.
And finally, the last page reveal, which I'm reluctant to go into too much detail on, is either a very cheap gag or a very smart way to clue the reader in to what really has been going on in the entire book. I'm leaning towards the latter, because it adds a nice conclusion to the story. John Dough thought he was filler, became the subject of the story, and resolved his part in the story by becoming filler again. With the revelation of who was really behind everything that happened in the book, it becomes clear that, actually, John Dough was always just a player in someone else's story. A temporarily important player, but not ever the lead he was afraid of becoming.