It's only the "real books" brigade who tell you that comics are less intellectual than text because they are all pictures and no words; anyone who actually reads comics knows that the text-heavy ones are the easy reads. The really demanding comics are the ones where the reader has to scrutinise every image for information, instead of allowing the eye to drift from speech-balloon to caption and back, treating the images as purely decorative. Dave McKean's Cages is the prime example, but David Lloyd's Kickback illustrates the same point.
David Lloyd compares his narrative to a movie in which there is a bare minimum of dialogue; a British gangster movie in the spirit of Get Carter. Entire double page spreads are silent, and where there is text, it is speech rather than captions, obliging the reader to pay attention, watch what happens, and only gradually discover why: and since this handsome volume is nonetheless only the first of two, much remains mysterious by the end of the book.
There is a city, a distinctly American city, in which cops eat doughnuts and accept kickbacks, and the gangs are contained by war among themselves rather than by the enforcement of the law. It is a city of the present, as the mobile phones (however chunkily drawn) make clear, but the past persists in the barges on the canal, Joe's grandfather's obsession with airships... The heavy blacks and colour washes contribute to an expressionist, retro feel which is more timeless than dated (just as V for Vendetta's flavour of postwar austerity has helped to prevent it feeling dated as its near-future setting has slipped into the past). Down these mean streets walks a man who is not himself entirely mean. Joe sees and dislikes the corruption around him, but feels trapped by it. He questions the apparently straightforward death of Zed, the gang leader, but his boss tells him to drop it; he wants to intervene when he sees two drunks fighting on the street, but hesitates too long; he argues with his grandfather, who tells him it is time to clean up the city - and he has bad dreams.
The book opens with one of these dreams. The naked figure of a man walks a narrow track, suspended in the darkness by a cobweb of straight lines. "Je suis sur une passerelle trop étroite pour que je puisse faire demi-tour. Alors, j'avance droit devant moi. Au loin, elle semble rétrécir. Je n'en vois pas la fin." ("I am on a gangway too narrow for me to turn round. So I keep going on. In the distance, it seems to become narrower still. I can't see the end of it.").
As symbolism goes, this is not particularly subtle ("trapped in a web of corruption" is a familiar formulation). As the narrative unfolds, there are hints that this is no mere dream, but a suppressed memory from Joe's forgotten childhood. This, too, is a well-worn storytelling device, but it permits a correspondence more interesting than that of image to theme: the echo from image to image:
The plot, as far as it is possible to judge halfway through the story, is not particularly novel; but it provides a serviceable structure for Kickback's compelling emotional content, the dark and dreamlike mood created by its hypnotic visuals and appealing characters.
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