Art Ops is a comic that opens with the theft of the Mona Lisa. A group of secret art police break into the Louvre and steal the Mona Lisa before something much worse can possibly happen to it. Only they aren’t stealing the painting—they’re stealing the person inside the painting. How you react to reading the above summary will tell you all you really need to know about whether or not you’ll like this book.
I find it easy to forget sometimes that Vertigo is still around and publishing comics. Maybe it’s because of all the rumors floating a few years back that they were shutting down or maybe because the days of Sandman, Swamp Thing or Preacher were a long time ago. Art Ops, however, is a comic that feels like a Vertigo book down to its core with a concept that sounds ripped straight from Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol or The Invisibles.
Art can be a very dangerous thing and that’s where the Art Ops come in. They operate in the shadows, policing art, keeping it in the frames and hiding away any of the more lethal works. So what happens when they all suddenly disappear? What do we do when there’s no one to protect us from art?
The responsibility falls on the only remaining members left: Reggie, the Art Ops leader’s bratty son with an invincible arm that looks like an exploding Jackson Pollock painting, the Body, a character ripped straight from a comic book, and a woman who has spent the last few decades eternally dancing in a music video that tried to bring forth an alien invasion. They’re tasked with protecting the Mona Lisa from an escaped cubist painting bent on taking famous works of art and infecting them with a disease that will finally prove to the world that art is a living, changing thing.
If this is sounding a little too conceptual for your tastes, don’t worry. Art Ops manages to balance its high concept with something that feels undeniably comic book. At one point a diseased Statue of Liberty starts attacking the streets of New York City, wreaking havoc, while the evil cubist painting cackles like Rita Repulsa in a loft apartment, corrupting more works of art into Power Ranger villains.
The writer, Shaun Simon, does a really impressive job working these heady ideas and making them fit so easily into a character-driven adventure. Art Ops bends this surreal premise around characters that can be likeable and characters that are so frustrating you just want to scream and tell them to grow up. Only in this story, they actually do.
The comic still doesn’t quite figure its way around many of problems that plagued its spiritual predecessors. Often the pace meanders in ways that don’t feel natural and has a protagonist that can be cloyingly rebellious. For any dips that happen with the writing, however, it’s still bolstered by the incredible artwork and color-work by Michael Allred, Matt Brundage and Laura Allred that keeps the story still immensely fun to simply look at.
Art Ops is, I think, doing a really cool thing by visually illustrating a tension that’s going on around us with how we engage with the world of fine arts. When we see the original Art Ops group, they’re always seen wearing fancy clothing or attending high-class events. Visually, they’re coded very much like the wealthy elite and in function they work similarly too. The fine arts only really survive through museums and art galleries because of the rich who fund them and buy the works of art to donate to these places. In a way, they’re the people who protect and preserve art and—while that’s inherently a good—decide which art they do this with. The leader of the Art Ops even describes their group’s philosophy with: “Art, like society, needs rules and regulations.”
But, well, should it? Right now the wealthy have become the arbiters of art, deciding what art survives and what art is chosen to be accessible to the masses. In Art Ops, it’s revealed that there are secret bunkers all over the world where they’ve stashed art deemed “too dangerous” for public consumption. But should the rich—the perpetrators and benefactors of an oppressive status quo be the ones in charge of deciding what art is good for us?
The villain of the story isn’t a counter-point but, in her own way, wants to shake-up our standard of engaging with art at an arm’s length. She defiles the appearance of classic works to demonstrate that art isn’t static. She wants to convey that art is something that changes with time and our relationships and interpretations can change too. Of course, how she goes about it is wrong. She’s literally destroying statues and paintings then sending them on city-wide rampages.
The first trade collection of Art Ops hasn’t really proposed an answer to this tension but I think it is poised within a character. The protagonist, Reggie, has already rejected his mother’s perspective on a life driven by regulation and rules for art. He represents almost a punk attitude and, while I could write a whole essay here about the punk movement as a response to traditional art, I’ll just say Reggie looks primed to bridge the gap between the two contradicting forces at play.
Reggie’s journey for now is more about a gradual embrace into creating art via his invincible punch arm and I’m really excited to see what great works of art the Art Ops group literally beat into the ground next.
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Art Ops Vol. 1 Writer: Shaun Simon Artist: Michael Allred, Matt Brundage Colorist: Laura Allred Publisher: Vertigo Price: $14.99 Format: Collected Edition Graphic Novel