Rare is the book that can perfectly match the heights of its premise with the follow-through of its practice. Even in today’s comic book atmosphere, which can be well-argued as a paragon of independent industry benefitting from a slew of ideas and talents, there are so many comics that fall just short or completely flat thanks to a complacency of concept. This is especially true of the super-powered corner of the market, which suffers from been-there-done-that-itis and stories that quickly devolve into strange pastiches of themselves, happy to rest on the laurels splayed out in the countless stories that preceded them.
However, there are those exemplars out there that fight the good fight, incorporating as they do the foundations of a great idea within a solid narrative framework and peopled by characters that are three dimensional; both nauseating and engaging, or in a word, real. In that regard, Titan Comics’ Death Sentence is a prime specimen of how to do modern “superhero” books right. In this character-driven story about terminally-malignant, sexually-transmitted superpowers and the fallout that ensues, both writer Montynero and artist Mike Dowling prove to be a masters behind the creative wheel.
On the surface, Death Sentence is a story that follows the lives of three very different people living in a world ravaged by the G+ virus, which, once contracted, gives its victims extraordinary powers, with the caveat that said viral abilities will, within a span of six months, wear down their bodies so much that the result is always the same: death. With that idea alone, you can tell how a book like this could be a whirlwind of emotion. I mean, how would you feel if you found out you only had half a year to live, but you also got to die as Superman?
The creative team taps into that range almost immediately and continues to draw from it incredibly well throughout the entire series, flitting as they do between their divergent character pool. I love, for example, how this book starts, following failed artist/bored designer Verity Fette worryingly adjusting her heel while learning she has contracted the world’s newest and deadliest STD, and later, the ability to self-immolate in an inferno of creativity.
It’s such a quiet moment and, regardless of whether you have shared an identical experience, one that is all too familiar for pretty much anyone who has had any kind of worrying doctor’s visit. It may not be in a fashion as linear as they are usually portrayed, but Montynero also does a great job of expressing the various stages of grief that usually accompany terminal illness, while seasoning it with the elation of superpowers.
Verity’s story is juxtaposed between the revelations of the book’s other points of perspective, first in dirty pop-star wastrel, Daniel “Weasel” Waissel, whose hedonistic lifestyle made his infection an almost foregone conclusion, though perhaps not quite to the level of Russell Brand-esque shock comedian, David “Monty” Montgomery. And let’s not beat around the bush here, it’s pretty clear that Monty is the namesake of one half of the creative team. It doesn’t help/hurt that he is also a historically Nero-esque character, fiddling his own instrument while he watches his empire burn.
Regardless of what warnings Montynero might be trying to ply us with in regard to his own moral fiber, the way he explores these three characters’ very different dealings with their infectious situations is perhaps the biggest triumph of the well-named Death Sentence, not necessarily in how they are different, but rather in how they are the same.
My point can perhaps best be summed up in the third issue, wherein Verity says, “I just want to do something exceptional before I go. A tiny piece of me, resonating across the world that says: ‘Here I am.’” In a lot of ways, this is Death Sentence’s “death sentence” - by which I mean a final and lasting statement.
Whether it’s finally creating that work of art that has been inside you your whole life, establishing a relationship with an estranged child, leading a country into a forced bloody coup against itself or simply fulfilling the desire to not be forgotten, each character’s prime motivation in this book is fundamentally the same: to leave something of themselves behind. It’s their different paths to that end - how they diverge and converge - which makes its treatment so special, as well as the way in which it is told: with the brutal honesty of the dying.
Death Sentence is a book without reservations, but one still grounded with a controlled sordidness that makes it both intoxicatingly effortless to read, yet well-structured in its pacing and delivery. I hate the word “gritty” as a descriptor of comic books almost as much as I do “funky” in regard to graphic design. However, for lack of a better word, this is gritty storytelling, in both a visual and narrative sense. Of course, it is a British book, so that societal self-deprecation is to be expected, not to mention celebrated. At the same time, however, and as much as its name implies, I don’t think Death Sentence is meant to be a completely depressive book. There is light at the end of this tunnel.
What Montynero is really exploring here is not the death of people in the face of ill-gotten viral superpowers, but the death of human dreams in the face of an even more human mundanity. All of his characters have squandered their lives, with varying levels of success, until they are forced into dusting off their complacency and making the most of what time they have left (superpowered though it may be). It’s a common thing in those with terminal illnesses, so it’s no surprise to see it in a story like this, but Nero exploits that piquancy of life on the cusp of death incredibly well here by taking it to its Nth degree, particularly with Monty.
He is simply the first one to discover the limits (or lack thereof) of his abilities naturally, while Weasel and Verity, who have otherwise given up hope on actual creativity without narcotic stimulants, languish at their Island imprisonment. He does this by not accepting the inevitability of his station and instead trying to make the most of it - learning what he can, experiencing what he will and doing everything he can to be the ultimate Him he can be, before he is no more. In his own inimitable way, and with no small sense of twisted hope, he echoes Verity’s own idea of fulfillment in death, but with the jaded nonchalance of someone who has for some time eschewed himself of the goodness of Man.
Perhaps the best development of character throughout the series, however, is Weasel’s. Unlike Verity, Weasel could have easily become Monty, but for lack of ambition. As such, you never really think this cover boy for modern malaise is going to do anything but literally shuffle off this mortal coil, but his slow burn was, for me, the most compelling. He is the cardboard stand-in for every one of these vapid, excess-bedraggled young pop stars wading through life with cavalier abandon; the kind you wish you could just slap and say, “This is real! And you’re missing it!” When that slap does come, it is all the more resonant and scarring, and in the end - however selfish or misguided the reason - you cheer for him for finally coming around ... albeit too late.
There were, however, a few rare moments in the story where the proceedings felt too quickly hastened, like when Verity and Weasel are talked into trying to save the world. They could have perhaps spent less time on their “training” at The Island and more on the moral gravity of their decision, as well as maybe a few more pages on connecting the desire to “leave something behind” with a legacy of helping when the world really needs them. I think they still got there in the end, though perhaps not driving it home as strongly as it could have been.
On a purely literary level, I love Montynero’s wordplay in Death Sentence. Unlike the pseudo-slackers he uses as storytelling vehicles, he clearly takes his time in crafting their dialogue and especially their innermost thoughts. He brings a sort of lyricism that exists within the specific personalities of each character without exploiting a generalized sort of pesudo-poetry. He does repeat himself a few times, but that takes nothing away from the cleverness of his writing, the sense of humor and wit of which is so sharp and well-timed, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything equal to it in other superpower books.
In terms of art, Mike Dowling is Montynero’s perfect partner in crime in Death Sentence. If he doesn’t explode as a big deal after this book, there is something seriously wrong with this industry. His art throughout the series is raw yet refined, boasting a perspective that is sketchy and stained, yet technically sound when it needs to be and crazily emotive when the situation demands it.
He achieves as many wonders with subtle facial and body contortions as he does with sweeping scenes of revelrous fornicating and bloody explosions, and it says a lot about a creator when he can express everything great about the story so well in the art. That seems like it should be the norm, but as I said above of concept and practice, so few times is it as successfully achieved as it is here.
His colors also sizzle with a necessary stoic and sombre tone, making those punches of power all the more punctuated and shocking when they do happen. In total, Dowling’s stuff in Death Sentence reminds me a lot of Greg Scott’s work in the very different - yet equally enjoyable - Strange Attractors: simple yet sinewy, stained but unspoiled.
As this is a trade paperback, there are extras herein not included in the original run, almost the entirety of which exists as an interview/director’s commentary with Mike Dowling and Montynero. For any process junkies, their in-depth explanations as to what went into making Death Sentence’s pivotal issue-by-issue moments so successful are sure to satisfy. I’m a big mark for tracks like this in my DVD collections and in my comics, and it was great to read these two talk about what went into making almost each scene work. Great stuff.
Like any loved one you lose, I want more time with Death Sentence. I want to see this team explore the beginnings of this outbreak with the “zero patients” they mention in passing, or what happened in Fukiyama, which was briefly referenced as a particularly nasty past goings-on. Although it was perhaps a bit more ambiguous than I would have liked, I think the series ends at a very promising place to go forward or indeed back, depending on the proclivities of the creative team. If there is indeed life still left in Death Sentence, then I look forward to catching this infectious story all over again.
If, however, this turns out to be a one-time venture, then I am more than happy with its swan song, because what this team has left behind is, as Verity hoped of her own life, an “exceptional” way to be remembered.
Writer: Montynero Artist: Mike Dowling Publisher: Titan Comics Price: $19.99 Release Date: 6/25/14 Format: Hardcover