Wow. If someone came up to me and said, show me a comic book by established masters that is a complete mess, I would smile knowingly and say, “You, sir or madam, are in luck, as I have just the thing,” and I would pull out a pristine copy of Red One #1, hand it to them, and wink. Because this book is a mess.
In forty pages, we get a story, set in 1977, about a serial killer, sponsored by an ultra-fundamentalist group, who kills people who society deems unsavory; a porn director who’s lost the spark and who’s horrible with people, and his producer, who can’t seem to keep his leading ladies alive; and an ultra-capable, ultra-cool woman who makes Spetsnaz look like a military regiment full of weak, drooling babies. Somehow, in the midst of all this, Russia decides to send their ultra-cool woman to America to undermine their “superhero,” (serial killer), named The Carpenter, and become America’s sweetheart. Somehow, this guy killing porn stars is undermining Russo-American relations? This is only a fraction of the injustices contained in these pages.
Author Xavier Dorison makes some interesting choices for the character of Vera: she lives in a polyamorous relationship, and the three of them are expecting a baby; aside from the polyamorous nature of their relationship, the borders are apparently loose enough for her to invite a stranger to join the Mile High Club with her on her way to America. The way he portrays it, the US in the 70s was only cool because of the Russian sleeper agents, and the Soviet government still made food a scarcity unless you were a secret agent with goodies from foreign countries to trade.
The art by Terry and Rachel Dodson is as great as ever (it harkens back to some of their work on Matt Fraction’s Defenders run in both quality and amount of panels), but they’re saddled with a honking mess of a story. To add insult to injury, Clayton Cowles, usually a top-notch letterer, makes a lot of weird decisions here. In fairness, half of it’s not his fault; Dorison gives him a literal fuckton of words to fit into some of the balloons in some of the panels. It seems like some of these issues spring from the fact that Red One was originally published in French as Red Skin (problematic for entirely separate reasons); judging by the first ten pages of that edition (readily available online), the dialogue in French fits into the balloons like a glove. For illustrators and comic creators like the Dodsons and Cowles and Dorison who have been around for years, are they unable to create a layer for balloons and resize them to fit? Keeping the original balloons and forcing the art into them not only seems unprofessional, but it smacks of laziness.
The best I can say about this book is that it’s interesting. It’s a reverse-James Bond story that never happened, but it unfortunately kept a lot of the tone of the era (viz the Russian mole nerd at the end who’s so capable with needle and thread that he created a skintight suit for wank material on purpose). The book can’t decide if it wants to be a comedy or an homage, and in doing so, falls between the cracks to be neither. I want to give it 2/5 for the art, but I just can’t in good conscience do that. Luckily, the Dodsons are doing great work on Princess Leia right now, and this comic book equivalent of a dick joke will be over soon.
Red One #1 Writer: Xavier Dorison Pencils & Colors: Terry Dodson Inks: Rachel Dodson Letters: Clayton Cowles Publisher: Image Comics Price: $2.99 Release Date: 3/18/15 Format: Mini-Series; Print/Digital