By Levi Remington
Prohibition-era crime noir meets the occult in Oni Press' new ongoing, The Damned, which got its start in a pair of miniseries originally published from 2006-2008. Despite the previous eight issues, this new series promises a fresh starting point for new readers with a hard-boiled tale of demons, mobsters, demon mobsters, curses, and the nefarious economy of mortal souls. Does it live up to its promise? Read ahead to find out while I develop a soft spot for gutter rats.
Imagine stepping outside and hailing a cab to take you around the block 4 times. The driver complies and performs adequately; you reach your destination safe and sound, without fanfare. You think back on the drive and can't put together why you did it. You're exactly where you started, no better off. This was my experience reading The Damned #1, a comic that does just enough to get by without actually getting anywhere.
The Damned takes familiar crime genre tropes and puts familiar supernatural spins on them. Crime families are mixed with demonic families who trade in souls. The cigarette-wielding main character, Eddie, is cursed with chronic resurrection, allowing him to experience death temporarily before stealing the life-force of the next person to touch his dead body. Things seem to be going well for Eddie. He has recently become in charge of a posh club with a strict "no demons" rule, but trouble threatens to disturb his success as an old acquaintance finds their way back into Eddie's life through crooked means, putting a powerful demon family on his tail. If there was a sequence in which any of this becomes engaging or fresh, it was absent from my copy.
The plot is executed in an introductory manner that should prove reasonably accessible to anyone new to the series. The mystery surrounding past events and "recent dirty dealings" may encourage you to read the two original miniseries, if only to figure out why you should care at all. The writing is simple enough and very easy to follow; there's just enough back-alley flair to keep it mildly interesting. Whether it's the hard-boiled slang or cinematic monologues, Bunn owes a lot to film noir for the tone he's after. There's nothing groundbreaking in his style, but it's an obvious love letter to the genre.
Eddie is an intriguing character. He's fearless, bold, and wise in his observations, but his cynicism and troubling intentions place him square in the stereotypical anti-hero bin. Without the specifics of his history, it's hard to care about his conflict on an emotional level. Not much is done in this issue to improve upon that connection, though with Eddie's dark and sordid past, sympathy could be a farfetched proposition.
Brian Hurtt's pencils and Bill Crabtree's colors create a very appealing aesthetic. The style is almost cartoonish, with a rounded simplicity that almost channels Darwyn Cooke. Due to the period, location, and tone, the visuals are less fantastical than what you may have seen in The Sixth Gun, and the colors desaturated. Instead, in true noir fashion, the mood is emphasized through lighting. Shadows creep across the walls in pitch-black streaks, the contrast is high and the blacks are deepened. The color red is used sparingly but most dramatically, signaling blood, lust, or both. Otherwise, the colors lean muted. The art isn't flashy, nor should it be. It's effective in its bleak expressions of mood, but it won't be turning any heads.
While this issue is written moderately well and the art is quite nice, none of it feels important. Some elements catch my interest, but I was never absorbed by the story or characters. Things happened, choices were made, and the plot flowed along smoothly, but by the end I questioned the meaning of it all. I'm not sure if I was entertained as much as I was distracted by what was happening. It's a comfortable, competent read, but it's lacking a strong enough hook for me to even consider coming back.
The Damned #1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Pencils by Brian Hurtt
Colors by Bill Crabtree
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