Eric Stephenson puts his uniquely dark twist on the familiar superhero training story with this incredibly rich issue. The writing is tight and brilliant, the art is simply beautiful, and the colouring is just something else. If you can handle the moral ambiguity and unsettling violence then this book is a must read.
The moral ambiguity introduced last issue is compounded with this stark tale of vigilante justice and brutal punishment. What starts out as a virtual ‘danger room’ session becomes something far more intimate and violent in this issue as writer Eric Stephenson starts moving us and Syd closer into the dangerous heart of this group of powerful misanthrope’s and vigilantes. This is a strong issue taking on Syd’s psychic training as well as the emerging darkness within her. There are also a number of incredible, yet subtle, displays of power from the group, perhaps the first time we’ve been given a better understanding of their gifts.
Stephenson has been taking us in this direction all along; the Voice’s spontaneous violence whilst breaking Syd out of hospital, the group’s gleeful beat down of a vandal, the speechifying about the evils and failures of capitalist society and humanity in general, all of it has led us to this – Syd beating the heck out of a man in a crowded street. The group have convened their own jury and Syd acts as judge and almost-executioner when she takes justice into her own hands. The political discussion between the Voice and Maise last issue seems academic here, this is all about action, and Syd is willing, eager even, to get involved. The training activity is all put together well, with the safety of the house giving way to the raw vulnerability of the crowed city square (but the group remain close by to protect and support Syd). It is easy to understand why Syd would quickly become comfortable within this group, even when they do such questionable things.
Syd’s relationship with Gruff is a new one, and it is surprisingly advanced from the looks of things. This is quite a nice way to show us the passage of time (although as we are given no indication of time passing this training session could be taking place a week after last issue or just an hour), and the idea that psychic training might lead to an usually intense and intimate relationship makes a lot of sense. The conversation that follows (I love that Gruff only speaks telepathically) reveals that Syd has never really experienced a physically or emotionally intimate relationship before. This is interesting as it serves to cast Syd as even more innocent, and maybe naive, than she has previously appeared (the hand holding was a sweet touch that emphasised this further). I can’t shake the feeling that the entire group is ‘grooming’ Syd in some way, and the idea that there are psychic powers in play just makes that queasiness more prominent. We know that the group are morally ambiguous, that they use their powers to exact pretty extreme ‘justice’, and that they see themselves above human law and society; without a solid moral compass within the book we are being asked to decided for ourselves whether we want to champion this group or fear them? Stephenson is enjoying the use of this intellectual conflict to advance the story, and it is a very effective device.
Artist Simon Gane uses simple, but effective, techniques to enhance Stephenson’s storytelling throughout the issue – typical pages see panels within the page, but then when emphasis is needed for the location or story beat Gane will free himself from those constraints and use the full page. Time and again this works well to punctuate the scenes and locations of the issue, and it also allows Gane to just blow the reader away with big, beautiful imagery. The brutality and motion of combat is brilliantly evoked both when Syd is training with Gruff, and again, even more so, when she really loses herself to the violence beating up the ‘criminal’ in the street. The detail in the character work is just excellent, with emotions so well and subtly indicated – take for instance the very slight upturn in Misery Kid’s mouth as he knows he has found Syd’s parents, just amazing (the weight of intention and ambiguity in that close up panel on Misery Kid is astonishing). The crowds of passers-by are presented as both unique, distinct individuals and a roiling mass of bodies, a perfect representation of humanity (and they have a real feel of motion too). I so love every visible representation of powers at use in this book, for instance, the simple switch between panels that show us how Moon is using her illusions to obfuscate reality.
Again Jordie Bellaire’s colours are simply amazing. Working with Gane, the way that the psychic space ‘The Calm’ is rendered in stark white void is a startling visual, and it really works to add to the visceral violence we see in these scenes. The way that the passersby and environment are blanked out or ignored as they become an indistinct pink/blue helps to transition us between the ‘real world’ crowd, the calm, and then the final act of brutal justice. It is also incredible work by Gane and Bellaire when the guy in the town square is picked out and highlighted within the crowd and then brought to the fore of the panels – we get a real sense of how the group become aware of his presence.
This book is dark, and it is intense, and I really don’t think there is anything else quite like it out there right now. Syd’s journey mirrors one that we have seen in superhero comics many times before, but rarely from this dark angle, and the creative team are doing sterling work bringing it to grim, but beautiful, life. There has been, and still is, so much quality storytelling on offer from this great book that I can’t wait to see how the story develops.
They’re Not Like Us #3 // Story – Eric Stephenson / Art – Simon Gane / Colours – Jordie Bellaire // Image
Notes and Observations:
- For all of The Voice’s talk about the corruption of human capitalist society Blurgirl still wants to go shopping at Barney’s. Maybe The Voice isn’t quite as persuasive as we thought?
- Misery Kid, how I long to know your deal.
- Syd is back in real clothes, and her outfit is cute and practical! Great work Mr. Gane!
- This issue’s title comes from another Manic Street Preachers track and the back page quote is from Morrisey’s song Sister I’m a Poet – I’m still wondering if these are suggested soundtracks for each issue or just thematically relevant (and cool) references.
- As this book is so tightly and effectively put together any small problems can appear quite glaring – a minor issue is cast in stark relief by the brilliance around it. There was a line in this issue that didn’t sit all that well with me; when Gruff commends Syd’s ferocity and physical power by saying “you most definitely do not hit like a girl” it struck me as a shame to perpetuate this phrase – maybe “you hit like a woman” would have been better than using this oft quoted and unfortunate cliche.
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