Dark Horse has collected the first five issues of its title X into the volume Big Bad. And if you haven’t been reading the single issues and wondered what the heck it’s about, just look at the creative team: Duane Swierczynski, who wrote for Marvel’s Punisher and Cable, and Eric Nguyen, who drew DC’s Batman: Arkham Unhinged. So yeah: a dark gritty street-level superhero series with psychopathic bad guys and an even more psychopathic good guy.
The setting is the Pacific-Northwest-ish city of Arcadia, seemingly populated entirely by white people. There are no superpowered humans in the city, at least so far, except for one medical experiment gone horribly right. X, the main character, is a one-eyed masked man who, depending on the artist, looks either super badass (in the cover art by Clint Langley) or a little bit scraggly (the planned effect, according to bonus sketches by Nguyen at the end) and more like a deranged person’s idea of what a Batman-esque superhero should look like. Which, is what he is. Though I gotta say, the overall effect can sometimes look like The Gimp from Pulp Fiction, especially with the padlocked collar around the neck. What’s the deal with the padlock? Fear not, that question will be answered in this book.
But the story is really about the female lead, Leigh Ferguson, and scrawny journalist-cum-blogger who looks like an alternative librarian, with dyed red hair and glasses (note: I find this attractive). Recently laid off from the city newspaper, she’s now writing an anonymous crime blog, calling herself an old-fashioned muckracker. Her posts make up much of the narrative in panel captions, and allow Swierczynski to slip in some rehashing/reviewing of the plot as issues proceed. It’s Leigh’s curiosity about X, which we readers share—both who he is and what his motivations are—that drives the plot.
Actually, the story is really about revenge; both, seemingly, on a personal level (X seems to know the bad guys) and on a larger level, in that the bad guys have basically driven the economy of Arcadia into the ground, and Leigh wants to bring them to justice, though of course the whole police department has been bought off (and in any case, even in Real Life their job is always to enforce the status quo, not necessarily do the right thing). Thus, vigilantism.
My favorite part of X is that Swierczynski doesn’t explain everything up front, nor resort to flashbacks. He drops us down right in the action and trusts that we’ll trust him as a storyteller to get us to some explanations, though readers will be more than willing to do so with the cool gritty artwork by Nguyen, and, I have to say, the coloring, which I think is done by Michelle Madsen (she’s credited on the Volume front page, though not in the individual issues). Nguyen sometimes has layers of action going on in one panel: bodies falling, bombs going off, nails flying, blood spraying, blood spraying from different bodies, all in murky dark lighting and shadows, and all of which could easily get muddy. But is instead pretty damn vivid.
On that note, be warned: This is a violent and gory story, and ultimately this is where I ended up not liking X: the overall effect, especially in Issue #0, seems to be an excuse to show guys getting shot and cut to pieces. I know there are people that enjoy that kind of thing, like those who think Boondock Saints is one of the greatest movies ever, but I get uncomfortable with even one of my favorite characters. Daredevil, when writers have him beating up (i.e., torturing) random dudes in bars to get information. I like gritty. I like dark. I also like the old kung-fu ideal of using only as much force as necessary.
The need for vigilantism in X, and many, if not most, superhero comics (or at least the street level ones) is a given. Maybe it shouldn’t be. I think we all feel the urge to cut through bureaucratic red tape and do something about the bad guys, a la Bush Doctrine, but that’s the trap—that the world is only composed of only good guys and bad guys, and we all know the difference, and that someone like X can still be ‘good’ because he only kills and tortures bad guys. I’m more interested in characters that have some doubts about what they’re doing. X has none. Which I think we’re supposed to take as morally ambiguous.
What disappoints is that Swierczynski actually opts for the conventional: the bad guys (called “The Pigs” in the title of one issue, though never in the actual story, and they actually look pig-like) are essentially big fat Mafia dons. At one point, speculating about who X might be, one of the lesser Pigs offhandedly jokes to the head Pig that maybe X is one of the 99% (i.e. referring to the Occupy movement) as a sort of cheap joke. But what if Swierczynski actually went there? A really radical idea would be to have the Arcadia bad guys who are running Arcadia’s economy into the ground be the actual bad guys in Real Life who are running our country into the ground. The Mafia is small beans compared to the Koch brothers, or any of the other 100 super rich people that control both political parties. What if X were a psychotic 99%-er going after The Pigs who are technically operating within the law? That would be some morally ambiguous shit.
Ultimately, by the end of Issue #4, and this volume, Leigh Ferguson’s curiosity gets satisfied, which takes out the most interesting story thread. There is a twist, and I’m curious where Swierczynski will take the story from here. But only mildly curious. Big Bad is engaging, the artwork especially so, but feels like an excuse for hardcore violent action, and a lot of gore. I love the dystopian look of Arcadia, the noir-ish style, but not the grindcore splatter-porn. Again, I know many readers do. I like my gore implied: The things Rorschach does in Watchmen, for example, are more powerful because left off panel, for readers to imagine.