“The Medusa Key”
Writer/Artist/Creator: Jason Armstrong
Publisher: Image Comics
So many independently published comic books today do a wonderful job of blending genres. Three of my favorite comic books of 2005 blend genres: Sundown: Arizona (Old West/Vampire Horror), Children of the Grave (War/Supernatural Horror), and Daisy Kutter: The Last Train (Old West/Sci-fi). When genres are ineffectively blended in a book, the result is a disharmonious narrative that struggles to reconcile the conventions and reader expectations of each genre. When genres are effectively blended, on the other hand, the result is an engrossing story that cleverly has the conventions of each genre play off each other.
Ferro City is a self-described “robot science fiction pulp noir.” It presents a trench coat wearing, cigarette smoking, wise ass remarking, grizzled private investigator alongside glass-tube-headed robots, a gorilla “heavy,” 1950-era automobiles that fly through the sky, and retro futuristic architecture. The sum total of all these elements is one inspired comic book.
The social structure of Ferro City stands at a threshold. Parliament is about to pass a “Robo-Sapien Act” which will provide basic human rights to robots; it will recognize them as autonomous sentient beings. This legislation, naturally, threatens to capsize the economy as the robots would now have to be paid for their services rather than exploited as free mechanical laborers. And there are MANY within Ferro City who would rather the status quo be maintained. This, a “Medusa Key” has been created that will apparently deactivate robots’ artificial intelligence matrix, proving they aren’t sentient. As the criminally powerful seek possession of this key, stuck in the middle is private dick Cyrus Smythe whose partner, Harry Weston (End Note 1), was recently murdered because of his involvement with the key. With his former partner’s daughter in tow, and the police and the mob hot on his heels, Smythe is determined to solve the mystery.
For a comic book whose plot involves robot/“robo-sapien” rights, it’s interesting that the robot’s point of view isn’t an integral part of the narrative. With the exception of a few panels (important panels without question), the robots lack a “voice” in this issue. I believe this "neglect" is a deliberate move on Armstrong’s part, and that some future issue will indeed provide the Robo-Sapien perspective. The writing in this issue strikes a flawless balance: not over-written and not ridiculously concise. And the dialogue perfectly presents the pulp noir mood and in spots it is quite amusing, particularly throughout the opening scene where Smythe mocks the gorilla mobster who is kicking the snot out of him. My only complaint is the slight but noticeable over usage of the word “toaster” as a derogatory description of the robots. The usage of the word doesn’t come across as a commonly used epithet within the Ferro City community; it seems more likely that Armstrong didn’t realize how often he was using the word within the issue.
Regarding Armstrong’s art style, there’s nothing I can write that can convince you to admire it if you already don’t. It is what it is: distinctive, cartoonish, angular… and thoroughly professional. Make no mistake: Armstrong knows how to tell a story with appropriate line weights and variety of panel perspectives. I can understand though if many readers don’t take to Armstrong’s style, especially considering how thickly gray scaled this comic book is. I’ve never seen a more involved gray scaled artwork. This is a "colored black & white" comic book. It’s just that all the colors are different hues of gray. The occasional panel is so murky that it’s almost impenetrable. For the most part though, the gray scaling conveys the expected pulp noir mood.
Ferro City has everything that I ask for in an independently published comic book: it’s unique, it’s interesting, and it’s professionally produced. I'm adding it to my list of favorite comic books of 2005.
1. “Smythe and Weston.” Get it? This is only one of many, MANY puns Armstrong deposits throughout the issue.
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