Sunday Slugfest: The Last Days of American Crime #1

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Jason Sacks , Charles Webb, Chris Kiser
In the not-too-distant future, as a final response to domestic terrorism and crime, the US government plans to broadcast a signal within the country's borders that will make it neurologically impossible for anyone within its range to knowingly engage in illegal behavior.

At the same time, the government is also planning to abolish paper money so that all monetary transactions will be made through "federally operated charge cards, recharged by government-run machines." This is the story of Graham Bricke's plan to steal one of the machines before the anti-crime broadcast takes place in just two short weeks.

Jason Sacks:
Charles Webb:
Chris Kiser:
Thom Young:

Jason Sacks:

The Last Days of American Crime is as dark as dark gets. It's full of unlikeable characters, intense violence, double-dealing femme fatales, and a feeling of a society in the midst of a collapse. It's literally dark as hell, and I love it.

The book starts with a set of moments that drag a reader immediately into an intense feeling of impending doom. Page one shows Graham Bricke, the character whom we assume will be our protagonist, with blood pouring down his face, a particular moment of his life flashing before his eyes as the trigger is about to be pulled on a gun held at his temple.

Flash back two weeks earlier on page two as we see riots in the streets while hearing our protagonist narrating with pride about being "five months clean" as he walks through a hotel that seems infested with hookers. Bricke is carrying a gasoline can, and on page four we see why as he begins telling a man bound in a bathtub about the philosophical reasons for burning a victim with diesel fuel rather than with gasoline.

Yeah, there's a hell of a lot going on in those first few pages. The action and intensity just never let up after that stunning beginning. Rick Remender delivers a powerful noir vision of the near future in this comic as he presents readers with a world that has an almost apocalyptic feel. It's interesting because the apocalypse feels like it's happening on two parallel levels.

On one level, this is a classic noir tale of a career criminal and the bleak world in which he lives. It's a familiar-feeling world in which a character is only as good as his next score--whether the score is drugs, the next female hook-up, the next paying gig, or the next master crime. Bricke's life is an absolute mess; the only friend he can depend on is his bartender--and the bartender really only cares about the money that Bricke will make him.

Bricke lives an almost deliberately apocalyptic life outside of tradition and everyday norms. We've all seen this sort of story before; part of the power of the narrative that Remender delivers in this book comes from the fact that readers already are familiar with much of the backdrop that this series will be exploring. This familiarity allows Remender to play with his characters a bit--giving them unique quirks and moments while still allowing the reader to feel comfortable with the characters.

This familiarity also adroitly sets up the second apocalypse in this book--the collapse of American society. A newscast informs readers that "the nation is engulfed in chaos" as the United States shifts permanently away from a cash society. As Bricke succinctly states it, "world's turning into a big butthole," though Bricke sees no reason he shouldn't try to profit from the collapse.

The political element is the piece of Remender's tapestry that gives this comic some real bite. We're only slightly over a year away from the feeling that the American economy was on the brink of collapse. It's easy to remember the feeling of looking down the chasm of a complete collapse of the world economy in which it seemed like we were doomed to repeat the worst deprivations of the 1930s all over again.

As 2010 rolls around, things have turned out to be somewhat better than we feared they would be, but the scenes of economic collapse and massive civil tensions in this comic have a real power to them that might not have been present if the book had been published years earlier.It's actually kind of stunning how deeply Remender seems to know his characters and the world they inhabit.

Along with artist Greg Tocchini, Remender delivers a story that seems to be bursting full of background information that hints at the lives that his characters inhabit and the society in which they live. Whether it's shown in a flashback to New Orleans during Katrina or in the background of a panel in which we see police fighting with rioters, The Last Days of American Crime is inundated with moments that fill the comic with its own unique sense of reality.

We see the characters' lives reflected on their hardworn faces--even the beautiful girl looks like she's deeply scarred emotionally. We see the crazy level of everyday stress in the grungy world that surrounds the characters in this book, and we even see the stress in the ugly earth-toned palette that Tocchini selects for his art.

Tocchini's work really is stunning. It's a tour de force of intelligent camera angles, smart use of backgrounds, and a great eye for scene setting. As I kept looking through the book, I continued to discover an endless string of smart storytelling choices and use of details.

For instance, I love the appropriately disgusting look of the women's bathroom in which Shelby Dupree, the femme fatale of this story, seduces Bricke. The look of Bricke's Airstream is gorgeous, and subtly implies much about our protagonist--and Tocchini's use of overlapping panels is creative and powerful in an understated way.

There have been a lot of terrific crime comics published over the last few years, but Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini deliver one of the very finest we've seen. They present a perfectly realized bleak vision of a future America on the brink of collapse--all through the eyes of a man who is himself on the brink of a collapse. The Last Days of American Crime is breathtaking work. Literally.

Charles Webb:

The opening to Rick Remender’s speculative crime-thriller opens with its lead, Graham Bricke, under the gun, narrating what we are to assume are his last minutes on this side of Paradise. All things considered, his last thoughts are sweet before the page goes to black and the story flashes back to two weeks earlier.

Like a whacked-out Sunset Boulevard or American Beauty, The Last Days of American Crime begins where it ends--and, like those works, is sort of an homage to its genre (crime fiction in this case) as well as a dissection of the same. Unfortunately, it’s held back by an off-putting level of stylization and extremity in tone.

Remender tells Graham’s heist story in the middle of a government effort to wipe out all crime in America with something called the American Peace Initiative (API)--some kind of device that will somehow prevent people from committing crimes. Apparently, the country is spiraling down the drain with crime running rampant and the population just barely on the good side of going completely Thunderdome. The government is simultaneously converting all of the national currency to digital funds, and Graham hopes to use the confusion of the changeover to score one final heist and flee the country with the loot.

As written by Remender, and drawn by the talented Greg Tocchini, Graham looks like he’s been carved from his surname--all grizzle, grimace, and grit. The reader could be forgiven for thinking he’s seen Graham before--he’s the same hard-luck con with a trail of ex-wives, burned partners, and a habit (booze, drugs) always itching at the back of his mind. The API threatens to obliterate what makes Graham who he is--a “worker,” as he describes himself.

However, on a long enough timeline, Graham and men like him will become obsolete--at least with youngsters like his new partners, Shelby and Kevin, who operate at the tech ends of things. This duo is written as glib and disaffected whereas Graham seems to feel the need to recall and reminisce. Graham is savvy without any real expertise to go behind it. Here, it seems as if Remender is lamenting something being lost between the generations--not just in terms of the fiction here but in reality.

There’s a kind of reverence for old-school crime fiction in the book--from the messy, direct ways that Graham dispatches his enemies to the tangled, stylized dialogue spoken by its characters (this last bit creates some distance between the reader and the story).

Much like Rian Johnson did in his equally acclaimed and savaged Brick, Remender has his characters deliver their dialogue in a thick patois of crime-speak--which is to say, a highly-refined way of talking the way crime writers wished criminals would talk. This Cockney for the Colonies sometimes has a hard time getting to the point (such as the discourse contortions in getting from A to B when Kevin is flashing back to an underwater heist in New Orleans).

The dialogue makes me wish Remender had played this bit a little more straight given how many vectors of fiction we’re beings asked to take on here. It’s a shame since Remender and Tocchini have crafted a world well-worth visiting as it verges on psychological calamity.

What do you do when sin is about to be abolished? The creators answer here: “Sin as big as you can in the time remaining.” It’s not deep, but it’s an effective and interesting premise that I hope gets fleshed out more in the remaining two issues.

On Tocchini--the work he does here is beyond impressive, but it's slightly undercut by some dodgy digital coloring that sometimes feels a bit too garish and over-lit for the content. Still, it’s an infrequent concern and one that hardly hurts the work on display.

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of the author’s work at Monster In Your Veins

Chris Kiser:

The Last Days of American Crime boasts some of the most intriguing solicitation copy to appear in the pages of Previews in the past year. It purports that the mini-series will tell the tale of a near-future United States in which the government plans to broadcast a signal that will prevent anyone within its borders from knowingly breaking the law of the land. In light of this turn of events, career criminal Graham Bricke sets out to pull the heist of the century before the signal goes live.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of slick premise that can put a relatively unknown publisher like Radical on the map as it draws astute readers away from the familiar comforts of the Big Two.

Yet the first issue of writer Rick Remender’s three-parter has very little to do with either the implementation or the implications of this nationwide mind control endeavor. The aforementioned scenario is more of a backdrop than a central focus--much in the way that the bad guy’s scheme in a Die Hard movie is merely a device that is used to facilitate Bruce Willis blowing stuff up.

In fact, I don’t think there are enough details included within the book’s narrative itself to adequately explain what the federal government’s “signal” even is. For that, you’ll have to rely on the information provided in the publisher’s promotional materials.

Neglecting to take full advantage of its eyebrow-raising core concept, Last Days embodies all there is to dislike about gritty crime caper stories.

In the midst of plotting to take advantage of others for their own gain, Remender’s characters treat each other like garbage. It’s a mixture of greed, betrayal, sadism, and adultery that leaves the law-abiding citizen wondering where he’s supposed to connect to this comic.

I realize that there’s an audience out there for such a thing--perhaps even one outside the walls of the nearest state correctional facility. Those who can stomach the story will be treated to some quality art by Greg Tocchini. His work combines the washed-out style of Phil Noto with an extra layer of grime that fits in well with Remender’s story. Tocchini gives the book a very fitting and unique aesthetic despite a few panels where a key visual element is a bit unclear.

If you’re a die-hard crime fiction fan with a taste for the salacious, then your feelings about this comic will likely fall way out of sync with my own unfavorable opinion. Even so, there can be no denying that The Last Days of American Crime misses out on a great chance to use a wildly original idea to transcend the limits of genre.

Thom Young:

Unlike my fellow reviewers, I had no idea what Rick Remender's premise for this story was before I began reading it. I rarely look at promotional materials, so I didn't know that The Last Days of American Crime is set in a "not-too-distant future" in which the US government has found a way to "broadcast a signal" that will make it "neurologically impossible" for people to commit crimes.

I had no idea that Remender's story was essentially a Phillip K. Dick-esque concept that combines hardboiled crime fiction with technological-based dystopian fiction.

Hardboiled crime fiction and dystopian fiction are two of my favorite forms, so this type of story normally appeals to me. I usually enjoy Dick's stories in which he merges these forms--such as A Scanner Darkly or "Minority Report" (though I think the film Blade Runner is better at it than the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep).

Unfortunately, in The Last Days of American Crime, Remender doesn't pull off either form very effectively. He doesn't pull off the dystopian fiction form because (as my colleague Chris Kiser pointed out), he doesn't really give us any of the details about the idea of the US government "broadcasting a signal" that will render its citizens incapable of carrying out illegal activities.

Obviously, this concept goes beyond mere dystopian fiction into fantasy science fiction as it seems unlikely that any such technology could ever be achieved. I mean, this isn't just the "invisible fence" concept that keeps a dog within the property lines by delivering a shock through the collar should the animal try to wander out of the yard.

Neither is Remender's concept similar to what Captain Kirk, Lieutenant Uhura, and Ensign Chekov wore in "The Gamesters of Triskelion." Remender is proposing the continuous broadcasting of a frequency (radio wave?) that can disrupt neurological functions if a person attempts to act on "illegal" thoughts.

I doubt Remender has given much consideration as to how such a concept could actually be achieved scientifically. It also seems odd to introduce such a science fiction idea if its only reason for inclusion in the story is to set a deadline on when the protagonist, Graham Bricke, must pull off his heist of a "government credit charge machine."

The "government credit charge machine" (or whatever it's called) is another oddball concept in itself. After all, our society is already moving towards a cashless economic system. Thus, the only real innovation here is that Remender seems to be indicating that the United States is going to have a more socialist government that is going to eliminate credit cards issued by private financial institutions in favor of government-issued debit cards that will have funds loaded onto them.

I guess these new government-issued debit cards will be like my Metro "SmarTrip Card" that allows me ride the subway by scanning my card at the turnstile--and allows me to also get my car out of the parking garage after I've finished riding the subway (Metro parking does not accept cash; they only accept SmarTrip Cards that are scanned at the exit gates).

However, after I was laid off last January, rather than send me a check every two weeks, the state of Maryland gave me a government-issued debit card for my unemployment benefits. Every two weeks, the state would simply transfer my unemployment funds to my card. There was no need for me to take it to a machine to have funds placed on it.

I have no doubt that I will eventually be able to add funds to my Metro SmarTrip Card online without having to actually use the machines at the subway stations. In other words, Remender's technology for the cashless society seems a bit antiquated.

Moreover, the science fiction/dystopian fiction elements do not seem to have been carefully considered--though perhaps Remender is planning to explain them better (and do more with them) in the second and third installments in this three-issue miniseries (but I doubt it). If Remender does nothing more with these concepts, then he could have easily deleted them and focused on the crime fiction aspect of his story. However, that aspect is essentially just a string of clichés and ill-considered dialog choices.

It's not that Remender's crime fiction story is horribly written; it's just not written as well as it could be. The plot and characters come off as elements in a third-rate Jim Thompson knock off. Thompson is my all-time favorite writer of hardboiled fiction, and I couldn't help thinking how Thompson would have written this hardboiled crime story (or how Phillip K. Dick would have written it if the science fiction/dystopian elements played a larger role than they otherwise do here).

The problem is that Remender doesn't really do anything that makes this story uniquely his so that it doesn't come off as a third-rate Jim Thompson or Phillip K. Dick knock off. Initially, though, I had hopes for the story when I read the opening page.

Actually, the first page both intrigued and frustrated me. It intrigued me because a character lying on the ground with a gun to his head--whom I believe is Graham Bricke*--was not having the clichéd notion of "his life flashing before his eyes." Instead, the character appeared to be experiencing some sort of Proustian memory based on sensory experience:
My life doesn't flash before my eyes . . .it just sticks on one forgotten moment. Frozen. A sun-drenched kitchen. Mom at the stove--hummin' Patsy Klein. Greg was two. Sitting in the corner--eatin' cat food. Old man was long gone--house was quiet. It's perfect--the only place I wanna be . . . Heaven.
Then the page goes to black in the final panel--presumably as the trigger of the gun pressed against the character's head was pulled and a bullet caused his frozen memory to go black as he died.

Obviously, the conclusion of that page seems to have been inspired by the conclusion of the final episode of The Sopranos in which it seems likely that the screen went black as a bullet ended Tony Soprano's life. However, it wasn't the probable homage to The Sopranos that intrigued me; it was the idea that lying on the ground with a gun pressed to his head seems to have caused the character (Bricke?) to experience a Proustian memory.

Perhaps when he was a boy in that sun-drenched kitchen he had also been on the floor with something pressed against his head (a radiator pipe?). Rather than the experience of tea and madeleines bringing about this Proustian recall, it was the feeling of the hard floor beneath his body and a steel tube pressed against his head.

I must confess, the idea that Remender might be exploring Proustian memories and other such concepts intrigued me. However, it seems more likely that Remender didn't have Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in mind at all--and that this "frozen memory" was just a "cool bit" that Remender came up with. Still, it is a cool bit; it's just not as cool as it could have been had Remender actually brought Proustian concepts into a hardboiled crime fiction story.

Yet, even though that first page intrigued me with it's "cool bit" that I could construe as having Proustian connotations, it frustrated me due to Remender's poor narrative techniques. First, it seems clear that the first person narration (presumably by Bricke) is an internal monolog rather than actually being spoken (and definitely not written by the character).

I would argue, though, that internal monologs should not contain dialect variations (such as the suffix -ing being presented as -in'). Because internal monologs indicate a character's thoughts rather than speech, dialect variations having to do with enunciations seem out of place. Thus, Bricke shouldn't be remembering that his mother was "hummin' Patsy Klein" or that Greg was "eatin' cat food." Instead, the text should be "humming Patsy Klein" and "eating cat food."

Still, if Remender wants his characters to think in dialect variations in their internal monologs, then that's his prerogative. However, in that case there is no reason for Bricke to also remember Greg as "Sitting in the corner." Instead, it should have been "Sittin' in the corner."

The fundamental problem is that there doesn't seem to be any consistency as to how Remender decides on when Bricke uses the -in' variation and when he doesn't. Of course, people who use the -in' variation will also enunciate -ing at times--but there are situational rules that govern these dialect traits, and those rules aren't evident in the passage I quoted--nor in any of the passages in which Remender's other characters switch between -in' and -ing in this story.

In 1986, Dr. Michael Huspek's paper "Linguistic Variation, Context, and Meaning: A Case of -ing/in' Variation in North American Workers' Speech" was published in the journal Language in Society, and Huspek's analysis indicates in what contexts Bricke (and other characters) might change between using -ing and -in'. Of course, I don't actually expect Remender to look up a 23-year-old paper in an academic journal as he works on a story (though some writers would).

However, I would expect Remender (and any writer who uses dialect) to consider in what way dialect variations are to be used in his stories--in the same way that Mark Twain considered such writing choices when he crafted the dialog in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding. (Twain's "Explanatory" introduction to the novel)
The problem in Remender's story is that with the exception of the Hispanic characters, all of the characters are succeeding in talking alike--and the Hispanic characters are made to sound like stereotypical "Mexican homeboys."

Still, I would argue that Bricke should not use any dialect variations in his narration at all--only in his actual dialog--and that such variations should occur after careful consideration. Unfortunately, not only does Remender not pay attention to the dialect variations among his characters, he also uses a lot of slang in the story that actually reduces the verisimilitude rather than enhances it.

The other thing that frustrated me about the first page--and Bricke's supposed death as the last panel goes black--is that the next page brings in the clichéd use of the "sometime earlier" narrative concept in which the story flashes back to the events that led up to that shocking beginning/conclusion. In this case, page two tells us that we are moving to a time "Two weeks earlier" in what I believe is the only third person narrative in the story.

Quentin Tarantino will often play with this "sometime earlier" flashback technique in his films (such as in Kill Bill), but he actually uses this approach to create narrative layers in which there is a constantly shifting chronology. In more pedestrian stories, we simply get a "shocking introduction" that we quickly discover is the story's "shocking climax" that we then move toward through a "sometime earlier" flashback that precedes chronologically from that point forward.

I most recently saw this clichéd approach in an episode of Lie to Me in which Tim Roth's character, Dr. Cal Lightman, is apparently shot by mobsters at the beginning of "Grievous Bodily Harm" before we are taken back "some hours earlier" so that we can see how the protagonist of the series found himself in such a situation.

Naturally, if Dr. Cal Lightman was actually killed by the mobsters in that episode the series was unlikely to continue, so we knew that the character was not in any "real" danger. We don't know, though, if Remender's character, Bricke, actually lost his life on the first page or not. Perhaps the entire three-issue miniseries is leading up to that "shocking beginning"/"shocking climax" in which the protagonist is killed.

However, if that's the case, then we would have to wonder about the narrative technique of transporting us back "two weeks earlier" from the narrative perspective of a character who is dead. Is Bricke's narration the internal monolog of a ghost? It's more likely that the third person narrator that informed us that the story was flashing back "two weeks earlier" is responsible for giving us Bricke's out-of-chronology first person internal monolog narrative—which begins with:
Need a bump. Don't want one. Need one. There's a difference.
What's a "bump," you ask? Well, it used to be a slang term for impregnating a woman (not merely having sex, but actually impregnating). However, it's difficult to imagine that Bricke's narrative is about his need (rather than his want) to impregnate a woman.

I then considered the possibility that "bump" in this context is a new slang term that is supposed to refer to a drink of alcohol (or the taking of some other type of drug). After all, Bricke later enters a bar and orders a glass of Jamison Irish whiskey.

In the end, though, I settled on the probability that rather than needing to actually impregnate a woman, Bricke was merely telling us that he needs to have sex (with actual impregnation not a concern one way or the other). In fact, after his drink of Jamison's, Bricke actually gets to have sex with Shelby Dupree in the women's restroom in the bar. The setting for this sex scene appears to be extremely "sleazy" as the coloring choices seem to indicate that there is urine on the floor, walls, and (presumably) the toilet seats.

Of course, such ubiquitous urine is common in sleazy men's restrooms, but it seems odd to have such ubiquitous urine in a women's restroom. Women don't have the same capacity to aim and spray their urine wherever they please. What really bothered me about that scene wasn't the ubiquitous urine, though.

No, what bothered me was that it's the same "sex in the women's bathroom" cliché that I have so often seen in hardboiled movies over the past twenty or thirty years. I most recently saw it two weeks ago when I watched the Darren Aronofsky and Mickey Rourke film The Wrestler on HBO.

The "sex in the women's restroom of a bar" bothered me when I saw it in that film (partly because the steroids that Randy the Ram was on should have made it difficult for him to have an erection--which would have been an interesting variation on this hardboiled cliché), but it bothered me even more in Remender's story because The Wrestler has well-written dialog and character bits (though its overall plot is just as predictable as Remender's various scenes).

What bothered me the most as I read this first issue of The Last Days of American Crime was that I felt that Remender didn't really care enough about the story to bother with artfully crafting it. He seemed to just be bringing out every hardboiled cliché and tough guy-sounding dialect variations (and trite slang terms--such as "homeboy") that he could quickly put together.

I didn't get the sense that Remender actually cares about trying to make this story the best he can make it. Instead, it seems that he is interested in just getting it before the public as fast as he can.

Why would he want to just crank it out quickly?

The answer may be contained in a passage from Remender's two-question publicity interview in the back of the issue: "It's hardcore crime with an apolitical bent and it took someone like Barry and Radical to see the potential of such a thing; not only to make a great comic but potentially a great film" (sic).

Ah, that explains it then. The Last Days of American Crime is a film prospectus that is being published as a comic book/graphic novel. Now it all makes sense.

Nevertheless, this story is not terrible; it's just not as good as it could be.

If he had taken his time to carefully craft his writing, Remender probably could have done a much better job. He certainly appears to have the raw talent to pull off a better writing job. Additionally, Greg Tocchini's work seems like it's probably very good.*

I will say, though, that my favorite part of the comic is Alex Maleev's cover, which is clearly an homage to the covers from the early 1950s that appeared on mass market paperbacks published by Ace Books and Pocket Books. I only wish the story was more in the vein of something that Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, or William Lee (William Burroughs) had published under those types of Ace and Pocket covers nearly 60 years ago.

* The review copy I read was a PDF of such low resolution that I couldn't always make out the features in the illustrations nor the words in the text.

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