The blood-soaked story of two comic book creators and the ultimate horror character they invented.
Random Acts of Violence is the sort of graphic novel that will have trouble finding penetration in a fickle market. The majority of comic book enthusiasts tend to stick with genres that they are comfortable with, and they will venture outside that realm on only the most special of occasions.
The theme and plot of Random Acts of Violence is one that, on the surface, should entice the horror fanatics out there. It’s basically a book about two struggling comic creators, Todd and Ezra, who strike gold with their book Slasherman--a horror comic that depicts various kills of grotesque proportions. However things turn badly when they seek to promote their series with a contest--the details of which they inadvertently miswrote, which causes a copycat killer go on a murder spree.
My biggest problems with this book are the over-the-top snuff atmosphere and the lack of any form of cohesion. The story jumps around frequently, as if Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray were unsure what they hoped to accomplish. Is the story horror or comedy, or something else altogether? I found the confusing genre too distracting as it constantly pulled me out of the story.
Additionally, the sequence of events in the plot played out all too conveniently and absurdly--bordering on ridiculousness. Without giving away spoilers (though you shouldn’t bother with this book at all), I will just say that the story is so freaking stupid that I had to force myself to read it to completion.
Honestly, I found nothing positive at all in Random Acts of Violence, which is a shame because the preview really interested me with its captivating monologue and artwork. Unfortunately that preview was the best that this book had to offer. Even the artwork of the preview was the best that was to be found in the issue. I can’t recommend this story to anyone unless you are a fan of either the creators (Palmiotti, Gray, and Giancarlo Caracuzzo) or terribly executed stories.
To its credit, Random Acts of Violence has an interesting final couple of pages that are ill-served by the story that comes before them. The balance of the book is taken up with a rote slasher story that is only enlivened by Giancarlo Caracuzzo’s illustrations.
The story follows two comic book collaborators--Ezra and Todd--as their creation Slasherman becomes a hit book and spawns its own real-life killer. You have to take for granted that the characters’ creation is the greatest thing ever (a national phenomenon) given that what little we see indicates that the comic is simply a gory, first-person chronicle of the adventures of a masked serial killer with some lofty ideas about art and creating suffering.
The Slasherman walking around in the real world thinks that the creators of the book owe him something; Ezra and Todd are simply surprised that their book has become so popular and aren’t even aware that he exists for a good portion of the story. Then the killer makes it personal and the story goes about where you think this kind of horror fiction would go.
The problem with the book--beyond the flatness of Slasherman as a concept--is that it seems to be saying something about the relationship between violence, fiction, and the real world, but I have serious trouble parsing it.
It’s clear that Palmiotti and Gray lean on the side of personal agency--that people are responsible for their actions--but, at the same time, Slasherman is having some kind of effect on its readers. A mind should be able to hold more than two ideas at the same time, but I’m uncertain what the first idea is in this book.
There’s the hint near the end that Slasherman has unintentionally created a kind of meme--think In the Mouth of Madness--but it feels like an idea that should have been introduced sooner rather than later, while perhaps giving us less of the actual Slasherman comic to chew over and think about too much.
The illustrations are the redeeming feature of the entire thing, with Caracuzzo drawing the hell out of it. I’m blanking on names right now, but the influence of Euro horror comics is strong in this one (check out the leads who look like the main characters from a violent Italian detective comic rather than grungy, struggling comic artists from New York). I’d love to see Caracuzzo’s future work, perhaps in service to a book that has a bit more clarity to it.
A pair of comic book talents combine forces to create the anti-hero Slasherman. Their fame skyrockets, but some nutjob connects with the comic book in the wrong way.
Giallo fiction is a sub-genre of mystery and horror that combines sex and violence-- usually lent grotesque cinematic beauty, thanks to a particularly talented director such as Sergio Martino. The word giallo, which means yellow in Italian, derives from the yellow paperback covers of Edgar Wallace novels published in Italy during the thirties and forties. These twisted mysteries often served as inspirations for the films.
Random Acts of Violence opens as a giallo. We see a black gloved, masked killer about to stylishly murder a helpless, bound young woman. However, unlike a giallo, the narration reveals the killer's thoughts--and they read like an analysis by a film critic.
This reference is no great insight on my part. The writer in the story, Ezra, identifies the series of panels drawn by Todd, the illustrator in the story, as an homage to the giallo, and the opening of this graphic novel is actually a scene from Slasherman, the comic book within this comic book.
Whereas Slasherman may be a tribute to giallo, Random Acts of Violence is something different. Giallo, though mostly lauded today, was once reviled as uniformly misogynistic--and I can see the same arguments being applied to Random Acts of Violence. However, such arguments don't quite add up.
For one thing, the killing in Random Acts of Violence occurs off panel, but giallo shows the murders. The very worst giallo films still have the decency to fill the screen with attractive female nudity, but Random Acts of Violence uses nudity in a sexual way in only one scene: when Ezra gets lucky with a man-eating comic book talent.
While Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray present some of the victims naked, Giancarlo Caracuzzo and Power Girl colorist Paul Mounts take all the sexuality out of the scenes. The victims, though surrounded by modern forensic staples like CSIs, resemble Jack the Ripper's victims as seen in sepia photos. They look dead, not sexy. They look butchered, not erotic.
Rather than looking like Helmut Newton photo shoots, it is clear that atrocities have been committed. In contrast, Caracuzzo and Mounts make Maria, the man-eater, a very sexy thing indeed. She moves seductively. Her pink flesh highlighted in sunlight is most inviting.
The book’s shower scene is another interesting inversion of expected nudity. Whereas the shower scene in a giallo is a reliable moment to see European beauties--such as the ethereal Edgwige Fenech--Gray and Palmiotti give their shower scene to a man.
What's even more interesting is that they play the shower scene in a traditional way that would normally excuse the nudity of an actress. The character in the shower is suffering from a psychological trauma, and that's the kind of explanation a director may give an actress as justification for doffing her clothing. Clearly, Palmiotti and Gray are students of the film genre.
Giallo's reputation for slaughtering women is somewhat unjustified. Often, men are executed as well--in equally stylish and vicious ways. Random Acts of Violence increases the death toll and equalizes the gender of victims. These kills also serve as clues that things aren't quite what they seem.
The motive in giallo is almost always money. The killer turns out to invariably be a greedy husband, a blackmailer, or a male cousin out to gain a victim's inheritance. They're simply bent toward violence and bloodshed. Rarely does an actual serial killer appear in giallo except as a red herring.
When Palmiotti and Gray reveal their killer, he bears all the traits of a typical serial killer. He isn't a poetic monster who developed his skill in killing like the fictional Slasherman. Instead, he is a brutal bastard who probably snapped a long time ago, but he lacked the imagination to give himself a signature that would attract media and police attention.
While the revelation could have been a let down that was underplayed, Caracuzzo and Mounts make "the unmasking" anything but boring. Although the killer's identity is out of left field, the discovery is given climactic atmosphere in gory color. In fact, it's one of the few moments when the gore becomes personalized; even then, it’s never like a torture porn exercise.
Despite bearing superficial similarities to the giallo form, Random Acts of Violence should not be thought of as a mystery. It's not even a detective story--though there is an element of whodunnit playing throughout. What this story does is question implication and inference. There are a lot of things going on in this book. Sometimes these scenes have nothing to do with the killings, but they do belong, and that's how you know that Gray and Palmiotti are aiming at a different target.
For instance, Todd and Ezra go to a southwest comicon, and all sorts of events occur. The fans range from eccentric to crazy--and the most ominous of those fans dresses as Slasherman, silently walks up to the creators’ table, shows the machete he carries, and then walks away after Todd and Ezra sign his book.
As you read, you ask yourself, “who is killing all these people? Is it that fan who stalked up to the table? Is it Todd? Is it Ezra?”
The key is that readers will infer a number of things that Palmiotti, Gray, and Caracuzzo are not necessarily implying. Likewise, the accusations of misogyny toward the Slasherman comic within this story are based on the inference that the authors and artists hate women--but that notion isn't actually implied. Girls as well as guys appreciate Slasherman. In this way, Palmiotti and Gray acknowledge a rather surprising real world statistic--a lot of girls love horror films, frequently the ones that critics label as misogynistic.
The reader gets an inside look into the lives of Todd and Ezra. The creators of this aberrance of literature are normal. In fact, they're almost too normal. It's difficult to feel real empathy toward them because they have no quirks to connect with.
You can root for their comradeship, but it's the supporting cast that are memorable. My favorite is the southwest sheriff. As I read the dialogue, I kept thinking of the great character actor R. Lee Ermey. Todd's and Ezra's black friend at the bar is also a lot of fun--and Maria is, of course, a noticeable spark in the book.
Gray, Palmiotti and Caracuzzo delight in upending your expectations. For example, in one scene they combine sex and violence in a different way. Todd goes into a rest stop and he meets a busty lady painting her toenails. He warns her about the serial killer stomping about, and she relates a brief tale about another murderer then promptly displays her pump action shotgun. Painkiller Jane would like her.
Random Acts of Violence will set you back about seven bucks. A bargain at 72 pages. The multi-layered story is excellent, far better than the most recent horror films spat out by Hollywood--as well as the lion's share of notable independent films. The artwork by Caracuzzo and Mounts exceeds the majority of most fare on the racks--Amanda Conner's Power Girl being an obvious exception.
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