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March 19, 2008

at a thousand miles an hour…

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I've totally enjoyed both Stray Bullets, and Daredevil vs Punisher, both comic series written by David Lapham.  Therefore I was already predisposed to like 'At A Thousand Miles An Hour', the first story in Young Liars, his new series.  Yet, within the first two pages, the book self-consciously creates a hipster, happy-go-lucky character for itself, and matches that with one or two neat storytelling tricks.  After these it was almost impossible for me not to enjoy this book.

Let's begin: before we know anything about the comic's world or characters, it recommends two songs (a classic David Bowie song, and a lesser-known track by the more-contemporary Battles) displayed in white type on a pink, cassette tape-shaped background.  We're already plugged into the ultra-cool world of alternative music and mixtape trading, where recommendations from people you like and trust are more valuable than anything.  I like Lapham, I sort of trust him, and I went straight to itunes (rock'n'roll, yeah?).  This is already a little unusual, and pretty frickin' ace.  But it gets better...

By way of scene setting, the first panel is in a busy Manhattan nightclub - full of smoke, neon lights and a dancer in a cage.  There is a band set up in the background, and - into the microphone - the singer says 'Okay...let's get this shit started', matched with a BWAHHHHH guitar chord from his band.  I'm always fascinated with the way that bands begin gigs - you can do a stadium rock/Spinal Tap style 'Helloooo [insert city here]', or perhaps a very casual, humble 'Hello, we are [band name] from [town name]' that I remember a lot from the days of punk rock shows at the Garage.  On this scale, 'Okay, let's get this shit started' is cool-as-hell - it sounds casual (this isn't a gig, it is 'shit'!) but it is likely practiced to death.  Yet it isn't just the band saying 'let's get this shit started', it's the book and the series as a whole - it is a fabulous way to start a series.  But it gets better...

In the same panel, to the right of the band although a little further in the foreground, a woman is snorting cocaine on the bar (amusingly, right in front of the surprised-looking barman).  This action is emphasised by a 'snifffff' speech bubble.  The bottom third of this page (which has just two panels) is a completely different location, and shows a guy in extreme close-up being punched in the nose - blood sprays in all directions, and he can just shout "GUNGH!".  We've therefore got a first page of lots of non-verbal sounds - imagine all these sounds in quick sequence - "Okay, let's get this shit started", 'Sniffff', 'GUNGH!', and then the story starts proper on the next page.  Think of these sounds like the snare drum at the beginning of 'Like A Rolling Stone' by Dylan - one beat by one instrument, and then we're into the body of the song.  Here, we've got sounds of drugs and violence - and then we're into the body of the comic.  I love it.

But then this posturing is matched by a neat narrational trick on the second page, the kind of thing that I would use to disagree with Jason Michelitch (in the linked review - which does excellently make several valid criticisms of the book) when he describes the storytelling as mostly 'bland'.   The second page contains three horizontal panels - the middle of which is a little thicker than the others.  This middle panel most prominently shows an early-twenty-something girl with purple hair, wearing a Clash t-shirt; she's just thrown a punch, and an older moustached guy now has blood flying vertically out of his mouth(!) and is in the process of hitting the pavement.  It's the guy and the attack we saw in close-up on the previous page.  She's laughing, he's struggling to yell because he's having trouble breathing - that was one hell of a strike.  There is a crowd of white-collar looking people in the background, mostly looking on with caricatured horror.  In the same panel, there are yellow boxes containing text, the voice of our narrator.  It says:

I came to the city for two reasons.  To play guitar and find some excitement.  The guitar's long gone, but the excitement...?  ...Man, the hits just keep on coming.

I assumed that this tough-as-nails purple-haired was our narrator.  The narrator hasn't introduced themselves - the girl is foregrounded, there isn't anybody else in this panel that could be addressing us.  Hell, she writes that the hits just keep on coming - as she's hitting somebody!   But this assumption is subverted in the below panel - which focuses on the crowd in the background, and now illuminates the presence of a young looking guy, wearing a Violent Femmes t-shirt - the only unshocked face in the panel of distress.  In this panel, the narrator introduces himself - 'My name is Danny Noonan...' - the book had, albeit temporarily, tricked us into thinking that someone else was talking to us.  What else can't we trust?  Michelitch suggests that there is a moment where what the narration tells us, and what the image shows us, are different - and, by this, I think he means the book's revelation about Donnie (something that I had missed, or not fully comprehended, on the first time around!).

The book does fall victim somewhat to 'pilot episode' syndrome - crowbarring in different characters and their backstories in order to tell us everything we need to know for the series to begin.  It certainly looks difficult to begin a series.  There are all sorts of directions in which this could go though - the relationship between Danny and Sadie is most interesting to me (the moment when he declares his love for her, only for her to run off into the moshpit is pretty affecting), but there is also the potential for stories about drug abuse, gang warfare and, er, hidden treasure! As long as the series doesn't try to do too much too quickly, I think it'll be quite brilliant. 

But then again, I am a sucker for cool-ness.

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