Savage Things, a new series from Vertigo, reached its second issue last week (of eight), and by now we can formulate an idea of what the comic is going for, how the aesthetics are going to play out, and what it leaves for readers to think about in that pause between issues. Written by Justin Jordan, with art by Ibrahim Moustafa, colors by Jordan Boyd, letters by Josh Reed, and cover by John Paul Leon, as a Vertigo book, it’s more Sheriff of Babylon than Clean Room, though any comparison would be difficult since the book is so unique in concept and ethos. It’s fantasy only in the sense that the realism is elevated, the assumptions requiring a little suspension of belief, but not really huge leaps in credulity.
Savage Things proposes a government program called “Black Forest” for harvesting young people who have psychopathic tendencies and training them as super soldiers in a covert way. That the training for these children was geared toward enhancing their callousness, detachment, and natural tendencies to enjoy killing others. But that the program was eventually discontinued, with prejudice, and the agents were supposedly killed off as an “embarrassment” when things got out of hand over time. Now, in the modern day, one of the surviving agents is being asked to help take down the rest of the survivors who, angry that they’ve been wiped out of existence, are causing massive disruptions in gory acts of revenge to scare the government. At least that’s my understanding of the trajectory of the series so far.
The reason I say it’s not so far-fetched is because it’s the nature of governments to be opportunistic in finding agents with unique abilities to exploit. The more we learn about the Cold War as papers are declassified, the more we learn about an “ends justify the means” approach to international conflicts. We also know black ops units exist and carry out covert missions all the time. What Justin Jordan is doing is taking something that feels true to our world and turning things up a notch.
Ibrahim Moustafa definitely helps turn things up a notch. His artwork has a lot of heavy lifting to do in terms of presenting violent conflicts. Even though the book is only in its second issue, there have been several fight scenes, both flashbacks and present day, since combat is the main way in which we can understand who these agents are and what they are capable of. Moustafa has to handle images of extreme violence and even brutality, but makes some sensitive choices in what exactly to depict, what to suggest, and what can create “shock in awe” in the reader. After all, we have to believe these agents are terrifying, or the story won’t hold. Showing aftermath scenes works well, but this series is not for those with an aversion to gore.
Two agents form a core of the plot–given the code names Cain and Abel as kids because they tended to stick together–though other agents are also introduced. We get our outside perspective and balancing force in Agent Kira Sinclair, the person who wants to hire Abel as a “counterterrorism consultant” to take down the other Black Forest members on the rampage. She knows how dangerous interacting with Abel can be, but she sees it as the only solution–to meet fire with equal fire. In a way, she’s addressing the generational since of the father, the government, and cleaning up their mess left behind. For that reason, she has to take a steely perspective on their calculating use of children and the outcome of their bad decisions.
Realism and action taken to a higher level make for an entertaining comic, but the thing that’s most interesting to me about the comic is that it addresses how we handle psychopathy in storytelling right now. In comics, sure, but predominantly in TV and film, there tend to be two approaches. Either we romanticize and are kind of attracted to psychopathy–Dexter, Hannibal, and Luther, are only a few examples, or we demonize and eradicate it, as in many horror films and police procedurals featuring serial killers. Take your pick, there are so many of those types of shows and films.
Savage Things creates a different picture and a different feel to storytelling about psychopaths. Its determined to present them as dangerous, ugly, and shocking, removing any romantic veneer so far. And yet it also presents them as empowered, decisive, definitely more effective than their counterparts in the government in accomplishing their missions. I can’t say I’ve seen that before, and though I don’t know the creators’ motives behind rejecting the romantic view of the isolated and god-like psychopath, I know that it’s good storytelling to move beyond what it becoming so prevalent a motif in storytelling and try something different.
Savage Things tells its story well so far, but it also breaks new ground in the type of story it is telling, which is always encouraging to see in comics.
Savage Things #1 and # 2 are out in shops now, and issue #3 arrives on May 3rd, 2017.