I get nervous and super-paranoid whenever I come across an independent comic book company that churns out the good stuff. I start crossing my fingers and hoping like heck that it survives and flourishes and maintains its quality output. But crossing fingers never did Comico any good, or CrossGen or First or Eclipse or Jim Shooter's Defiant. Radical Comics is the new kid on the block, and I'm already hooked on several of its titles. CITY OF DUST, it's pretty good.
If you're a comic book buff, you already know writer Steve Niles. He's the cat who established himself as a presence in the horror scene with the 30 DAYS OF NIGHT and Cal McDonald series. So he's back in his wheelhouse with CITY OF DUST, mostly. There are strong elements of horror in this graphic novel, but also of sci-fi, a field into which Niles traipses for the first time. The premise allows for a freewheeling genre mash-up, as we soak in bits of horror and cyberpunk and crime noir. What's immediately noted are the broodiness and the claustrophobia, as marvelously evoked by the dark and striking artwork. It's a trio of slick artists providing these visuals.
Early on is a gorgeous two-paged spread in which our eyes travel the expanse of a looming metropolis, and this may be one of the few times in which this series lends itself to wide, open space. In this towering, vertical city, in the year 2166, imagination has been outlawed. No reading (books are banned), no praying, no telling stories by the campfire, because those acts promote controversy and dissension and war. Up in the city heights reside the priveleged and the well-off, all of whom afford their own private security. Down below, in the lower reaches, on the grimy streets, the police are on constant prowl for crimes of thought and imagination.
What happens then when nightmarish monsters step out of myth and into this rigid, sanitized world?
When Philip Khrome was a child he turned in his dad for telling him a bedtime story. Khrome, raised by the system, today is a cop. And he'd never had call to second-guess that system. But then he stumbles on a strange serial killer who rends his victims to gory bits and yet doesn't leave a trace of DNA. And then, underneath one mutilated corpse, Khrome finds an incongruous children's book. Baffled, our once compliant cop is compelled to question everything he's ever believed. Wait, hold up, so censorship isn't a boon?
Mostly, I love dystopian settings. CITY OF DUST offers a pretty chilling vision of our near future, a place which has no room for literature or religion and Aesop's Fables and the Bible are equally condemned. Thing is, there's a germ of plausibility in the premise. Regarding our literary liberties, as Niles remarks in his Newsarama interview (included in this trade), "I think we're already in danger of people not reading." Niles goes on to note that in his correspondence with fans he's observed that many of them are steeped in the text messaging culture, in which acronyms abound and punctuations ignored, and there's an insidious undercutting of proper language. To extrapolate wildly then, how many steps from there until the written word is done away with altogether?
Several things to praise and frown at. There's a welcome feel of BLADE RUNNER crossed with FAHRENHEIT 451. I like that when the prescribed method of investigating - applying crime scene robots - fails to turn up any clue, Khrome is forced to resort to good, old-fashioned police work.
On the downside, I wasn't too keen on the dearth of memorable character beats. I felt that the ending came off rushed. I had to re-read that section because I thought I'd skipped something.
I really like the slick artwork. Radical Comics, much like CrossGen before it, seems to specialize in drawing in huge artistic talents. I will mention that Zid, who draws the first issue, has an awesome grasp of backdrop and background details. But he's sort of wobbly when it comes to facial expressions, and there were times when I had to work to be able to sort out which character is which. The other artists - Garrie Gastonny and Brandon Chng - are terrific, even though I feel they're not quite on the same level as Steve Pugh (Hotwire: Requiem For The Dead), Leonardo Manco (Driver for the Dead), Wayne Nichols (RYDER ON THE STORM), and Roy Martinez (FVZA: Federal Vampire And Zombie Agency).
CITY OF DUST is a fun read. Niles constructs an engrossing world, even if I wouldn't want to live there. And to reiterate, it's a nice blend of horror and sci-fi and crime noir. So if you've got a yen for futuristic jet packs and vampires, spidery CSI 'bots and werewolves, then you've got to get a taste.