'The Executor': Damaged people hip-deep in mystery

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

March 16, 2010 -- Is it a requirement in crime fiction that everybody is kind of unlikeable?

That’s the situation in Vertigo Crime’s latest graphic novel, The Executor ($19.99). Virtually every character is tainted in some way, and it’s only because some characters are so vile that some others emerge as more or less sympathetic.

Which is not to say that The Executor doesn’t have an interesting plot. Our “hero” Joe Ullen – and I use the term loosely – is a former professional athlete who returns to his hometown in upstate New York as executor of the will of a high school girlfriend. The fact that he feels compelled to do so – treating his current girlfriend like dirt in the process – indicates he has the genre requirement of A Dark Secret In His Past.

A second mystery is that the ex didn’t go quietly; she was murdered. And as Joe begins to dig to discover who killed her and why (while executing her will), he runs into poverty, bigotry, racial tension (Anglo vs. Native American) and, ultimately, an evil I won’t describe here.

Will the two mysteries be connected? Well, duh. Wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t, would it?

Obviously, the by-the-numbers genre tropes holds few surprises to those who read a lot of this type of story (like me), but I was surprised by some aspects. For example, a career criminal comes off as the most sympathetic character in the book. And when I think of Native American reservations, I don’t generally think of upstate New York. Plus, the criminal conspiracy underlying all the mysteries is so eeeee-vil that even this jaded mystery reader was revolted.

And I don’t mean to be harsh about the predictable parts; I really don’t mind when genre stories follow genre requirements. That’s why I’m reading it! Writer Jon Evans (Dark Places) is savvy enough to know he must add sufficiently engaging twists on a well-worn path, and does. And Italian artist Andrea Mutti (Nathan Never) is amazingly accomplished; his expressions are nuanced, his rendering clean, his characters individual.

Elsewhere:

A hardcover collection of the five-issue Days Missing miniseries is out (Archaia, $19.95), and it is top-notch science fiction.

Normally sci-fi in comics means guys in tights waling the tar out of each other. But Days Missing is a high-concept, mind-expanding idea – an old school, Arthur C. Clarke kind of thing.

The series stars "The Steward," a mysterious humanoid that predates humanity and shepherds species he hopes will someday evolve to be his equal – not because of altruism, but to alleviate his maddening loneliness. (He had high hopes for the dinosaurs, but … well, we know how that turned out.) In addition to being immortal, The Steward has the brain-bending power to set the clock back 24 hours when something goes wrong – creating a “day missing” that only he remembers.

Days Missing turns four different, experienced creative teams loose on the concept, with each creating a done-in-one story of a missing day (one team twice). The first story involves a global pandemic, another a cataclysmic artificial life form, and so forth. My favorite might be the second story, by writer David Hine (Detective Comics) and artist Chris Burnham (X-Men: Divided We Stand), which plausibly mixes history and fiction for a metafictional narrative about Mary Shelley actually seeing a Frankenstein monster before writing her famous novel – which, of course, is a missing day that she only remembers in dreams. “Far out,” as we used to say.

* I just finished Tarzan: The Jesse Marsh Years Vol. 5 (Dark Horse, $49.99) and I’m still learning things.

I didn’t understand why Marsh was so highly regarded until other fans pointed out that I should be looking at more than the people. I have, and Marsh is indeed excellent at animals and landscapes. But I also learned something about myself, in that having grown up in a superhero-dominant era I have generally learned to adjudge how good an artist is by evaluating his or her people. That training failed me with Marsh, who worked in an era (this volume is from 1951) when a thousand genres bloomed and artists were valued for things other than hyper-muscled men and voluptuous women in skin-tight suits.

So I have learned to appreciate comics in a broader sense, and that I had a blind spot that needed correcting. Those are pretty valuable things to learn from an old comic book.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 68

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 18, 2010 at 3:07pm
Judging by one of your earlier posts, I thought you might have given up on Jesse Marsh's Tarzan, Cap. I'm glad to learn you haven't (if for no other reason than to know I'm not the only one still reading!). All of my pre-orders tend to dump on me in a single day, then I spend the next several weeks clearing out my pull and hold a book or two at a time. That happened in February, and consequently I bought volume five only yesterday.
Comment by Dagwan on March 19, 2010 at 12:35pm
Days Missing was a great read. I hope they can get a second series out this year.

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Comment by Lumbering Jack (M'odd-R8-Tr) on March 20, 2010 at 9:45am
There's a big Native American reservation in the Salamanca area of Western New York (south of Buffalo). They run a big casino there and offer (last I knew) tax-free cigarettes. Wikipedia info.
In the 1990s, they made national news when they blockaded the highway that runs through the reservation when New York began demanding they apply taxes to their tobacco sales.
New York was/is also the home to the Iroquois tribe, which had a territory that covered almost the whole state at one time.
Much of the French & Indian War was fought in New York.
Now all those Native American connections aside, you are absolutely right, Captain, in that New York is never thought of for its reservations or Native American culture. The "Cowboys & Indians" type of Native Americans are pretty much the only Native Americans portrayed in the entertainment industry.
I'm hoping that "The Executor" was trying to portray the right kind, and that the creators were making a subtle attempt to show us something beyond the stereotype.

And just out of curiosity, did they mention a specific area of Upstate New York? Or mention a city name?

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