Van Jensen, story; Nate Powell, art
Gallery 13, 2019
Set in Little Rock, Arkansas just after the end of World War II, Two Dead weaves a complex fabric made up of post-traumatic stress, racial conflict, mob violence, political corruption, and regret. The story is told from multiple perspectives: a newly minted police lieutenant haunted by his recent war service; a seasoned, gun happy detective haunted by the fate of his first partner; a seemingly untouchable gangster who runs the town; and two African-American brothers, one a criminal, the other a proud war veteran leading a local militia trying to protect the citizens on their side of town.
Gideon Kemp begins his first day on the police force with a visit to the mayor, the man who hired him. Kemp has a lot of weight on his shoulders: as the mayor's inside man he is charged with bringing the police force into the modern age; keeping tabs on loose cannon Chief Bailey; and helping the city with its mob problem. He quickly discovers what Bailey is like: hotheaded, impulsive, quick to shoot, and completely unconcerned with regulations. He likes to keep trophies of his kills (guns, bullets and the like), and so does mafia don Big Mike (teeth from his victims, specifically canines).
Right from the start the action is violent, and since it takes place in an illegal casino it draws in all of the central characters. The repercussions ripple through the rest of the story. It's far from the last of the violence, which includes a big shootout on a bridge and mob hits. But the narrative still makes room for in-depth character development for all of the major characters. Their various histories are gradually revealed, shedding light on how their military careers formed them, and the way past decisions inform their current actions.
Chief Bailey's story is only fully revealed towards the end, as well as the reason for Kemp's decision to go into police work despite other excellent options (the law and the F.B.I.). Their final conflict feels inevitable, as they are both haunted by deaths early in their careers. I would say the title dead refer to both them and the deaths on their consciences.
Nate Powell's art is loose and expressive, with fluid panel layouts--even the lettering (very much old school hand lettering) has a sometimes manic energy. The darkness of the story is matched by the frequently dark pages: lots of blacks and brown tones, occasionally to the point that the action is hard to follow. Ironically, the flashbacks feature white backgrounds and more regular panel layouts, making them a welcome visual break. The story was born during Van Jensen's time as a crime reporter in Little Rock early in his career. He reported on these events, and thought about fictionalizing them ever since. Powell is a Little Rock native, so it was a natural partnership. It was a long process, but worth waiting for.