June 11, 2011

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Dark Rain A New Orleans Story

Written by Mat Johnson
Illustrated by Simon Gane
Vertigo

Dabny is a good man who makes a mistake and pays big for it. Emmit is not nearly as good a person, and he makes a mistake, too. Through circumstance, they both end up at the same halfway house. Dabny works hard to try and repair his life. Emmit dreams of revenge. When Hurricane Katrina presents an opportunity to score big, and Dabny's chances at regaining his life start to peter out, the two form an unlikely alliance to get back at forces that have hurt them over the years. But with the flood waters rising and private security companies enforcing their own brand of justice, this job will be anything but a Big Easy score. Can Emmit and Dabny survive? Come on down into the mire that America would rather forget and see what it takes to survive.

Though set in the modern era just a bit after the horrible Katrina tragedy, this book very much has a noir feel to it. Johnson writes a story of desperation, with characters who may have some honor left, but their general goodwill has been broken out of them. They'll do what they have to in order to make it in the world, because the usual rules don't apply to them anymore--or worse, those same rules have screwed them over so far there's no turning back.

Take Dabny, for instance. Here's a man who makes one mistake, and he's caught. Meanwhile, his old military bosses are cleaning up doing pseudo-legal work as security--basically keeping stuff safe for property owners while desperate people are squeezed into shelters. His ex won't cut him a break and very few people will help an ex-con, even one with his unique maritime talents. This caper is his only chance.

Emmit is less honorable, but you can still see how he ends up in the predicament he's in. For him, this caper is about revenge, but he's too impotent personally to enact it. So he tries to talk his way into a big score, and ends up getting into further and further trouble. Emmit can only hope to live on the backs of others, and until he runs into Dabny, his chances of ever seeing success are slim. We all know Emmit's fate, but Johnson does a great job of setting up and executing the drama.

On a larger scale, there are hundreds of side cast members in this story who represent the many, many people who were abandoned by their own country on the day Katrina happened. Taxpayers, homeowners, Americans--the whole dream might as well be a farce for them. Johnson weaves scenes of their desperation and dashed hopes in and out of the story of Dabny and Emmit, pausing just long enough for us to see what we as a nation did to these people but never so long as to turn the story into a ham-handed message book. The message is loud and clear with only a few vingettes, a tribute to Johnson's tight plotting and Gane's illustrations.

Though I was well aware of how badly things were handled in Katrina, seeing it on the page in the form of a graphic novel really sends the message home. Scenes like the one where the suburban police refuse to allow the homeless and overcrowded evacuees show the cruelty of humanity in a country that's supposed to be a beacon to the world. Pages where the flood rushes into a house or people cry desperately to be saved from the tops of buildings tug at the heart of the reader because we know it actually happened.

This may be a fictional story, but the background is all too real.

What really makes this all work, however, is that Johnson and Gane weave all this into the primary story. All of the horror of Katrina is exposed without any of it feeling gratuitous. Our characters move around this world so we can see the problems of the flooding, but the flooding gives the plot its central idea--the heist of a bank that's underwater. I'm really impressed by how well it all fits in, and I definitely want to seek out more of Johnson's work.

If there's one problem with Dark Rain, it's that the downward course of the narrative doesn't stay down from beginning to end. Without giving away the ending, I will say I was a bit disappointed that things turn out better than they should, given the feel of the book. But there are a lot worse sins than giving your book a note of hope--especially since Dabny in particular represents the voice of those who were silenced in the wake of the flood. Like New Orleans itself, these characters will struggle to the end to make their lives better.

I thought Dark Rain was an excellent morality play that doesn't preach so much as show the bald facts. As long as you are not the type of person who thinks we should let our fellow countrymen die in the face of adversity, you should find a lot to like about this noirish story. It's yet another quality book from Vertigo, showing they can do more than just traditional comics. Grab this one if you can, it's well worth it.