Black Market (1 of 4)
Written by Frank Barbiere
Illustrated by Victor Santos, Adam Metcalfe and Ed Dukeshire
If you poke at some of the concepts behind superheroes, they start to seem ridiculous, and I don't mean the teleportation, flying and super-strength. No, the troubling idea about superheroes is that they are fundamentally selfish. If Reed Richards is the world's smartest man and can create all manner of amazing inventions and technology, why doesn't he share it with the world? If Wolverine (up until recently) has a healing factor that enables him to quickly bounce back from even the most ridiculous, grotesque injuries, you don't think millions of burn victims around the world might be interested in something like that? No, even though they work to protect humanity, superheroes and their villainous counterparts are engaged in colossal battles to which ordinary people are incidental. They put themselves above the regular people of the world in a way that is fundamentally selfish, and it would be understandable for people to resent them.
Black Market is a crime story set in a world of superheroes, where people decide that it's time to make the superheroes share their gifts, like it or not. This is a strong first issue with solid characterization and beautiful art from Victor Santos. In this world, masked vigilantes emerged a number of years ago. The fought crime, and helped improve society. Eventually they were replaced by "the Supers" who had massive powers and virtually wiped out crime. The story begins with a fire at an apartment building and a Super named Hotspot who comes to the rescue; several men (including a man named Raymond) have used the fire to lure the hero in and capture him. The story moves back a number of months and shows us Raymond's life. He's preparing bodies at a funeral home, but used to be a medical examiner for the police until something called "Ultra". It's clear Raymond has a difficult life, as he's unhappy with his job and is caring for his wife who has MS.
Ray's visited by his brother Denny, whom Ray greets with a punch in the face. It seems Denny was somehow responsible for "Ultra" which cost Ray his job. But Denny's got money for Ray, and a way to make up to Ray what Denny has cost him. Denny has gotten involved with a company called Biochem that's using Super-DNA in order to create a miracle cure for diseases (including MS). Jumping back to the present day, Ray and Denny and their large associate Albert are making a run for their laboratory (in a stolen ambulance) when they're stopped by some cops whom Denny and Albert deal with violently. They make their way back to the lab, where Ray sets up Hotspot so the others can extract his blood. Back when Denny approached Ray about this plan, he promised Ray that they were the good guys and that no one was going to get hurt. However, at the end of this story, that's clearly not the case.
This is a strong first issue with a solid hook. While taking place in a world full of superheroes, this is not a story about Supers; it's a story about people who take matters in their own hands because they don't want to feel like ants in a world full of giants. This story fits in well with other stories in this subgenre, such as Incognito and Sleeper from the team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, both of which also explore the underbelly of a world of super-powered people. Frank Barbiere has started to carve out an interesting comics resume of ethically murky, desperate characters such as in Five Ghosts where his protagonist is a shady treasure hunter/thief who's motivated to save his sister's life, and The White Suits centered on a group of Cold War-era assassins and the people out to stop them (and who'll use any means to do so). Ray here is a similarly compromised protagonist; all he wants to do his save his wife, the next thing you know he's trapping and experimenting on superheroes, and evading law enforcement. His internal narration is effective and he's a sympathetic character, so it's not hard to see how he would come to be in his current situation.
This story is aided tremendously by very strong art from Santos; while the art is distinctive, there's a definite Darwyn Cooke influence in the character designs and facial expressions, and in the crime setting of the book also evokes Michael Avon Oeming. His stylized take works well for both super-powered heroics and for scenes of darkness and violence. Santos makes effective use of panel layout such as in the above page where the focus is generally on Ray's head, but Santos uses smaller panels within and between the larger ones to show us the gritty details of Ray's work. These panels-within-panels are used periodically throughout the story to show action or movement, and are a creative use of space on the page. The facial acting and body language between characters is nicely executed here; while done in an exaggerated, stylized way, the characters' emotions (particularly Ray's very mixed feelings towards his brother) are effectively conveyed
The color choices from Adam Metcalfe also present an interesting contrast. This is a world of crime and darkness and people making bad choices; for a story such as this one might expect a muted color palate (such as that in Incognito or other crime-noir stories). However, it's also a world full of people who can fly and burst into flames, and so the coloring in this story conveys that vibrant world and all of its contrasts.
There's a lot of places this story can go, from Ray's evolution, to his history with his brother, to more background on who the Supers are and where they came from. If you're a fan of dark, interesting takes on the superhero genre, Black Market is worth a look.
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