January 7, 2015

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A Murderously Good Start from Lady Killer #1 (of 5)

Lady Killer (1 of 5)
Written by Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich
Illustrated by Joëlle Jones
Colors by Laura Allred
Letters by Crank!
Design by Kat Larson
Dark Horse Comics

Lady Killer is the stylish first issue of a new miniseries which feels like Mad Men meets The Americans meets Kill Bill. It's got an charming housewife who looks like Jackie Kennedy and kills like someone out of Goodfellas. With sharp writing from Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich, gorgeous, expressive illustration from Jones, and bright, era-appropriate colors from Laura Allred, this is a definite pickup.

The story begins with a visit from the friendly Avon lady (immaculately dressed in a powder blue dress and a matching pillbox hat), knocking at the door of a Ms. Roman. As it turns out, she's not there to sell cosmetics; her purpose is significantly bloodier. After a sales call that will make you never want to let a stranger in your house ever again, the story transitions to the Avon lady Josie Schuller (previously identified by another name on her Avon "sales call") busily making dinner, accompanied by her adorable twin daughters dressed as Squaws, and her disapproving mother-in-law.  The family (including Josie's seemingly clueless husband) sit down to enjoy dinner when Josie receives an unwelcome call from her handler, Peck. Peck has a new job for her, and he's not going to be brushed aside easily as he later shows up to Josie's house, to her alarm. She's got another assignment, and this time her beauty and particular set of skills are going to take her away from makeup sales, but to another place where women's beauty is commodified.

You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but in this case the look and design of the cover (with a "1950's women's magazine" font, and a lovely housewife cleaning up a blood-splattered kitchen) sets a perfect tone for this book as fun, subversive entertainment.  What's inside lives up to that promise. It's a gorgeous comic with an art style perfectly suited for the subject matter. Jones pays tremendous attention to detail in this story. From the very beginning, Josie Schuller is shown as an embodiment of early 1960's perfection, with her neatly styled hair, outfit, and matching hat. Jones has an expressive style and does terrific facial acting and bodily poses on all of the characters (the style makes me think of a less exaggerated Tradd Moore, but completely Jones' own style).  Josie is a model of poise and decorum, up until right before and right after her sales call with Ms. Roman goes bad.  Jones has more than a great sense of style, she also has a fantastic sense of pacing and layout in action sequences, as she shows the visceral action and violence once Josie is forced to drop the "Avon lady" ruse. Josie is quick, brutal, effective, and may also enjoy the violence a little bit.

The book also has some great examples of visual humor; immediately after her "sales call" is over, Josie has a moment of shock and horror (and the reader is kept in suspense as to why). As it turns out, she's upset because she's gotten blood splattered on her skirt. Speaking of that skirt, and the colors generally, Laura Allred's work here is terrific (no surprise); her colors have a simpler, flatter look at that makes perfect sense for the era. Allred also thankfully resists the urge to color everything brightly and immaculately; the art is stylized, but all of the locations here feel like real places (the appliances, tables, curtains, cars, everything feels authentic). Some of the colors are faded and you can see the wear and tear in the kitchens and living rooms.  There's also a splattering effect that goes throughout the entire book, and serves as a reminder that you can't wash away all stains.

This first issue throws us right into the middle of the mystery of Josie Schuller, housewife and professional killer, showing just enough about her and establishing the conflicts which will presumably serve as the main source of tension throughout the series (i.e., the balance between Josie's hidden life and her more public one, and the potential problem her mother-in-law may be). One issue in and Josie is a compelling, complex character. Despite her annoyance about Peck showing up at her house, she seems perfectly happy to have her job as a killer. The creative team here perfectly showcases the contrast between Josie's secret work, and her role as a housewife. Her husband and daughters are the suburban ideal, and appear to have no clue about her other activities.

The notion of darkness hidden in the white-picket fences of the suburbs is an idea that's been explored for a long time from John Updike to Serial Mom, and there are all sorts of political and social messages here (about women being repressed and circumscribed in their societal roles, and needing some sort of outlet). It's also worth noting that even among killers, the book reminds us that society rewards beauty, as Josie's appearance and poise make it possible for her to both pass as an Avon lady, and makes her well suited for the assignment she receives at the end of the first issue. The creative team handles these issues deftly and with a wink; it feels like they respect the reader's intelligence enough not to belabor these points.

For a fun, subversive, violent take on domestic politics and the secrets we keep, I highly recommend Lady Killer.