October 11, 2017

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Working Class Criminals-
a review of Declan Shalvey and Phillip Barrett's Savage Town


Jimmy Savage believes that he’s in control and that he’s in charge but Declan Shalvey and Phillip Barrett undercut their character’s self-image at every chance they get. A third-rate crime boss in Limerick, Ireland, Jimmy wants everyone else to believe in his elevated status. The esteem of his wife, his friends, the kids of his gang and even the other crime bosses means a lot to him but on some level, he has to know that they all look down on him one way or another. He’s not a crime boss; he’s another street thug who has dreams of being more. Savage Town, Shalvey and Barrett’s first book about crime and class, delivers a story about a guy who ends up being more lucky than tough.

Caught between two larger, warring gangs in Limerick, Savage is trying to carve out space where he can exist. As the book opens, that space is slightly more than being an errand boy for both sides; at best, Jimmy is a go-between between the Hogans and the Dawsons, the real muscles in this Irish city. But it’s enough for Jimmy to portray himself as something more than just a wannabe gangster. Whether it’s the wife who run the house, the old friend who has been callously used one too many times, or the friends who are his wingman in crime who wants more, Jimmy thinks he’s in charge of every situation that’s happening around him but blind to the nascent backstabbing.


In telling this story, Barrett’s artwork and Jordie Bellaire’s colors paint this picture of working-class crime, of people just trying to be noticed by those above them. Barrett’s cartoony naturalism shows a city and its population on the wrong side of prosperity. While there are police in this town, they hardly have a handle on the crime that’s running rampant so gangs like the Hogans, the Dawsons, and to a much smaller level the Savages really run everything. Barrett’s artwork depicts this lawless town with a matter-of-factness that weighs down people like Savage who are looking to make something out of themselves.

Shalvey’s writing and Barrett’s artwork have a natural a natural flow in this comic. There’s not a lot of moral questioning here; Jimmy is a villain but he’s just not a major villain. At least as this story begins, he isn’t. His life is about conflict and violence except for one odd character in his life. If there’s anything that Jimmy shows true love and affection toward, it’s a horse that he keeps in his backyard. More than friends and family, the horse may be the only creature on this earth that truly loves Jimmy and that he loves back. Among the rest of the book, there are incongruous moments of contentment when Jimmy is able to be with his horse. Those moments are important because otherwise, Jimmy would either be a complete fool or a complete monster.


In some odd ways, Savage Town feels like an Irish Love and Rockets but leaning more into the crime elements without any evidence of the romance. That’s an odd statement but the way that Shalvey and Barrett create this sense of time and space is similar to how both Hernandez brothers create a community in their comics, whether that’s Palomar or Hoppers. Savage Town hangs together because of emotional and locational geography that it builds. While some of the power-grab maneuvers that Savage and his rival gangs make get unnecessarily convoluted in the storytelling, the creators make up for any confusion by making the story more about Jimmy’s emotional turmoil at trying to be the man he wants to be than about the actual acts of crime and violence that he perpetuates.

Savage Town wraps up one episode of Jimmy’s climb up the criminal ladder but Shalvey and Barrett leave the story open for more. In fact, the ending demands more as last-minute unresolved elements are introduced mere pages before the end of the book. The ending doesn’t leave you so much wanting more as it leaves the story feeling incomplete. Exploring crime as a way of life, Declan Shalvey, and Phillip Barrett show how love and friendship in this world are always tempered by violence and betrayal.

Savage Town
Written by Declan Shalvey
Drawn by Phillip Barrett
Colored by Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics