Tuesday, April 12, 2005

NEW WEST #1

This is going to be one of those reviews where I begin with "I really wanted to like this, but...."

The premise is intriguing: a noir story set in post-apocalyptic LA, a hard-boiled, weary ex-cop-turned-PI in a city where the accouterments of 21st century life are but an ironic reminder of days past since the fastest way of getting anywhere is by horse and there's no electricity. There's the requisite boozy blonde, crooked cops, and the resentful dame who hasn't forgiven our hero for whatever it was that cost him his badge. Phil Noto's pencils are beautiful and colored with a palette that fits this world-gone-awry.

But.

New West is a lovely read... until you start to think about what's going on. Jimmy Palmiotti's world-building is creative -- an electromagnetic pulse dropped LA and its environs back three hundred years and society has largely adjusted -- but doesn't go far enough and fails certain basic logical tests. The pulse was delivered via the Fuji blimp and it was apparently just LA that was affected, but LA has become Gotham during No Man's Land -- the rest of the country doesn't care and isn't involved; there is no FEMA, there are no exiles, there is no rebuilding, and there is no practical explanation for why a year has passed and the situation hasn't been corrected. After the blackout of 2003, they ran a power line under the Long Island Sound from Connecticut to New York; temporary power in LA shouldn't have been that difficult. The reason why is apparently part of the mystery, but the complete and total lack of curiosity on everyone's part is boggling -- nobody even wonders if there could be a plot.

It doesn't help that Palmiotti delivers this backstory in a miserable fashion: Dan, the protagonist, is telling the story of this localized apocalypse as a macabre bedtime story to the aforementioned boozy blonde, who is young enough to be his daughter (as all properly boozy blondes in noir stories are). Megan wants to hear about the day the world ended -- which not coincidentally is also the day her sister was killed right in front of Dan -- and he obliges, presenting the information (which is richly imagined, much in the fashion of the start of Y - The Last Man, if not as well realized) in such a fashion that cuts an unhappy middle ground between treating Megan like a simpleton and talking directly to the readers. Final score: Exposition Fairy over Palmiotti by TKO.

It's during this telling that Palmiotti lost me completely and irretrievably. The EMP was set off by Korean terrorists whose rationale was pretty much identical to that of the average Wahibis terrorist, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden -- a strike against the corrupting influence of Western culture and ideas. Palmiotti skirts the religious influence by changing it to pop culture, which apparently makes it okay to sympathize with the terrorists -- Megan, previously a little dizzy and plenty drunk on scotch, suddenly spouts a long and intelligible defense of the terrorists and Palmiotti doesn't sufficiently (to my mind) defuse that outburst by just having Dan mutter something offhand and in his unreconstructed politically incorrect fashion about not blowing people up because they produce better movies. Megan, justifying the slaughter of thousands of innocents, comes out of the scene being the thoughtful one.

There's plenty of old-fashioned action befitting a noir tale -- with the exception that Dan wields a katana and not a handgun (there's a proliferation of hands hacked off at the wrist). Like all noir PIs, Dan acts heroically and occasionally ungentlemanly, gets clouted on the head at inconvenient moments, and rescued by tough dames. One of those dames is Megan, sober and armed, and the other is her mother, the one character here who really, really didn't work. Mrs. Hirsh is nothing but a gorgeous, bitter shrew of a woman whose vengefulness in the wake of her blaming Dan for her other daughter's death is completely undercut by the fact that the blame is mostly ludicrous and nobody in the story seems to recognize that except for Megan, whose opinion doesn't count because she's drunk, underage, and in love with Dan.

Why is Dan so hated? Why is his life miserable and lonely? On the day of the EMP, LAPD Detective Dan Wise was supposed to deliver the ransom money for the kidnappers of the Hirsh's elder daughter, but the bad guys got the drop on him, killing his partner and making off with the money and the girl... only to be killed when the van was destroyed as a plane affected by the EMP dropped from the sky and landed on the freeway. From this, the Hirsh family (Mr. Hirsh is the mayor of LA) set about destroying Dan's career and life and easily succeeding. There are plenty of irrational ways to deal with the death of a child, but... Mrs. Hirsh is so unremittingly bitter and cruel, effecting real damage through revenge not clearly deserved, that it's impossible to sympathize with her in even the slightest fashion. Yet Dan manages and goes off to commit an act of suicidal bravery to regain her respect and keep her from another loss.

Palmiotti is often involved with projects I want to like because of the premise, but rarely end up do liking because of the execution. Most recently, Monolith was deadly dull and his run on Hawkman with frequent collaborator Justin Gray has been frustratingly underwhelming. I'm starting to get the feeling that for a writer, Palmiotti is a fantastic inker.

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