"Dead Vengeance" Graphic Novel Review
Written by James Ferguson
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Written by Bill Morrison
Illustrated by Bill Morrison and Tone Rodriguez
Colored by Carlos Badilla
2016, 104 Pages
Graphic novel released on May 18th, 2016
Are freak shows still a thing? Can you walk into a carnival and see a bearded woman or a two-headed snake? Come to think of it, I can probably see the former walking the latter in Brooklyn right now for free. Back in 1940, sideshows were just part of Americana. That's where Dead Vengeance picks up, when a genuine preserved human corpse wakes up and starts walking around. He slowly starts to piece his memory back together to find out how he ended up in that tube to begin with, and the vengeance that has returned him to the land of the living.
Dead Vengeance harkens back to a simpler time both in the world and in comics. It's very exposition heavy, with the first three chapters consisting primarily of flashbacks with narration. The main character, aptly named John Doe, was a radio personality in 1930 rallying against a corrupt Detroit mayor. This is all filled in by other characters as John tries to figure out what happened to him. It's pretty convenient for him to wake up after ten years and run into a few people that are able to tell him his whole background within a day or two.
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The story itself is pretty cool, but the presentation can be a drag. It's like slogging through a history lesson. Since this is set in 1930 / 1940, everyone tends to narrate their actions too. I don't know if this was something that people actually did back then or if that's just how comics portrayed it and writer Bill Morrison mimicked them. Morrison definitely captured the language of the time. You almost want to read the text in a gangster voice. “Yeah see....you'll never catch me alive, copper.”
The artwork has a nostalgic flare to it, almost like Dick Tracy or other comics of the era. The men are dressed in formal suits. Gangsters carry tommy guns. Cars have whitewall tires. The design for John Doe is the real stand out in Dead Vengeance. When he first escapes from the tube, he's pale and gaunt, his skin kept intact by the formaldehyde. Over time, he begins to transform into a monster as his body continues to decay. By the end of the book, his face is nearly gone, leaving a haunting skull. There's is almost nothing as cool as a skeleton in a trenchcoat and hat menacingly wielding a tommy gun.
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Carlos Badilla's colors reinforce this. John is a grey and fading, like he just walked out of a black-and-white movie. He sticks out like a sore thumb when he shuffles back into the bright civilization full of life. Everything else is vibrant and colorful while John is walking worm food.
Dead Vengeance has a fun concept with some dynamite art, but ultimately falls just short of being great. It feels rather rushed, especially towards the end. If it had another issue or two to breathe, it could have been fleshed out a bit more. As it stands, the first 75% of the book is basically the plot of The Hangover as John Doe tries to figure out how he woke up in a tube at a carnival freak show. Then he sets out on a vengeance-fueled rampage, which admittedly would have been a far better ending to The Hangover.