Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Post-Modern Dick: Red Handed
Matt Kindt continues to build a career as a genre cartoonist who does everything but superheroes. Indeed, classic newspaper comic strips have always been his most obvious influence in nearly everything he's done. At the same time, every one of his takes on those classic comics has come with a post-modern twist, as he uses stream of consciousness, jumping back and forth in time, convoluted plot connections and characterizations that question the roots and motivations of pulp & genre archetypes. His comics work as both crackling entertainment as well as a deconstruction of the genre strips he clearly admires. His first book for First Second, Red Handed, is a very clear Dick Tracy pastiche/homage/deconstruction. While not skimping on violence, sex, lurid and bizarre crimes, strange criminals, and technology, Kindt also offers up a critique of the detective hero while making each of the villains sympathetic characters. As the book progresses and it becomes clear that Detective Gould (a great big wink and nod to Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould) is interrogating the shadowy figure behind a series of strange crimes, what becomes less clear is whom the actual villain really is.
Mixing standard comics pages, newspaper pages, and comic strips, Kindt keeps the reader off-balance while reminding them that this is a comic book. He plays up the fact that Gould has never left a case unsolved, thanks to his technological tricks and keen analytical mind. There are a number of artists portrayed in this book of various kinds, but Kindt makes it clear that that Gould and the arch-villain are the greatest artists of all. While playing up his skills, Kindt also makes it clear that Gould's track record is doing nothing to actually prevent crime, and this winds up being the crux of the book. In each chapter, we meet a different weird criminal: a woman who steals chairs, a washed-up magician who's now a pickpocket, a writer who creates her masterpiece by stealing letters from street signs, an art thief who cuts up paintings and then sells them one piece at a time, etc. Early in the book, we see a feature called "Tess's True Heart" (another Dick Tracy reference), about an ambitious and highly intelligent young woman in college who's looking to make a difference in the world. Throughout the book, we slowly see more of her backstory and the ways in which she connects to and facilitates the behavior of the criminals we meet.
It becomes clear fairly quickly that the mysterious Tess is responsible for all of these weird crimes, but Kindt keeps the reader in the dark with regard to how Gould catches up with her. Throughout the book, Gould is shown to be literal-minded in pursuit of upholding the law in a rigid manner, but that's less important to him than the thrill of the act of figuring out a crime -- very much like the criminals in the book. It's such a single-minded passion that his marriage suffers for it, especially from his first case that he considers to be unsolved. Meanwhile, Tess' attempt to teach him an object lesson through a brilliant and elegant series of manipulations inadvertently transforms her into a villain, something she realizes all too late. In all of Kindt's work, there's always a bit of connect-the-dots and backtracking the reader needs to do in order to make sense of the story, but he tones that kind of labor down considerably for First Second. Instead, the focus is on the characters, their backstories, and the various levels of harm they cause. By the time we meet the fur smuggler and the car thief, the stories become more sordid than amusing or weird, as though Tess (and Kindt!) started to run out of ideas for weird crimes. If the story creaks a bit toward the end, the climax and denouement are both knockouts, neatly tying up loose ends, dealing several shocks to the reader and ending it on a hopeful, if surprising note. All along, Kindt was interested in exploring the nature of crime, what it means to be a criminal, and what can be done to prevent it. Red Handed is a sort of extended thought exercise on the foundational concepts of crime and the law, the ways they can be stretched, and the difference between justice and mercy.