Friday, March 26, 2010

Union Station: An Appreciation

[Gordon Harries brings us a review of Union Station. I hardly read any comics anymore, so recommendations are more than welcome. For a lot of us, I bet.]

Ande Parks/Eduardo Barreto
Oni Press

The recent period thriller tends to belong to a broad church, roughly breaking into two denominations: On the one hand you have James Ellroy, the self-styled ’demon dog of American noir’ his literary prowess dedicated to an evisceration of the recent past. On the other, near contemporary Walter Mosley who’s mannered approach of times masks an otherwise incisive intelligence. Alongside an oft-stated appreciation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s ‘From Hell’, it was Ellroy that writer Ande Parks referenced in the interviews surrounding the publication of ‘Union Station‘.

Centering around the 1933 massacre referenced by the title, ‘Union Station’ concerns itself with both the resulting manhunt and the forces that drove it, eventually leading to the formation of J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation. Such forces are personified by three protagonists; the good natured Agent Reed Vetterli, the criminal turned pariah Verne Miller and Newspaperman Charles Thompson, a recent arrival in Kansas City whose ambitions are undermined by his wife’s depression over her recent mastectomy.

The mastectomy is utilized to illustrate one of the central themes of the piece; that each character slowly becomes emasculated by the institution they serve. This is true of Thompson, who must navigate being a crusading journalist and surviving in a town wherein the legitimate and illegitimate economies have become much the same thing, just as much as it is of Verne Miller, the former lawman turned criminal who’s now hunted by his own kind. Reed Vetterli, on the other hand, is the equivalent of the western’s small-town sheriff: constantly half a step behind and facing down his own demons. In truth, the mastectomy is the weakest point of Parks’ elegant script, not because the idea of male emasculation isn’t well executed, but because the use of feminine decline to illustrate this is so male a conceit.

When it comes to the ‘drawn novel’ though, the most elegant of scripts can be badly mangled, should the illustrator be mismatched. Thankfully, that‘s not the case here: Eduardo Barreto is so perfectly suited with the period, from his evocation of period woman to his sense of architectural detail to his affinity for the suits and Tommy guns of the era, that it seems vaguely ludicrous to suggest that he should work on anything else. Parks too, brings a sense of humanity and suffering to his characters that would otherwise be reduced to a Depression-era caricature.

It’s this sense of humanity which leads me to suggest that despite the form being Ellroy (the three protagonists motif, the fact that characters occasionally leap frog one another in terms of importance.) there’s a depth and a sociological back-story to Kansas in 1933 that’s more in line with Mosley’s worldview than Ellroy’s. Conceivably, this depth is one of the reasons that ’Union Station’ was lost in the tumult upon initial publication, in a market place dominated by one permutation of the superhero after another, a quiet story of loss and the living with it simply didn’t have the noise required to make itself heard.

That said, Oni Press recently re-issued ‘Union Station’ ahead of the Michael Mann film ’Public Enemies’ (which focuses upon Pretty Boy Floyd, a minor player in Parks’ narrative.) here’s hoping that some of that film’s admiriers will rub off on this and that, finally, ‘Union Station’ will get the attention it deserves.

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