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Between the Panels: Harsh Realities
By Lance Victor Eaton (September 2007)

Road to Perdition, History of Violence and Brownsville are all graphic novels steeped in human depravity and violence - they don't so much romanticize it as remind us how nasty it can be. Their narratives bring readers to understand the world as a harsher reality than might a superhero or humorous comic book. In this vein, this column looks at three recent graphic novels that embrace and vividly illustrate such harsh realities.

Gilbert Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame, presents a young girl, Empress, in Chance In Hell. In a dystopian world, Empress is a child abandoned to the dumps, left to be taken care of - and advantage of - by older thugs. In a moment of deadly violence between her caretakers and government officials, she is swept away by an artist, who provides and cares for her. But as years pass and Empress enters the troublesome teen years, she and her adoptive parent no longer see eye to eye. She has found solace in a friend who happens to be a pimp. Though he leads her astray, it is not in the typical direction. In the final act of this tale, readers find Empress has become an adult, attempting to reconcile her life choices while also being a wife.

Hernandez's tale is chock full of sexual innuendo, blatant politics, and a savage reality that lingers on the faces of his characters. His style is pretty consistent with previous works, and the stark black and white drawings help magnify the extreme despair of it all. Though his final act strays from the narrative in his first two thirds, entering into a more abstract delivery of the tale, it provides readers with a wide avenue of interpretation.

Narcoleptic SundayBy comparison, Narcoleptic Sunday (by Jeremy Haun and Brian Koschak) finds Jack Larch, awakening from one of his many narcoleptic naps, being handcuffed and brought to the local police station. He is charged with the murder of Jill, a new lover who was shot several times right next to him while he slept. After being quickly cleared of the charges, he tries to return to a normal life, but that just isn't in the cards. Before a day has passed, he awakens to a masked man trying to kill him. He escapes, but must keep running until he understands why Jill was killed and why those same people are after Jack. Learning that he's dealing with seedy underground gangsters won't resolve his problems if he can't stay awake long enough figure it all out.

Haun's storytelling proves effective and complementary to Koschak's unique artistic style. Koschak draws with thick black lines and angular strokes and outlines but also reveals hints of a manga influence. The visuals of this graphic novel prove so compelling that one could grasp the story with some semblance of plot even without the words.

However, Scars and Bars (by William Rees and Jason Moser) sets a standard for a dark and brooding atmosphere, only amplified by its art. Vincent Madrid, a former popular boxer, has been released and must attempt to restart his life after over a decade in prison. Madrid wants revenge on those who put him there. But there is another player in the game, a cold blooded, lethal enforcer who has set his eyes on Madrid. Set in the heart of New York City with city maps at the beginning of each chapter, Scars and Bars proves to be a provocative and intense read. Moser's art resembles detailed charcoal sketches. Black remains the dominant color through this graphic novel.

Obviously, these tales all have elements of fantasy, being fictional works. However, there lies within each an ability to reveal - whether with pen stroke or words - how hard the world truly can be. An edge protrudes from each of these graphic novels and often proves to be what will hook readers into the story.
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