Over the last 40 years, countless hardworking and devoted people dedicate their time, if not their lives, to reassuring critics and fans alike that comic books are not a medium only for children. Stephen Scott, author of the new Image comic series Murderland, is not one of these people.
I love comics and I love Baltimore City, and I love to see comics set in Baltimore City, but what Scott did with Murderland’s first two issues can only be described as an insult to any reader who wants to take comics seriously.
From what I can gather, Murderland (so titled because of a local euphemism describing Baltimore’s once stupefying murder rate) is about a shape shifting assassin named “Vagin Astucieux” who can change her hair, or her face, and grow weird bits of bone from her knees. She is involved with a character only referred to as “The Arabber.” For those of you not in the know, arabbers were a type of street vender once found all around the mid-Atlantic and now only really live on in Baltimore City. The Arabber seems to be impervious to pain or injury or at least to multiple knife wounds and gun shots. Other than that we don’t know much about either character or their mission and . . . in all fairness, you won’t care.
Stephen Scott just doesn’t write well. Reading Murderland feels like you are reading the LiveJournal of a 16-year-old Spawn fan. The dialog and narration is bombastic and pompous, the action is excessively and awkwardly violent, and the plot just doesn’t make much sense yet. His attempts at writing a Baltimorean accent are awkwardly laughable and after the first scene you find yourself wondering, “What the hell am I reading, and why am I reading it?” You’re reading because it’s supposed to be set in Baltimore (like The Wire! Ain’t that cool?), but you sure couldn’t tell by looking at it.
Scott is joined on Murderland by experienced illustrator David Hahn, who has worked on acclaimed comics like Fables, Lucifer and Batman, but you certainly wouldn’t guess that from looking at Murderland. The layouts are jumbled and confusing and all of the characters designs look the same aside from their dress. I cannot say that Hahn is a bad artist, but he’s certainly a boring one. What’s worse is, as much as this comic tries to center itself around the city of Baltimore, Hahn’s art does nothing to give you the feel that you are in Baltimore.
There is a scene in the Ultimate X (an X-men comic written by Jeph Loeb) set in Charles Village. The scene is no more than a page or two long, but in two or three panels illustrator Arthur Adams captures the essence of Charles Village perfectly. You see the Skittle-colored row homes, the blossoming trees, the people biking in the streets. Having been a Charles Village resident for the last four years, I could virtually take you to the house where Jean Grey was staying in the comic. It’s not like Adams drew addresses on the houses or anything, but Charles Village is one of Baltimore’s many neighborhoods that has a very distinctive aesthetic.
Hahn never gets that even though he draws scenes set in Druid Hill Park and “West Baltimore”: pretty recognizable places . . . if you’ve ever seen them. Instead every scene in the book feels like generic spy background #32-39. The whole affair feels cheap and it is difficult to believe that the same company that produces the Walking Dead would let this comic get published.
In all fairness, this is the first of a series written by a freshman author. Image does have a good track record lately with properties like the Walking Dead, Invincible, Spawn and Chew. I cannot say that Murderland is off to a good start, though. Even though the story on the flip side of issue two (The oh-so-poorly-titled “Jiggity-Jig”) has some of the local flare I was hoping for, only two pages at the end of the second issue is too little too late. If I pick up issue three, it will really only be out of morbid curiosity.