by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips
Publisher: Marvel Icon/Titan Books (ISBN 1845766105)
Each of us has our own rules: roads you promise yourself you won't travel down, things you will never do. But how many of us manage to abide by them without failure? For most of us the occasional slip up may cause complications, but it hopefully won't be the end of the world. For Leo, in his line of work, it could prove fatal - for him, and for those left around him - which is why he's always stuck by them. For example, if the job doesn't need guns, you don't carry them ("Prisons are full of assholes who valued their own lives only slightly more than other people's"), and when embarking on any heist, any score, any job at all, you do your homework thoroughly and you always have more than one exit strategy planned.
Only once did his father break his own rules, and it cost his freedom and ultimately his life. That's not going to happen to Leo, so when ex-colleague Seymour approaches him with another bent cop with insider knowledge of the "perfect" heist - five million in diamonds in a police evidence van on its way to court - he's more than a little wary. Unfortunately Seymour knows Leo's weakest spot - the fact that he actually cares - which blinds him when he should have been paying the most attention, and when the whole thing falls apart mid-heist, it's all Leo can do to escape with a very different package than the one he came for.
I've just read this back again from cover to cover, and it's an even more remarkable achievement I first thought. It's a seamless pairing of writer and artist, so utterly absorbing that it does what the best art in any medium does: it makes you forget its creation. Yet it is so well conceived from every intricate angle from the get-up-and-go to the set-up-and-scram, and it isn't even about the heist itself, it's about trying to play out a very bad hand when the game has been rigged from the start (we're talking about the job itself and Leo's life in general), and what happens when you start to hope for a little bit more. Brubaker's always been strong with the internal monologue, but Leo is entirely real to me, as is Greta, and indeed lecherous, panty-pilfering old Ivan, sinking inexorably into dementia, to whom Leo is devoted. But as much of this if not more is down to Phillips.
As I wrote about the first chapter, "In this back-alley world of murky morality, half-truths and hidden agendas, the characters' faces are in constant shadow, laden with the scepticism of past experience or masking deceit. I wouldn't trust anyone drawn by Sean Phillips." But that's just a fraction of what he brings to the table, and I don't know if I can explain this properly. Phillips is by no means a photo-realistic artist, and thank Christ for that - you can't help but relish his instinctive, expressive lines, whether on the faces or the curling, swirling smoke - and yet there's something so confident and consistent in his style, in his handling of the cast in their environment, in how much to draw, how to light it and how to compose each page, that you are mesmerised into seeing it all happen as if in front of you. It is, therefore, only when you drag yourself back and really start paying attention that you realise how flawlessly accomplished it all is. More, please.
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