Miniseries Review: The Strange Talent of Luther StrodeA comic review article by: Keith Silva
The Strange Talent of Luther Strode goes for the jugular and gives no quarter; a bloody bildungsroman, a magnum opus of guts, gore and ultra-violence hanging within the frame of morality. Writer Justin Jordan, artist Tradd Moore and colorist Felipe Sobreiro craft a skintight narrative that lures the reader with lurid images of eyeballs rocketing from sockets and body's broken asunder limb from limb; below the meat, however, beats the heart of a mannered meditation on good versus evil. Jordan tells his story the old-fashioned way (read: ancient) with an eye on the Aristotelian ideal of dramatic structure: beginning, middle and end. The six-part structure of the series provides a clever construction and an apt approach to discuss the three elements that constitute morality: intention, decision and action*. The narrative moves at a methodical pace like the masked killer in a slasher movie, getting darker with each issue, all light and lightness fades to black, to oblivion; and is blown to smithereens by its conclusion. The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is visceral and violent, fierce and frightening storytelling, it's lousy with guts, yes, but it's got smarts too, not to mention, talent.
Intention (Issues #1 and #2)
Reading The Strange Talent of Luther Strode means being more than okay with violence -- one really needs to be willing to wade waist-deep, to wallow in entrails and let the blood really soak in in order to enjoy (perhaps "tolerate" is the better word) something so brutal and at the same time, so brilliant. This series may be Jordan and Moore's invention, but without Sobreiro's sundry gradations of red** it would be dead on arrival. The opening prologue embodies the taut storytelling to follow: six panels of set-up and then a double-page spread... err... splash that would make Hieronymus Bosch weep with joy; human bodies aren't supposed to bend or rend like that. The first-person narration -- chiseled into boxes by Fonografiks -- reads: "My name is Luther Strode, and I have certain... talents." Strode's words, coupled with such a calculating and confrontational image are designed to grab eyeballs and declare, in no uncertain terms, what's to come, but not now and not yet -- the journey has yet to begin.
Before even one eye is lost, The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is a lot of fun and games. Issue #1 boasts a Creepshow and EC Comics characteristic, a loving awareness for geek chic and comic book culture -- it knows on which side its Darth Vader-embossed toast is buttered. Posters for 100 Bullets, All-Star Superman and Akira adorn the walls of Luther's bedroom, and who among us would not want to be a student enrolled at Voorhees High School (wanna bet they got a killer culinary arts teacher?). There is a moment early on when Luther and his ersatz sidekick, Pete, come home from VHS that shows Jordan's gift for restraint. Luther asks Pete not to say anything to his mom about the book he got in the mail, The Hercules Method. "Me," says Pete, "I'm hurt, man. You wound." A subtle jab at a character, who only a few pages before was seen shoving a torn-off arm through a mouth (and the throat). Jordan knows the score and the subtlety of irony.
Aside from a plucky sidekick, comic book boilerplate requires an adversary and a girlfriend. The Strange Talent of Luther Strode fills out those roles with The Librarian and Petra, respectively. The Librarian is the first outsider in an otherwise insular narrative. His presence is the first glimpse into the larger bit of world-building, a mythos Jordan and Moore have yet to explore. Petra? Petra deserves her own series; in this early incarnation she's all innuendo, one-liners and angular cool. Petra's pertness, at first, comes off as stock-in-trade for comic book girlfriend, but there is sadness under the surface that -- clichéd though it may be -- makes her what she is: a teenager. By the end of issue #1, Strode gets to take his developing body out for a test drive and blood doth flow from fists, jaws and noses. Speaking of which, Tradd Moore draws the most unique noses: square, notched and scored like the Moai statues on Easter Island. The design of the characters is unique, cartoony but not quite, more stylized, sharp, often pointed, black edges outline each character with facial expressions and folds in clothing rendered with precise lines that add depth without any fussiness. Like the writing (and the overall narrative), Moore's art speaks with a strong and confident voice.
In his notes to issue #1 (second printing), Jordan writes that The Hercules Method, was the spark, the What If? that fired his imagination and got him thinking about how a gangly geek could come to power. Nostalgic, Jordan laments that the reference is (probably) lost on generations that never knew ads promising prizes or cash, fighting ships and a time when comics cost a quarter. C'est la vie. The Hercules Method offers Jordan a joy buzzer of nostalgia and inspiration, but for his protagonist, this bit of old-school comic book marginalia, this "method" is only the means, not the end. Strode is a put-upon nerd, a Peter Parker understudy in search of "extraordinary change" that The Hercules Method promises; a (Meta) MacGuffin, an affectation in the purest sense -- a way out, but it alone does not incur intent. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost: "long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light," (II, 432-433). Luther Strode is in high school hell and sadly where he's headed is a place far from sweetness or light.
After laying out an assembly-line-varsity-football-type (once with a dodge ball and once with his fist) Strode strides back to school (post-suspension) reluctant about his new found fame, "Everyone is afraid of me. I know it's weird, but I like talking to people. Eye contact is a good thing." Puckish Pete replies, "Bah, it's better to be feared than loved." Luther ripostes: "Trust me, Pete, it isn't." Luther sees through Pete's action-movie dialogue and faux bravado. Luther is damaged. Luther knows fear and knows trauma and like any adolescent in the throes of "extraordinary change," he has no idea what to do about it, any of it. When a problem does present itself (a convenient) convenience store stick-up, instinct leads to intent. Strode saves the day. The panel layout of the last page of issue #2 recalls the first page of issue #1 (two page-wide panels set against four smaller panels) visually tying together the first arc of the story. After the store clerk calls Luther a hero, Pete, on cue, delivers the (intentional) line the reader has been waiting for, Pete says, "No. He's not a hero .. he's a super hero." The die is cast, intent manifests unbidden, instinctual; the unmasked hero is out in the open. Without needing to say it, Jordan, Moore and Sobreiro conspire to ask the oldest (and the most important) question in storytelling: Now what?
Decision (Issues #3 and #4)
As Frankenstein learns from his time at Ingolstadt, creating is easy, the trickier bit is when that creation becomes unbound and wants to walk about in the world; it is only then that decisions need to get made. Pete plays costumer to Strode's crusader, turning him out with jacket, boots, gloves and a mask that is as iconic as it is appropriated from pop culture heroes (and villains). Issue #3 presents back-to-back conversations between Pete and Luther and then Luther and his mother that move the hero closer to his fate, his doom. "You've got a destiny, " says Pete. At the top of the page, Moore draws Pete's vision of his imagined calling for Luther as a costumed hero battling ninjas. Pete amplifies his call to arms and says, "You can protect the innocent. […] You can help the helpless." At the bottom of the same page, Moore reverses the image from the top and the reader is shown a memory, Luther's motivation to protect and save. He says, "Yes, I can." The following two pages find Luther's mother catching him sneaking out of the house -- she calls him on trying to be all "ninja" echoing Pete's imagination. Jordan's writing conveys confidence, the conversation between Luther and his mother is playful and realistic before taking on a more serious tone as Mrs. Strode says out loud what her son only thought to himself, but did not say. These two scenes represent of best of comic book storytelling: not a word wasted, not a shade overdone and not a line out of place. Perfection.
When a comic book's gutters go black, a limit has been reached, and a darker more sinister change is afoot. Luther's first attempt at adventuring turns comical, but he takes a second crack at it and decides that instead of reacting to a situation he will become the initiator of the action; an instigator in a black jacket and boots, his mask of bandages a well-healed sign of his past, but not (he thinks) his present or his future. It is at this moment that the creative team turns out the lights, the borders blacken and Luther looms out of a doorway, masked, ready to open a new chapter in his life and a can of whoop ass. He tracks down the man he (sort of) stopped earlier from assaulting a woman and tells the assailant, "I want you to hit me." There's not much to say about this exclusive fight club of two as it ends as quick as it begins with Strode coming to power. He tells the (now former) tough: "How does it feel to be powerless? How does it feel to know you can't do anything?" Rhetorical questions, perhaps, and unnecessary since Strode has already made his decision -- he is yet to cross over, but he is at a crossroads and a devil lies there in wait for him.
The Librarian is an uncomplicated character; he's evil, plain and simple, from his arched eyebrows and pointy beard down to his utter lack of remorse, not to mention his talent for turning heads into pulpy masses of goo. The talent that Luther Strode acquires is demonstrated, but never explained, the same goes for The Librarian. Sure, the The Hercules Method has something to do with it, but how? Why Luther? Why the Librarian? What do they possess that mere mortals do not, cannot? What are the intangibles that allow the change to take? Luther is curious about these same questions too, lucky for him he's got the Librarian to show him the way. The Librarian says: "Murder is our first instinct. Murder for lack of a better term... is good." The reader sees who the The Hercules Method has helped in the past, a rogue's gallery if there ever was one. The hero's journey has reached the stage when he must face a difficult trail. Morality begins with the individual, the self, and develops into a set of values, a code of conduct or a set of laws that both individuals and the group agree on as the most important*** to establish a society. If the code of conduct is that might makes right and that the taking of human life leads to strength, wisdom and power than clearly one wants to be on the side of the powerful, right? Even the greenest hero, the most mild-mannered man and the weakest of the one-hundred pound weaklings knows that this is bullshit. Luther walks. His back to the Librarian, Strode says, "I'm better than that […] and I definitely don't need to listen to a psychopath Nietzsche wannabe." This being a comic book (and there still being two issues to go) even a Nietzsche wannabe knows that the Übermensch cannot walk away from a fight or when someone he loves is in danger. The needle drops and Luther goes right round in order to save a woman, but which one?
There are no shades of grey when it comes to The Librarian and this may be Jordan's one misstep especially if one prefers one's villain to be a bit more conflicted. Morality (not to mention life itself) takes one on the chin if murder is the best, and only, option to achieving anything. Can the student become the master and not be corrupted in the process? Issues #3 and #4 of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode marks the turning point in the series as Jordan, Moore and Sobreiro light out for darker territory attempting to discover if and how power corrupts the innocent and if violence is a matter of nature or nurture as well; any plea to the better angels of our nature has, by now, goes unheard.
Action (Issues #5 and #6)
Violence begets violence. The final arc of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is awash in offal, lopped-off limbs, and blood blood blood. The violence becomes toughest to bear when a character the reader (and Luther) has come to love is beaten and tortured. To this point, the violence (those scenes involving Luther and the Librarian) has had the best kind of campy-horror-movie-quality to it, over-the-top-of-over-the-top in which the brutality is somehow less brutal, but no less effective despite the detachment. Tradd Moore makes the most of his talents for depicting the horrific and the gruesome; after his work on this series, violence in other comic books seems less violent. These scenes of torture, however, hit hardest because they are not super-powered, there's no distance, no way to suspend disbelief and it hurts. The prologue from issue #1 gets paid off in the most somber way as Moore smartly (re)stages the scene from the opposite end and for the first time, violence (and its aftermath) is seen not through the eyes of the cast's more talented players, but from the perspective of a witness. Luther, once a witness to savage beatings himself, has become what he once most feared, supporting Mark Anthony's claim that "the evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones," (Julius Caesar 3., 2. 76-77). Left out of the Librarian's history of violence or Luther's misadventures in crime fighting is the victims. Granted, the survivor quotient in The Strange Talent of Luther Strode persists a little closer to zero than one would like to see, however, this is the business of killing and of murder and Justin Jordan wants the reader to feel it. Jordan knows his horror and he knows the comic book code and he knows how to exploit this knowledge in ways that comment on both genres without being slavish or pretentious to the point that he believes he's saying anything too radical. Jordan does not want to rewrite or redefine anything; he wants to be real, at least, as real as a comic book about a guy who can sever spines and sees flayed flesh wherever he goes can be.
In his notes for issue #5, Jordan writes, "this issue is probably the most violent yet (next issue blows it out of the water in that regard, though)." Oh, yes, oh yes it does, yes indeed. The final chapter of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode proffers zero concessions; no longer does it allow for a ringside seat to bloody viciousness, instead it pummels the reader with extreme prejudice and malice most foul. Inevitable showdowns (inevitably?) lose their shine; and it's all been leading to this moments misplace momentum when a writer allows for anything other than an ending that's been expected from the beginning. Jordan, Moore and Sobreiro deliver and give the reader what they want and even find ways to accommodate the unexpected within the most predictable of outcomes. There is messiness to the conclusion (and not only in Moore and Sobreiro's artwork) that leads to a wider world that the narrative has been hinting at all along. A series so tightly fashioned as this one -- one in which there is zero percent body fat -- wants to go further than its six issue limit allows and that is both a blessing and a burden. The blaze of glory in which this story ends loses its punch somewhat by a coda that is not so much tacked on as it is literally supplemental to the narrative itself. One wants more of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, but at this point, would the story be any less gut-wrenching, any less emotional if the ending was only that, an ending?
The contemplative quality of the look on Luther's face on the cover to issue #6 speaks of apathy, loss and loneliness. The image emulates (in the most sincere form of flattery) the most famous graveside moment in English literature. Hamlet could never tear the top off of a human head, however, he knows loss and he is desperate to be, to find meaning in a world he thinks meaningless. When Hamlet peers into Yorick's skull he wants to know if this is all there is, if what life amounts to once one is gone, dead, buried, at an end, is all there is to life, to living, to being. The ending of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode has something in common with Hamlet -- although it's visual style aligns more with Titus Andronicus -- it's no less as bloody or less tragic. Heroes have limits and must decide how far those limits extend and what (super)power means beyond the boundaries set by simple codes and morals not nearly as complex as life itself. The grim and gritty aspect of a strange tale like that of Luther Strode anatomizes a human condition of a life lived in death in order to determine right and wrong and where humanity factors into the equation; the superhero's dilemma and humankind's curse. Jordan and Moore know the rules they have to play by and that is a talent indeed. In the hands of such capable creators such talent needs purchase. Here's hoping their methods remain sound as The Strange Talent of Luther Strode develops into legend.
*I borrowed this simple definition from (for better or worse) Wikipedia, so blame me, I guess
**In his roll call of the creative team's websites/blogs, Jordan says of Sobreiro, "the man singlehandedly depleting the world's supply of red ink."
***For a much, much, much more detailed explanation on the definition of morality go here.
Mr. Silva is a recent relapsed reader of comic books, loves alliteration and dies a little inside each time he can’t use an oxford comma in his reviews for Comics Bulletin. He spends most days waiting for files to render except on occasion when he can slip the bonds of editing and amble around cow barns, run alongside tractors and try not to talk while the camera is running. When not playing the fool for the three women he lives with, he reads long, inscrutable novels with swear words. He recently took single malt Scotch and would like to again, soon.