The Gray Area in Black and White

The Gray Area #1
Image Comics – Glen Brunswick (w); John Romita, Jr. (p); Klaus Janson (i)John Romita is one of my favorite artists of the Silver Age. I’m also of the opinion that his son is one of the better artists working in the industry today. Neither of those are particularly original opinions to have, I know, but all the same, I think they’re important to keep in mind here. To put it a different way, Romita Jr.’s art is the only thing that got me through the boring parts of Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man (and by “the boring parts,” I mean a little over half the run), because I always thought that even a poorly written JMS script was mostly balanced out by Romita’s clean, classic style.

So naturally, when I first read about Romita leaving his familiar stomping grounds at the House of Ideas to do a prestige format, creator-owned mini-series at Image, I was intrigued. I mean, I know the guy can draw like a sumbitch, but can he write? No idea. And like I said: intrigued. Then I find out that Romita is not, in fact, going to write The Gray Area. Instead, he’s just farmed out an old idea of his own to a different writer; more importantly, he’s turning over the plotting and scripting duties to someone I’ve never heard the first thing about. And right there was the moment where I had my first inkling of doubt, the thought that maybe he’d better just keeping drawing Spider-Man and leave well enough alone.

Turns out I should trust my gut more often.

Rudy Chance is a corrupt cop of the highest order. He beats suspects mercilessly, he regularly cheats on his wife with a hooker from Hell’s Kitchen, he skims money out of evidence and he’s on the take from a drug cartel. His connections to the New York City underworld have afforded him a lifestyle the likes of which no honest cop could ever dream of attaining, but his world is like a house built on sand: it simply cannot last. Eventually, Chance becomes dissatisfied with the amount of kickback money he’s receiving and pushes Karl, a KGB-turned-drug kingpin, for a better deal. Predictably, Karl doesn’t cotton to Chance’s demands and the corrupt police officer’s family is gunned down before his eyes. Scant months later, fate seemingly offers Rudy an opportunity to avenge his family’s murder. With his partner Patrick in tow, Chance moves against Karl. However, the cartel’s leader is lying in wait for the two officers and Chance and partner alike fall in a hail of bullets. Later, standing outside Patrick’s hospital room, Rudy moves to comfort his partner’s wife and makes a startling discovery: he’s dead.

So, there you have it. I almost don’t know where to start criticizing this book.

Let’s just start with all the obvious stuff: the clichés. The above summary is more or less the plot of every single direct-to-video revenge movie ever made. It’s damned near the same story as The Crow (sacred cow of angst-ridden teenagers and metal fans nationwide). For God’s sake, it’s pretty much the same plot as Hard to Kill, the lousy Steven Seagal action flick from the early ’90s. In fact, now that I mention it, I’m relatively certain that Romita has Seagal in mind when he drew the book: Chance has shaggy, oily-looking black hair, he’s constantly in a faux-moody pose, and his dialogue is stiff as a board. The hits just keep on rolling though, as Chance’s girlfriend is a hooker with a heart of gold who dreams of being swept off her feet by one of her regular customers, his partner is a hard-working, red-headed Irishman (though we find out later that he’s half-Jewish …ooh, way to turn that stereotype on its ear!) who has a problem pulling his service weapon after accidentally killing a child, and the Italian muscle have names like Tony Tutone (wonder if his brother still has Jenny’s number…) and Joey Spats. This is to say nothing of the scene where Chance’s family is killed, one that’s practically lifted from the Punisher’s origin sequence. And in any event, I’ve already seen this “redeeming yourself from beyond the grave” story in comics fairly recently: it was called Midnight Nation, and Romita’s partner from Amazing Spider-Man wrote it (and it wasn’t very good either, though it was better than this).

Now, honestly, I could just put all that aside if the art were good. I wouldn’t buy another issue, but it’s not as though Romita would be the first popular artist to try his hand at writing comics and fail (*cough cough* Image founders *cough cough*).

Unfortunately, the art in Gray Area just isn’t very impressive. There are far too many extreme close-up panels and Romita still draws women who look like men (his one regular flaw, if you ask me). The whole affair looks rushed and nearly everything comes off looking too rough for it to have been a conscious decision on Romita’s part. Now, to be fair, I think a lot of the artistic inconsistencies can be blamed on a poor performance by Janson, whose heavy inking softens up Romita’s (normally) sharp pencils entirely too much. But the fact remains that The Gray Area simply doesn’t look very good. It’s certainly not good enough to warrant picking it up just for the art, something that I could understand with Amazing Spider-Man (though apparently I’m not giving Scott Hanna enough credit for the inking he does there), particularly in light of its higher price point ($5.95, for the record).

In the end, it’s poorly written (stilted dialogue coupled with a tired, unoriginal plot) and sloppily drawn, so what is there to recommend about it?



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