Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sinister Dexter: Witless Protection

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Sinister Dexter: Witless Protection (Rebellion, 2013).

I was startled when I heard the news that Sinister Dexter, a seventeen year-old action series written by Dan Abnett and drawn by dozens, was coming back after what seemed like an understated and overdue finale. I thought for sure that beast had been put out of our misery. Then I read that John Burns would be in charge of art duties and, for the first time since the series should have ended in 2005, I looked forward to the new episodes. John Burns painting Sinister Dexter is so obvious a pairing that everybody was amazed that it had not happened previously.

Sinister Dexter is an occasionally lighthearted and pun-filled melodrama about two gunmen for hire in the ugly, futuristic megalopolis of Downlode, a crime-ridden nightmare that sits atop what's today central Europe, and which is controlled by warring underworld factions. Over its first several years, when the series was a semi-regular in the pages of the anthology 2000 AD, we met a huge cast of characters and followed several overlapping and complex subplots. Rather than linger on its fall from grace, suffice it to say that the last essential Sin Dex tale was told in 2005 - I do mean essential; the epic "...and death shall have no dumb minions" is a must-read for anybody who likes good fiction in this medium - and it has been treading creative water ever since. Mercifully, it seemed to end six years later. Nobody mourned it or clamored for its return.

I wonder whether Abnett knew that he'd be writing for John Burns, because the latest twelve-week run of this series plays very much to this artist's strengths. Burns, to my mind, doesn't have a very deep bag of tricks, but what he has, he uses better than most anybody. He doesn't seem to have updated his reference material since the 1970s, and so the best of his work - possibly the really fun Bendatti Vendetta from the mid-2000s - has a deep sensibility of the 1970s to it. The urban grime of Times Square, the squealing tires of action-packed cop shows, ugly fat men with bad moustaches, and, when a little playful sexiness is needed - it isn't, not in these particular pages, but it often was in some of Nikolai Dante - it comes with a late-period Carry On slide whistle.

With that in mind, this new adventure picks up some time after we last saw our heroes Finnigan Sinister, Ramone Dexter, and Dex's girlfriend Tracy Weld. After dismantling one of their enemies' huge criminal operations, they've been taken into witness protection and moved off-planet to a sprawling frontier world called Generica, which had been introduced some years previously. Finny is relocated to a city that, perfectly, looks exactly like Pittsburgh in a 1974 Quinn Martin production for CBS. You can almost hear the bow-chicka-bow as gigantic cars with unbelievable suspension fishtail across wet pavement.

It's almost as though Abnett scripted this adventure in direct response to fan complaints about its six years of meandering. The cast is cleaved down, the subplots start from scratch, and while the heroes still have the seemingly-immortal kingpin Moses Tanenbaum as their main villain, we're actually given a specific reason why they need to hunt this guy down. It's a convoluted and suspiciously convenient reason, not to mention full of sci-fi implausibility, but this time, I'm actually willing to buy it.

The twelve-week run comprises three stories, the first two painted by Burns. In the opening four-parter, Finny looks for work in his new home, discovers that Tannenbaum has also been relocated to Generica, and decides to find Dex and Tracy, who are in some other state. Doing so, he runs afoul of the witness protection agency and an old crime boss from Downlode. In the second, things get majestically awesome as he makes a deal with the devil and takes a job with his old enemy to get the funds to cross the country. Things don't go well.

This second story is in the running for one of Dan Abnett's best stories ever, as it becomes apparent that Finny is teetering closer than ever to a breakdown. He's become the narrator of his story, talking to himself in a sarcastic approximation of tough-guy fiction. Strikingly, he's aware that he's doing it, but he can't stop, and it isn't played for laughs. As if this story wasn't bold enough already, it then climaxes in an unbelievable explosion of meticulously-crafted violence. Finnigan's ruthless killing prowess had previously only been depicted either as black comedy or as a heroic talent. This time, we see him through different eyes and, for the first time ever in the series, he's absolutely terrifying. It is a bold and stunning choice, certain to leave readers wondering whether we can ever go back to the silly quips and puns when we see that this brutal, remorseless murderer is capable of such carefully-choreographed butchery.

This leads me to speculate on where things could possibly go next. The third and last of the new stories sees old hand Simon Davis back on art duties. For the first time ever, putting the great Davis back on Sin Dex, where he had previously been the shining best of all its many artists, manages to disappoint. In part that's because in my daydreams, Davis is diligently working on episodes twenty-three to twenty-five of a six-month Ampney Crucis Investigates story (quiet at the back, it could happen), and in part because Burns is just so damn good that I don't want substitutes. But Davis brings his best and the resulting three-part story, checking in on Dex and Tracy, is certainly really great despite my silly grumbling. As foreshadowed, Dex and Tracy are doing quite fine without Finny in their lives. They've begun their lives together at last, and simply don't need the violence of Downlode and Moses Tannenbaum any more, but of course, they're going to get it...

It's like this: Abnett, Burns, and Davis have done the impossible. They've taken an aging disappointment, slow on its feet and full of fat, and turned it into the can't miss title of the summer. Week twelve came too soon; when Sin Dex returns in 2014, I honestly hope that it's for a lot more than three months. If you'd told me a year ago I'd be saying that, I'd have said you were drunk. It's that impressive. Go buy episode one by clicking the image above.

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