Death Sentence brings together four things I’m very interested in: sex, superheroes, terminal illnesses and questions of art and creativity.
The result? I simply have not had this much fun with a comic book in a very long time. Well, in all fairness, I haven’t been regularly reading comics for years now so that’s not a very telling statement but it is a telling statement that this comic makes me want to resume my old, glorious habit (the other reason is I’ve become supremely jealous of how much fun my senior comic reviewer Captain John Kirk seems to be having every week with his Pick of the Pulls column). And whereas I usually pass on all review solicitations from publishers to John, when I read the synopsis for this one I simply could not resist.
Death Sentence, Vol. 1 compiles the first six issues of the monthly from Titan Comics and for me these bound volumes are always the most enjoyable way to read a good title. But parents, be warned: there is sex, violence and profanity galore (yay!) making this one superhero comic that’s most definitely not for kids. Get the Marvel and DC stuff for the young ones and get this one for yourself.
The basic, intriguing premise of Death Sentence is the emergence of the mysterious , so-called G+ super-virus that endows its victims with heightened physical and mental abilities that begin simply with better hand-eye coordination, athleticism, intellect and creativity but eventually lead to what we all recognize as superpowers: things like telekinesis, mind control and Kitty Pryde-like phasing.
But here’s where this title offers some fascinating divergences. The powers sometimes merge with the aforementioned heightened creativity in such a way that for patients who are artists, their art becomes like the ultimate weapon. Hence you have a grindcore band that literally kills its listeners with a song (an amusing nod, perhaps, to those who can’t stand extreme rock genres), a painter who brings her hallucinogenic visions to life, and a comedian who can make everyone laugh and fall in love with him. This latter power particularly comes in handy since one of the symptoms of G+ is an insatiable libido—the virus’s very clever way of getting itself transmitted to more hosts.
It all sounds amazing. But the catch? G+ kills everyone it infects within six months. A terminal illness that uses sexual contact as its primary mode of transmission invites the obvious comparisons to AIDS, but Death Sentence is more interested in exploring the question of “What would you do with brand new superpowers and six months to live?”
The options that naturally come to mind are to use the powers in way that is either good somehow or not so good. But part of the fun of this book comes in finding out who among our cast of characters goes the way of selfish and who the way of selfless, and their thought processes as they try to decide are made more compelling by the fact that impending death has a way of throwing all the big, important questions into sharp relief. What meaning should my life have? What do I want to experience? What do I want to leave behind? And since these are all essentially sad, angry and disturbed individuals to begin with, you won’t be able to guess early on who ends up how.
Adding to the compulsive readability of this book is an enticing, conspiratorial back story for which we’re only given a few small hints in this first volume. Just how did the G+ virus come to be? Who are the people in this mysterious, secluded research facility? How do the world governments plan on containing the chaos of millions of super-powered individuals?
Montynero is a writer I’m definitely going to keep my eyes on. His prose is dense, intelligent and informed by a psychedelic mysticism that reminds me of one of my all-time favorite writers, Grant Morrison. He also writes some of the best dialogue I’ve seen in a superhero comic for almost as long as I can remember. His characters sound more like real people, further grounding his superhero yarn in an atmosphere of quasi-realism sprinkled with moments of dark comic hilarity.
The art by Mike Dowling is excellent and shines the most during close-ups when the apathy, fear, confusion and, ultimately, resolve of these characters is rendered in living detail. I read much of this volume via a digital copy on my computer screen at night with the lights off, and I was particularly struck by a scene that also takes place in a dark room in which a character is talking to a psychotherapist. Dowling saturates these panels with an eerie greenish-blue glow and the haunted look in the character’s eyes as she contemplates her troubled past and mortality aroused a genuine sensation of existential dread. There is always something faintly awkward when an artist’s style doesn’t quite match the writer’s or the story, but Dowling’s art is the perfect visual complement to Montynero’s words.
Because all great fantasy and sci-fi ultimately transcends its genre conventions, Death Sentence is not so much about superpowers and terminal illness as it is about the inherent power we all have to make creative choices in our lives in the face of cosmic unfairness and uncertainty. And the crowning moment for me is when a character—an artist agonized over her failure to leave behind an artistic legacy—realizes that her life itself is the ultimate creative act, and that even a masterpiece of art pales in comparative achievement to a life lived with courage, compassion and humanity.