Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Flashback: Union Station

Posted by Don MacPherson on December 16th, 2011

The comics industry has lost some greats in recent days, and many are still eulogizing Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon online. They’re also mourning the passing of artist Eduardo Barreto, and justifiably so. The former two talents were well into their golden years, and as someone who started reading comics as a kid in the late 1970s, I really wasn’t exposed that much to their work (though evidence of their legacies were ever-present in the comics I was reading). But Barreto was a different story. I was quite familiar with his work thanks to his stalwart efforts in the 1980s on such comics as New Teen Titans v.2, Superman and Batman. I’d later thrill over his contributions during the 1990s, notably Superman: Speeding Bullets.

As a tribute to a skilled comics artist who provided so many wonderful moments of entertainment and escapism, I’ve decided to rerun a review from my days on The Fourth Rail — a review of a 2003 original graphic novel he crafted with writer Ande Parks: Union Station.

Union Station original graphic novel
Writer: Ande Parks
Artist: Eduardo Barreto
Editor: Jamie S. Rich
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $11.95 US

I’ll be damned… Brian DePalma, director of the classic film The Untouchables, is doing comics. What? This isn’t DePalma? Let me see… damn, I was wrong. Turns out it’s writer Ande Parks and artist Eduardo Barreto who brought this Depression-era crime story to life. Once again, I find myself entertained by some strong historical fiction, but what really sets this book apart is the abundance of cynicism that dominates the latter part of the book. Once again, Oni Press demonstrates that it is the home of comics diversity and strong storytelling.

Union Station is the heart of transportation in Kansas City, 1933, and on one fateful day, federal agents with the United States Bureau of Investigation must transport a small-time criminal, Frank Nash, into town by train. Thanks to underworld loyalties and corruption in law enforcement, the routine escort turns into a bloody nightmare. It’s Agent Reed Vetterli’s case, and it haunts him. It also haunts reporter Charles Thompson, who witnessed the horrific scene with his son, and he knows something about the incident that sheds some light on how it came to pass. Unfortunately for them, there are those who do not want the truth to come out.

I got to know Barreto’s work on such mainstream super-hero books as The New Teen Titans v.2 and Batman, and it’s a treat to see his work on a small-press book. His style here reminds one of Jose Luis Garcia Lopez’s work. He captures the period quite well, and the black-and-white artwork enables him to foster a dark and gritty atmosphere throughout the book. He makes excellent use of darkness in key scenes. He doesn’t flinch away from the more gruesome story elements, and that reinforces the overwhelming ugliness of the events at Union Station.

Parks is better known for his inking — he’s penciller Phil (Green Arrow) Hester’s regular collaborating inker — but he demonstrates here that his comic storytelling talents aren’t limited to the visual side of the equation. He seems to touch upon The Untouchables here, but instead of bringing the story to a climax with a shootout at a commuting hub, it just begins there. What sets this story apart is the fact that the good guys are the ones participating in dark deeds. This story is about good men sacrificing their principles for various reasons. As a professional journalist, I connected most with the Thompson character. He’s the most sympathetic character, but he still crosses an ethical line that doesn’t seem so bad at first… until one sees the consequences of his actions (or inaction) at the story’s end.

This is a challenging read. The black-and-white artwork and some similar character designs make it a little difficult to distinguish among the players in this drama at first, but the distinctions crystallize as the story progresses. Still, this is the sort of book that merits a second and even third read. There’s a complexity and subtlety to the storytelling that’s appealing, but it’s not easy either. 8/10

Note: Union Station was originally published in 2003, but Oni Press issued a new edition in 2009.

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One Response to “Flashback: Union Station”

  1. D. Peace Says:

    RIP Eduardo Barreto. I loved much of his work, and Union Station was one of the best historical crime dramas in recent years. I love that it was so well researched and had such a strong human element. Sometimes crime stories are a lot more personal for having unfolded in the author’s city, and I think Parks approached this with a lot of passion. Thanks for revisiting it.