Outlaw Nation trade paperback
Writer: Jamie Delano
Pencils/Cover artist: Goran Sudzuka & Goran Parlov
Inks: Sudzuka & Sebastijan Camagajevac
Letters: Robert Solanovic
Editors: Karen Berger (original series)/Joe Pruett (collection)
Publisher: Image Comics/Desperado Publishing
Price: $15.99 US
I remember Outlaw Nation‘s original episodic run as a series from DC/Vertigo. I remember being intrigued by the intellectual and socio-political elements writer and co-creator Jamie Delano brought to the book. I also remember I didn’t follow the series the entire way through to its conclusion. After reading this new, black-and-white collected edition of the complete series, I think I robbed myself of a smart and entertaining reading experience. Dysfunctional family dynamics, conspiracy theories and symbolic characters converge, and the amalgam makes for an occasionally arduous but ultimately fulfilling read. Delano’s vision of a Broken America — past and present — is illustrated with great detail by artists Goran Sudzuka and Goran Parlov, whose eyes for distinct design more than compensate for the removal of the color art from this thick reprint.
Being a Johnson brings with it a lot of specific characteristics. It brings unnaturally long life. It brings violence. And it brings with a code of conduct, a sense of honor. Guys like Hog Johnson, the androgynous George Johnson, Sheriff John Law and more know what that’s all about, but other members of the family are rotten to the core, such as withered patriarch and puppet master Asa Arizona, AKA Bad Buck Johnson, and his sadistic son and enforcer, Kid Gloves Johnson. But no Johnson stirred up the pot more than the writer, Story Johnson, and after 25 years off the grid, he’s headed back to America. Where he goes, trouble follows. Just ask the son he never knew, the women he’s bedded and the high-school kid who finds himself Public Enemy Number One, just because of a creative writing assignment.
I think one reason this property might have been overlooked during its original run is because of the art. Not that it’s weak; quite the opposite. But original series artist Goran Sudzuka’s style is comparable to that of Steve Dillon, who was wrapping up Preacher with writer Garth Ennis. I suspect that in part, readers might have dismissed Outlaw Nation as a Preacher clone, due to not only visual similarities but commonalities in tone.
Sudzuka’s and Parlov’s clean, realistic styles tell the story incredibly well. The cast of characters starts off as being rather large, and it just gets bigger and bigger as the story progresses. The background detail is impressive, as are the artists’ eye for anatomy. Their styles not only put one in mind of Dillon’s work but of Jose Luis (The Return of Donna Troy) Garcia Lopez’s distinctive art as well. The characters aren’t all visions of physical ideals — some are, yes — but generally, they look like real people, even the unreal characters. Actually, the sexiest women in the book are actually slightly more voluptuous than the rake-thin super-heroines one usually sees in the world of comics.
One of my favorite characters in the book is Martin, “the Demon Kid,” who finds himself persecuted and hunted because of something he wrote, something he thought. This was penned in the wake of Columbine, and it’s just so easy to relate to Martin’s frustration and confusion. But as the book progresses, Martin is revealed to be perhaps exactly what people were scared he might be. The question is whether or not the story was a warning sign or whether his persecutors ended up creating the threat they sought to condemn.
My memory of Outlaw Nation is that I was impressed with the themes and characters. I searched the web for my past musings on the book, and I came up with only a single paragraph from a review of the sixth issue:
“The writer places a much stronger emphasis on the various plotlines running through this series this month, and my interest wanes as a result. The appeal of this book has been the characterization, but with the cryptic plot in the spotlight, I felt like an outsider looking in, rather than getting wrapped up in the story through the characters.”
My lukewarm reaction a few years ago to a single episode of the series stems from a couple of sources, I believe. First of all, Outlaw Nation reads better in this collected format. The complexity of the plotlines and characters don’t lend themselves to month-long waits between chapters. Furthermore, I think I’m in a place where I simply appreciate more ambitious and challenging fare. I’m not the same person I was when Outlaw Nation was first being published, so the reading experience isn’t the same either.
After reading the book, I’m struck by Delano’s characterization of women in the book. All of the Johnsons are, as the surname suggests, men, but there are several strong women included in the cast of characters as well. But for most, their sexuality is vital to their roles in the story. I was left wondering whether or not they were props or the strong characters they seemed to be on the surface. Ultimately, my opinion fell on the latter, especially given the strength of character exhibited by Ruth Hoag, AKA Sweetcakes. She’s tough but realistically maternal. And damn, she’s just likeable, as are most of the other women who turn up in the story.
It seems to me that the Johnsons represent icons of the past – cowboys, tricksters, rebels and more, whereas the non-Johnsons represent the fractured psyche of the America of today. Martin is the disenfranchised, violent teen. Jenny is America’s obsession with sex. Phil is greed. Of course, Asa, the original Johnson, breaks that rule, as he and Kid Gloves represent corruption and political manipulation. But violating that rule costs them. They’re fragile, sickly things as a result.
Delano’s script is challenging. He doesn’t draw a straight line from A to B to C. The “line” actually looks more like a Spirograph design than any straight route through plot points. You have to really want to know what’s happening to these characters, what they’re doing and why. Outlaw Nation isn’t easy, but that’s actually part of the appeal. The challenge of the book, the work is well worth it. Plumbing the depths of this complex tale of violence, immortality and the ultimate in dysfunctional family dynamics is a rewarding experience. 9/10