Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
      ( 1/22/2008 07:00:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"DRIVE FAST! PAY ATTENTION! AND DON'T LOSE YOUR PHONE!" The spirit of seventies drive-in is all over Larry (Astronauts in Trouble, Planet of the Capes) Young's newest comics mini-series, Black Diamond (AiT/Planet Lar), which recently wrapped up its seven issue run. A cross-country "road movie" set in a not-too-distant dystopian future, Diamond posits an America where the haves and have-nots are distinctly divided by roadway elevation. On the ground, as the series' "On Ramp" prologue delineates, are cozy middle-class suburbs populated by bike-riding paperboys and dog-walking li'l old ladies. Overhead, is the Black Diamond superhighway, a frontier-styled badland full of grimy proles, biker road warriors and shapely truckstop waitresses. The only time the two worlds typically meet is when some souped-up rebuilt vehice smashes through the guard rails and lands on some unfortunate citizen down below.

With Issue One ("Shake Hands with Danger"), though, we learn that the two cultures have been colliding with ever greater force. The military, fed up with seeing all that gas being wasted on low-lifes, has taken to venturing onto the highway and tossing Black Diamonders over the side. In retaliation, a band of college students kidnap the daughter of the highway's original designer, in a seemingly ill-defined attempt at using her to force the Army into abandoning its violent clean-up. When the kidnap victim's policeman brother gets wind of this half-assed scheme, he loans his brother-in-law a beefed-up 1973 Mercury Cougar to drive across country and bring her back home. To get there fast, our would-be rescuer, orthodontist Don McLaughlin, has to take the Black Diamond from the San Francisco 'burbs to Baltimore.

Doctor Don's trip across this lawless land brings him into contact with a runaway waitress named Cammie, her thuggish boss and a crew of thrill-seeking, yet chivalrous bikers. These chance connections spur a chase along the highway which reaches its pinnacle in Issue Four ("American Look") with a far-fetched slam-bang involving a speeding train. As the gas-guzzlin' action flashes across the pages, petro capitalist Dixie Johnson, feeling the push of the U.S. military to sell his gas supplies solely to the Army, ruminates on the American Dream in an age of dwindling resources. Elsewhere (in Issue Two's "One More for the Road"), we eavesdrop on the collegiate kidnappers as they match unequal verbal wits with Don's wife Kate – who, of course, proves to be just as shapely as a truckstop waitress.

Throughout the series, Young's chatty characters indulge in periodic discussions about the nature of story (first time is in the prologue, where two mysterious Black Diamond figures discuss the two basic plots) and vocabulary, making it clear that this tribute to Deathrace 2000 cinema has a Tarantino filter to it. (There's even a "Stuck in the Middle with You" quote, Reservoir Dogs fans.) Not too surprising for a writer as dialog savvy as Young, though the richness of these sections proves to be a bit of a red herring when it comes to the mini-series' conclusion.

Where, in fact, Black Diamond will likely fall down for a lot of readers is in its finale: after introducing a great secondary cast of chatty self-justifiers (including the mind behind the Army's "clean-up with extreme prejudice," General Jake Cooper), Young backs away to leave his story's big showdown off-panel. In the 70's, the primary reason to not show a full-tilt battle scene was a budgetary one, of course, though here the storytelling choice is more thematically based. This is Don and Kate's story, the writer asserts; everything else is extraneous. Still, Young does such a bang-up job with his supporting characters – right down to his Rosencrantz & Guildenstern figures – that you can't help wishing that he'd shown you how they all wind up.

I like the pun on which he ends his story, though: a real English major's jape.

Jon Proctor's art ("Presented in Comicscope," each cover trumpets) contains a good amount of grunge and ill-lit moodiness, though occasionally his predilection for including more than one shot of the same character in a panel can get distracting. In its way, though, this technique can almost be seen as the comics equivalent to the flashy camera trickery that came out of split screen technology in the late sixties. Black Diamond's color background is heavily composed of oranges, yellows and greens – suitable to the story’s smog-bound setting – though when Don and Kate are finally reunited, the panels shifts to a shimmering lavender. A neat visual touch.

Added to the end of all but the "On Ramp" prologue ish are short back-up anecdotes about life on the Black Diamond. Written and illustrated by a variety of unfamiliar names, these shorts range from slice-of-life vignettes to more broadly comic caricatures. If the latter pieces jar against Young & Proctor's storytelling, the less cartoonish pieces are effective: Ken Lowery & Marlene Troncoso's pavement evangelist piece and Rob Lavender & Josh Boulet's evocation of roadbilly life as seen through the eyes of a young boy. Though not essential to the main storyline, they do add to the texture of Black Diamond's futureworld. Hope they're kept in the inevitable trade . . .
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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