Review time! with ‘Tumult’

“Take your silver spoon and dig your grave”

It’s tough to describe Tumult, even though it’s not that confusing. It’s more straight-forward than I would have thought, actually, and that’s part of the problem with describing it, because it just sounds weird. But I will attempt it, because that’s what I do! First of all, let’s get the boilerplate out of the way. Tumult is published by SelfMadeHero and it’s written by John Harris Dunning and drawn by Michael Kennedy. It’s a nice hardcover, and it has this keen cover:

When you begin reading Tumult, without having checked out the back, which has a brief synopsis, you think you know what you’re in for. Adam is on vacation (“holiday,” I suppose, as he’s British) somewhere hot with his long-time girlfriend. While there, he injures his leg and is laid up for days, during which time his girlfriend, Sarah, leaves him alone to go holidaying (on his urging; he doesn’t want her to waste her time looking after him). Their neighbors are also British, and they hang out with Sarah, while their daughter, Tammy, begins to hang out with Adam. One thing leads to another, and he eventually bangs Tammy even though he’s in his mid-30s and she’s probably not 20 yet. Whatever. He’s a bad dude, but he knows he’s a bad dude, and before he has sex with Tammy, he’s already decided that he’s going to break up with Sarah even though their life seems perfect. He’s been with her for so long, and the next step, he knows, is marriage and children, but he’s self-aware enough to know that he’s not grown-up enough for that. Their break-up is mild, it seems, and Adam moves out. So far, so normal – he’s kind of a douchebag, but not entirely evil, and presumably he’ll figure out what’s going on with his life and make some kind of commitment. Easy-peasy.

Except things don’t go that way, and the book is certainly better for it. It starts getting weird, which is nice. Before Adam can even meet another woman, we have a brief interlude where a seemingly random woman is shot and killed in a park (the story takes place in London after the foreign beginning, and the woman is killed there) – of course, we know she won’t be random eventually, but introducing it that way is an intriguing side story, and shows us that there’s some strange stuff going on. Then Adam meets a woman named Morgan at a party who’s very aggressive and basically orders him to have sex with her (he’s perfectly willing, but it’s very clear she’s the dominant one). A few days later, he sees her on the street but she doesn’t recognize him and she says her name is Leila. Adam can even tell there’s something different about her, but he knows it’s the same woman. So what’s going on?

It’s tough to write too much more, because it would give away too much. Suffice it to say that Dunning goes into a full psychological thriller, and while the pay-off is a bit weak (if you can’t figure out who killed the woman in the park pretty quickly, you’re not paying very good attention), how he gets there is pretty interesting. The book veers into the fantastical, but Dunning keeps it grounded, helped by Kennedy’s workmanlike art. Dunning wants to write a thriller without a protagonist, really, and that’s what makes the book so odd yet fascinating. Throughout the comic, Adam’s friend talks about 1980s action movies and the theme of man vs. nature or man vs. technology, and of course there’s always a man at the center of it all. Yet Adam is very much a beta male, and that’s okay, because Dunning is upending the idea that a thriller needs a protagonist, whether it’s a man or a woman. Adam does some things that actively assist the plot along, but he’s also very passive, becoming a hero simply by not screwing up his relationship with Leila when there are plenty of reasons to do so. Leila, meanwhile, is also not the hero, although for different reasons, and while she also needs to be more active in the resolution of the plot, for the most part she too is a passive participant. It’s not that the book is boring – it’s not, because the plot, while somewhat ridiculous, is compelling – it’s that, like most people, Adam and Leila aren’t completely in charge of their lives. In most thrillers, that’s true at the beginning, but the plot turns when the protagonist takes control of his or her life. In Tumult, both characters make moves that way, but only as far as we can realistically think they’re going to go. Dunning recognizes the limits of individual power, and it’s interesting how he manages to finish the plot relatively satisfactorily while still working within these restrictions.

Kennedy does help, although his art is not flashy. There’s not a lot of action in Tumult, which is probably a good thing, because Kennedy’s figures don’t have that fluidity that the best action artists use, and I imagine he wouldn’t be good at those sorts of scenes. He draws the characters very well, as he gives them a kind of disconnected air, which is part of the theme of the book – Adam feels disconnected from his life, which is why he ends his relationship, and then he feels disconnected from Leila for different reasons, while Leila has her own reasons for feeling disconnected. He does some nice work with extreme close-ups, creating claustrophobia even in wide-open spaces, which is another nod to the way Leila lives her life. At a few points, he draws the comic like a cartoon book from the 1940s or 1950s, and it’s a very well-done pastiche (there’s a reason he does it, too, but I’m not sharing why). His intense colors add a layer of surreality to the book, which also fits into the weirdness of the plot. I don’t love the artwork, but it fits the story fairly well. Kennedy hasn’t been working in comics too long, so it’s not surprising this is a bit raw, but there’s a lot he does right, which is nice.

Tumult is a decent comic, but not a great one. It keeps you interested, and while the resolution of the plot doesn’t work as well as it could, getting there is a pretty weird journey. Dunning uses the tropes of a standard thriller to get into some more fascinating areas, and he keeps you on your toes throughout, because it’s never clear what exactly the main characters are going to do, partly because they’re just regular people and don’t have much experience with, you know, shadowy forces of evil. It’s not really like anything I’ve read in a while, which is certainly a good thing!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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