Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Contraband’

“There’s lots of shady characters, lots of dirty deals, every name’s an alias in case somebody squeals”

This comic came out in 2008 (but it still has a web site!), but I’m reviewing it now, and you’ll just have to live with it! I’m reviewing it because the writer, Thomas Behe, was nice enough to send it to me, so the very least I can do is give him some press! The book is drawn by Phil Elliott, inked by Ian Sharman, and toned by Cherie Donovan. It was published by SLG Publishing (I’d call them by their old name, but they wisely want to distance themselves from it), but there’s news on that front, so stay tuned! (It has to do with the reason Behe sent it to me in the first place.)

Contraband takes place in the near future, which, as it was published in 2008, feels disturbingly like 2021 – the phones are still old-style cell phones and not fancy iPhones and Androids, but their capabilities – mainly the way they film things – is spot on for our time. There’s a web site called Contraband that allows users to upload any kind of video – the more disturbing the better – and its owner, a man named Tucker, is very powerful as a result of the site’s reach. A young dude named Toby accidentally films Tucker at a café (he was trying to film the woman Tucker was with), and the site owner blackmails Toby into helping him find a woman named Charlotte. Charlotte is part of the security detail of a man named Jarvis, who’s working on getting legislation passed that will severely restrict Tucker’s site. Why Tucker wants Charlotte is … well, I’ll leave it to you to discover. Toby, naturally, has a crush on Charlotte (not completely unreciprocated, as we find out), so he’s motivated by more than just the blackmail.

It’s a pretty good story – Behe throws us into it and expects us to keep up, which is hard to do for a little bit. The story begins in Afghanistan a few months before the main action, where something bad happened to Charlotte. Then we jump to Toby trying to get tabs on Charlotte, and only then do we jump backward in time to find out how he got to that point. Behe provides us with date tags, so we know we’re jumping back and forth in time, but it still gets a bit confusing for a while until it sorts itself out. It’s an interesting, twisty plot – Tucker’s second-in-command seems friendly to Toby where Tucker just threatens, but can Toby trust him? There’s a murder and a suspect, but is the murderer someone else, and what are the circumstances of the murder? Behe takes a lot of time to give Tucker a lot of speeches about how his site works, which offers a depressing insight into our reality – the voyeurism, the bullying, the sexism, the compliance with the breakdown of social norms – and it’s actually quite fascinating when it doesn’t bum you out. Why can’t Toby find someone when everything is on camera and on the internet? How can he deceive Tucker when he becomes sympathetic to Jarvis and Charlotte when he can be tracked at all times? How can anyone get anything done when someone can offer them cash to film themselves beating you up? How does this society even function? In the best tradition of 1970s paranoid thrillers, Behe does a good job creating a world where everyone is suspect because no one’s motives are pure, and even the good guys are kind of shady.

It’s a very wordy comic, with Behe giving his characters lots to say, and he uses a lot of slang, which takes a bit of getting used to, especially if you’re not English (I don’t know if Behe is British, but he either is or he’s really studied the patois of the country), but it’s interesting because he commits to it so much that you have to pay attention, and it adds some nice colorful flourishes to the script. Tucker speaks “rapidly,” almost trying to convince himself of how cool he is as well as everyone else, and his rants are the most fun parts of the book, although everyone has good personalities that bounce off each other well. Behe does a nice job with Toby, writing him as someone who’s cleverer than he appears to be but is also seemingly out of his depth with people like Tucker, Plugger (Tucker’s second-in-command), Charlotte, and Jarvis. As the book goes on, Toby begins to learn the lessons that Tucker is accidentally giving him, and so he’s able to figure out a plan of action to escape the blackmail Tucker is threatening him with. While the book has a lot to say about internet culture, it’s also a good plot about a person trying to get out of a bad situation, which is always a solid thing to write about.

Elliott and Sharman do a solid job with the art, although Elliott doesn’t do great with fluid action (which, as I’ve mentioned before, seems to be the hardest thing for a comics artist to master). His character work is well done, with Tucker screaming “rich douchebag” in the way he dresses, cuts his hair, and even moves through the book, while Elliott does a nice job drawing Toby as kind of meek in the beginning but more confident as the book goes along. He does a good job with the space – the buildings and streets on which the action takes place feel like actual places, which helps ground the actions of the characters nicely. There’s a kind of bland predictability to the places in the book – not in a bad way – that highlights the fact that a lot of people are doing awful things to each other, as Behe and Elliott make the point that this kind of behavior is not, sadly, all that unusual. The tones are nicely done, too – the book features a lot of gray, but Elliott uses spot blacks in some interesting places, lending a darker tone to some scenes. Elliott has done some work with Paul Grist in the past, and that’s really who his work reminds me of, which may or may not be a good thing in your eyes. Despite some of the action scenes looking a bit stiff, it’s a good-looking comic.

Contraband is getting a re-release, this time from Markosia, which is nice for Behe (I told you to stay tuned!). It’s a clever story that sadly, isn’t as far-fetched as it was 13 years ago, but it remains timely in the worst possible way. It’s a good thriller and a good social commentary. It’s always nice when those two things go together, isn’t it? So give it a look if you’re interested!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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