“We’ve been through this such a long long time, just tryin’ to kill the pain”
The first volume of November came out in 2019, and it was supposed to be a trilogy, but I guess Matt Fraction (who wrote this) had so much going on it became a quartet! Now all four volumes are out, and I get to read it! Yay! This is drawn by Elsa Charretier, colored by Matt Hollingsworth, and lettered by Kurt Ankeny. Image published this, so you know it has to be good! The publisher of Wetworks always gives us a quality product!
This is, first of all, an amazing-looking book. Everyone involved on the visual side stepped up their game, and it’s a pleasure to look at the book. Charretier is a fine artist, and she changes her style a bit on this so that it looks like Darwyn Cooke’s bastard love child, to the extent that I wonder if this was something Cooke was going to draw before his death (I doubt it, but you never know). Charretier creates a fully-fledged nameless city and peoples it with all kinds of interesting characters. Her characters are beaten up by life, with only Emma-Rose, the hopeful one of the trio of women who form the core of the book, standing out as someone who still believes in the goodness of people. Deanna, the woman who takes a job with some shady characters and kicks off the plot, is a junkie who needs a cane to walk because of injuries she has sustained in life, while Kay, the 911 operator who decides to investigate the odd goings-on in the city, has been a crooked cop in the past and is avoiding her wife because she fears she doesn’t love her anymore. Charretier makes both of these women, who are desperate in different ways, messed up and sad in different ways, which is a nice trick. Even Emma-Rose, who finds a gun on the street and is abducted by cops for her trouble, is beat up by urban life a bit, but the difference with her is that she can still see a way out. The book begins with Deanna getting hired for a job, and the dude who hires her is a round-ish dude with a double chin, an almost perfect mid-level functionary-type, which Charretier nails. It throws us off the scent a bit, because the dude isn’t a good guy, but he looks like a dull bureaucrat. When the more menacing crooked cops show up, Charretier wisely doesn’t show their faces all that much – they’re usually steeped in shadows or we see them from just the wrong angle. I don’t know how much Fraction wanted them to be symbols of universal police corruption, but the way Charretier depicts them, they become an all-encompassing evil, and it’s chilling. She uses shadows beautifully throughout the book (the book isn’t terribly dark, but I’ll get to Hollingsworth!), creating a world where even the most benign things have an unsettling edge, as the nature of the book means we don’t know exactly who – if anyone – is a “good” guy. Charretier takes the ambiguity of Fraction’s script and bakes it into the visual landscape of the book, which helps a great deal. She uses a lot of panels, which allows her to jump-cut to flashbacks or use the same image several times on a page (shades of Keith Giffen, there), adding to the jittery nature of the story. She also skews things off-center in the panels often, again aiding in the chaotic plotting of the comic. The pencil art is marvelous, and it’s nice to see Charretier stretching her wings a bit. Hollingsworth is superb, as well. He uses “unrealistic” colors to create a mood, as he colors Deanna mostly blue (occasionally green or purple, as seen above) to show her sick frame of mind, he uses more earthy tones with Kay, as she’s the one in the story who is the most grounded (despite her trepidation about her domestic life), but it’s not a completely comforting earth tone, as it’s also a bit sickly, and he uses a brilliant bright blue for the flashbacks to Emma-Rose’s childhood, showing her optimism, even if it’s tempered by reality. By contrast, Deanna’s flashbacks are gray and depressing, as her life has been worse than Emma-Rose’s. There’s a lot of blood in the book, and Hollingsworth uses very bright red, so it’s always popping off the page, reminding us of the violence circling around these women. Finally, Kurt Ankeny designs several different fonts for the book, which is gorgeously lettered. Speech comes with its own font, but others indicate different characters or different moods. Deanna’s thoughts are blunt and unsubtle, and the lettering is brutal and primitive. Kay’s thoughts are in cursive, reflecting the fact that unlike the other two women, she has a good job and (theoretically) a good marriage. Emma-Rose, meanwhile, has more rounded lettering, perhaps reflecting her more innocent ideals? Most of the lettering is in lower case, so when something is in all caps, we pay more attention to it. I don’t unequivocally love the lettering – occasionally it is a bit difficult to read, even though that might be just because of my old eyes – but most of it is beautiful, and it’s very neat that Ankeny took the time to do it.
Fraction’s story is quite good, but there’s a big problem with it that might be just me – we’ll see when we get there! The story takes place over the course of a day, which is supposed to be the first of November (hence the title) but at one point it seems to be only the 30th of October, so who knows. It doesn’t really matter, except to know that the events in the present take place over the course of a night and day. Deanna, a struggling junkie, gets a job offer from a dude named Mann – she has to do a specific task once a day, one which won’t take much time, and she’ll be paid handsomely for it. One night, something bad happens, crooked cops get involved, and everything goes pear-shaped. Deanna is dragged away to be killed later (presumably), Emma-Rose finds a gun on the ground that is linked to Deanna, so the cops come and scoop her up, and Kay hears some things on her radio that makes her suspicious of certain cops, mainly because she was involved with them some years earlier, so she knows they’re crooked. Eventually, all three women end up in the same place, and they have to decide what they’re going to do about the bad guys. Much violence is involved, as you might expect.
It’s a crime comic, in other words, but like many good writers, Fraction does things with it to make it much more interesting. He tells the story out of sequence, which isn’t a new technique but is usually pretty interesting, as it’s fun for the reader to piece things together. Emma-Rose ends up in the trunk of a car with a dead man, whom we later see alive, so we know he’s going to die eventually and it’s just a matter of how. Emma-Rose finds the gun in volume 1, but we don’t see how it gets on the ground until the end of volume 2. Little things like that make the book feel more real, because we don’t always know everything right when we want to know it, and because Fraction is following different characters, occasionally we’ll get something from their perspective that only makes sense when we see it from someone else’s. It keeps us on our toes.
Fraction gives us good characters, too, which helps the plot. Deanna pines for her girlfriend, a fellow junkie who sacrificed herself for Deanna, and she acts self-destructively because she doesn’t know any other way to live. She makes a good point about being rich but not being able to spend her money because it would look suspicious, so she hangs out in strip clubs and tries to get one of the dancers to run away with her. Emma-Rose is a problem-solver, and when she and Deanna end up in the same room, waiting to die, she tries to figure out how to escape instead of accepting her fate. When Kay shows up, Emma-Rose wants to take on the bad guys, even though that seems like a bad idea. Kay, meanwhile, works extra shifts at her job so she doesn’t have to go home, and Fraction does a nice job showing how badly she wants to punish herself before he finally reveals the extent of her corruption and her fall from grace because of it. All of these women are looking for redemption in a way, and they find it in different ways. Of course there’s a big shootout, and of course someone does something unexpected that’s completely predictable (as well as Fraction tells the story, he still falls into a few clichés), but what’s good about the characters is that they react in ways true to their personalities, and it’s not always completely the way we think they will. Meanwhile, as I noted above, Fraction seems to be writing about universal police corruption, and not just these specific corrupt cops – in most fiction, good cops eventually come to the rescue, and while there are some “bad apples,” the bunch is generally reinforced as fine. Here, Kay is not a cop anymore because the system is corrupt, and she can’t rely on anyone to help her. Plus, nothing really changes in the end – it’s not a depressing ending, but it is a bit cynical, as Fraction makes clear that the corruption will remain.
The only real issue I have with the story is that I don’t get the scheme Mann has cooked up, the one he hires Deanna to monitor. As the entire plot hinges on that, it seems like an important thing, but I don’t get it. I get that it involves evidence and cops messing with such, but I simply don’t know what Deanna is doing in her little shack on the roof. I’ve tried to figure it out, but I can’t. If anyone has read this, is it me? Am I just dim? Or does Fraction’s coy way of writing, with a lot of allusion and freighted looks but not a lot of hard-and-fast answers, leave it out? I mean, I get that there’s a double-cross, and that’s partly why everything goes wrong, but I don’t know what, exactly, goes wrong. It’s very frustrating. I don’t like reading other reviews, but I did check out a few to see what was what, and one didn’t mention the plot (the review was only of volume 1, which keeps things vague), while the other review seemed to think it was inconsequential and deliberately left vague. Maybe, but that’s kind of annoying if Fraction deliberately didn’t tell us what Deanna was doing that gets her into trouble. Maybe someone can explain it to me.
That minor nitpick apart, November is a masterful achievement. Fraction gives us fascinating characters trapped in a web of violence and shows how they try to break out of it, and Charretier and Hollingsworth make the book a visual cornucopia. I’ve said this before, but I would love it if American comics started moving in this direction – one volume every 6-9 months of a meaty plot that the artist takes their time with, so that each one is an event. But we’re stuck with monthly floppies for the time being, unless you use the almighty dollar to vote! I linked to volume 1, because why would you buy volume 3, say, if you didn’t get volume 1 first? but I would encourage you to get them all. Maybe Image will put out a giant collection in the future. Until then, this is a wonderful comic, and I hope more people discover it going forward.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆