Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


The Silencers: Black Kiss

cover2005 - available in soft cover

Written by Fred Van Lente. Illustrated by Steve Ellis.
Colours: Dae Lim Yoo. Letters: unbilled. Editor: Lori G., Garrett Anderson.

Reprints the four issue mini-series, plus a short story, and an afterward and other extras.

128 pages

Published by Moonstone Books

Website (Silencers): Fred Van Lente

Website (publisher): Moonstone

Cover price: $14.95 USA

The Silencers is basically a (slightly "mature readers") super hero take on mob-style stories like the Godfather and The Sopranos. The "reality" is familiar enough turf for a super hero comic -- an underlying realism of sorts, rooted in a recognizable New York, but where the notion of people with super powers battling overhead is as common place as sanitation strikes. Yet the "heroes" of the story, or anti-heroes, are the crooks...specifically a super team of mob enforcers who work for a powerful (non-powered) crime family. In fact, conventional super heroes are barely peripheral to the action, as the story involves The Silencers getting caught up in a mob war, occasionally ducking into an alley as so-called "tights" fly by obliviously.

Not being a big fan of mob stories and their accompanying nihilism, I wouldn't necessarily have expected to like this. But having read the subsequently produced Silencers one-shot (Powered & Dangerous, from Image Comics), and thoroughly enjoying it, I was already in the series' corner when I started on this collection of the original mini-series, titled Black Kiss, from rising comics publisher Moonstone Books.

Although the story is about crooks, most of their adversaries are crooks too, meaning it kind of sidesteps the good/bad question, as we don't see the Silencers attacking innocent civilians or anything. And even when cops are brought in, creators Fred Van Lente and Steve Ellis tend to paint them in a sufficiently unsavory light that we can't exactly see them as defenders of truth and justice. In fact, one could argue the whole mob genre (in movies, books and comics) is about trying to capture the flavour of a western, or other historical adventure, but set in contemporary times. Harkening back to a semi-mythic time when men lived by their own rules, where the edict was survival and loyalty, more than law and order.

And morality does creep in, perhaps even sub-consciously on the parts of the creators. Not only does the story begin with the Cardinal, the leader of the Silencers, planning on retiring from a life of crime he was forced into to begin with (allowing us to sympathize more with him) but as the story progresses, the Silencers find themselves fighting not just for their own survival, but possibly the survival of the greater society as -- without giving too much away -- it turns out there's more going on than simply a civil war within their local crime family. As the story unfolds, it's their methods more than their goals that distinguish the Silencers from more mainstream super hero comics (in fact, given the current shift to the gritty and nihilistic in some mainstream super hero titles, even the methods aren't that different). Clearly there is an assumed visceral appeal to the mob milieu, the lingo; a resonance to scenes of characters being bushwhacked in their cars, and of well dressed wiseguys sitting around big tables that some creators would like to marry with other genres -- here, it's super heroes; a few years ago, TV's Kindred: The Embraced did it with vampires.

But it's as much the execution as the concept that makes The Silencers: Black Kiss work. Van Lente and Ellis have a fairly tight, economical style that is quite effective. I'll sometimes reflect on a memorable comic book scene I read as a kid and be shocked, flipping through the old comic, to discover the "scene" was only two panels long...while I can read some modern comics, barely remembering some inconsequential exchange...and be equally shocked to realize it was spread over three pages! But Van Lente and Ellis remind me of that older school, as they keep the pace up, and treat us to a nice mix of suspense and human drama (and quirky humour) and where I'll flip back through it and realize how they managed to say all that needed to be said in just a couple of panels, yet the characters and their relationships are nicely realized and textured, even occasionally poignant.

Van Lente's plot throws a lot into the mix, and not just from the mobsters and the super hero idioms. Even though the story starts out about turf wars and a new drug on the market, it gets further afield as it goes, tossing in sci-fi and horror aspects, and homages to a certain 1930s pulp writer. The characters are interesting enough, Van Lente giving them shading and touches of warmth and camaraderie, and coming up with some interesting powers and abilities for them.

Ellis' style is a little cartoony and angular, but snaps along with a dramatic efficiency. He comes up with effective character designs, particularly the striking and brooding Cardinal, who with his bald head and round, reflective glasses looks like something borrowed from a Mike Mignola comic. Ellis is a bit rough at times in action scenes, where it occasionally takes a moment to quite figure out what's what. And the final issues look a little more rushed than did the initial ones (and the reproduction on some of the later pages is a bit odd, almost as if it's a reproduction of a reproduction, and some of the sharpness is lost). But, overall, the art is effective and energetic. The colours by Dae Lim Yoo suit the tone, being both sombre, as she relies on earth tones and the like, evoking an urban jungle grittiness...while also being bold and vibrant, suiting the lighter, cartoonier flavour as well.

Towards the end, Van Lente throws in a scene where the Cardinal confronts some "tights" (super heroes)...and it's a kind of awkward, self-conscious scene. Not the least of which is because the "tights" should be peripheral...these are the stories of what happens on the other side of town from where the heroes are battling villains. But it's also awkward because Van Lente and Ellis seem to be intruding into their own story. As the Cardinal sneers that the tights are "juvenile and useless...a perverse joke", one suspects it's the creators thumbing their noses at mainstream super heroes, as if their story is somehow more relevant, more real. But, of course, it isn't. In fact, part of the appeal of the Silencers is how it's even further removed from reality than the average Spider-Man comic as it's a noire world without real repercussions. As mentioned, the conflict is between crooks, allowing us to root for anti-heroes, while ignoring the real life consequences of these characters' actions, the innocent lives that are really destroyed by organized crime and its drugs, murder, extortion, and more. We can enjoy the Silencers, even like them, because they aren't real life sociopaths and hired killers.

And yet, skimming over that scene again, I wonder if I've undersold it. Oh, there's certainly a self-reflective heavy handedness (when Cardinal mocks the tights' "cadre of misguided fans"), but given the way Cardinal blows up irrationally when someone mentions the "tights" in an earlier scene, I wonder if there's more characterization than commentary going on in that scene than I originally gave it credit for. Does the Cardinal have a hate on for the tights...because no hero saved him from a life of crime he did not choose?

A good comic (since you've bought it and are stuck with it) should be entertaining enough that it invites re-readings...and smart enough that it rewards subsequent readings with extra nuance. Having only read it once, I can't say for sure, but just re-thinking that one scene, the Silencers may well satisfy both criteria.

The TPB collection also includes a bonus short story that manages to be off beat, while giving some insight into one of the Silencers. There's also some interesting extras -- including the obligatory cover gallery, but also a previously published interview with the creators, and even showing an early draft to one of the pages (in a DVD style "alternate scene" sort of way).

The Silencers: Black Kiss is a well paced, off-beat saga, cleverly mixing its disparate influences, and keeping things light enough with its brisk pacing and some quirky humour, while also shoring things up with some unexpected character depth -- and tossing in clever plot twists and turns. All in all, both it, as well as the subsequent one-shot, Powered and Dangerous, are an offer that shouldn't be refused (okay, I couldn't resist).

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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