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21 Down: The Conduit

One of the telling differences between mainstream comics and alternative press work is the "talking heads" aspect. A lot of alternative press has comics where very little happens in way of action or visual dynamics; the story usually comes through the characters interacting and having dialogues. A good example would be the difference between the self-published comic Super Crullers, which was about superheroes in a coffee shop talking about the intricacies of their job and featured very little in way of battles and super-wars, and Common Grounds, the same comic published through Top Cow, which has to balance the scales between depicting superheroics and writing "talking heads," to keep the reader interested.

It makes sense. Comics are a dual medium that have to balance story with art. Bad or boring artwork can destroy a good story, and vice versa. Too many word balloons can mar the panels of a comic, obscuring characters and leaving no room for action. Mainstream comics have to pay special attention to this, because the visual aspect of the comic is half of the reason the comic sells and sometimes it's the only reason, which explains how the world ever believed Alex Ross would willingly do a prestige format oversized comic called Wonder Twins: Form of Water. Damn your April Fool's antics, Ross!

So, "talking heads" usually makes for a good cerebral read, but a poor visual one, which tends to shuffle it off to the Land of Bad Comics, currently ruled with an iron fist by Chuck Austen, but thankfully not Iron Fist. I am here today, boys and girls, to tell you that a comic with spectacular dialogue, complex plot elements, and great characterization, but featuring only two really action-oriented scenes, has been produced…and lo, it is good.

21 Down is the creation of Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Jesus Saiz. It is the story of Preston Kills, a 20 year-old tattoo artist who knows he's going to die; not in that ephemeral "we all go sometime" way, but rather in the "some enigmatic force will murder me on my 21st birthday" way. Preston was visited by a mysterious being on his thirteenth birthday called Herod, that gave him the unique ability to see the moments just before and just after a person dies. He is a genie, and has spent the whole of his life trying to live with his curse, while helping his brother build a career as a New York City Homicide detective, helping his brother to close unsolved cases. Accepting his inevitable death at the hands of Herod, Preston has little interest in knowing anything more about his abilities, until a friend convinces him to look it up online. After answering some questions on an online quiz, things change.

Enter Mickey Rinaldi: an FBI agent that may have a hidden agenda, sent to find Preston Kills and other "genies" (those others touched by Herod), in hopes of discovering who or what Herod is and stopping him from killing again. She will do whatever it takes to find Herod, whether Preston likes it or not.

For those that recognize the name Herod, that recognition may come from my review of Gen13: September Song. The same character that blessed the teens in that comic with extra-normal powers blessed Preston, and upon a re-reading I found that Preston Kills actually makes an appearance in Gen13. The fact that I didn't even notice the connection until I went back and checked is a testament to Jimmy Palmitotti's excellent writing.

I talk a lot about writing good characters and about what makes them good characters. For me, a good character makes a good book, and a good cast of characters makes an excellent book (my main argument for reading Starman). 21 Down has one of the most amazing cast of characters I've ever had the pleasure of reading. You can tell a good movie by how well the extras act; the main actor is the one who wins the award, but the guy who plays a hot dog vendor and makes the viewer believe that this person could be no one else but a hot dog vendor is part of what sells the director's world to the audience.

Palmiotti has gone a step further than mere characterization to make Preston and Mickey people. The reader meets Preston at the point in his life where he's done. He has accepted his death and tries to enjoy what little of the day his curse allows him to. But it's not normal to see people's deaths, so Preston deals with it by going to self-help group for people dying of cancer. Realistically, this makes absolute sense for Preston. Who else would understand having an expiration date stamped on their forehead more than someone whose been told they only have three months to live? Preston's begrudging participation with Mickey to uncover information about Herod is simply him going along with what life gives him.

At the beginning of the story, Preston is a character that moves to the beat of the story because he has no direction, no real will to live. It isn't until the later parts of the collection that Preston begins to understand the true nature of his power, and to begin living with no expectation of death. We see him change from a character playing his part to a character that drives the story. The depth of the character is what sets this story apart from others, and once again I am reminded that Wildstorm has matured so much in its line of comics.

The cast that surrounds Preston is perfect, not because they fill adequately the cliché roles one would expect in the plot (the FBI agent with more questions than answers, the gay friend, the overbearing brother, etc.) but because they break out of these roles and become so real to the reader. Mickey appears at face value to be the femme fatale type that uses sex as much as a weapon as a semi-automatic, but slowly the reader becomes aware of the vulnerabilities, the tenacity, and the driving will that Mickey possesses in her search for Herod. She isn't bad; she's really just drawn that way.

Other characters, like Clyde, who could have devolved into some gay stereotype friend a la Will & Grace, turns out to be a small but compassionate character that Preston treats as a brother. His actual brother, Robert, is an equally multifaceted character; he runs the gamut of demanding older brother to true friend and noble crusader. Even the old man Sam that Preston visits fits the role of sagely old grandpa, while still possessing an air of mystery that echoes the creepiness of the story.

The story itself is quiet, in the sense that everything that happens, happens at it's own pace, with few scenes of large proportion. The mystery barely begins to unfold as the volume ends, but we don't mind because the narrative is so damn lush, you forget about the mystery just before Palmiotti reminds you of some of the more sinister aspects of the plot. There aren't an abundance of action sequences, and even the few that exist are relegated to three or four panels, maybe a page or two. The things that keep the attention of the reader are eerie thrill inherent in each scene, and the quiet menace just around the corner. The tension is what drives the book, as it slowly builds and comes to a natural and ultimately uplifting perspective by the end of the volume.

The artwork is good and it augments the writing rather well. Gray and Saiz do good work. The lack of action sequences in the book is somewhat limiting to them, as I believe that if given the chance, Gray could pencil great and detailed action, as he has great pacing (he would have to, to match the plot) and knows how frame his panels and tell a really good visual story. The sequence near the beginning of the book where Preston is helping his brother sort through bodies at the World Trade Center (a flashback to 9/11) is totally silent and it demonstrates Gray's ability to form a visual narrative.

There's an introduction to the book by Garth Ennis that, while mentioning some of the transvestite tendencies of the creators, sums up why this book is so good, so I leave you all to read Mr. Ennis' intro after trusting me that this is a spectacular read. You get a few sketch galleries and the covers are intermittent throughout the chapters, as well as seven issues worth of story, all for $19.95. It's the best of talking heads writing with complimentary artwork, and well worth the price. Go and buy, fanpeople.

21 Down: The Conduit

Robert Sparling

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