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Billi 99

When Will Eisner first published A Contract With God in 1978, he called his work a "graphic novel" for two reasons: the first being that it was a story told with pictures (and in case anyone is a little confused, that means "comic book") and the second being that it was a complete story; having a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

Comic books have the problem of not being complete. Superman and Batman have been running for decades and while the circumstances and situations sometimes change for the characters, there is never closure because the comic can't end.

So, in our search for a real story, a full story, we have to turn away from the two biggest mainstream publishers and look elsewhere. And it just so happens that one alphabetical leap backward from DC brings us to Dark Horse and a little book called Billi 99, written by Sarah Byam and drawn by Tim Sale.

Originally published over a decade ago as single issues, Byam tells the story of Billi Chadam, heiress to her father Ray Chadam's fortune, his industry, and his alter-identity as The Sword of Toleado, a Zorro-esque adventurer out to help the downtrodden.

At least she would be the heiress if she weren't suspected of his brutal killing. Now the police are after her and her corrupt Uncle Cas is chomping at the bit to obtain the controlling stock interest in her father's company. She can't tell the cops how her father died as a result of his vigilante activities, so she's hiding out in the bad part of town and watching all that her father had built crumble. Now Billi has to find a way to stop her uncle from taking over and putting a few thousand workers out of a job, while still finding who had her father killed.

Byam has officially left comics, which is a shame because Billi 99 has some of the most solid storytelling of any comic I have read. This book is dark and moody, but never depressing or stagnant from too much poetic waxing. Byam has taken a unique approach to writing a vigilante: she's very real with the character and the world she inhabits.

Billi is not a very good superhero; in fact, take the "super" right out of the equation because, unlike Batman or Daredevil, Billi really has no chance against a roomful of twenty or more thugs. She actually almost loses the fight when she's trying to save a Dorothy Dandridge-like singer from two goons because if you get hit with a pipe, no matter how many years you spend studying the ancient disciplines of Zen/Kung Fu/Bat-Kwan-Do, it still hurts like Hell and may even kill you. (If only Billi had some Bat-Goon-Repellant, then everything would be gravy.)

And Billi, despite being the titular character, is far from the focus of the book. Byam gives some great attention to the business aspect of Uncle Cas's financial maneuvers, as well as the human aspect affected by it, as she puts the reader right into the homes and union hall meetings of the Chadam Industries workers. We also get a taste of Detective Andrews, the local cop trying to solve a series of murders that may be tied strongly to Billi and her problems.

And "Hooray!" for a multi-ethnic cast that is just plain interesting. I like comics a lot but the W.A.S.P to Every-Other-Ethnicity ratio in them is too one-sided. It is good to see characters like Billi, of Spanish descent; Andrews, an African American; Anunzio, Billi's Italian-American Mafioso boyfriend; and Quixote, the white-haired, tie died, precognitive hippy (yes I did just say "precognitive hippy").

The artwork on this is Tim Sale at his best. If you ever read Batman: The Long Halloween or Superman for All Seasons, you know his stuff is good. Let me tell you that it is even better when done in black and white. Sale gets to play with some great shading effects, using more shades of gray than I thought humanly possible to discern.

This book looks good and I can think of no one who draws a cityscape or a tenement better than Sale, and is then still able to draw characters that emote so well (except for Will Eisner of course; I don't want to anger the comic book gods by not including the master). All the characters in Billi 99 are invariably human and Sale complements Byam's humanistic writing with his wonderful artwork.

Supposedly, it's set in the future, but that is never really brought up and since it was written a decade or so ago, the future it may have been depicting seems very "in the now" with its Big Business themes and plight-of-the-working-man overtones (anyone else reminded of a little company called Enron?). Pick this book up and enjoy it in its entirety. It reads like a good prose novel and it's cheaper than a hardcover at $14.95.

Billi 99

Robert Sparling

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