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Union Station

Why is it that so many crime comics are set sometime in or around the 1920s and ‘30s? I mean, Judd Winick’s Caper had its maxi-series’ beginnings in the earlier part of the 20th century; The Road to Perdition and subsequent tie-ins from Max Allan Collins were Depression-Era; and Torso from Bendis (all hail the man who writes half of Marvel’s comics) was in the time of Elliot Ness, albeit being based on true events he had little choice in the matter.

Maybe it’s an American obsession with the time of cops and robbers; a time when buttonmen were seen as often as a Starbuck’s and the only way you knew a cop wasn’t dirty was if he was dead. For some reason we love to tell our seedy stories near the time of the Capones and Derringers, maybe to make the crime seem more gentlemanly as we remember a world were gangsters sold liquor instead of cocaine and if someone got plugged, they probably did deserve it. I couldn’t say for sure.

But yet again the 1930s appears in a comic about the illicit doings of the underworld, this time in Union Station from Oni Press.

It’s 1933 and Frank Nash is a criminal with a past that has finally caught up with him. After being nabbed by the Feds for some small time crime, Nash is due to be transferred to Kansas City to start his incarceration, but when his train gets to Union Station, a botched attempt to free him leads to a massacre that affects the lives of three men: FBI Agent Reed Veterlli, reporter Charles Thompson, and underworld gun-for-hire Verne Miller.

Veterlli has to try and find a way to cope with his mistakes made during the massacre while trying to keep his morals intact. Verne Miller is on the run after trying to help a friend and is closely pursued by Hoover’s best, and Charles Thompson may find that trying to find out what really happened at Union Station may cost him and his family dearly.

This is Ande Parks’ first foray into writing, having been an inker of some renown on Green Arrow, and while it’s clear that he has the ability to tell a story, he needs more polish before he writes a really good one. It’s clear that Parks has a love for the material, being a native of Kansas and having obviously delved into a decent amount of research on the actual Union Station Massacre.

However, he gets bogged down in what I can only assume is historical detail, forgetting to really flesh out his characters in favor of assuming the reader has some familiarity with who these people are. The only character that he spends much time developing is Charles Thompson, and to Parks’ credit, I found myself thoroughly interested in Thompson. Small touches like Thompson’s easy relationship with his son, and his utter willingness to dote on his wife when she is still reeling from a double mastectomy (information that Parks wisely and subtly allows the reader to discover through the artwork and not blatant dialogue), show him to be warm and compassionate. In several scenes, when his family is threatened we can see the panic and fear in the character, not just in facial expression, but in action as well. Thompson is also the only character that gets flashbacks to the carnage at Union Station, as well as a dream sequence that has little to with the story, but helps to define his relationship with his family a little better. If the comic had focused on Thompson, it might have been a better read as we followed only his investigation into the events of that day.

But Parks gums up the works with the three-character split that occurs. Vetterli and Miller are neither well defined nor interesting enough to keep a plot thread tight. Parks never establishes Vetterli as a very moral man early on, other than simply mentioning that he’s Mormon, so his moral agonizing over his survival later in the book just sounds like whining and rings false. When Vetterli gets pigeon-holed into knowingly accusing the wrong man for the events of that day, his acceptance of the situation isn’t really shocking because the character never really went anywhere, never got down to any soul-searching so to speak, so the reader could really give two shakes what he does.

Verne Miller is even worse: he’s just a thug with a gun that owed Nash a favor, and the reader really doesn’t know what that favor is. Parks gives him little if any characterization, so little that Parks didn’t even deem Miller’s demise page-worthy, as in one panel he is escaping the cops, and a few pages later, he simply ends up dead in a photograph. The almost pointless (and historically fuzzy) addition of Miller’s girlfriend into the mix serves no real purpose because we don’t even see their relationship as humanizing. He almost seems to treat her with contempt for some reason, not to mention they only appear together in one scene.

The artwork is good. Eduardo Barreto has a talent for drawing the 1930s, and his very technique screams “old school.” He shades his inks using small dots and crosshatching that are very reminiscent of the way comics used to be colored; the old three-color-dots technique, and his abundant use of shadow and straight line shading create an incredible feeling of 1930s ambience. His characters are distinct, but only until they all don the typical fedora and trench coat cliché, and then it becomes extremely hard to tell what’s going on. This was a bad, but probably historically accurate, artistic choice. The actual massacre scene is atrociously hard to follow, as everyone is dressed the same, and one gaping head wound looks just like any other. This would be the only argument for coloring this book, as some color might help the reader differentiate between cop and crook.

Nothing outside of Thompson’s storyline really captures the attention, and start-to-finish, nothing much happens in the book. There’s a massacre. There’s some feds. There’s…not much else.

Robert Sparling

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