Near Death is one of the spate of high-quality comic books Image has been cranking out over the past couple of years, and I finally did myself the favor of reading it. Of course, now it appears the series has gone on hiatus just as I am getting on board (sad trombone). Fingers crossed that it starts up again and soon, but in the meantime, Near Death is a nice little jumping-off point for talking about comics for comics’ sake.
As life-long and deeply devoted supporter of the medium, I often bristle at the crossover into other media. Case in point: I work a couple days a week down at my local comics shop, which is next to a Papa John’s franchise. A couple years back, one of the pizzeria employees ducked her head in, as she would, and asked us if we had seen the new Ghost Rider movie. None of us had, and this surprised her: “Jeez, you guys work at a comic shop, don’t you?” To which I was heard to retort, “Yeah, exactly. I don’t work at a movie theater.” A lot of the uninitiated (and, indeed, many of the initiated) fail to see that adaptations of comics are not comics. As much as I enjoyed the Avengers movie (and I did), that enjoyment does not even begin to stack up next to the enjoyment I get sitting in my room and re-reading Secret Wars. Movies and TV are just fine; I indulge in a lot of both. But comics are the finest medium of story-telling in human history, in my not-so-humble opinion, and this drive within the medium to be “taken seriously” by a wider audience via movie/TV adaptations can really be a bummer sometimes.
But then here comes Near Death. The book was created by writer Jay Faerber, who cut his teeth on such Marvel books in the late ’90s/early ‘oos as Generation X and New Warriors. But it wasn’t long before he dove whole-hog into creator-owned fare such as Noble Causes and Dynamo 5. After coming up with the concept for Near Death, he found some of Simone Guglielmini’s artwork on deviantART and drafted him via e-mail to pick up the art duties. Guglielmini is yet another example of the high-end comics art coming out of that fair land of Italy, and together, these two have produced one of the more eye-catching books on the stands this past year.
The plot centers around a hitman by the name of Markham. In the opening pages of the first issue, Markham has been shot and is losing a lot of blood. He shows up at the door of Dr. Sutton, a veterinarian and off-hours mob doctor. Markham dies while on the operating table, and has a vision of all the people he has killed over his lengthy career. Sutton is able to resuscitate him, but the Markham that has come back to life is a different man: once an assassin with no fear, Markham has seen what the next life holds for him, and it ain’t pretty. So now he must make up for all the evil he’s done, even if his only real skill in life is murder.
A few pages into Near Death volume one, I said out loud to myself, “Oh, so it’s My Name Is Earl, but with a hitman.” The structure of Near Death is absolutely episodic: there is an overarching story-arc, this goal of Markham’s, but each issue is more or less a stand-alone story. And there are thousands of comparable TV shows, where the basic plot is introduced during the opening credits, and that’s all one needs to follow the subsequent episode: the aforementioned My Name Is Earl, The Fugitive, Burn Notice, The Incredible Hulk, Kung Fu, and The A-Team, which show was created by television impresario Stephen J. Cannell, whom Faerber credits as a major inspiration for Near Death.
Were someone to explain to me the premise and execution of Near Death, I might raise my eyebrows a bit in interest, but I then likely would have dismissed it as being merely a dice-roll at future big-bucks TV projects. The business sensibilities of guys like Mark Millar have made me wary of creators coming to comics as a mere storyboard for Hollywood. Comics are a vital and important art-form, but it’s my feeling that if they continue to be merely exploitative in this way, they will cease to be at all relevant and end up in the same historical bin with cave-paintings or frescos.
But that’s the snobby elitist side of myself I find myself battling at times like this. However I may feel about his contributions to the medium itself, the actual comics of Mark Millar I find very enjoyable. And that’s the secret to Near Death: it’s just too damn good for me to not take it seriously as a comic-book, however much it feels like part of the Action Pack at times. Faerber and Guglielmini clearly believe in the work and what they are doing, and it comes across on the page. See, it’s risky in today’s market to publish a book like, say, Mind Mgmt or Sweet Tooth, books which often eschew conventional means of comic-book story-telling in order to explore the medium’s true capabilities. But counter to that, I think takes even bigger balls to approach a work which might be considered “done to death,” and then just through sheer talent and hard work, creating a truly enjoyable comic book.
You’re never gonna sell me on pop art or culture as being purely escapist entertainment fare. Yes, I get sixth-grade giggles out of reading The Uncanny X-Men still, but if that was all it held for me, I’d have sold my collection already and used the money to buy drinks for attractive women in bars. In order for me to be interested in any “entertainment,” there has to be an element of risk, even if it’s minor on the face of things. That being said, probably the biggest risk is to take a tired episodic formula and attempt to show what can still be done with it. Near Death can easily be adapted to the small screen, but there is nothing easy about how Near Death connects with me on the level of comic-book enthusiast. As I’ve said, I wouldn’t have thought it could be done.
So hats off to Jay Faerber and Simone Guglielmini. There are currently two volumes of Near Death available, collecting the eleven issues published thus far. It’s my understanding that the individual issues contain exclusive back matter and essays unavailable in the trades, a la Criminal, so that’s a further bonus for tracking down the individual back issues. But take it from this insufferable comics snob, if you want a book that will surprise you with the seeming ease of its premise, you want to buy Near Death.