Though his name may well hold a lot of sway over the books target audience – it is perhaps even because of his positive byline that I was quite so keen for this trade – I have to say that having Ed Brubaker’s name on the cover of this graphic novel was a mistake. Why? Because when you mention it inevitable comparisons to Criminal will be made, a juxtaposition in which Near Death can only just come out of unscathed, seen as a Lawless-lite and little more. That’s not a place than any book wants to be in, but if Near Death is about anything it’s comebacks and second chances; so if you see past this particular second placing and stick with it does this story earn itself a spot as one of Criminal’s peers or stay stuck as a runner up?
I hate to harp on this Criminal comparison but it really is core to how I read this comic, because even without the cover calling your attention to it the book will still strongly evoke that landmark series. Guglielmini’s line work adds another layer to the comparison, mirroring as it does Phillips’ phenomenally gritty graphics, though she does differ herself enough in the coloring and compositions so as not to verge on infringing copyright. Then there is the story: set in a similarly sullen city of vice and corruption Near Death’s tale of a repentant hitman turned humanitarian embraces all of the same noir tropes as Brubaker does in his scripts and yet they somehow feel a lot less fresh here in Faerber’s fingers; like they’re not here as a homage but as a hand me down.
Though the series seems dark on the surface with its speeches on death, deals with child rapists and constant masses of murder its actually quite safe and sanguine despite these buckets of let blood. The structure and content of the stories don’t accurately represent this more mature material, because instead of being mordant affairs these comics are actually most like capers, especially in the way in which they always tie-up with a cleverly clean conclusion. While I don’t think Ed Brubaker would actually know how to write a happy ending if he had to. For some this could seem like false advertising and be a disappointment, but I found the merging of these two disparate tones to be one of the more interesting elements in the comic; adding texture and heft to what could otherwise have been disposable fare.
Though I would obviously then like to think that this was a deliberate touch there is another possible, but less positive, explanation for it. This series favors speed over subtlety because unlike Criminal’s season like, volume length arcs Near Death is constructed as a series of done in one, case of the week style issues, in each of which our hero saves a different target from professional assassination. While this may make the book much more accessible for newcomers and a better read for everyone month to month, but in the long term it suffers for it because it also means that the writing must be brisk and thus shallow. When you have a new cast of characters to play with each issue you aren’t given a lot of time to tone and outline and so most of the people that you see in these panels are mere sketches (metaphorically, the actual art is of course finished and fantastic). The books metaphors too are almost as bluntly on the nose as that one because for pacing reasons people have to get right to the point; there is no time to meditate on the topics because there’s barely enough to have them told straight to you.
The final issue though does a good job of both raising the bar and joining the dots thanks to its more serialized approach. The way that Faerber constructs the climax out of a series of callbacks ties the trade together like a good rug does a room and the result is that the book is much more structurally sound then it had any right to be ten minutes earlier; in this was issue six serves as a season finale of sorts. This then leads me to my next comparison, because as tempting as it is to simply stick Near Death next to Criminal that’s actually not an accurate assessment. For a better mirror image I turn to television and say that, we’re this a show it would not be on HBO, it’s not the next Wire as Criminal would be, but instead it would air on the USA network alongside such hits as Burn Notice and White Collar. While that may sound like an insult to some it’s really not, it’s more of a revelation; those shows are all successful and make many people happy despite, or perhaps because of, their simplicity, and if we can get past these incorrect ambitions Near Death can quite capably do the same for us as a comic.