Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes
Unless I really disliked something I normally tend to bury the negative points of my response deep in the review, to give the art and the artist a better chance of still winning people over but with this book, the latest from Mind MGMT auteur Matt Kindt, I have to begin with my one big criticism: the man is a genius. Worse still he writes here seemingly unedited – First Second Publishing perhaps even smarter for allowing him to do so – so that sections of his mind are smeared on each page I turn to exactly as he must have envisioned them originally, in their full genius. This is a criticism because I, alas, am not so gifted, I am not as smart a man as Matt and so much of his work in Red Handed must gone above my mere mortal’s mind.
The book is definitely a mental challenge, it’s arguably the most complicated work yet from comic’s most complicated artist, and although I probably only just passed its tests – earning a B-minus, maybe – what I caught of it then, of that cross-section that I could grasp was,well… genius both in its education and in its entertainment. It is a great, engrossing and greatly effecting read; the sort you can’t put down once you’ve started reading, nor when you’ve finished, nor can you get it out of your mind even after the second swing through the twisted world of Red Wheel Barrow, through the unadulterated mind of a master at play.
So dense is it with wit one cannot even open their copy of Red Handed before they find themselves brain teased; the gorgeous slip-cased cover (First Second did a sensational job of putting this book together; I hadn’t heard of them before but will be keeping an eye out for their stuff in future) as clever and cryptic as the entire contents of most other comics. The front shows you a striking scene – one studded with subtle, sinister details – that is then inverted on the rear; the pages in-between taking the place of a Diner window’s glass, as the shiny streaks on the image suggest. It’s a neat little trick and Matt makes the most of its novelty, which is good because he doesn’t employ it again anywhere within the book itself; he has so many more cards up his sleeve.
The book’s first scene, though not its first page, depicts a construction yard – a Sweeney Construction work-site, to be specific; that name meaningful by book’s end – and this is a perfect nod to the pages that are to come, because within Red Handed construction is everything. At first the book is somewhat baffling to read, bouncing at it does from subject to subject and style to style, but as you steady forward a rhythm slowly begins to form from what was once chaos: the book is divided into chapters, each chapter tells the tale of a different strange criminal and concludes with a snipped-out newspaper spread and a snippet of an ongoing, blacked out conversation (though it literally applies I didn’t want to use the term ‘artless’ here because these dialogues are to be damned for).
Within each of these verses though – and the structure of the book is truly song-like, the chorus perhaps the constantly asked question: ‘What is crime?’ – there is an infinite possibility for variation. Kindt’s trademark sketchy, water-coloured style is strange and subversive enough solo but here it becomes even more particular: he pairs it with a whole host of skewed and puzzle-like page structures – instead of signing the book he’ll burn through certain pages to reveal synchronizations, the work literally layered in this way- draws some scenes in draft form, with visible blue lines, others in a particular pulpy-gray-scale, shows off book covers and most strikingly leaves some pages with space to spare, leaving gaps in the grid and using the white space to highlight panels of particular importance. Visually speaking the art of Red Handed is at once as brave and as beautiful as the book is as a whole.
This is important, that the ‘art’ succeeds, more important here than in almost any other comic and that is because Red Handed uses images to tell its story and that a story all about images an stories. In a way the book is a meta-commentary on comic making, the many stories that Matt splits the book off to tell are about a single section of his creative process, albeit in a veiled way. An art thief divides paintings into smaller squares and the sections tell their own individual stories solo and then another as a part of their prior whole; just as the panels of each page do. A writer constructs her story from stolen physical words, each an individual action, an intentional choice; as a writer’s are. Some struggle with finding narrative sequence or their strict linearity while others excel at evoking emotions or finding fiction in reality; all of them deconstructing their life and that of their author.
There is, however, something less self-orientated going on in Matt’s writing and this is where I fear that I may have missed something, because this is where the book leaves my wheelhouse. Given the title and the narrative of the story, which I have chosen to not comment on too much for the sake of spoilers, it’s no surprise that the nature of crime is dealt with quite extensively, but the way in which it is discussed places the issue in the midst of a much deeper conversation, one about the very nature of society, civilization and those sorts of silly things. On this front the book raises many questions – some familiar but most fascinatingly new – but it doesn’t give any easy answers, nor does it even suggest them in the subtext.
When I said, back in the introduction, that Matt Kindt was a genius I wasn’t merely stating my opinion, I was seconding that of the author himself. See, he has a character describe the mark of a genius as the ability to “maintain two conflicting viewpoints simultaneously” and this is just what he does throughout those blacked-out back and forths which form the foundation of the book’s thematic thesis. Here the talking headless debate the issues which drive the book’s vignette’s and each side makes equally strong points; one never comes across as Matt’s personal perspective nor the other as a shallow attempt at balance. Perhaps this is because the two become so intertwined: Law is initially presented as so cold and modern-minded, logic incarnate, while Crime seems to stress the emotional, the human aspect, though the conclusion of the book blurs all these lines considerably, in ways that I will not spoil here.
I fear though that I have not been so unbiased in my thoughts thus far, focusing as I have on the intellectual aspect of Red Handed, though the book offers much more than that. That aforementioned human aspect is just as much at the center of this comic; while it is their crimes that form the deeper meanings the stories told are of the criminals themselves. Though, as is always the case with ensemble dramas, every reader will have some characters who strike them more than others everyone shown here is deeply human; within a few short pages each of the criminals transcends their high-concept and becomes someone that you care about, the twists and turns that their lives take leaving you either gutted or grinning depending on the nature of the scene. So although we are predetermined to be prejudiced against criminals we can see their side against the cold logic of the law.
This, I think, is the best that Matt’s writing has ever been, character or otherwise. Not only are the grand ideas there but the wit and wordplay on show is wonderful too; like an Edgar Wright script nearly every line, even those that are at first elliptical, loops back after connecting itself to a new context. For example a character quips offhandedly about one of today’s pornographers being the philosopher people of the future look back on, baffled at how their genius went unappreciated while they were alive; than, later on, an amateur pornographers photo’s are turned into art and presented in a gallery to great press, now filled with philosophic potential.
This inter-connectivity is also inherent in the book’s storytelling, with each chapter structured to read strongly as a stand alone but also to feed into that which follows it; character’s and concepts cameoing and becoming elucidated later on, the number of links growing and growing with each page you turn. And you will be turning pages because, while peculiar, this style of writing really draws you in, asking you to maintain multiple threads of plot at once but paying you back with an equally multiplied amount of tension, intrigue and then eventually catharsis.
It may seem like I have already said a lot about this book but I assure there is much more to say, much more to find, to fight over an to be fascinated by. Red Handed is full of so many amazing little moments, features so many hidden nods and winks and still, somehow stands together as a whole greater than its parts; like the painting and like the pile. It is high art of the highest caliber, the best book that I’ve read all year; I am so glad that I own this piece of it ( in so much as anyone can own anything) and I predict you will be too once you’ve gotten your hands on it. In fact it’s so good that I almost wouldn’t blame you if tomorrow morning the local comic book store opened to see a small, red perforated square where there stock of it should be.