Nathan Wilson: The Rat Catcher by Andy Diggle and Victor Ibanez

Posted by on January 18th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Vertigo Crime; 192 pp.; $19.99; B&W; Hardcover (ISBN: 9781401211585)

Since the announcement by Karen Berger of a Vertigo sub-imprint series of hardcover, black-and-white, original graphic novels at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con and her subsequent explanation that the titles within the Vertigo Crime fold would be “smart, edgy, sexy, crime noir fiction in graphic novel form” that would appeal to both regular comic audiences and hopefully cross over into the retail, bookstore market, the results have largely been hit-or-miss.  It would seem a natural fit for Vertigo to shop its company talent and own reputation within the crime genre into this new venture, but as evidenced by The Comics Journal’s own Jared Gardner a few months ago, some of the books have mostly veered towards pastiche and imitation of American crime fiction with very little substance or originality.  The publication of Andy Diggle and Victor Ibanez’s Rat Catcher is a decisive break from some of these earlier experiments and potentially the strongest offering from the Vertigo Crime series thus far.

Writing genre fiction, particularly original genre fiction, is always difficult.  Authors must pay homage to the literary conventions without succumbing to derivation and merely mimicking characters, plotlines, and other tropes of the field.  For some, Andy Diggle may be a surprising addition to the lineup that includes Brian Azzarello and Peter Milligan.  Although the author of The Losers, Diggle is probably better known to American audiences (prior to the release of the cinematic adaptation of The Losers) for his time spent with spandex-clad heroes such as Green Arrow and Daredevil.  Of course, Vertigo readers will already know of his superb work on Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, and others may have been fortunate enough to track down his Lenny Zero material from Britain’s 2000 ADRat Catcher is a perfect reflection of Diggle’s mastery of these varied genres, from superhero to metaphysical and post-apocalyptic future noir.

Following whodunnit patterns similar to those woven by Christos Cage in Vertigo Crime’s Area 10, Diggle does not waste readers’ time with longwinded expository introductions or interior monologing.  Rather, he thrusts audiences directly into the action with the appearance of an unknown man who has been shot and is escaping an El Paso, Texas ranch house before it is consumed in an inferno.  Diggle does a stellar job at hinting at possible identities for the injured man while interweaving the larger mystery of the unknown Rat Catcher, the assassin hired by mafia bosses to execute potential informants within the Witness Protection Program.  Although the vast majority of the characters are merely throwaway token figures of the crime genre, it is not until the last third of the book that readers finally realize who the Rat Catcher is and what the character’s motivations are.  In the best ways possible, Diggle’s unknown tough guy seeking information, federal agent and trusted partner Moses Burdon, mafia boss Rawlins and his varied underlings and hired help, and the trigger-happy Texas field agents are crime-fiction staples.  As such, while some of the characters have a backstory that is relevant to the unfolding mystery, audiences can still connect with the narrative and its important elements from the very beginning.

In no small part, Diggle’s storytelling is strengthened by the collaboration of Spanish artist Victor Ibanez.  A relatively recent sequential artist who has contributed to multi-authored special issues or one-shots, and designed some cover work as well as full-length interiors on Our Army at War #1 (2010), Ibanez’s style is even stronger in black-and-white.  Although relying on the grid pattern layout for his panels with four per page, he breaks up the story pacing and narrative flow with his use of long, detailed widescreen shots spliced alongside tighter, single-character close-ups.

And, while the gutters remain largely fixed throughout, Ibanez’s quick breaks into inset panels or full-page spreads add a distinctive dimension to the evolving story.  Often, in black-and-white art, it can be difficult to distinguish the foreground from the canvas or add details to images without muddying them in the process. Ibanez avoids both of these trappings with his crisp and clear line art and inking that allows the pictures to speak for themselves and does not crowd the lettering work by Jared K. Fletcher.  Even the newsprint-like paper used by Vertigo Crime adds to the aura and atmosphere of the story, evoking a pulp-noir feel akin to the classic Chandler or Hammet stories.

Whether or not the Vertigo Crime series has the crossover appeal imagined by Berger remains to be seen.  Unlike other publishers, the sub-imprint has broken the trend of having only comics news and review sites assess the works, and this alone is a testament to Berger’s vision and the series’ popularity beyond the limited Diamond distribution circles.  It is not that those writers more familiar with graphic storytelling will inherently produce better narratives for Vertigo Crime, but that the authors and artists have the key insights into storytelling mixed with cinematic direction that accounts for the pacing, flow and design of the best sequential books on the market today.  The setting is rough, the story is hard and fast, and the mystery is engaging, and as a result, Rat Catcher is a most welcome addition to Vertigo’s emerging crime imprint.

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One Response to “Nathan Wilson: The Rat Catcher by Andy Diggle and Victor Ibanez”

  1. […] 18, 2011 by bgc2 Here is a link to my review of Andy Diggle and Victor Ibanez’s Rat Catcher (Vertigo 2011) at the Comics […]