The opening pages of Steven Grant & Vince Giarrano's graphic novel Badlands (AiT/Planet Lar) let us know what we're in for from the start. We're out in the middle of Nowhere, West Texas, in 1964; in an isolated cabin, a little old lady is getting interviewed by a middle-aged man with sideburns. She's remembering the events of November 21, 1963, in Dallas, and when it's clear that what she witnessed doesn't jive with the official story, the man murders her by pushing her head through a window and cutting her throat on the glass. As he cleans up then drives off, we see him singing Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera."
The easy listening assassin ("Doesn't anyone listen to the Chordettes anymore?") is named Janetty, and he's a shadowy figure with ties to the Chicago mob. As the story flashes back to August of '63, we learn he was cellmates in Joliet Prison with Conrad Bremen, an unsuccessful car thief with a hair-trigger temper and a propensity for strangling his sexual partners. Just released from prison and undermined by Janetty in his attempts to go straight, "Connie" makes for a readymade pasty. On Janetty's say, he's hired by a wealthy Texan named Gordon Pike (who has a portrait of Ike hanging in his study) to guard Pike's slutty daughter. But from the comings and goings at Pike's place, it's obvious something more sinister is in the works.
As he showed in his recent supervillain hitman mini-series, My Flesh Is Cool, Grant has an affinity for writing about the thoroughly reprehensible men and women who populate his Badlands. Story center Bremen is a familiar hard-knock figure: attractive to women (and some men), violent, not particularly smart, his primary mechanism for getting through life is an amoral willingness "to do whatever it takes to survive." Placing this clueless mope in the center of the plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy, Grant teases us with more questions than answers (What's that Cuban doing at Pike's place? Who is the mysterious political figure we see in Pike's pool? What about the two men named Oswald? What's Republican oilman Pike's connection to the Chicago mob? Are the guys who claim to be secret servicemen really government agents? Just how many gunmen were there in Dealey Plaza, anyway?) but that's alright. Grant is more concerned with the grubby figures that do the wetwork, not the reasons for it.
This may strike some readers as an easy out (at one point I started thinking about Peter Milligan's Shade with its obsessive Kennedy Conspiracy Theorist and decided that said theorist could poke plenty of holes in Badlands), but within the context of the story, it's thoroughly believable. There's no way a disposable figure like Bremen would be given more mis/information than he needs to make the wrong decision. Yet for all he doesn't know, Connie is the only character to make it out of the book alive. The last we see him, he's boarding a bus packed with Merry Pranksters, heading into the future.
On its website, AiT places Badlands (which originally appeared as a six-issue Dark Horse mini-series in 1991) under the banner of "Historical Fiction," but I'm not sure that's entirely apt. It works more as a pulpish tour of history's skuzzy underworld, but on those terms, it's a mordantly entertaining read. Vince Giarrano's black-and-white inkwork is packeded with squinty-eyed expressions (both a reflection of the characters' shiftiness and the bright Texas setting) and does a great job capturing the period (though I'm not sure that the free-wheeling bus riders that we see in the end of the book would look quite so hippiedippy in 1964). He's also got the knack for a good sordid sex shot - of which there are several in this book. In the end, the blurb at the top of the cover sez it all: "A story of lust, betrayal and America."
Yup, that 'bout covers it. . .