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Graphic Novel Review: Contraband by TJ Behe and Phil Elliott

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You can pretty much lay that “fifteen minutes of fame” theory to rest. We move way too fast for that. You have fifteen seconds—and that’s if you’re very lucky. Our cell phone culture makes everybody and everything newsworthy for at least a blip on the cyberspace network. The most minuscule moment, whether it’s a clip of a skateboarding dog or an impassioned plea to save Britney, can garner rave reviews and a gazillion hits in a matter of hours. And it falls into oblivion even more quickly.

The graphic novel Contraband, by TJ Behe and Phil Elliott, attempts to look at the consequences of such homegrown media endeavors. It’s a day after tomorrow scenario in which a youth subculture records, and in some cases, manufactures events for fun and profit in hopes for a slot on the cell phone video network Contraband. It’s a concept not far removed from our current culture, replete with references to mercenaries in Afghanistan, club culture and YouTube-style “citizen journalism.”

Contraband has all the ingredients for a near-future cautionary tale, a noir-drenched mystery or a twisting and turning action story. Unfortunately, it never really settles on one point of view. Yeah, it’s serpentine, but the twists it takes are more convulsive than constructive.

A large part of the problem with Contraband is Behe’s propensity to talking a point to death. According to his bio, he’s spent the last few years “developing compelling mobile content for global entertainment companies including BBC, SkySports, Playboy, MTV, and O2.” It’s a pity he never learned to master the art of the graphic novel, even sadder that he doesn’t recognize the most basic rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Graphic novels, by definition, are visual storytelling. They’re like cinema, letting imagery flow as the narrative device. When they succeed, graphic novels are beautiful things, with illustrations and words merging as a seamless whole. When they fail, they’re jarring, a cacophony of pictures sparring with exposition. Contraband falls into the latter category.

Despite UK illustrator Phil Elliott’s best efforts, the art in Contraband is overshadowed by ponderous soliloquies by the characters, most of which serve only to make the novel read more like a manifesto than an actual story. Word balloons, arranged haphazardly, crowd out the art in too many panels, resulting in a jumbled mess that’s at best confusing, and at worst, seriously challenges the reader’s attention span.

Elliot’s art doesn’t really mesh with Behe’s story—rather, it comes off more has hurried sketches more suited to storyboards than an actual graphic novel. His style is somewhere between R. Crumb and Herge, sans the subtle intricacies of either artist. Thus, the reader feels disconnected from the characters, despite Elliot's keen sense of establishing shots and perspective. Behe’s story, with its arbitrary flashbacks and flash-forwards, grows tiresome quickly as it is, and Eliot’s simple drawings of the characters, devoid of any outstanding features, make the story all the more difficult to follow.

It’s all presented in black and white wash, presumably to give it a noir feel, but it only serves to make the characters less discernible, and the contrived story even more murky. Contraband might work as a B-movie, and perhaps that was the intention of the creators. As a graphic novel, however, it comes across as a poor adaptation of a movie yet to be made.

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