The lead of Joe Casey & Charlie Adlard’s Codeflesh (AiT/ Planet Lar) is a scruffy specimen: unshaven with a receding hairline, given to jeans and a tee-shirt, Cameron Daltrey is a bailbondsman working in Los Angeles, specializing in bailing out clients more likely to skip town than stay and face their day in court. Only time that Cam doesn’t look as if he’s gone more than twenty-four hours sans sleep is when he dons a Ditko-esque mask embellished with a large Universal Price Code across his face. Wearing that mask to circumvent a court order, he acts as his own bounty hunter to retrieve the bail-jumpin’ scumbags.
One more thing: most (but not all) of the bounty Cam pursues is superpowered. A hulking muscular figure named the Slug, a punk telepath with eyes that look like they’ve popped out of a Jack Cole comic, a pyromaniac with a flamethrower for a hand – these are the dangerous types Cam favors. His partner Staz serves as the voice of reason (“You like goin’ out and kickin’ ass on these slobs. That’s why you write the freaks. You know you’ll have to go after ’em and drag their weirdo butts back in!”) But Cam refuses to listen to Staz; he’s grown too addicted to the hunt.
Structured as a series of twelve-page stories (which originally appeared in a title called Double Image, then Double Take when it switched comic companies), Codeflesh has echoes of Will Eisner’s “Spirit,” down to the stylized insertion of its series title on each chapter’s opening page, filtered through forty-plus years of grunge-ification. In place of a police commissioner’s daughter for a girlfriend, our hero dates a pole dancer named Maddie, who is growing progressively more disenchanted over Cam’s unreliability. (When we meet her, she’s fuming because her boyfriend is five-and-a-half hours late connecting with her at the dance club.) The sex may be good, but it’s not enough. She knows that Cam has a secret, but his inability to share it with her drives a wedge into their relationship. Through the course of the book we see that split grow wider and wider, until the final chapter, where Cam makes a half-hearted effort to come clean.
Codeflesh is darker fare than I would’ve expected from Casey – a comic writer I primarily associate with a clever but much less angst-ridden run on Adventures of Superman – but that’s to the good. Casey’s script is adult (with lots of rough language) and not just cosmetically so; one of the story’s overhanging questions is whether it’s possible to be a grown-up and a costumed hero at the same time. As a result, our hero’s adversaries are calculatedly unglamorous: one unrepentant mobster is dying of cancer, while pyro murderer Rotor has been transformed into a eunuch to attain his flamethrowing abilities (“The price of power, I guess,” he ruefully tells Cam.) Reading this black-and-white graphic collection, I was reminded of Jules Feiffer’s classic take on the later years of “The Spirit”:
“Violent it was: this was to remain Eisner’s stock in trade – but the Spirit’s violence often turned in on itself, proved nothing, became, simply, an existential exercise; part of somebody else’s game.”
So it is with Codeflesh, which goes even darker than Eisner in the way it shows how this life is eating away at Daltrey’s humanity. The final chapter, which layers the words of an unfinished letter from Cam to Maddy over visuals showing business as usual, nails Casey’s point quite effectively.
Adlard’s art is grubbier than his work on Astronauts in Trouble, filled with heavy black brushwork and Jack Davis-indebted shadows. It suits the material – better than the heavy-handed little prose poems that Casey writes between each chapter – and crisply captures the mordant world of a guy who’s less a crimefighter than he is cog in a barely functioning legal machine. Together, Casey & Adlard have concocted a fine bit of L.A. noir with some nicely unsettling, lingering moments – good, unsavory comic book storytelling. . .