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Matt Fraction & Keiron Dwyer's hardboiled western caper graphic novel. . .

Last of the Independents

Some graphic novels work so hard at being “cinematic” that they run the risk of losing much of what makes ’em graphic novels in the first place. Matt Fraction & Kieron Dwyer’s Last of the Independents (AIT/Planet Lar) openly acknowledges its movie roots from the get-go – scripter Fraction dedicates his portion of the book to “Dads that take their kids out of school to catch movies instead of math class.” – and it’s at its weakest when it lets these roots show too clearly.
Independents is a caper yarn: the story of a trio of westerners who rob a bank to reverse their bad luck (“Because we’re losers and it’s time to be winners,” developmentally stunted savant mechanic Billy rotely explains,) only to discover that this particular bank is money laundry for a brutal Vegas mobster named Vincenzo R. Francone. How vicious is this guy? Midpoint in the story, we see he’s tortured and crucified the unfortunate bank guard who was unable to halt the robbery. Francone sends a henchman named Pascal Thorpe to retrieve “his” money, and the latter half of the book is devoted to our threesome’s battle of wits against an army of black-suited goons.
It’s a familiar enough yarn (think Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick.) But Fraction & Dwyer treat the material simply and, thankfully, sans a lot of self-conscious jabberjawed media riffs. The scripter establishes his threesome – grizzled cowboy Cole Caudle, pilot girlfriend Justine Worrell and (you know he’s doomed the instant he tells the other two that they “take care” of him) big kid Billy – without a lot of fuss. (If anything, he underplays their back story.) Cole is a former town drunk who’s won an amusement park through some dubious means (he says he won it in a “river boat poker game,” but we’re not sure we believe him.) He’s driven to plan the robbery (which he refuses to call a “caper,” though Billy wants him to) after a larger park called Planetworld puts him out of business. Caudle wants “to be a different man. Not a new man, just different,” but instead finds himself with eight million dollars that he can’t give up even as it guarantees that Thorpe and his gang o’ thugs won’t give up trying to get it back.
Dwyer’s art, printed in sepia tones suited to the story’s dusty milieu, is at its best showing moments of quiet before the action (there’s a two-page wordless sequence between Cole and younger Justine in bed that tells us all we need to know about the pair’s relationship) and mano a mano facedowns. It’s less successful during the book’s action sequences, which occasionally come across more static than they need to. (A panel where a greasy bank manager gets a rock flung at his teeth just plain doesn’t work, though I liked how Dwyer made the manager’s checked coat blend against a wire fence during a gunfight.) There’s a neat car and horse chase sequence, however, which Fraction wisely keeps dialog free and which also got me wondering how Dwyer would do with a full-blown western comic. He has a heavy brush line that makes me think of Jack Davis in places – not a bad look to cultivate in material like this.
On the whole, Last of the Independents is a nicely played genre exercise, which works best when its filmic influences aren’t too openly aired. A scene where Justine improbably escapes a group of thugs holding her captive, for instance, doesn’t fully work because Fraction can’t resist giving her a snappish screenplay line before she grabs a handful of steak knives off a nearby kitchen counter. Better if Fraction had followed his own advice from the inevitable showdown between Cole and Pascal Thorpe: “What? No clever line? No witty fucking quip. . .” Thorpe sneers as his nemesis towers over him – and, true to his laconic cowboyness, Caudle sez nothing. Quick and dirty, that’s the way to play this kind of GN pulp.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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