Healthcare has and continues to be a raging topic in the United States. Polls and studies indicate that Americans are suffering from a lack of insurance due to rising premiums. The situation is unsustainable for most Americans. It is with this backdrop that Pat Shand (Prison Witch, Destiny NY) launches Breathless, which is described by Black Mask as what would happen if Buffy the Vampire Slayer had big pharma as its villain. In the letter posted at the end of the issue, Shand states that he wanted to explore the “people that enable this system.” This is supported by an interview he did with us back in January, where he also went in-depth on how his own experiences with health insurance inspired this book as well.
The story begins with an introduction to Scout, our protagonist, who is doing something that almost all of us go through: buying drugs over the counter. As she arrives at work, where her occupation turns out to be a cross between coroner and forensic scientist, Scout comes across as a foul-mouthed, no-nonsense, sarcastic heroine who is incredibly focused on the task at hand. Her interaction with her work partner, the bubbly Grace-Eisley, is a delightful study in contrasts. Where Scout is moody, cuts to the chase and is short with her words, Grace-Eisley is always happy, can’t shut up and is excited by everything. As the duo undertake an autopsy of what appears to be a monstrous being, we quickly realize this isn’t a normal medical laboratory and learn from Grace-Eisley about how the creature died and came to be on the autopsy table. As Scout’s anxiety increases (in large part thanks to Grace-Eisley’s nattering) and she feels the need to take her just-purchased asthma medication, she discovers that it’s been damaged, seemingly intentionally. Moments later, just as she resolves to continue without it, a sort of smoke from within the monster’s body envelops Scout and she looks ready to pass out. However, after some time she recovers and later on is informed that in fact her asthma symptoms have vanished as a direct result of whatever substance came from the creature. The story then moves forward six months and predictably, Grace-Eisley blurts out the development of a possible cure for asthma on Twitter. Unfortunately, this mistake ends up setting several acts in motion that lead to a bloody cliffhanger.
Scout remains an enigma throughout the entire issue, as we get no thought bubbles or look into her mind. Despite this, she is still an incredibly well-developed and interesting character. In just one issue, we find out about her family, her work, her childhood, her medical history, and her street-level contacts. I’m hopeful that in the next issue we find out more about what motivates her other than trying to fight off her illness. The other characters are all rich and full of their own nuances. Grace-Eisley serves the “clumsy sidekick” archetype quite well, while Quincy and Aunt Melissa present a contrasting take on poor dieting choices in one’s prime years against strength in the face of deteriorating bones and muscles (although brought down somewhat by a deplorable diet of frozen dinners). While there are a few other characters, the ones of note are the laboratory’s boss Mr. Mathis, an unidentified pharmaceutical executive and his son, and some nefarious looking guy that is a dead ringer for Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos. It is clear there is some sort of an unidentified connection between all of them, and to Shand’s credit, he doesn’t spend valuable time trying to explain it — leaving the connection as implied is sufficient.
The art is fantastic. The inks and colors are crisp, clear and consistent — to me, the biggest giveaway of good art is when the background shots and characters have as much attention to detail in them as the closeups. While the splash shot at the end is wonderful, it’s a testament to the combined ability of Renzo Rodriguez (Hellchild) and Mara Jayne Carpenter (Jade Street Protection Services) that there are monsters, blood and death all throughout this issue yet not a single true action shot needs to be drawn. Little details all add up and accentuate the theme of the story, whether it’s Quincy’s bulging pot belly causing his shirt buttons to pop open, donut crumbs on Grace-Eisley’s face or a Martin Luther King Jr. picture in Scout’s home. The cover being a stark, simple shot of a bloody inhaler is incredibly misleading (in a good way), because when you open the book it’s incredibly apparent how much effort went into making this issue look good.
A one-page letter from Shand concludes the issue. While this letter insists that the story isn’t preachy, it’s hard to not draw that conclusion given that the synopsis of this issue is essentially a protagonist coming across a cure for a major disease only to be threatened by a pharmaceutical company that uses the very source of the cure to try and stop her. Still, while there’s being preachy, there are also the facts on the ground. Recent polls conducted by the government, supplemented by research performed by Gallup, reveals that almost 30 million Americans do not have health insurance. Also, the website eHealth performed a survey of customers and noted that 29% of individuals and 54% of families would be unable to afford health insurance in 2018. Finally, the website ACA signups, devoted to the study of the impact and effects, direct and indirect, of the Affordable Care Act, notes that the average healthcare premiums in the US will increase between 16-30% on average. There is a lot of discussion in our country right now whether the cause of all this is due to political inaction, pharmaceutical companies, food producers or simply poor lifestyle choices by Americans — almost all of which are touched on by Shand in this issue. Even if he takes somewhat of a side, bringing awareness to this ground reality through a new comic series is commendable regardless of what side of the debate you’re on.
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