First Bitten, Twice Shy: Last month, I reviewed the debut issue of Killadelphia, which is basically “Vampires mixed with The Wire and heaping helpings of Fences and Ray Donovan.” As much as I believed writer Rodney Barnes (Starz’s American Gods) and artist Jason Shawn Alexander had struck upon something really solid, there were still a few nagging doubts. Namely, whether the vampire motif would help or hurt the book, and if the battle between father and son (James Sangster Sr. and Jr.) would prove evocative or just about slinging that drama.
I’m happy to report that some of my misgivings have been swayed, and the book’s headed in some great directions. At the same time, it’s still to early to tell if Killadelphia is ultimately more Nosferatu or Edward Cullen.
Such Great Heights: If you didn’t read issue #1 (you should, dummy), a quick recap: James Sr. was a legendary cop who kicked the bucket, and his son James Jr. (also a cop, but not nearly as revered) comes back to Philly to bury daddy dearest. Only James Sr. didn’t stay dead, and found himself newly risen as a vampire. While the first issue hints at some of the larger story elements, issue #2 comes right out with it: John Adams, America’s second president, is the undead perpetrator, and is now assembling a blood-sucking army to overthrow America. Boom.
To a small degree, I’m a fan of slow builds; it lets the narrative coalesce and make sure every element is the best version of itself. Yet this shock and awe approach, setting things up so quickly and efficiently, works wonders within this specific title. There’s not a lot of acclimation available, and the Sangsters (alongside the county coroner) jump right into their plan: kill every damn vampire and bring down Adams pronto. Is there a little whiplash involved? For sure. But then that’s sort of the point: grab people by the lapels, whip them around, and thrust them into a new world, screaming wildly and now brandishing a sharp weapon.
I think jarring people from a narrative standpoint, and doing away with some needless world-building, makes this a more effective title. We’re right there in the story, ready to kill those nasty vamps. There’s something visceral about this story, and that energy needs to resonate throughout to really effect readers.
Sink Your Teeth In: That’s not to say that, despite the overall pacing and clearly action-oriented framework, there’s not more subtle, deeply interesting elements at play here. Barnes is clearly interested in playing with the vampire mythology, casting them as a kind of bloodthirsty 99% to explore these great ideas about race and class in modern America. That’s in addition to having Adams as Vampire Lord, which is both slightly hilarious but also another excellent layer for exploring political power and our shared sense of history (and a tendency for white-washing, perhaps)? To some extent, you need these meditations to make a book that isn’t all about gnarly vamp-killing, but the creators never really force the larger messages or musings down the reader’s throats.
It’s more about about creating a subtext that’s there for readers to explore. You could see this as any number of stories, like a vampire saga with politics, or The Road but with more socio-political undercurrents (and also vampires). Regardless, it’s a tale that looks to be a number of things for various readers, and yet it never loses the pillars of a great story (action, efficiency, scares, etc.)
Dear Daddy: I was salivating (not unlike a newborn vamp) at the delicious father-son drama laid out in issue #1. For this second issue, though, some of that doesn’t feel quite as immediate or nearly as visceral, and Barnes has instead chosen to better align the Sangsters around a common goal. That said, there’s still some clear tension here, especially as both father and son begin to comprehend what’s happening to James Sr. and what might eventually be necessary (burning or staking undead daddy).
In that sense, things still feel mostly exciting, but I wonder if we’re foregoing a more formidable dynamic — son resents father, father is too hardened to see it — for a relationship with much more of a romantic sheen attached. If that’s the case, it snuffs out a lot of the drama that charged issue #1, and so much of that made this feel more than a simple vampire story. I’d rather the Sangsters have to spend the series battling on an emotional level and not working together until some perceived “battle” down the line. The more they can be at each other’s throats, the better this is going to be for proper character development.
Part of the problem is that we get to know James Jr. more, and he’s a savvy, battle-hardened dude who sees his fate as mindless follower of Adams and wants to rage with the fury of 1,000 suns. He’s a real hero, and it’s hard not to want to cheer him on. And while that is a smart decision from a narrative standpoint, his presence also impedes James Jr. and impacts a lot of what the narrative is capable of. He’s such a huge presence that if he takes up all the screen time, nothing will ever be resolved and no great catharsis can occur.
The Grand Obfuscation: I don’t know if I gave Alexander’s artwork enough credit during my first review. It’s a perfect encapsulation of this entire series, that highly resonate blend of light and dark, monstrous and deeply human, soothing and unsettling. It’s also the art that exemplifies some struggles or issues within the larger story. So far, Killadelphia isn’t really certain what it is and what that means in the long-term. While it can always use that ambiguousness to reach different readers, I get the sense that there’s a lot of different plates (both emotionally and in terms of the narrative) spinning all at once.
It’s my hope that the series can continue to make leaps and bounds in structure and flow in subsequent issues, which will go a long way in fostering a great, heartfelt story. Otherwise, it may be necessary to go all Van Helsing on this one.