Breath And Stop: My favorite TV trope is the bottle episode, in which characters are trapped in one location and have to work out their issues (see Parks & Recreation‘s “Leslie and Ron”). My second favorite is what I call The Lull, the moment of (temporary) calm as stories coalesce and characters divulge their deepest secrets and fears (see Game of Thrones‘ “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms”).
It should come as no surprise, then, that Rodney Barnes (who has written for everything from The Boondocks to Marvel’s Runaways) would combine (and modify slightly) these same tropes in Killadelphia, his excellent “vampire The Wire meets Ray Donovan” series. After the unmitigated carnage of issue #4, issue #5 gives us a chance to delve into the characters even deeper just before the blood massacre resumes in full. I’ve never been a bloodletting vamp, but this issue has got to be the closest approximation of such visceral satisfaction.
The Dull Roar: In case you haven’t been keeping up through #4, John Adams, the second president of the United States, is actually a vampire. In hopes of rewriting his place in American history, he’s going to destroy Philadelphia and remake it into a model of efficiency and equality (by slaughtering and converting thousands of residents). The Sangsters (slightly estranged father and son James Sr. and Jr.) have teamed with corner Jose Padilla to hatch a plan to counter Adams and save the city from vampiric servitude.
Issue #5 takes place during the day after Adams and his horde slaughtered 1/3 of the city’s population, resting in their lairs before phase 2 begins. Team Sangster hooks up with a local cop to hatch a plan to destroy the nests and confront Adams, hoping to severe the head (as it were) and throw the legions of vamps into disorder.
What makes this issue a success isn’t that it stops the action to help us understand the story and prepare for what’s to come, though it does that brilliantly. It also weaves a thick rope of tension throughout the issue; you can feel how uneasy everyone is as we stand in this most impermanent moment, awash with fear and uncertainty. That’s what makes a bottle and/or a Lull episode so effective: it’s about making the reader fill in the quiet with their worst fears and anxieties. And this issue is just packed with a powder keg’s worth of emotions waiting to explode over.
All-New Friends: Beyond the rich, nougat-like core of tension throughout, this issue excels because it doesn’t just focus entirely on Team Sangster’s core members. We also get much-needed insights into some of the “supporting” characters.
On the very outer edge of the story, there’s the young vampire girl, who is 150-plus years old and with a back story involving being abandoned after her parents were sold into slavery. We see a really heartening convo with her sister, who had been re-turned back into a human (more on that) and how she longs to protect her little sister. But rather than find solace in that, she continues her vampiric ways by slaughtering cops. It’s really important to humanize these characters, and make us feel for their plight (even as they try to eat our innards). Great villains need a sympathetic quality, and this young girl provides a lot of context — not only reminding us of their humanity but also exemplifying the motifs of inequality and the systemic infection of racism in this country. She may be a monster, but she feels like one of our own creation.
So how does a vampire get turned back to a human? Magic, duh. Specifically, Seesaw, a young vampire whose shown up several times before (he and James Sr. had a really important convo back in #4 that touches perfectly on those same core motifs). Without revealing too much, Seesaw is given the means to access old magic (possibly vampiric in nature?), and he unites with Team Sangster to use said spells to squash Adams. To some extent, I cringed a little with the inclusion of magic in this book, especially after my past reactions to other narrative decisions. (I wasn’t a huge fan of the Adams plot when it first introduced.) But Seesaw is a great character, a fountain of rage and hope combined, and any tool he might have to overcome his lot in life thus feels totally necessary. He’s such a splendid emotional core, and also a great purveyor of the book’s core messages, that having him come front and center feels like the best kind of surprise. And maybe a little magic is a good thing, added light in the darkness that can hopefully fix everything when it all seems so irrevocably damaged.
And, yes, there’s a great moment between the two Sangster men. It’s not exactly a resolution, but it does foster a sense of resolution that could either build in issue #6 or explode in a moment of unmitigated violence. Either way, color me stoked.
Art Departs: After issue #4, artist Jason Shawn Alexander had really hit his stride. There was so much carnage and chaos, and his art was the central force in driving the overarching intensity, fear, and boundless passion permeating that last issue. With #5, though, things felt a bit constrained, which should have worked given the whole bottle episode vibe. Still, this issue’s art didn’t pop quite as much, even with some great moments (the vampire girl’s massacre, the sleeping vamp montage, etc.) There was something mostly cool about the demonstration of Seesaw’s magic, but even that doesn’t exactly hold a lot of value beyond the initial impact. One disappointing issue isn’t enough to color my opinion of Alexander’s work, and he’s continuously been a part of building the atmosphere and aesthetic of this series through some really streamlined, profoundly brutal art. Maybe chalk this one up to just not enough space in the bottle?
You Ready?: I wouldn’t call this issue the quiet before the storm, though it certainly was. If anything, any sense of peace or tranquility offered here is only an illusion, and there’s just as much brewing within this issue. However, we explore these dynamics in a way to maintain a sense of balance, even as the emotions begin to swell in some big ways. Is issue #6 going to be when things really pop off? The smart money says yes. But what issue #5 ensured was that we’d all become a quivering mess of emotions before this first arc’s grand finale.