Comic book reviews: Absolution, by Christos Gage

“When I say of the righteous that he will surely live, and he relied on his righteousness and committed injustice, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered, and for the injustices which he committed he shall die.” – Ezekiel 33:13

I’ve been a fan of Christos Gage’s work since I saw The Breed, the noir vampire detective film he wrote with his wife Ruth Fletcher Gage.  The two also penned episodes for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.  When Gage began working in the comic book field, I picked up some of his books, starting with his 2005 Deadshot miniseries.  Since then, he has worked on a diverse selection of titles for a number of publishers.

One of my favorite books that Gage wrote was Stormwatch: Post Human Division, a title set in the Wildstorm universe that was really a police procedural with superhero trappings.  Regrettably, his run on the series only lasted a year, but during that brief time Gage wrote some interesting stories with colorful characters.

Back in October 2009, I met Gage at the Wizard World Big Apple Comic Con.  He suggested that since I had been a fan of Stormwatch, I should take a look at Absolution, a new miniseries he had written that was being published by Avatar Press.  I picked up the prequel zero issue, read it, and was instantly hooked.  And so I proceeded to follow the main six issue series.

Absolution 0 cover

I’ve been hoping that Gage would have the opportunity to write a sequel.  Finally, it was announced that Absolution: Rubicon would be coming out later this year.  I thought this would be a good time to look back on the original miniseries.

Absolution is the story of John Dusk, a costumed crimefighter in a world where superhumans are relatively rare, and those who fight crime are members of organized law enforcement.  The majority of the criminals who Dusk and his super-powered colleagues deal with are “normal” humans.  But that is not as easy a task as you would think.  Dusk encounters, on a daily basis, the scum of humanity: serial killers, rapists, pedophiles and wife beaters.  Even worse, when he does fight “supervillains,” most of them are violent sociopaths.  (Imagine some of the ultra-twisted Unsubs from Criminal Minds, but with super powers.)

And, unlike Batman or Spider-Man, who can just beat the crap out of bad guys and leave them tied to the nearest lamppost, Dusk, being a member of the police, is required to do things by the book.  He has to arrest lawbreakers and bring them in to face trial in an imperfect criminal justice system almost exactly like our own in the real world.

The strain of eight long years on the job, seeing innocents mutilated and murdered, watching criminals get paroled or acquitted only to commit crimes anew, has finally gotten to Dusk.  When he sleeps, he has nightmares about crime scenes.  When he has sex with his girlfriend, all he can see are the faces of female homicide victims.

In the afterword to the zero issue, Gage notes “I knew from writing for the TV show Law & Order: SVU that real life sex crimes officers are forced to transfer to a different department after a certain amount of time, because no sane human being can see what they do and keep it together for long.”  Such is the case with John Dusk.  He is completely burnt out, and the healthiest thing in the world for him to do would be to simply quit.  Unfortunately, he isn’t able to.  As one of only a handful of superhumans on the police force, he is desperately needed.  After killing a suspect Dusk is flat-out told by his supervisor “If you were a cop, you’d be on administrative leave while this is investigated. But it’s not like we can replace you.”

Dusk believes there is no way out.  He is haunted by the victims he couldn’t save, and feels helpless to protect the innocent.  So finally, in secret, he begins using his superpowers to kill criminals in cold blood.  For the first time in months, he can sleep peacefully.  He once again feels like he is making a difference.  And even though Dusk knows what he is doing is against the laws he has sworn to uphold, he finds he cannot stop.  In fact, he starts to gain satisfaction from the killings.  In effect, Dusk becomes a serial killer whose victims are criminals.

Absolution 1 wrap cover

Gage writes Absolution in what I found to be a deeply ambivalent tone.  It really offers a challenge to the reader.  On the one hand, we are unsettled that Dusk is taking the law into his hands and committing murder.  On the other hand, his victims are scum, the worst of criminals, and we feel a definite satisfaction at seeing Dusk dispense his own brutal form of justice.

In other words, we don’t know whether we should be disgusted by John Dusk’s actions, or if we ought to be cheering him on.  Gage leaves us wondering if we were in Dusk’s position would we be doing the exact same thing.

Unfortunately, all actions have consequences, and Dusk’s vigilante killings eventually have the indirect result of causing innocent people to suffer.  Dusk did not intend for this to happen, but if not for the choices he made, it would not have occurred.

This brings me to the reason why, despite my sympathy for Dusk, and the revulsion I have for the scum he kills, I find him very disturbing.  Dusk may have the best intentions in the world, but he is only human.  Can he truly say with one hundred percent certainty that each and every criminal he killed deserved to die?  One of Dusk’s victims runs a dog fighting ring.  Yes, that’s a pretty lowlife activity, certainly deserving of punishment.  Even so, killing that guy did seem a bit extreme.

I also keep thinking about hypotheticals.  How soon before Dusk gets sloppy and bystanders get caught in the crossfire?  Or, worse yet, he makes the ultimate mistake, and kills someone who is actually innocent?

That is one of the main reasons why we have regulations governing the police, why there is a system of trial by jury, why suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty and have the right to legal representation: because human beings make mistakes.  Sometimes the police do arrest innocent people by accident.  Even the most scrupulously honest police officer who does everything by the book is not immune to error.  And power can make cops and prosecutors arrogant, overconfident, and even corrupt them.  It’s human nature.

Would we really want a draconian criminal justice system made up entirely of John Dusks?  In the pages of Absolution, the majority of the public supports Dusk’s actions.  But if each and every police officer had the freedom to execute whoever they felt deserved to die, I doubt we would feel very safe.  In fact, I expect we’d be living in fear of those who were supposed to be protecting us.

Yes, we have a deeply flawed criminal justice system badly in need of fixing.  But I would still rather live here in the United States than, say, Communist China or the old Soviet Union, where authority figures such as John Dusk were the rule rather than the exception.

Gage also implies that Dusk’s motives are not as pure as the driven snow.  Once his actions come to light, Dusk is approached by Happy Kitty, an adrenaline-junkie hitwoman.  When asked what she wants, Happy Kitty simply states “Let’s go play.”  An angry Dusk answers “When hell freezes over. I don’t kill for fun.”  Happy Kitty merely laughs at this and bounces off, leaving Dusk to mutter to himself “Not like her. Never like her.”  You have to wonder who he’s trying to convince.

Absolution 4 pg 4

The conclusion of Absolution was left open-ended by Gage.  That was initially disappointing, as I’d been hoping for a story with more closure.  But it did leave things open for the upcoming sequel.  John Dusk is a complex, disturbed individual who bears further examination.  I look forward to seeing what occurs in the new miniseries as he continues in his self-appointed role of judge, jury, and executioner.  What happens if he crosses paths with his former law enforcement colleagues?  Will he fight, perhaps even harm, his old friends to prevent them from halting his crusade?  And, if Dusk does make a tragic mistake, and someone innocent dies, what then?  There is plenty of territory for Gage to explore.

In the end, Gage accomplishes on Absolution what would probably be difficult for a mainstream superhero series from DC or Marvel.  He makes the reader think, and poses questions that truly do relate to the real world, questions with no easy answers.

The art on Absolution is courtesy of Roberto Viacava.  He did some fine work on this miniseries.  This is undoubtedly an odd comparison, but Viacava’s style reminded me of Mike McKone crossed with Steve Dillon.

As with a lot of Avatar titles, Absolution was released with a number of variant covers.  My favorites were the impressive, hyper-detailed wrap-around pieces by Juan Jose Ryp.  He has a style somewhat reminiscent of Geoff Darrow.  The regular covers by Jacen Burroughs were also quite good.

Avatar collected Absolution into a trade paperback back in mid-2010.  I took a look on Amazon, and it’s still available for purchase.  It’s a good way to get caught up on the story so far before the new miniseries comes out in a few months.