An In-Depth Look into Acclaimed Graphic Novel Death Sentence

Friday, 29 August 2014 - 11:19AM
Friday, 29 August 2014 - 11:19AM
An In-Depth Look into Acclaimed Graphic Novel Death Sentence

The first volume of the graphic novel Death Sentence was released in June to rave reviews. Critics called it "brilliant," "original," "a hell of a lot of fun," "like only the best parts of Watchmen-a social analysis that exceeds the medium of comics." One critic even called it "the equal of Dostoevsky or Dickens." Now, artwork from the novel has been published by Buzzfeed, as well as accompanying in-depth analysis from writer Monty Nero.

 

"Death Sentence is a graphic novel about the state of the world today, reflecting adult concerns and themes," Nero says. "What I've always liked about comics is their underground pulp allure, and their capacity for profound insight as highbrow literature. Death Sentence aspires to be both."

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

The novel follows three main characters, Verity, Monty, and Weasel, who are infected with a sexually transmitted disease that gives sufferers superpowers, but also kills them within six months. Verity is an artist who works as a struggling graphic designer to pay the bills, Weasel is a rocker with a dying career, and Monty is a Russell Brand-type media personality. They all have to decide whether they will "fade away or go out in a blaze of glory." Verity is the most sympathetic character, and the de-facto protagonist, while the other two serve as social commentary on Kardashian-type celebrity culture.

 

"We approached the story from the characters' perspective, with the themes and plot first, and then rethought superpowers in a way that added something new to the core drama."

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

In this panel, Weasel is falling to his death, but he uses his superpowers for the first time to save his own life:

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"What we see here is Weasel's admirable refusal to acquiesce to violence, and his private thoughts in the face of death. That gets to the core of his character. It's also the first glimpse of anything approaching superpowers. It was pretty late on that I settled on putting any kind of superpowered action in. But as I wrote the script I found they made fantastic visual metaphors for the kind of issues I wanted to write about."

 

In this panel, Verity uses her powers for the first time when she feels threatened, accidentally causing an explosion:

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"This was one of the first scenes I visualised. Just this vignette of an ordinary girl going in for hospital tests and getting arrested, which triggers her powers. Verity sprang from that. She's the beating heart of the story, very frustrated and unfulfilled – temp job, shitty bedsit, no significant other. She sleeps around and parties a lot, to get attention really, stemming from a deep sense of creative frustration. We meet her at the point she's diagnosed with G plus, and starts to change her life. She longs for something more – to be a fine artist if she can. I think that feeling of creative frustration is something a lot of people can relate to, and it's one of the core themes of the book."

 

The virus itself becomes a commentary on creativity, as it heightens the sufferers' creative abilities and sex drive. As all the central characters are artists, they are among the most powerful new superhumans. Verity and Weasel are taken hostage by a secret government organization that attempts to teach them to control their powers, while Monty aims to use his powers to seize tyrannical control.

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"Weasel's on the run here, so we came up with a scooter vs mech chase: Quadrophenia meets ED-209. One of Weasel's most appealing characteristics is his relentless optimistic belief that he can do something incredible, despite all evidence to the contrary. He's a dreamer, fatally undone by his own flaws. It's a classic trait of British comedy (see Del Boy, Basil Fawlty, Hancock etc)."

 

"For similar reasons, when Monty takes power for himself, he does it through the royal family, rather than a hoary old military coup."

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

Monty's storyline represents a generalized projection of the consequences of the death of the marketplace of ideas:

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"Monty's story illustrates the logical progression of completely freeing yourself from any sense of peer review. Monty draws his power from the creative ideas in the minds of people around him, so less creative minds are useless to him. We see the stark horror of his world-view graphically illustrated, as opposed to the glib sheen he conjures for the media. He considers himself so superior at this point that he loses all regard for other people's opinions or interests. You see that with celebrities and leaders all the time."

 

Nero also discussed the ways in which the action-driven story serves as a backdrop for existentialist themes:

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"During this battle we intercut between two or three different narratives, and we also expand on the core themes – selfish-gene theory, creativity, and how we deal with the aching pointlessness of our existence."

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"This is the culmination of that sequence, with Verity on the right and Monty on the left. The more creative they are the more powerful they become, and Verity's powers manifest though art. The thing that strikes me looking back at these pages is that everything happens pretty fast."

 

Nero also discussed the story's parallels to current events such as the Iraq War, particularly when the book explores various governmental reactions and attempts to control the superhumans:

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"We raise the stakes here, as the US-led task force steams in. We've seen this kind of thing play out on the news, with Iraq and so forth. I really like the Martin Luther King quote here: 'The ultimate weakness of violence is that it's a descending spiral … adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.' The world needs to remember that now more than ever."

 

In this panel, Verity has succumbed to despair, which changes the way she experiences the disease:

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"Verity's being treated against her will at this point. She's depressed, and not creating anything. One reason for this scene is that technically you can't have the characters be too powerful, because it's boring. That's why all the excitement left the Matrix trilogy when the first film ended: Neo became too powerful. I also felt if the sadness of Verity's imminent demise didn't overwhelm her she wouldn't be human. We learn a lot more about her. I love all her facial expressions in this scene – Mike Dowling did a brilliant job on the art."

 

The novel isn't especially safe for work, as there's plenty of sex, drug use, and creative swearing. Nero discusses the latter in the context of this panel:

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"I'm a big fan of imaginative and well-timed swearing. This is a training montage, but Weasel has a rather entertaining approach to releasing his aggression. Adults swear a lot, and it's childish to pretend otherwise. There's a real art to a good swear, and some of the older guys in my local pub are absolute masters at it. I take my lessons from them."

 

The swears are humorous, although I could have done without the derogatory references to female body parts. That being said, Nero is at least trying to be feminist, as he insists that Verity is the "hero."

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"Verity takes the lead throughout, she's the hero. My view is that women are generally a lot more capable than men."

 

"Men are prone to fuck around with more childish and selfish pursuits in the face of anything emotionally profound occurring. They tend to prefer binary, practical goals. This is illustrated by Weasel's behaviour in the jeep, as the bombs start flying. He hasn't got a clue what he's doing, still preoccupied by his music. And then Monty looms over them – and it all kicks off!"

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"If you look at evolution from the perspective of the gene, rather than the human being, it makes a lot more sense. As Monty goes out to face the US-led task force sent to stop him, Verity and Weasel take shelter. Weasel takes comfort in drugs, and Verity sex. And during that physical intimacy she has a revelation – a new idea – that makes her more powerful later. The idea is that sex is the key to immortality for your genes, but not for you personally; that our genes are the dominant life form on the planet, soullessly engineering this maddening and tortuous dance we call life, purely because it happens to ensure they survive."

 

[Credit: Titan Comics]

 

"You have to strike a balance between giving people a relatable setup, so they can get into the story, and delivering new concepts to blow their minds. If it's all the latter it just becomes intellectual wanking – inaccessible showing off. This sequence shows the tragic progression of Monty's mind-set. It's a man-vs-naval-fleet battle, with Monty ultimately creating this vast wave to fulfill his terrifying purpose."

 

And finally, Nero discusses the next volume: "The next story picks up from the moment the first story ends, in the same style. We see the profound ramifications of the first story reverberating across the world. We see its terrible impact on Verity and Weasel, and widen the scope of the story to take in America and some cool new protagonists. And whereas the first story deals with the point of life, the second focuses on the very human conflict between individuals and society. With lots of swearing, creativity and sex, of course."

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