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Kane: Partners

Written and illustrated by Paul Grist
Image Comics
200 pages, $16.99
ISBN-10: 1582407045
ISBN-13: 9781582407043

Let me state at the outset — standard disclaimer — that not only do I have nothing against Paul Grist's other title for Image comics, the very British superhero series Jack Staff, but I actually quite enjoy it. In fact, it may be one of my favorite ongoing capes-and-tights series currently in production. Still: I probably echo the thoughts of many other Paul Grist fans when I say that it's a shame that Jack Staff is the one that the Direct Market is willing to support, and that Grist's engrossing, formally daring police procedural, Kane, thus winds up on the back burner while the artist sells enough comics to stay in the marketplace.

 

Near death, Kane hallucinates another confrontation with the partner he killed years ago. Sequence from Kane: Partners, ©2006 Paul Grist.

 

Set in the town of New Eden, Kane's titular hero is a detective with a cross to bear that more than lives up to his name. Years ago, Kane's investigation of the criminal underworld (and its many connections to the very corrupt police department) led him to discover that his own partner was on the take from the town's primary gangster, the marble-mouthed Oscar Darke. The resulting confrontation led to Kane fatally shooting said partner, and while Internal Affairs may have cleared Kane and returned his badge to him, there's nobody more distrusted by the police than a cop who's killed another cop. An honest cop would be suspect in such a police force regardless of circumstances, but Kane must be especially on his guard, distrusted by his own colleagues and forever having to watch his back even when they've supposedly got it. It's perhaps for this reason that he underestimates the loyalty and tenacity of his current partner, Kate Felix, the daughter of a beat cop whose ethical integrity and respect for the job may exceed even his own.

In the sixth volume of the collected series, Partners, Detectives Kane and Felix must contend with an assassin named Murdoch who may be the legendary "Blind Man," as he tears his way through the criminal underworld seemingly without pattern or reason; a wronged crook who gets his hands on a suit of military combat armor; the military brass who want the armor back without having to acknowledge its existence; and of course Oscar Darke himself, who can help them with their investigations, but only at the cost of a little piece of their souls. Grist's ability to keep multiple plots bouncing off of one another is stunning, and his flawless pacing adds considerably to the drama of the moment.

 

Meanwhile, Detective Felix searches desperately for the clue that might save her partner. Sequence from Kane: Partners, ©2006 Paul Grist.

 

But the story itself is only half the fun in Kane. What really makes this series click is its creator's willingness to experiment with form and narrative in ways that few other cartoonists would dare. Grist shifts scenes back and forth not only in space but in time as well. A scene featuring our heroes confronting the problem of the moment may be followed at the turn of a page with a scene that took place years ago, providing background and meaning to the present-day plot. Grist never highlights that he's doing this — there's no "Ten years ago" caption to help the reader keep track of the narrative lines and sudden shifts in scene — and it's to his immense credit that he's as capable of pulling this off as seamlessly as he does, as often as he does, without losing the reader along the way.

The simplicity and elegant design of Paul Grist's art is actually his greatest weapon, here. Built out of clean lines and negative space, Grist's panels show only the details necessary to establish a sense of place, allowing great expanses of black and white to fill out the rest. This allows him to keep the reader focused squarely upon what he wants the reader to see, of course, but it's more than that: It allows him to shift back and forth between smooth naturalism and clever artifice at the drop of a hat. Like the director of a Japanese kabuki play, Grist can thus allow the skilled actors in the front stage weave their storytelling magic, with a minimal and clever use of props and set pieces allowing him to build any kind of scene in the background that he desires, confident that the audience's imaginations will fill in the blank spaces.

 

A very young Oscar Darke gets his first lesson in how New Eden operates. Sequence from Kane: Partners, ©2006 Paul Grist.

 

This set-up also allows Grist to play with storytelling structure in novel ways that a more studied use of artistic realism would never support. Characters can turn to the readers and explain their motivation, then step back into the story without the slightest loss of momentum or the reader's suspension of disbelief. Dramatic moments can suddenly break out into bouts of surreal comedy, then turn on a dime into high suspense or action. Page layout and selective scenery enhance the plot in novel and interesting ways without intruding into the drama and usurping it — Kane uses all the techniques of avant garde storytelling in the service of an absorbing cops-and-robbers thriller, and it never doesn't work. This is some of the purest cartooning I've ever seen, and it raises the quality of the work to levels that more traditional comics creators simply wouldn't know how to reach.

Kane is likely one of the best genre comics available in print at the moment. Paul Grist's magnificent design sense, willingness to experiment with storytelling dynamics and keen eye for character interaction have never been put to better service than in this gripping crime drama. That it isn't read far and wide, nor is it making its creator filthy rich, is perhaps the biggest crime of all.

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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