In his brilliant essay “The Gentrification of Crime”, Luc Sante traces a specific cultural divergence between “detective fiction” – where the protagonist may have a diffident or even adversarial relationship with the police, but is ultimately on the side of law and order – and “crime fiction”, wherein the protagonist is himself an actual criminal, whether he is presented as heroic, anti-heroic, or villainous. American comics have, for the most part, stuck to the side of the law; from Dick Tracy and Crime Does Not Pay to superhero comics and modern true crime stories, they have largely been devoted to paying tribute to those who preserve the status quo, whether inside or outside the law. This has not always been by choice; just as the Hays Code and the MPAA rigidly enforced a specific and flattering portrayal of law enforcement, so too did the Comics Code Authority exert for years a pressure on creators to show cops, feds, and even vigilantes in the most flattering of lights.
Lucky for those of us who see the police as the armed wing of the ruling class, whose job is essentially to enforce property rights and suppress dissent, cops have been taking it on the chin a bit lately. Black Lives Matter – a surprisingly controversial attempt to establish the baseline humanity of African-American citizens – gave way to Blue Lives Matter, an entirely predictable attempt to valorize law enforcement by the usual means of stripping that humanity away. Politicians still have to pay lip service to the notion that cops are untouchable, but recent revelations that they join private internet groups rife with racism, misogyny, homophobia, and reactionary brutality have illustrated that the respect only goes one way. And while the police still manage to kill minorities with near impunity, they can at least, in the era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras and video virality, expect to have a few uncomfortable moments before ultimately being exonerated.
Into this milieu steps Nate McDonough, the Pittsburgh-based artist behind Grixly Comics, with his delightfully crude and messily insightful book Blue Lives. The story could not be more simple: in a ruined landscape, after an unnamed apocalypse, two police officers rehearse the minutiae of their former lives in a now-ruined world with no crime, no law, and no life. Lacking anyone else to brutalize, they threaten a huge dead skull; lacking anything else to do, they take turns playing cops and robbers with each other, bellowing to the open spaces about how they must be shown respect. They gaze up at an empty sky, swirling like a Van Gogh midnight, and suspect that somewhere there are aliens disobeying the speed limit. Finding a random graffito on a ruined concrete wall reading “THE PIGS KILLED JESUS”, they alternate between self-pity and rage at this inanimate insult to their very existence, and they past the days of meaningless time searching for meager comforts and spewing a directionless anger with no target and no purpose.
This could easily slide into cheap performative defiance of the sort that spells America with three Ks (the endpapers are shiny silver pigs) if it were not for the terrifying familiarity of practically every word on the page. When the nameless officers bark at nothing – “I’m gonna blow your fucking brains out if I don’t see both hands on the wheel”, “I’m gonna have to ask you to ask your wife to ask your child to be silent while I inspect your vehicle”, “I said stop resisting” – we get a terrifying frisson, because we have seen it all before. We have seen it on body cameras, cell phone videos, Facebook Live feeds; and it almost always ends the same way: with a person of color dead on the ground. By abstracting it to this satirical void, McDonough both sharpens it and unmoors it from reality. For once, there is no real suffering attached to the self-aggrandizing hero complex of these vicious agents of capital, but it is because they have killed the whole world. With nothing left to protect or serve, their violent rhetoric and war-of-all-versus-all mentality is all they have left; even when one of the pair dies in a fall, his dying words are a combination of the obey-or-die orders of a tyrant (“Put your fuckin’ hands on the back of your head”) and the self-mythologizing of a thousand bootlickers’ Twitter posts (“Good and evil are separated by a thin blue line”).
For fans of the collision of cops and comics, there’s even a moment where the two page through a giant issue of Legend of the Lawman, and of course, like every white supremacist officer with a Punisher logo surreptitiously stuck to the side of their prowler, they speak in glowing terms of the murderous lunatic because he operates without the pretense of nicety they are forced to labor under. Again, the combination of victimization and brutality that we’ve seen leap off our social media screens over and over are what forms the dialogue: “He’s all alone in the world and no one understands him..these plot lines inspired me to become who I am,” sniffs the bull-necked brute, right before shifting gears to “Takes the war to the criminals in the street, you understand? Nothing will stop him even if he has to spill a river of blood.” The simplicity of the writing fools by reifying into satire what we hear expressed earnestly by these delusional would-be civil servants every day.
McDonough’s art is exaggerated and bulky, but often perfect in its directness; his work in Grixly Comics, especially in its text-heavy and static panels, often reminds me of Raymond Pettibon). The last 20 pages of Blue Lives is a collection of one-panel portrayals of the police by various guests artists; it’s hit-and-miss with a few gems (I’m especially fond of Chris Judge’s tattoo-art image of a “flic” with a grinning skull and Jason Young’s adaptation of a scene from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood), but it’s a nice capper to a shockingly direct and effective indictment of the no longer hidden mentality of the modern policeman, forever battling and forever embattled.