I can just see the pitch meeting now. "You know all those hot-button articles posing the question 'Can Women Have It All?' They always ask, 'Should ladies have to choose a life devoted to their family or their job?' Well, what if their job was being a hired killer?"
Dark Horse gave the nod and here we are, with one volume collecting the first five issues of Lady Killer. It's not a good book, but the problem is that it’s not bad enough to be tossed aside as schlock either.
The first issue begins with Josie Schuller, green-eyed and sharply dressed, posing as an Avon lady at the door. We very soon find out that Josie peddles death along with makeup and her assigned hit, Doris, has let her inside the house. Doris's real name is Ms. Romanov (because of course it is), and it’s not long before she takes a butcher knife to the clavicle for … well, we never really find out, but mission accomplished I guess. Josie returns to her nice home, where she lives with her working-class husband, two daughters, and a nosy mother-in-law. Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich, the writers of this comic, really want to push their protagonists double life to the forefront. Can this manicured assassin put out hits during the day and be home in time to put out casseroles? It’s not altogether a poor concept, especially in the early format in which Josie gets a new assignment each issue. However, the execution (pun intended!) is lacking.
With Jamie Rich at the helm, you know this story will have heedless romantic nostalgia attached, but just in case the reader is incapable of using context clues, the writers hammer home that this takes place in the ’60s by having minor characters smoke while they’re pregnant and use words like "lunch counter" and "squaw" in throwaway conversation. The languid and obvious writing continues throughout. In good suspense and action comics, the writers put you through the paces until the payoff, when the rug is pulled out from under you. In Lady Killer everything happens exactly the way you think it will — Josie kills, goes home, gets side-eye from Grandma, tucks her kids in bed, and receives her next assignment. The story is scaffolded by clichés and repetitiveness. The rug never budges. You as a reader know precisely what will happen next, but the creators are so in love with their concept that you’re supposed to love it too. She’s a mom that kills. Get it? It’s clever as hell, right?
EC Comics forged the way for these types of suburbanite slasher stories decades ago, but they did it in eight-page increments. When you stretch it out to an entire series like Lady Killer does, the holes in the story bleed out like gashes in a victim’s neck. After Josie kills what we can only presume was a Russian spy, she gets her second order from Peck, an impossibly handsome man who's second-in-command in their organization. What is the name and purpose of their organization of hit men? We never find out. Her mission is to infiltrate a Playboy-lounge-like bar called the Kitty Cat Club by posing as a waitress in full cat-eared regalia, of course. How does she get the job and the costume minutes after she is requested? We never find out. Her hit is a gross, greasy bossman who’s bad because he makes sexist comments to waitresses. What has he done to get on the radar of this unnamed assassin ring? We never find out. Is this answer beginning to sound familiar?
Josie is eventually successful in the murder after she hides in the second level of a coat-check room. Where that second level comes from after it doesn't appear in the preceding panel is anyone's guess, but look at Josie kick him in the throat! The leaps of reason you must take as a Lady Killer reader I suppose are all in the name of good fun, or at least bloodlust. Either that or Jones and Rich take the readers for dumb-dumbs who can’t remember what happened previously after they’ve turned the page.
Our favorite slayer's third assignment is to kill a little kid. Now we're talking! As she stalks the tot, Josie sees a photograph of his parents and — moms will be moms — her emotions get the best of her. This is where the capital-M message of this book gets hazy. After brutally killing people for no apparent reason for pages and pages, we're supposed to believe she's giving it all up to become a newly devoted housewife. This wouldn’t seem as disingenuous if not for the fact that Jones and Rich have spent less than a page showing her relationship with her husband and daughters. But it sure serves as a hearty plot device: the unnamed assassin organization is now after her because "a woman like that could be very dangerous for us down the road."
The unfortunate inconsistencies mount up as fast as the body count, but this book’s saving grace is the art of Joëlle Jones. The retro feel Lady Killer pushes for is highlighted by the way Jones renders her characters' faces and bodies. Josie has a Jack Kamen-esque look of violent intensity and penetrating eyes. Dangerous men have razor blade jaw lines and older characters have jowels for days. Jones also excels at crowd scenes. Each background character could easily be tossed aside or blended in, but in sections like at the Kitty Cat Club or later, at the World's Fair, Jones draws layers of people who are interestingly engaged with each other and their surroundings. Great care was also taken in depicting the unsung star of this comic as well — the outfits. Josie changes from robin's egg skirts, to lilac gowns, to salmon-colored sun dresses sometimes in the span on one issue. In fact, the costuming might be the only dependable element holding this book together. The characters' clothes fill up panels and add a pleasant glow to a page, mostly in spite of Laura Allred's coloring.
If you are familiar with Allred's past work you know that she can make hues brilliantly pop off a page, but here she mostly muddies Jones's art and make ill-conceived choices. In the very first issue Allred curiously goes post-Comics Code lite and colors all blood an inky, deep black. This remains the case for each vicious kill, until Allred herself falls into this cycle of contradiction. In the third issue, Josie, after getting into a car crash, bleeds from her head and in red for the first time in the series. Three pages later the blood is back to black and six pages following that, still in the same getaway scene, mind you, Josie has no blood on her at all. Tiny black specks also decorate each page, splattered Pollock-like and sometimes bleeding out into the gutters and white spaces. The only explanation I could think of for this is that Allred wanted to give this book a grittier, aggressive feel. Weren't the caved-in skulls and spilling intestines enough?
Lady Killer surely started with one question: Can a woman effectively raise kids while still being a goddamn killing machine? It ends with too many: Why is she killing these people? Why does the organization want to kill her? All of this surely can't take place in the same cozy suburb, can it? Lady Killer excels when Jones's art distances itself from the bad stiff shit genre that is often Dark Horse's bread and butter, but it still can't slice and dice itself from the rest of the chaff.