THIS REVIEW OF ‘LOWLIFES’ #1 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
By Clyde Hall. We don’t always want to see protagonists being doled out life lemons only to blissfully set about making lemonade. Sometimes, we seek out the stories with main characters begrudgingly mixing lemon drop cocktails, hoisting a dozen, and cold-cocking the first jerk who intrudes on their pity party. Or making other equally poor life choices. Often, it’s a way of dealing with our own life lemons. Seeing how a fictional situation could be even more screwed up than our actual ones, and how we could surely find a better solution than the main character’s ruinous route to resolving it. It also has to do with the anti-fantasy fascination that pulp novels perpetually thrive on.
Readers may want to soar above the mundane and weary world around them, but they also like the occasional wallow in what lurks beneath that workaday life. To see what goes on behind closed doors when the adults are talking, and cutting deals, and stealing forbidden embraces. It’s that sort of story writer Brian Buccellato has set into play with Lowlifes #1, wherein the roulette wheel of life spins herky-jerky out of control, but always comes up noir for the unfortunates trapped at the table. The solicits list these ‘lowlifes’ as a bad LA cop, a drug addict, and a haunted thug who’re all jockeying for position and survival in the wake of a crime boss’s poker game robbery. Given that this is a four-issue limited series, each volume apparently deals with one of the main characters and the fourth is set aside for their three-way collision in the climax.
Issue #1 deals with the bad cop, Richard Grand. He’s accepting cream from a resident crime boss but he’s also dealing with a dysfunctional marriage thanks to a sadistic offender who’s stalking the officer and his wife, feeding off their terror and anger. Grand comes off as a street veteran, fed up with his lot, and desperate to provide solace for his wife. He also has a degree of integrity; he’s refrained from using his authority for revenge against the man bedeviling him. In fact, he and his wife have moved to avoid further conflicts, but to no avail. Grand’s quirky cop partner, Myra, promotes in undiluted, amoral fashion enlisting the aid of Wendall, the crime boss, to end his tormentor in a way that won’t trace back to Grand. It’s not an option the bad cop, if indeed he is ‘bad’, is initially willing to explore.
We’re left to wonder if Grand’s been bad, thus resulting somehow in the living hell he’s enduring, or if he’s perhaps just not ‘good’ at being a cop in LA. At home, he desperately reaches out, grappling for a way to comfort his wife, and his failure is heartbreaking. It reads raw as real life; the lasting effects of crime are not easily soothed away despite all the support and care possible.
The introductory scenes involving Grand do not easily track with his flashback story which comprises the rest of the issue, leaving ample room for us to misread the relationships and situations as they’re set down, intriguing and incomplete. As a pre-Spy Kids Robert Rodriguez once scripted, “Things are going on… under-the-table kinds of things. Not too obvious but not too secret either.” That sensation is prevalent. It adds up to an issue that steams fast, plays loose with situational perception, and hits us with a flurry of characterization jabs before we land KO’d on the final page and are left to ponder, “What next?”.
Buccellato’s no stranger to mean comic streets. He’s put his writing time and talent into Gotham City, Belle Reve, and scripting titles like Injustice: Gods Among Us and Forever Evil: Rogues Rebellion. He’s an empathic taxidermist with an ability to bring dark, dangerous characters alive, stuff us emotionally into their skins, and make them relatable. In Lowlifes, we pity the bad cop, we loathe his adversary, and we take equal parts comfort and distrust from Myra.
He also leaves us wanting to know more, to understand more, but with no clue how he could possibly have blended additional details into the issue. Yet it never feels like we’ve been subjected to exposition grenades; we’re shown much more than we’re told. That may be Lowlifes #1’s overall flaw. Some readers could find the subtext coming like barely perceptible heaters across the plate. On my second read through, I jotted down names and details to make certain I was keeping track and keeping up. But it’s worth it; Buccellato’s got a lot of back alleys to cover and only a few issues in which to do it.
Alexis Sentenac is an ideal artistic match for this story, his shadow play especially effective for the neo-noir vibe of the book and his blackened guttering as Grand’s situation becomes intolerable is a strong indicator of the abyss the cop’s life spirals into. Even in bright swatches of SoCal sunlight the setting is gritty, dirty, and unkept. Combined with the muted color palette, the reader feels ready for a long soak in a tub of scalding water once the first issue is finished. To shadow these lowlifes, to immerse yourself as witness to their world, be prepared to get dirty right alongside them.
Written by Brian Buccellato.
Art by Alexis Sentenac.
Letters by Neil Uyetake.
7.5 out of 10