Sunday, October 30, 2011

Green Hornet: Year One

Dynamite was all over the Green Hornet bandwagon, in conjunction with the movie. I was not impressed by the offerings, nor the movie, with the exception of the Matt Wagner penned Year One. Aside from the appeal of a story with the original Green Hornet, and the attendant noir atmosphere of the 1930s, Wagner's involvement was the primary reason for checking out this title. Anyone who's read The List over the course of this year knows it's been one of my favorite reads from the beginning.

Aaron Campbell provided the art and it was perfect for this series. No less important was the coloring by Francesco Francavilla. Together they had a good looking book with a certain rough edge to it that evoked the '30s, with its Depression hardships and working class settings. Nothing was too pretty nor were any of the characters overly muscled or waspishly figured (not to be confused with WASPishly figured).

I've not read any Green Hornet stories prior to this book, but I had some inkling that he bore some similarities to Batman. Britt Reid does share a common hertiage of wealth and being an only child. He also has a drive to solve a crime problem he doesn't think the government can or will resolve and is willing to take that drive to an extra legal level. Unlike Batman, he didn't lose his parents as a child, isn't a superior detective, and doesn't have the highest level of martial training. In fact, he doesn't have the nearly limitless financial resources of Batman, either. While both heroes are situated in a gritty mileau, they're differences are significant.

Here's the story. Britt Reid is the son of a newspaper publisher in Chicago. It's the 1930s, an era where publishers were often owners and often owned only one newspaper. Of course, newspapers were the vibrant media of the day, with radio in its adolescence and TV barely conceived. Daniel Reid is a crusader as a publisher, particularly against the mobs that have such influence in Chicago. Young Britt is a fine athlete, particularly at running, but a little uncertain of where he wants to go with life. His father sets up a trust for him that allows him to travel the world.

Meanwhile, Hayashi Kato has grown up being imbued with his father's samurai philosophy. They are from a family of many samurai, but the era of the samurai is past. As Kato becomes a young man, he enlists in the army to try to serve the samurai ideals. Unfortantely for him, this isn't a samurai army. It's an army that engages in the Rape of Nanking. Kato refuses to participate and kills his entire unit, including his commanding officer, to stop the slaughter. Of course, the slaughter continues, but Kato is a fugitive.

Britt was visiting China when Japan invaded and stumbles on Kato in need of rescue, as he's been captured by the Japanese army. Together they escape Japan and return to the US. Britt had received a telegram in China, prior to the invasion, that his father had suffered a stroke. Unfortunately, by the time they reach Chicago Daniel Reid has died.

The time their journey takes allows Kato to teach Britt some fighting skills and Britt to teach Kato more English. (Kato had already learned some from his father.)

Britt becomes the publisher and owner of the newspaper. He wants to bring down the chief mobster in the city, Skids Caruso (so named from the scars on his face which he received when a rival gang tried to dump him out of a moving car). Daniel had pulled back from going after Caruso after Caruso's gang killed the daughter of Rusty, a friend of Daniel and the guy who kept the publishing machinery running. Similar threats are made to Britt.

Recruiting Rusty to design machinery for them, Britt and Kato embark on a crusade to take down Caruso, using secret identities to protect those they know.

Britt hits upon the Green Hornet as a nom du guerre when he recalls an insect of the same name that he found frightening as a child. That memory was triggered with the green glow that eminates both from the gas he uses in his specially designed gun (the gas being a conduit for an electric charge that knocks out the target) and the specially built car Rusty provides that can travel without headlights but still allow the driver to see at night. Britt dons a mask with a green hornet on it and just puts on a fedora and trench coat for the rest of his disguise. Kato's disguise is even less, as he just adds a domino mask to his chauffeur uniform. Sadly, that may well have worked in that era, what with Asians being largely invisible.

Wagner and Campbell tell the story by switching between the 1938 present in Chicago and dropping back to the past at different points. Both past and present are told in a linear fashion, though. That is, everything in 1938 starts in the first issue and continues forward to the last, issue 12, while at the same time anything in the past starts with the furtherst back in 1921 and moving forward from there to the start of their mission in 1938. It's a nicely used device that has the story moving around different times but in a coherent fashion.

Of course, our duo is successful in the end, and uses the newspaper to do it, but getting there is so well told, it's not really sufficient for me to describe it all here. They accomplish their goal by leading everyone to think they're a new criminal organization seeking to oust Caruso. In this regard, Green Hornet is more like the Batman of the most recent two movies than the comic book Batman. Caruso kills off quite a few of his allies in the process of trying to thwart this threat to his empire, so Green Hornet and Kato not only take him down but weaken the entire organization.

One of the story elements I most enjoyed was the relationship between Britt and Kato. Suffice it to say that there's a bit of subservience to the Kato role, but it's subtle. The two men clearly are devoted to one another (in the platonic sense) and consider one another equals, but their societal roles place Britt in a position of superiority. It's not just that Britt has money that Kato does not. It's that Kato is invisible to most people in Chicago. Wagner and Campbell never directly address this. It's just a fact that is, so ingrained in all the actors in the drama that no one even considers it to be something to discuss. It's a great example of the maxim "show, don't tell" in a story, and not even significant element to the story in terms of the larger action.

If you didn't pick up this series in singles, I highly recommend getting a trade. It's well worth it. Get yourself a Halloween present. It's better than trick or treat.

No comments:

Post a Comment