Monday, December 2, 2013

More Moore part 29: A Small Killing

A Small Killing (1991)

When all is said and done, what could be termed Moore's second period of works, where he turned his back on the superhero tropes that made him famous and instead embraced the very idea of the human condition, represented a very brief blip in the man's oeuvre, from 1989 to 1991. I had speculated last time that the failure of Big Numbers might have had something to do with sending Moore back into the more profitable pastures of the superhero comic, but I suppose it's just as possible that he simply needed to get these stories out of his system in a relatively short span of time. Either way, the last work of this fertile, unique period is A Small Killing, a brief yet complex piece with artist Oscar Zarate on the considerably-unknown VG label. Having never even heard of it before starting this read-through, I can't even begin to tell you how impressed, how absolutely floored I was when I finished it. A Small Killing tells more in its 88 pages than Big Numbers tells in its finished 120, and has leaped up to my absolute top ten list as one of the greatest works of the medium. All on a tiny comics imprint, drawn by an artist who barely warrants two whole lines on Wikipedia.

A Small Killing is the story of English adman Tim Hole (pronounced 'Holly'), and like From Hell's tale being placed within and without the person of William Withey Gull, A Small Killing is the story of Hole's hopes, dreams, and the thing he became. Hole is the perfect picture of Thatcher's England, a product of the selfish '80s made flesh. In flashback, we see Tim transform from a young artist to a middle-aged businessman: he stabs his business associate in the back and leaves him out to dry as he jumps ship to a rival advertising firm; he cheats on his wife, impregnates his mistress, and leave her emotionally wrecked when she's worrying about whether or not to get an abortion. The flashbacks are chronologically backward, which gives the story more emotional heft: you see Tim at the beginning as a cutthroat sleaze, and it's only as time goes on that the earnest young man he once was shines through. And throughout the layers of the past is the story being told in the present: back home for the first time in years, Hole is being stalked by a young boy who seems determined to kill him. The boy gives no serious reasoning for his bloodthirst, but reason comes to those who read between the lines easily enough: he IS Tim Hole, the artist's youth and idealism, and he is out to murder the man who murdered him first, by becoming everything he once stood against.

Hole's fight against his young ideals makes A Small Killing a personal read; it is still a horror story, but it's a horror story rooted in growing up, and whether becoming an adult means that you have to sacrifice everything that you believed in. For all of his unpleasantness, we see Tim is a rounded, three-dimensional character: we see him lie to girls to impress them, we see him rage against the mouth-breathers who see him reading Lolita and assume he's up to no good, we see him masturbate ineffectually to relieve the stress of this apparition hunting him down. The scene is intimate and uncomfortable when Tim flashes back to his mistress, practically begging him to take a side regarding their unborn child, and it's even worse when Tim resolutely shirks the responsibility that is his, like we're watching a very personal argument, and we are not invited to listen in the way we are. In the end, Hole and the boy find themselves in a deep crater, where Tim once buried a jar of insects when he was young; only one of them climbs out, and it's just ambiguous enough, though a brief thought should make the survivor clear to the reader.

Oscar Zarate's art is rubbery and cartoonish, and his best panels are the ones in which Tim is surrounded by a sea of other people, small brief dialogues going on around him in every direction. The flashbacks are done with a lighter palette, pinks and robin's egg blues mingling to give it a feeling like a faded photograph. Zarate also displays a talent with framing the panels; like David Gibbons before him, he uses each panel like a camera, blocking in the shots and leading the eye effortlessly through the seas of people to the action: several times throughout the story we can follow Tim as he moves from station to station in a party of club scene, a dark-haired man among the endless throng of yellow and brown figures stretching out to infinity.

A Small Killing should resonate with all of us. Anybody who could look at themselves and realize that their past selves would not be pleased to see where they ended up, this story is for you. It's another home run from Moore in the short form, that even when he is working in epics like From Hell and Big Numbers, he can turn in this little work to get right to the heart of the human condition so effortlessly. It's likely that most people reading this have never read A Small Killing, or possibly have never even heard of it. I would recommend this work to anyone who found themselves to have given something up in exchange for money, or comfort. And much like "In Pictopia" and Big Numbers were meditations on the comics industry swallowing and smashing those trapped within its cogs, so is A Small Killing a story written for Moore as much as any of us; no doubt that in 1991 he too was feeling that he had betrayed his own vision for an easier life. It's the curse of the artist, but it speaks beyond that to everyone who's ever grown up.

And so Moore's all-too-brief second period comes to a close, with Todd Mcfarlane giving the wizened magus a new home on Image, starting a second superhero period more in line with what kids were reading in the early '90s. Will this be an embarrassment, or a surprising triumph? We'll see.


Best quote: "One house, still undemolished...but not ours. I wonder why they left it up? It's derelict.../Not ours, but if I entered, every toy I ever lost would be there, in the starlight and the mildew."


Up next: Moore and Image. Spawn and Violator

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