Mainstream Comics Worth Paying Attention To : “Devil’s Highway”

Confession time : when I was a little kid, I wanted to be a truck driver. Consider, though, that those were the days of Every Which Way But Loose and B.J. And The Bear, both of which were aimed at precisely the demographic I fit into at the time, namely six-year-old kids, and so all my friends wanted to grow up to be truck drivers, too. Thank goodness some dreams don’t come true.

No offense to any truckers who may be right this, of course :  it’s good, honest, noble, necessary work, but shit — is it ever hard work. And under present, de-unionized conditions, it’s damn near impossible work. Three days to do a six-day turnaround for less than a buck a mile in most cases? I’ll pass. I totally get the romantic appeal of the open road, but meth addiction and anonymous sex with “lot lizard” hookers just aren’t really high on my list, thanks very much. But it’s in that netherworld of meth addiction and “lot lizard” hookers that writer Benjamin Percy and artist Brent Schoonover — both of whom, it seems, hail from my own home state of Minnesota — have set their new five-part AWA/Upshot “white trash noir” series, Devil’s Highway, and if the first issue is any indication, we’re in for one hell of a ride.

Percy nails the atmosphere and , more importantly, the culture of the godforsaken upper Midwest backwater from word go, but he shuffles the scenery considerably, first with the brutal murder of a truckstop cafe owner at the hands of a serial killer who works as a long hauler, and then with the arrival of the victim’s bad-ass, and apparently estranged, daughter, who’s obviously had some military or even paramilitary training and is out for her pound of flesh — both due to a desire for garden-variety vengeance, sure, but also as a means by which to assuage her own sense of guilt for blowing off her old man at Christmas. Family history, murder mystery, slasher genre tropes — what more do you want?

Well, this is a comic, so it helps if the art’s pretty good, too, and it is. AWA/Upshot seems to be playing with a Mike Deodato Jr. template as their emerging “house style,” and Schoonover’s work fits roughly within that paradigm, but it’s got a fair amount of personality of its own and his sense of sequential pacing is really solid. If I said the visuals here were gonna blow you away I’d be lying, but that’s not what they’re designed to do : their job is to communicate a very particular sense of mood and atmosphere in a very particular way, and on that score, they absolutely deliver without fail — and colorist Nick Filardi deserves his fair share of the credit for that, as well, layering on the computerized shades and grades that make you feel every flake of falling snow, every droplet of freezing breath. This is rich, evocative stuff from line and color artist alike that’s in no way flashy, but in every way effective.

Now, caveats being what they are and all, it’s incumbent upon me to say one issue does not a series make, but I defy anybody to read this debut installment and not feel sufficiently compelled to hang around for the rest. It’s a brisk read, but you nevertheless get a strong sense of all the characters, pick up a palpable vibe of dread, and are lured into the seedier elements of life on the road in a way that can only be described as downright compelling. The cliches that spring to mind range from “buckle up” to “it’s gonna be a bumpy road,” but what the hell — they all apply, and I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing them all play out. This, right here, is how you do crime comics.

And, on a side note, points to Percy and Schoonover for setting that crime comic in the frozen north but not referencing Fargo in any way, shape, or form. This, then, isn’t just a very promising new series — and the jewel of AWA/Upshot’s crown to date — it’s also a relief. I’m all in on this book until the road runs out.

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