By Matteo Pizzolo, Amancay Nahuelpan, Tyler Boss, and Jim Campbell, with Dee Cunniffe, Richard Nisa, Robert Anthony Jr., and Philip W. Smith III
Truth is stranger than fiction, and the year 2017 is looking to hit that adage home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. With sales of 1984 on the rise and the daily deluge of truly unbelievable headlines, each begging you to give in to either apathy or horror as a means of survival, Calexit invites you to scream alongside it. And when you’re done screaming at the sheer weight of it all, that daunting lingering question remains: now what are you going to do about it? Pizzolo, Nahuelpan, and their collaborators have delivered a stark and necessary work that’s defiantly focused and fueled by a clarion call of resistance.
Calexit opens with tension and fury; or rather, it invokes a fury within you as the posited near future dystopia feels unbearably possible. The striking cover, a clever twist on the state flag, gives way to a map of Los Angeles that reveals areas of occupied and resistance territories. Across the page are flashes of bleakness, like still life photos of totalitarianisms and outrage. Wired fences behind the Hollywood sign with faceless armed guards. Tent villages of the desperate and driven. Conflict unfolding atop the Hoover dam. Him. It’s a barrage of anger playing out like a twisted opening of Friday Night Lights, deftly organized by Pizzolo, Nahuelpan, and Boss in a surreal John Van Hamersveld style. These are just jabs and the page turn delivers the uppercut in the form of a plash page map courtesy of Richard Nisa showcasing the entire West Coast, a widened aperture of the small section from the first page segment. This is the comic’s reality and this is how we got here, a depressing refresher course on something none of us really need to be refreshed on because we’re living the backstory in our now.
What unfolds from this bittersweet welcoming to the world of Calexit is a metered and calculated story that blends elements of Children of Men and The Big Lebowski with Inglorious Basterds. It’s remarkably patient and is littered with meticulous moments that sing in the quietest of moments among the larger horrors. Pizzolo’s dialogue often unfolds like a volley between the players in the complex court of this future, with the cool cockiness of courier Jamil exchanging barbs and charms as our guide. It rarely feels rushed and exposition is congealed with character and world development. There’s a Steve Jobs by way of the Marquis de Sade. A Steve Bannon mercenary. A Captain America and a Wonder Woman representing corporate murkiness. Hell, there’s a head in the box. A lot happens, but it all happens at such a wonderfully Californian leisurely pace that one can absorb all the camouflaged information without a stutter. Pizzolo and Nahuelpan instill the tone of the book, a controlled and patient anger, in a manner that comfortably belies the amount of plot found therein.
While certainly put forth for good reason, and executed well for that matter, the inclusion of both a Jobs and Bannon stand-in also feel surprisingly disruptive to fully buying in to this world, particularly Bannon. If they existed merely as specters, real world ghouls represented in something without theses actual faces it could be easier to understand this future dystopia without being pulled out by a wink and a nod.
Reminding you that everything in the reality of Calexit has been thought out, Nahuelpan’s sharp and thin linework results in meticulously detailed scenes. Stylistically, it’s very clean and rigid, but not at all stiff. There’s a controlled architectural element to backgrounds and a ridiculous level commitment to detail, best displayed in Jamil’s always perfectly scaled and angled tattoo sleeves. The world feels real and balanced, with structures following their designated horizon line parallels and the more animated inhabitants interacting with it all comfortably. It’s not as clinical as it sounds and Nahuelpan really delivers a wide swath of emotions in his figure work, with the steely determination and fury in Zora eyes contrasting nicely with the laissez faire arrogance of hucksterism in Jamil, and both against the demented serpentine coldness of our villain.
The order and structure of this world is reflected in Nahuelpan’s layouts. Splashes and unconventional or overlapping panels are rare, instead panels are largely organized neatly and stacked. The focus is on controlling the beats and ensuring the back and forth dialogues properly land and reflect the inescapable undercurrent of tension. This tension is best seen in a narrowly stacked three panel sequence where our sadistic villain walks up a set of a steps to a front door, each panel delivering a beat of impending and uncomfortable doom, framed by the page’s wider than normal white margins. With the final two panels sitting side by side underneath this tower, the page is executed perfectly brutally. Jamil, our satiric docent, occasionally proves the exception to the rule as Nahuelpan has him exist in borderless panels and breaking over others to exist in the foreground in all his puckish glory. Ordered tightly as it is, it’s in the small moments of defiance by select characters and the momentary splash beset by action that Nahuelpan best underscores the powder keg of resistance that operates within the society’s structure.
Tyler Boss alternates his palette between a haze of cooked maize and a twisted The Endless Summer nightmare. Everything about his colors scream “California” and the primarily flat application reinforce the dry oppressive heat and the hot fury of those oppressed. The lack of strong gradients in backgrounds is balanced by smoothly rouged faces (or in the Bannon look-alike’s case, not so smooth) and occasional breaks into an inverted tinted wonderland. Those magenta and hyper orange pops deliver that extra notch of horror and of mania especially when set against or transitioning from the pallor of what precedes them.
Be absolutely sure to indulge in the backmatter, a feast of food for thought essays and interviews that speak to what a call to action really means and how it is birthed.
Calexit is signature Black Mask; a meticulously structured and shrewdly patient rebel yell of defiance. It is entertainment, of course, but Pizzolo, Nahuelpan, and co. sculpt a story that’s at once a dire crystal ball and a rousing anthem. Underneath it all is an examination of what really drives and shapes a nation. The illusion of the simplicity of secession is blown off its hinges and the truth of how many facets there are to this country are laid bare. Hypocrites, revolutionaries, fighters, helpers, witnesses, monsters. We are not simply a nation of states. We are a nation of people.