Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich craft a stylish period-piece thriller in Lady Killer. SPOILER WARNING: The following review contains major plot spoilers.
- Paperback/full color/$17.99 (US)
- Due in stores 02 September 2015
- Story: Joëlle Jones, Jamie S. Rich
- Illustrations: Joëlle Jones
- Colors: Laura Allred
- “Josie Schuller is a picture-perfect homemaker, wife, and mother—but she’s also a ruthless, efficient killer! She’s balanced cheerful domestic bliss with coldly performed assassinations, but when Josie finds herself in the crosshairs, her American Dream life is in danger! Collects issues #1–#5.”
Fans of the spy and crime-thriller genres should be familiar with the beats of a certain type of story: An eminently skilled veteran agent (or contract killer) on an assassination mission discovers his sense of morality and finds that he can’t go through with the job. He may, in fact, be just about ready to hang it up and join the normal, non-assassinating world. His superiors, sensing the potential for disaster in having someone who knows so much about their affairs living outside of their direct control, decide that it is in their best interest to silence him, permanently. The hunter becomes the hunted, and our antihero now has to use the skills he once used in the service of the organization to fend off his former associates.
The so-called “hitman with a heart” character is a standby of the spy/crime-thriller genres—the TV Tropes website lists several dozen examples of its use in comics, film, video games, television, and literature—and for good reason. The desire for redemption makes the penitent killer sympathetic despite the unsavory nature of his past, and his fight against the all-powerful spy/crime establishment feeds into the audience’s compulsion to root for the underdog.
Joëlle Jones and Jamie S. Rich’s Lady Killer hews to these narrative conventions, but it is what they do, stylistically and thematically, within the confines of that framework that sets the work apart from many of its peers.
First off, Lady Killer‘s hitman, as indicated by the title, is a hitwoman. But make no mistake, Lady Killer is not simply a “hardcore assassin-gone-soft” story dressed up in drag. By having a married female protagonist in professional killer Josie Schuller and setting the story in 1962, Jones and Rich address, among other things, the rebound chauvinism that almost undid whatever gains women had made in the workplace during World War II and once again limited women’s career options to those jobs which are traditionally classed as “women’s work.”
It is partially due to this environment that Josie is so effective in her missions as a member of a shadowy, government-sanctioned hit squad. In the cloak-and-dagger world where the ability to feign weakness when one is actually in a position of strength is an asset, it is to Josie’s advantage that her targets—men and women—underestimate her because of gender-based assumptions. Similar assumptions, too, help her maintain her cover as a happily married homemaker and mother of two. Her husband and young children have no idea what she does in her spare time, although her mother-in-law finds her behavior suspicious.
After a botched mission where Josie discovers that, despite her 15 years as a paid assassin, there is a line even she can’t cross when it comes to killing, she finds herself in the ironic position of being slated for execution by her own organization. Josie leads her pursuers on a chase which ultimately culminates in a bloody showdown at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.
Artist and co-writer Jones has previously shown a flair for depicting extended fight scenes, most recently in her work on the Oni Press-published Helheim and Brides of Helheim, but the action choreography in Lady Killer surpasses anything that I’ve sampled from her substantial bibliography as a comics illustrator, both in its variety and composition. Jones does some especially graphic fight scenes, intense on-foot pursuits, and a thrilling car chase that, by itself, could easily be mistaken for a detailed storyboard for a scene in a Fast and the Furious sequel.
The book’s numerous and lengthy hand-to-hand combat scenes scan clearly off the page, even as Jones freely mixes up perspective and distance. A lot of this is due to these scenes’ distinct sense of linear storytelling and momentum—they are not just random sequences of figures in exaggerated fighting poses, as one frequently finds in other comics. When Josie goes for a rear choke against an opponent in the book’s fifth chapter, for example, she is clearly shown pairing it with a technique that is referred to in judo as do-jime (a technique similar to the body triangle or figure-four body lock in western grappling). Indeed, the decision to have Josie’s fighting style revolve around the use of choking techniques and edged weapons, to make up for what she lacks in physical stature, speaks to the thoroughness of the character’s design process. These technical minutiae may go unnoticed individually by those unaware of the finer points of fight design, but they all add up in creating more visceral and believable staged combat.
The attention to detail extends beyond the book’s action sequences. Lady Killer‘s fashions, vehicles, appliances, and architecture all look period-accurate. Josie is a stylish dresser—Jones’s design sketchbook for the character would probably generate interest in vintage fashion circles—but not to the point where she looks out of place in the story. And Jones’s facility with depicting poses, gestures, and facial expression are no less in evidence in scenes that don’t involve chases or combat. One of my favorite portions of the book is the Schuller house party scene that opens the third chapter where, over the course of five pages (including one double-page spread), Josie is shown serving as the perfect host, sending her kids to bed, and eventually making her way to the kitchen where she is confronted by her skeptical mother-in-law. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting on paper, but with the use of contrasting response angles and just plain old good rendering, Jones manages to make the whole sequence look as visually interesting as any of the fight scenes.
Despite the substance of its visual design and execution, the book might ultimately strike some as a bit of a slight read. While the issue of gender is front and center in the book—it is titled Lady Killer, after all—much of the discussion occurs via (thinly veiled) subtext. I do think, however, that Jones and Rich do plenty within the work’s popular entertainment remit to address the occasional ugliness hidden behind the veneer of the idealized, pre-Kennedy assassination version of the American nuclear family. Lady Killer has a sense of social consciousness to be sure, but thankfully, it does not let polemics take away from its pulp fiction-styled pleasures.
Lady Killer is a fun, engaging, thoughtful, and different take on a classic spy/crime narrative, as well as an excellent showcase for Joëlle Jones’s prodigious talents as an artist and storyteller. Recommended.