Brisson and Gorham’s The Violent is an intriguing noir fiction comic that touches on Vancouver’s income inequality and affordable housing crisis.
The most recent edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Survey deemed Vancouver the third most “liveable” city in the world. Only Melbourne and Vienna scored higher than Vancouver in the annual report, which uses 30 factors in the areas of environment, education, infrastructure, stability, and health care to measure urban quality of life. It is worth noting, however, that the EIU’s survey does not take into account cost of living, and Vancouver’s standing (or any city’s, for that matter) may not accurately encapsulate the day-to-day reality of those who actually live there.
Cost of living—as reflected in housing and rental costs—continues to rise in the metropolis as speculators drive up the price of real estate, but this has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in average income for young adults and new families. Vancouver may indeed be the most liveable city in the Western Hemisphere, but it is also subject to widespread income inequality that is manifesting in the city’s changing geography as de facto economic segregation and ghettoization. It’s all well and good that Vancouver is very “liveable” (to the extent that anyone can actually afford to live there), but all manner of problems can arise when its already-marginalized residents are pushed even further to the brink.
Writer Ed Brisson (Sheltered, Murder Book) and artist Adam Gorham (Dead Drop) tackle this theme and more in their new comic, The Violent (Image Comics).
Mason and Becky are young parents doing their best to raise their daughter Kaitlyn. It’s a challenging task made all the more difficult by their checkered backgrounds—Mason served time in prison for a break-in charge and Becky is a recovering heroin addict. Still, they have managed to find honest (if low-paying) employment and are wholly dedicated to their young family.
The economic pressures of living in Vancouver, however, threatens to undermine their progress. Even with both of them working, Mason and Becky still struggle to make rent and buy enough groceries.
And then the shit really hits the fan.
Kaitlyn is whisked away by the Ministry of Children (for our American readers: think of the ministry as a Canadian version of Child Protective Services) after an ill-advised attempt by Mason to console a drunken friend at a neighborhood pub results in his being placed in overnight police custody for child endangerment. That same evening, Becky disappears from work after an encounter with her old dealer. Mason is informed of this development by the police before being released the next day—his initial attempt to locate Becky ends in manslaughter and sets up a race against time and the police to find out what happened.
As with many stories in the noir fiction mold, The Violent is sympathetic to the plight of the criminal, casting him as both victim and perpetrator. This isn’t to say that Brisson and Gorham absolve Mason of his culpability in past and present misdeeds. But they do make it clear that societal context matters alongside personal responsibility in criminal matters. Mason and Becky were doing their best to turn their lives around, but the problematic economics of their situation—as it specifically ties into Vancouver’s escalating rental costs—made it all too easy to fall back into pathological, self-defeating habits.
There is an underlying sense of existential absurdism to the whole affair as well. Maybe Mason finds Becky alive and well, gets Kaitlyn back, and avoids going back to prison—but his family will still be on the same treadmill they were on before, living paycheck to paycheck under the constant threat of eviction.
In both the dialogue and the moments where Mason is able to lash out against Becky’s suspected abductor, Brisson and Gorham give cathartic vent to the anxieties and feelings of helplessness of Vancouver’s growing population of the working poor and its rapidly shrinking middle class. As a Metro Vancouver resident of almost 15 years who has seen family and friends “renovicted” to make way for new rental housing that is then priced out of their reach, that’s something I genuinely appreciate. But make no mistake: The Violent may be set in Vancouver, but it also mirrors similar situations in cities like Toronto, New York, San Francisco, and Hong Kong—the comic speaks to a worldwide shortage in affordable housing in major urban centers and allows the affected reader a temporary escape and a sense of visceral empowerment with its expertly-crafted crime fiction idiom.
Very highly recommended.