Book Released: 21 Feb 2007
Posted 04 Apr 2007
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Brian Churilla
Letters: Scott O. Brown
Colors: Andy Walton
Publisher: Platinum Studios Comics
4.50 out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Adam McGovern
The virtues of vigilantism have been a central question in
comics’ corner of pulp fiction at least since The Dark Knight
Returns, and the issue has amped up in urgency during the
shoot-first Bush era. But, while marketed with that theme at the
forefront, Watchdogs is not really about the uneasy boundaries
between black hats and white hats; it’s a parable of racial
tension with refreshing shades of gray.
Sam and Geena Garrison are white yuppies who move into a
crime-ridden Brooklyn neighborhood. The block’s been
abandoned by the law after a spurious police shooting whose black
victim has survived and taken costly revenge in court. Sam, whose
social idealism is as unexamined as his vestiges of racial phobia are
unexplored, falls in with a neighbor, Mark Buchanan, and starts a
neighborhood-watch group with a difference, the Watchdogs. Their
commando-like cleanup quickly turns out to be the
white-supremacist militia Mark was really dreaming of, and the
appalled but conflicted Sam gets in deeper trouble as his
ill-considered impulses lead him on.
That Mark seems to be the only other white guy on the block and
that Sam trusts him so quickly and completely should set off alarms
with readers, but it doesn’t with Sam ’til it’s way
too late. Mark, on the other hand, knows how to play black indignation
and white liberal guilt, and exploits the newfound militancy of the
police-shooting survivor, Malcolm Yoffe, while embroiling Sam as
the fallguy for a sinister Oklahoma City-type bombing scheme.
Eventually Sam must ally with the local gangbangers he and Mark had
been targeting, in a relationship which tests everyone’s
assumptions about each other.
The story unfolds along the churning arc of Sam’s superficial
senses of comfort, umbrage,
fervor and disillusionment; like the impressionable white doctor of
The Last King of Scotland, it is Sam’s useful idiocy,
more than his estranged comrade’s focused craziness, that
propels the narrative and spurs its downward spiral. The plot is full
of clever and shocking twists we don’t see coming because
we’re watching everything unfold through Sam’s naïve
and reactive point of view; a skillful literary device and a risky
reader identification to invite in a story so short on sympathetic
Van Lente is one of the most idiosyncratic
and insightful new voices in comics.
Writer Fred Van Lente has a good ear for both the
nervous, martial trash talk of black gangstas and the closed-door
racism of two-faced deep-north white professionals. Brian
Churilla’s moody art captures the nocturnal struggles and murky
motivations well, successfully conveying a sense of both charged
tension and dead-end drabness. The writing avoids many traps,
neither patronizing the gang members as social victims nor demonizing
them as one-dimensional predators, and neither assuming the
sincerity of the white execs and working stiffs’ good intentions
nor congratulating itself on exposing their insensitivities. There are
atrocities here but no monsters, just uncomfortably familiar humans.
The tightly paced plot ends up dispensing an almost divine measure
of leniency and comeuppance to each character in the proportions they
deserve — the one thing that works out in Watchdogs the
way things don’t in real life. But both the damnations and the
salvations are satisfyingly shown as the result of random chance and
misfired self-interest, and the irony the creators serve it all up
with illuminates society’s shortage of such neat endings and
sane closure, rather than any shortcomings of fiction.
The world’s not perfect, and neither is this book. Van Lente
rushes some of the set-ups (an understandable hazard in a thriller
with so little space and
so much to tell and say), and Churilla could work on clarity of action
and differentiation of faces. But overall Watchdogs is further
proof that Van Lente is one of the most idiosyncratic and insightful
new voices in comics both mainstream and indie, and Churilla’s
immediate, no-nonsense storytelling seems animated from the
graffiti and chiseled from the pocked concrete he depicts, with great
promise for imagined worlds to come.
It has a clear-eyed,
I was reading Watchdogs simultaneous to some of
Pulitzer-winning author Edward P. Jones’ Washington, D.C.
stories, and the two made strangely compatible companions.
Jones’ tales of optionless African-Americans in the capital
of the free world and Van Lente and Churilla’s comic of
big-city social tension belong to a class of racial narrative
that might best be described as post-optimistic. The recent
stories of Jones, while often set in the same period that produced
aspirational classics like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in
the Sun, are written from the vantage point of what really
didn’t happen since. Jones’ characters were screwed before
you started reading, and they’ll have no choice but to keep
going forward after you’ve closed the book. Watchdogs
also has no utopia around any of its shadowed corners or impassive
towers, but it has a clear-eyed, un-self-deceiving honesty
that might at least help someone find the way. And that may be enough
to keep going forward on for now.
Cover image used without explicit permission in accordance with the "Fair Use" provision of US copyright law.