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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,

Van Lente is one of the most idiosyncratic and insightful new voices in comics.

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 characters.

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

It has a clear-eyed, un-self-deceiving honesty.

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.

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.



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Cover image used without explicit permission in accordance with the "Fair Use" provision of US copyright law.


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