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The Gray Area: All Of This Can Be Yours
posted June 9, 2005
 

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Creators: Glen Brunswick, John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson
Publishing Info: Image Comics, 136 pages, $14.95
Ordering Numbers:1582404852 (ISBN)

John Romita Jr. has become an excellent mainstream comic book artist for sticking to a regimen of clear, solid comic-book storytelling when his peers went in for the slightly bigger rewards to be gained by adopting illustrative shortcuts that interfered with narrative. As a result, Romita's work has enjoyed not just the advantage of clarity but of density. He mostly works in variation of six or eight panel grids. His art has become stylized in the wake of that attention to story, which at this point in his career makes his figures stand out very strongly. The overall point is that unlike most comics artists, three issues collected from a series stands up pretty okay as a straight-through read.

Gray Area is Romita's first creator-owned project, originally intended for Marvel abortive 2003 Epic imprint relaunch, and a book that finally found a home at Image. It involves a dirty detective with perhaps the tiniest hint of a gold heart suffering in a purgatory where he must became an after-life cop in order for his soul to move along to a higher reward. The crime stuff that Romita draws is pretty great; there's a European adventure artist suggested by his line, but the figures are straight up cartoons. It's a unique effect. Romita can also draw a pretty effective monster when he wants -- perhaps the best artistic effect in this first volume of the series come when our hero is suffering at the hands of ghosts that kind of feel amorphous, like part of the background more suggested than real.

That's about where the good things end. John Romita's art doesn't really suggest decay and despair by itself, and there seems to be some reluctance on his part to explicitly depict the cruder and more tawdry parts of life other than through violence. The details beyond the basic set-up, who has the power to do what to whom, all the procedural portions of being a purgatory cop, are kind of an unholy mess. In addition, a subplot about the identity of our hero's mentor fails to keep our interest; the sudden twist at the end elicits more of a "Good. Can you go away now?" more than "I'd like to see more of this character." Gray Area should have been stripped down even further to its bare bones of spirit-cops possessing loved ones on earth to keep watch over bad things escaping from there to here. I'm not familiar with writer Glen Brunswick, so maybe some of the story-clutter belongs to him as well as to Romita's concept. As it stands, this is a pretty messy affair that feel like a Hollywood pitch way more than a solid graphic novel.