Monday, August 22, 2011



WRITER: Mat Johnson
ARTIST: Simon Gane
LETTERS: Pat Brosseau
COVER: Simon Gane, Daymon Gardner, Nessim Higson
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2161-4; paperback
160pp, 2-Color, $19.99 U.S., $22.99 CAN

Three years after DC Comics/Vertigo published his graphic novel, Incognegro, I was wondering if and hoping that author Mat Johnson would return to comic books. He has. It’s with a wonderful new graphic novel, Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story.

Mat Johnson is an award-winning author who has drawn acclaim for his books, such as the novel, Hunting in Harlem, and the non-fiction, The Great Negro Plot. He has also written for DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint. He wrote the 2005 graphic novel, Hellblazer: Papa Midnite, (originally published as a miniseries) and the aforementioned, Incognegro (2008), which I consider to be one of the great comics work of the first decade of this new century.

His latest graphic novel is Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story, which has simultaneously been released in hardcover and paperback editions. Drawn by Simon Gane with colors and gray tones by Lee Loughridge, Dark Rain is largely set in New Orleans and takes place in 2005 during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The story focuses on two small-time ex-cons, the kind of guys who do prison time for one stupid mistake, and they’re both in need of cash. Dabney Arceneaux is an African-American combat veteran who can’t get a business loan and is behind on child support to an obnoxious ex-wife. Emmit Jack is a Cajun who just wants to get paid.

It is Emmit who gets a message from back home in New Orleans that his old employer, the Banque de Congo Square, is under duress and ripe for the picking, thanks to Hurricane Katrina’s strike against New Orleans. Jack convinces Dabney to help him get back to New Orleans for a bank robber payday. However, an old military acquaintance of Dabney’s, one Colonel Driggs, the head of the ruthless private security force, “Dark Rain,” also has his eyes on the Banque de Congo Square prize. All three men will find that the Big Easy is going to change their lives – whether they like it or not.

Back during those last three days of August 2005, the television media showed lots of images from inside New Orleans, as the city’s social structure and infrastructure cracked and, in many cases, fell apart. Some of the media showed images of citizens stranded on rooftops and trapped in and around the New Orleans Superdome. Other media realized how photogenic and newsworthy African-Americans are when we are in a state of agitation and keenly focused on what they called incidents of looting. That makes great television and draws ratings from those who need almost daily affirmation of what bad eggs colored folk are. And media like FOX News gave those people all the video footage of looting they could stand and more.

What only a few media outlets reported on were members of the Gretna Police Department shooting at Black people as those “refugees” tried to cross the bridge (the Crescent City Connection) to safety and leave New Orleans. You probably never heard that men from the white enclave, Algiers Point, formed vigilante groups and hunted black men “like pheasant” (their words), killing an unknown number (perhaps as many as 18). Of course, you didn’t.

Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story doesn’t cover all the uncovered news, but what Mat Johnson does is scratch well-beneath the surface of what you’ve heard about the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s strike on New Orleans. What’s amazing is how Johnson dramatizes some of real life events of Katrina and folds them into a riveting and unusual take on the crime thriller. The characters involved, the plans for the heist, the pacing of the story, the starts and stops on the way to Congo Square: these elements make such a crazy rhythm for this story. It is, however, a rhythm the keeps you tied to the grand scheme of Dark Rain, the main plotline, which is seeing who gets the cash.

In the same narrative in which he is spinning this highly-original take on the bank robbery tale, Johnson is telling a very human drama full of full of hope and even humor. The characters have true grit, fully on display as they are determined to overcome rank greed and bullying racism. At the same, their shortcomings and sins make them perfect foils for a reality that doesn’t give them their way. Dark Rain makes me call Mat Johnson brilliant, and although he has only written three graphic novels to this point, he is already one of the best writers in comics.

I don’t want to speak of artist Simon Gane as if his part is something wholly separate from Johnson’s. Gane’s graphical storytelling makes it seem like Dark Rain was born as a comic book without being a script and pages of art first. Gane captures the nuances of Johnson’s story, but the fact that this British artist can capture institutional racism and blatant bigotry that is as American as American can be is impressive. Gane juxtaposes the light and the dark, and his compositions ably convey the humor Johnson often places in this story at the most unexpected moments.

Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story would fit as a Vertigo Crime novel because of the bank robbery, but it is Fantagraphics/Pantheon in its social/character drama/satirical side. Dark Rain may be a comic book, but it should take a place of importance among the stories that chronicle New Orleans’ visit from Hurricane Katrina.


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