There’s a term used in Mixed Martial Arts; sprawl. Sprawling is what happens when someone tries to take you off your feet and you avoid it. You throw your feet back, spread your legs and they shoot under you so their back is under your chest. Do it right and you’ve stopped their attack. Do it very right and you’ve opened the door to a whole arsenal of your own.
It’s a smart term, and a smart move. It’s also what Suiciders does.
Written and drawn by the extraordinarily talented Lee Bermejo, it also features Matt Hollingsworth’s sun and heat drenched colours and the careful, precise lettering of Jared K. Fletcher. The three are amongst the best creatives working in comics today and each one brings their best work to the table here. For them it’s a matter of pride. For the characters it’s a matter of life and death.
The Saint is the patron saint of a broken city. The half of Los Angeles that survived the big one and now worships the death sport he excels at as its one true opiate. He’s clever, charming, handsome and brutal. The Saint hasn’t lost. You can tell because he’s still alive.
But The Saint isn’t an ideal, he’s a man and this is where the book sprawls. The idea of the man behind the mask, or the mask not fitting, is central to most superhero comics. There it’s used as a means of exploring identity. Here it’s used as a means of deconstructing it. The Saint’s best qualities are the ones he exhibits in the arena; athleticism, showmanship, martial brutality. What happens when the cameras are off is so much worse.,
Again, there’s sprawl. The book takes in a catastrophic investigation by several journalists into the Saint’s life and the response from those who’ve invested in him. If the rest of the book is cyberpunk noir, this comes close to documentary. The fight game has been corrupt at every level for as long as people have paidd to watch other people hurt each other. What you see here is extreme but its foundations, like those of the ruined city, are horribly familiar.
As is the plight of Straniero, the book’s other protagonist. A hulking illegal immigrant with minimal English and a tremendous capacity for violence, he gets lucky in the unluckiest way possible. Taken in as an investment by the smuggler whose ship he stowed away on, Straniero becomes an illegal Suicider. The image of the massive human being going to war wearing old school boxing gloves against armoured nightmares is one of the most compelling in the book. But it’s what it does with that image that makes it extraordinary and where the book sprawls most effectively.
The traditional narrative for stories like this is that they end with The Big Fight, a meaningful exchange of blows and ideas that ends with a slow motion montage and heroic, bloody victory.
You don’t get that here.
What you get is better.
As the story comes to a close, everyone we see, the human and urban sprawl that is New Angeles, is focused down not to a physical fight but the struggle between the need to escape and the obligations that stop everyone doing just that. The two men at the centre of the story do circle one another but there’s no violence. Instead an honest, melancholy acknowledgement of how some stories don’t know how to change and how dirty secrets are only dirty from a certain angle. It’s a confounding, brilliant finish made all the more so by how inevitable you realize it is. Better still, by how you only realize it’s inevitable until it’s far too late. The book sprawls, the book takes control, the book puts you where it wants you and the book ends the fight on its terms, not yours.
Suiciders joins Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee and Slingers by Matt Wallace as one of the definitive modern takes on the future sport genre. It’s a book that hits harder than you think it will and fights far smarter you’re expecting. Brutal, tragic, humane and essential.