Graphic novels are traditionally plot-driven devices, and this is the problem the engine of literary criticism has with it. While there is, obviously, a plethora of literature out there that is plot-generated and devoid of theme; there is a general expectation of literary fiction that it have a theme, and a general expectation of graphic novels that they not. This, more and more, is becoming not the case. There are examples of serialized, mainstream comic books that do contain elements of theme and are about something, such as Iron Heart by Greg Pak.
Dark Reign: The Underside is not one of these examples, but instead it is an example of why the opposite is okay. Rather, Frank Tieri provides a concrete example of how plot, done right, is enough.
The story takes the form of a classic whodoneit, in which a lawyer for the Lethal Legion is appointed to them and must suss out the facts of their case to defend them. Early on he discovers that someone within their number broke rank and ratted on them, and that erstwhile Avengers villain Grim Reaper was murdered. Each chapter after that event takes the form of an interview between a different Legion member and the lawyer. We learn as he does, we get the same differing accounts that he gets, and we, like he, struggle to try and figure it all out.
The story may become one of my go-to examples of how to do plot-driven stories well. It is forever giving information, and while some of that information is in the form of red-herrings, nothing is given to maliciously fool the reader. There’s no point where you feel punk’d, or anything of the like. It reminds me of the hard-boiled crime dramas from the 50s in that sense.
The ending is perfectly plotted, and was unexpected even though I thought I had it figured out. One of my only criticisms is that, in those final reveals, the story mimicked The Usual Suspects a little too much. Not enough that I’ll give it a hard time, but it’s there.
In the end: a great story with great characterization. It’s nothing too heavy or thought provoking, but would act as a great palate cleanser between more serious works.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“The ending is perfectly plotted, and was unexpected even though I thought I had it figured out.”