March 2007

Josh Cook

fiction

Outlaw Nation by Jamie Delano

Outlaw Nation could have been a number of things; an intellectual exploration of the nature and flux of the American outlaw, a rollicking pulp action road trip through wild characters and landscapes, or an adequate comic fun enough to occupy the brain during some down time, but it fails in being any of these.

An un-nuanced approach to the nature of the outlaw sinks any chance at intellectualism, an erratic story-telling style and a truncated plot spoil any chance for the pulp adrenaline rush, and a persistent strain of misogyny prevents the reader from tuning out to some entertaining characters and violence.

The problems start early for Delano when, drawing from a Burroughs quote, he creates a society-wide dichotomy of "Johnsons" and "shits," with "Johnsons" being those honorable, rebellious, radical individuals at constant war with all forms of authority, driving the artistic underbelly that every society needs to thrive and "shits" being everybody else. For Burroughs, this dichotomy connects his literature to the broader outlaw tradition of drifters, con-men, and hobos. For Delano, the dichotomy reveals him as the worst kind of "shit;" a pretender.

Then, Delano makes his main character a pulp writer. Story Johnson is a great character. He is that perfect mix of honor and irreverence we look for in an anti-hero. He's charming, reckless, and lucky; most of the traits needed in the perfect protagonist for a tour through America's wild west family tree, except. Story Johnson is not a good writer. Other than a few moments, his quoted text lacks the bristling careless attitude and the transcendent beauty that make pulp endure. His poor writing skills translate into poor heroics. Every page hints at some grand action he's preparing but all his plan amounts to finding a way to talk to his vaguely world-dominating super-villain father and then blowing shit up when the conversation doesn't work out.

In the introduction, Delano explains that the story is vastly truncated. His editors pulled the comic long before he had finished the story arc. That truncation is evident in the last few chapters as the plot rushes to an explosive ending without establishing what was being blown up in the process or why everybody was so willing to risk being blown up in the first place. Though this explains a lot of the problems with the end of the story, it does not make up for Delano's other flaws. Simply put, Delano does not have the chops to pull this story off.

What he intends to be chaotic is scattered. His social criticism is directed at caricatures at American culture. Representatives of outlaw culture bubble up without any significance and then putter away revealing that they are all -- from the cowboy to the biker to the modern militia man to the fallen reverend -- just different costumes on the same Ken doll. Everybody loves guns. The super-villain is vague and there isn't a female character with any depth.

A foreigner is often the best observer of a society. Delano is British and could have brought a mix of sympathy and distance to the ethos of the American Outlaw. But he misses subtleties. He's too bound up in America's obsession with guns to explore the ways the outlaw has changed and adapted with American society. The story takes place in contemporary American complete with the Internet and global finance, but there is no Johnson hacker. There are no information outlaws, no image outlaws, and no culture outlaws.

One of the major conflicts in Outlaw Nation is between Story Johnson and John Law. John Law is the long faced wild west sheriff who solves everything by shooting the bad guys. He's a caricature of justice without nuance or ambiguity. He is the outlaw made obsolete by the vast gap between civilian and government firepower. Unfortunately for the reader, Outlaw Nation is a John Law story lazily masquerading as a Story Johnson story. The story closes with a confusing bloodbath and a vague suggestion of world revolution, which in many ways is a perfect conclusion for the story, as, for the most part, I moved from bloodbath to bloodbath only vaguely aware of why I should finish the book at all.

Outlaw Nation by Jamie Delano
Image Comics
ISBN: 9781582407074
456 Pages