Thursday, March 20, 2014

Back Matter #9 - A Small Killing by Alan Moore & Oscar Zarate

With the “Back Matter” series of posts, I am reprinting my initial writings on comics from roughly 2006.  A more detailed explanation can be found here


Alan Moore is considered by many to be the greatest author in the history of comics.  WATCHMEN, V FOR VENDETTA, SWAMP THING, and FROM HELL – these are all well-known works.  But he has also created some little-known masterpieces as well.  One of these is A SMALL KILLING, originally published in Britain by VG Graphics in 1991 and recently re-issued in a softcover and limited hardcover edition by Avatar Press in 2003.  Despite claims in ads run by DC last year that TOP TEN: THE FORTY-NINERS was Moore’s first original graphic novel (OGN), A SMALL KILLING – as pointed out in Rich Johnston’s Comic Book Resources column Lying in the Gutters – would certainly hold that distinction.  One of Moore’s first mature works after his initial retirement from mainstream superhero comics, A SMALL KILLING is a must-have for any comics aficionado, and one of the books that has helped to elevate comics beyond the pre-adolescent power fantasies so prevalent in American comics.
Timothy Hole (pronounced Holly) has landed the prime advertising job of his career.  He is to head the ad campaign for Flite soda in Russia – the newly liberated Russia of 1989.  In celebration he throws a party two nights before he is to depart for England, a return home before moving on to Russia.  Too much alcohol is drunk, too much cocaine snorted, and the head of his firm ends up dropping and smashing his framed bird egg collection.  Tim passes it off as nothing, but it sparks something inside that sends him in search of his boyhood and the innocence he left behind.
The next day is given over to last minute shopping.  One of his co-workers at the ad firm, Lynda, comes along to help out and seems to enjoy her time with Tim despite all their conversations being one-sided no matter who is speaking at the time.  All the while Tim is contemplating how he might get Lynda back to his place and he tries to open up to her about his past – his divorce, his regrets – and she nods and replies in all the right places, but the responses are detached and irrelevant.  Not unlike real life.  We’ve all felt that sting at one time or another, the feeling that what we are sharing right now with this person is the single most important thing that could be shared, and all their attention is obviously elsewhere, despite feeble protests to the contrary. 
Tim is distracted as well, not just with carnal thoughts of Lynda but also with a boy that passes them in Rockefeller Plaza, who also walks by outside the sushi restaurant where the two have lunch, who also happens to be in the elevator at Tim’s building that night.  To wind down, Tim goes out to a bar after dropping his packages at home.  The night ends with Tim smashing his car up on the freeway as he swerves to avoid that SAME KID again.  It’s surreal and he has no explanation for what is going on. 
Tim gets to the airport early and as the security officers check his luggage, he again sees this boy who looks so familiar.  The youngster is getting onto the same plane as Tim, and when he calls out for the boy to stop the customs officers pull him aside to inspect his baggage more closely.  Twenty minutes later Tim finally makes it onto the plane, but the boy is nowhere to be found. 
Except, the toilet next to Tim’s seat is “occupied” and he has no idea who went into it.  It’s the only place the boy could be.  So, Tim settles in to watch closely and catch whoever exits the toilet.  Minutes go by, and Tim tries to fathom what is happening to him, why this boy is hounding him.  Nothing comes.  And he waits.  And he watches.
And then Tim is being awoken by one of the attendants asking him to fasten his seatbelt as they have finally been given clearance to take off.  Reaching for his belt, Tim looks up and finds that the toilet is now “vacant” and he has no idea what to do next.
Once Tim’s plane sets down in London, Moore and Zarate take their protagonist on a journey through his past that will determine the path to his future.  Through flashbacks, sparked by the places he visits, the audience learns about Tim’s history – his romance with Maggie, who would become his wife, and the subsequent romance and breakup with Sylvia, the woman for whom he left his wife.  Readers are allowed to peak in at the artist Tim wanted to be when he left school, the great plans he had, the integrity and voice he wished to bring to his paintings.  Slowly, his plans continue to fall by the wayside, practicality and bills forcing him to take advertising work for a time, which leads to a permanent position at an advertising firm that becomes a jumping off point to his time in New York, and finally coming full circle to Tim’s return to England as he is about to set off on the most important ad campaign of his life.  All thoughts of the artist he once pictured himself as being forgotten. 
Witness to the breakups of his two most important relationships, the audience – as well as Tim, who is coming to understand that he is now on a journey of self-discovery – comes to realize that most of the hardships he has endured have come about due to a lack of action on his part.  Taking no responsibility for his current lot in life, he insists on blaming others for the dissatisfaction he now endures.  The commitment to his marriage was obviously tenuous at best, showcased by the ease with which he broke that sanctity, and the dissolution of his relationship with Sylvia was predicated upon his inability to take a stand or form an opinion, exemplified by the experience of her unplanned pregnancy.  Sylvia felt that neither of them was ready to be a parent, but she asked Tim’s opinion on the whole thing.  He told her it was her body to do with as she chose, and didn’t feel it was his place to make that sort of decision for her.  She explained to him that she only wished to know his feelings on the matter but still he refused, leaving her to bear the burden alone.  Something for which she could never forgive him.  His unwillingness to take any responsibility for his actions, or for his inaction, caused him to lose all he held dear and in the process lose all direction to his life, leading him to the darkened crevice in which he now finds himself.
In the present, Tim is still searching for answers to the mysterious child that had been following him in New York.  He mistakes a boy near Sylvia’s old art studio for the strange boy, and hopes that maybe he won’t have to worry about him on this side of the Atlantic.  But he does see him again in downtown London that same night.  And again when he is walking to his boyhood home in Sheffield he comes across the boy in a bar.  The boy is sitting quietly at a table and Tim orders a soda to go with the beer he has ordered for himself.  The child’s stare is eating through Tim’s soul as he sits down with him and they finally have a chance to talk, though only for a short time.  Tim eventually gets around to asking the boy the question he’s wanted to ask since he drove his car into the guard rail back in New York.
“Are you trying to kill me?”
“Yes,” is the only response he gets and then the boy is gone, leaving Tim to ponder the weight of that tiny word.
The answers to this mystery lie further in Tim’s past than even he might believe.  In his parents’ home, and in the neighborhood where he was born, home//// to the “old buildings,” all will ultimately be revealed to Tim as his memory will open up doors he had closed tightly many years prior.  The revelation will overwhelm him, and his continued existence will come into question as he fights his childhood demons, trying to reach back and find that innocent boy that became lost so long ago.  In the end, the answer lies within Timothy Hole, and nobody will be able to change his life except himself.  Through traveling back to where he was born and examining his past, Timothy Hole is finally allowed – finally able – to move ahead with his life, eschewing the encumbrances of his past that have weighed him down for so many years.
In A SMALL KILLING, the narrative slides backward while pushing the story forward in the present.  Moore and Zarate utilize flashbacks with great skill, shining a light upon Hole’s past that illuminates how he has ended up at this juncture in his life.  This is a difficult thing to do – flashbacks are often used to ill effect and fall into cliché – but Moore and Zarate pull this feat off with an ease and naturalness that belies the effort they must have put forth in order to tell such a compelling and challenging story.
Also included with this recent edition from Avatar is a prose piece on the creation of A SMALL KILLING found at the back of the book.  Produced from interviews conducted by Jaime Rodriguez and edited by Antony Johnston from corrections and additions provided by Moore, it is a compelling look behind the curtain for fans, showcasing how these two artists approached the collaborative process, what each hoped to accomplish with this story, and the little surprised encountered along the way.  This was a very good book that is able to be enjoyed on so many levels, and one I would highly recommend to anybody seeking out a great read.

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