Review by Ben Kooyman
Australia does good grime. From canonical literary works like Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms and Marcus Clarke’s For The Term of His Natural Life to contemporary film classics like the Wolf Creek films, The Proposition, and The Rover, few nation are as great at being dirty and violent and muscular in their art (and few people, it would seem, as Guy Pearce). The Undertaker Morton Stone and Broken Line indicate that Gestalt Comics are keeping that tradition alive and well in local comics…
The character Morton Stone, created by Gary Chaloner in the early 1990s, headlines the new series The Undertaker Morton Stone, written by Chaloner and illustrated by various artists. Issue 1 opens with Stone, recently released from incarceration for murdering his wife and daughter, in a graveyard digging up his wife’s remains. He was wrongly accused of this crime, and an altercation with hired thugs sets him on the path to finding the real killer, the Toe Nail Clipper Killer.
The revenge story template is an archetypal one, from The Iliad, Hamlet, and The Count of Monte Cristo to I Spit on Your Grave, Kill Bill, and John Wick. The first issue’s build-up and conclusion lay the foundations for a traditional revenge tale, but it also adds some unique wrinkles. While set in contemporary times, there is a dark fairy tale and somewhat Dickensian quality to the narrative: the graveyard setting, the underworld milieu, the singsong prosody of the narration, and so on. This juxtaposes nicely with modern gags – the use of Barbara Streisand’s song ‘Memories’, the naming of Stone’s dog Cryptoe (as in Krypto the Superdog) – and is accentuated by the artwork, illustrated predominantly by 30 Days of Night artist Ben Templesmith, with additional art by Ashley Wood and Jason Goungor. Dark and scratchy, the artwork inhabits the nightmarish space between the Gothic and the industrial, mirroring the diseased mind of the protagonist.
In issue 2, Stone is reunited with his cop sister and they investigate the latest Toe Nail Clipper Killer murder, which leads to an altercation with the killer and subsequent visit to the asylum where Stone was incarcerated. Ashley Wood’s art in the first half of the issue is stylistically consistent with the aesthetic established by Templesmith in issue 1, albeit a souped-up variation, like a lovechild of Sin City and The Crow, while Chaloner’s own artwork in the second half of this issue adopts a smoother style. These shifts in style and narrative focus mean that issue 2 has a slightly different feel to its precursor issue: it’s more hard-boiled thriller than twisted fairy tale. Whether subsequent issues will continue to advance this issue’s more conventional locate-and-dispatch revenge story trajectory or continue to vary in tone and personality remains to be seen, but either way it looks like readers are in for quite a ride.
Where The Undertaker Morton Stone occupies a heightened, highly stylised world, Broken Line inhabits a more grounded but equally brutal locale: post-apocalyptic Australia. Written by Andrew Constant (Torn) with art by Emily K. Smith (Unmasked 1-2, Believe), the story opens with a literal bang: a mushroom cloud erupting and filling the page. The bulk of the plot takes place in the aftermath of this doomsday cloud, focusing on a vehicular confrontation between a cop and a criminal and a pursuit that leads them across the deserted landscape. Smith’s art throughout is textured and evocative, suggesting a world ravaged and empty and still sufficiently close to our reality to appear feasible. The aforementioned The Rover is a good point of comparison, with its damaged characters giving chase in a damaged world (as is the Mad Max series, though both The Rover and Broken Line eschew that series’ flamboyance and theatrics).
Like The Rover, world-building and exposition are kept to a minimum. So too are characterisation and the dialogue, which is economical and fragmented, conveyed in sharp pinpricks and jabs. Like the desolate post-apocalyptic setting, these things are spartan and bare, and Constant and Smith let the world and its inhabitants’ actions speak for themselves. That the cop and the criminal must continue their “silly games”, to the point of potential mutual obliteration, speaks to the motif prevalent throughout post-apocalyptic storytelling of people clinging, usually desperately, to the customs and roles of the old world in a new world where such things have been rendered meaningless (see, for example, the Dead films of George A. Romero). The story’s ending, however, provides a potent, powerful wrinkle that tweaks the status quo and raises the stakes of the story, transforming their silly games into something more urgent and meaningful. Overall, Broken Line issue 1 is a terrific debut issue, and sets up intriguing possibilities for subsequent entries.
For Broken Line Issue 01, check out: http://www.gestaltcomics.com/all-products/digital/broken-line-01/
For Morton Stone Issue 01, check out http://www.gestaltcomics.com/all-products/digital/the-undertaker-morton-stone-1/
For Morton Stone Issue 02, check out http://www.gestaltcomics.com/all-products/digital/the-undertaker-morton-stone-2/