Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story
Written by Mat Johnson
Illustrated by Simon Gane
Gray tones and color by Lee Loughridge
Lettered by Pat Brosseau
Published by DC/Vertigo
Vertigo’s made a move recently toward publishing more graphic novels, and I approve in general of the move. For whatever reason, I’ve never been a big fan of going to the comic shop every single week and prefer to pick up a meatier volume when something specifically strikes my fancy. Much of their recent graphic novel output has come from the Vertigo Crime sub-line, which, for me anyway, has been a bit of a disappointment. However, the graphic novels that aren’t part of the crime line have been quite impressive overall.
Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story could actually fit into Vertigo Crime, but it’s not considered part of that line. The format is similar to past non-crime OGNs, including David Lapham’s Silverfish, Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece’s Incognegro or Gilbert Hernandez’s Sloth. It’s a squareish book, clocking in around 160 pages, done up in nicely nuanced gray tones rather than in harsh black and white.
The plot revolves around two ex-cons traveling to New Orleans to rob a bank in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 devastation. Emmit, a former bank employee knows all the tricks, but he needs the help of his halfway house roommate, Dabny, to pull off the job. Along the way, they run afoul of a corrupt private military force, hired to help evacuate the city, that figures, thanks to Emmit’s big mouth, that a side job at the bank could be to their benefit.
It’s an engaging story, with interesting characters. The military outfit skews a little toward the typically evil private armed forces squad, but Emmit and Dabney form a complicated relationship full of disparate motivations and ambitions. Mat Johnson, whose Incognegro was among the better graphic novels of 2008, handles the racial elements of the characters and the city with a deft and subtle touch. The bankrobbery goes awry, as you’d expect, allowing Johnson to offer some of his best and more emotional writing during the scenes of various refugees seeking shelter from the flooding or offering help (often from the most unexpected sources) to their fellows.
Simon Gane provides the artwork, abetted by Lee Loughridge’s tones, and he acquits himself very well. Using a just-slightly cartoony style, Gane captures the essence of each character quickly – down-on-his-luck Emmit, proud-but-struggling Dabney, strong-but-cruel Colonel Driggs, kind-hearted Sarah. The character acting is mostly strong, and the layouts present all the relevant details clearly. A few panels feel slightly rushed, but few readers will find much to complain about in the artwork.
Incognegro served notice that Mat Johnson is a voice to watch out for in the comic book community. Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story doesn’t quite match that standard, but it’s a compelling narrative all the same. The recurring motif of second chances fits the Big Easy as well as the book’s protagonists, and though the plot could be more imaginative, the sidetracks into the struggles and decency of Katrina’s survivors makes the entire ride more appreciable and more human.