In “Bliss” #1, Redemption Is A Hard Sale
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! IF YOU DO NOT LIKE SPOILERS, GO ELSEWHERE!
CONTENT WARNING: There is a lot of discussion of some heavy topics in this review, including suicide, mass murder, and abuse. You’ve been warned.
After being disowned by their families, Benton O’Hara and his pregnant wife Mable move to Feral City. The metropolis lives up to its name with rampant crime and corruption. The last place you would dream of raising a child, and yet the young couple make it work. That is until their son, Perry, falls ill. Unable to pay the exorbitant medical bill, Benton turns to working for three reptilian humanoids who control Feral City. They make him into a hitman, easing him of the guilt with a drug called Bliss that wipes away unpleasant memories. Years later, Benton’s crimes have caught up with him. The families of his victims want retribution, but Perry, now a young man, is desperately trying to change their mind. Lethe, Goddess of Oblivion, is coming, and only Benton can stop her.
Okay, full disclosure, I was very excited that Sean and Caitlin were collabing again. Their last book, Coyotes (which is also from Image) is one of my favorite series of all time. It criss-crossed feminism, lycanthrope mythos, and body horror in a glorious grindhouse story full of action and gothic art. It’s like a hybrid of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn and Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So, I have to admit a little bit of fanboy bias on my part, but I’m still a professional critic. Out of respect for Sean and Caitlin, I’m going to be completely honest about their new baby, both the pros and cons. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on Bliss #1.
The first thing that drew me straight into Bliss #1 is the cover. I mean, look at it. That’s how you make a freaking comic book! More specifically, I love how everything is composed. Benton O’Hara dead center in the foreground, his eyes full of woe, back to the reader except for his head turned toward them. It’s almost kind of sensual in a way. I can easily see our boy here modeling for an Irish Spring ad.
Then there is the title raised just slightly above his head. Big ups to Caitlin for creating such a bold and striking letter design. Also, there’s a myriad of interesting details around Benton. The lake of black liquid he’s submerged in (which I assume is Bliss); the red orbs floating around him that, honestly, are unsettling given human heads are in them. As for the background, well I honestly don’t know what’s happening there. It looks like a huge dust cloud, so I’m guessing something’s either crumbling or exploding.
Looking at this cover overall, I get strong feelings of both sorrow and Armageddon. It’s like the cover is warning me that a cataclysm is coming. Don’t know why I feel that, except maybe the fact the main antagonist is the goddess of oblivion. Whatever the case, this cover does an excellent job of wowing me into reading the book. A-freaking-plus!
The issue opens up to a scene of Benton, old and looking like Yosemite Sam, belly-flopping into a large body of black liquid. It’s more than likely a suicide. Did I mention those content warnings? Anyway, I can’t praise this page enough. I love how the four white-bordered panels in the center create the illusion of movement in an otherwise static landscape. I also love the choice of a mauvish color palette. It’s calming yet strangely sinister, like beneath the placidity is a dark undercurrent. Makes sense for a suicide attempt. Everything in the scene ties back to Perry’s narrative captions, too. He feels relief knowing he’s an insignificant speck in the universe. However, Perry and his dad are anything but insignificant to the citizens of Feral City.
The next scene is a two-page spread that gives us a panoramic view of a courtroom that looks like it’s built inside of a cathedral. Up in the balconies and down in the pews are people crowded together, and I have to give more applause to Caitlin here. She drew every individual in this large crowd distinctively instead of making them all featureless cut-outs. There’s yet another brilliant color palette, as well. The yellow is so garish and bright that it captures the intensity of the scene. Perry is all alone, glared down by countless accusing eyes. He’s the only one arguing for his father’s life. Everyone else wants his head on a stake.
This is what I love about Caitlin Yarsky’s art. It always invokes a mood and emotional response. I think that’s largely because of her art; it’s Gothic, literally by the definition in arts and literature. You can see European Gothic in the elaborate ornamentation of architecture and intricate, sharply-shaped panel layouts. You can also see Southern Gothic in her characters. They’re drawn with a heightened plainness: bulgy eyes, disproportionate limbs, and facial expressions so over the top they cross into caricature. It reminds me a bit of Flannery O’Connor’s cartooning.
Even more impressive is that the characters aren’t ugly. These plain, lumpy people integrate with the beautiful architecture around them. Caitlin Yarsky’s art is a contradiction. That’s not a negative. Her style is such a fluid infusion of both European and Southern gothic that it creates worlds and characters that are both gorgeous and dark, enticing and foreboding. Even when she draws monsters, you can’t help but gaze in awe of them.
Each page of Bliss #1 is executed flawlessly, aesthetically intoxicating while allowing the story to flow free of choppiness. Caitlin is the foundation of this book, essential and irreplaceable. If this series doesn’t recognize her to the industry as one of the great up-and-comers, we’ll be worse off for it.
So, the art’s fantastic. Whoop Whoop! What about Sean Lewis’s writing? Well, that’s where things get uneven. As a playwright, Sean naturally uses dialogue for characterization. How characters speak to one another tells you the type of people they are, more so than exposition. A good example is Perry in the courtroom scene. He admits to being nervous, his body language only further confirming this fact. However, the love and loyalty he feels toward his father gives Perry the strength to try. That would be commendable if not for the kind of man Benton is, but we’ll get into that later.
Sean’s dialogue, unique as it is, wouldn’t work without Caitlin’s character designs. Each person she draws is distinct, both in looks and body language. The best character is the one where you can recognize by name, voice, and looks all at once. I never confused a character for another, never forgot a single face. Considering how many comics I read, that’s a feat!
With that said, there are some characters not as well-defined. Some are intentionally so. From reading Bliss #1, all I know about the three reptilian humanoids is that they run Feral City, serve Lethe, and want Benton to take care of “problem” people. After each job, they give him Bliss to wipe away the memories. I assume so the guilt doesn’t cause Benton to resist. I don’t know how they control Feral City, why they target certain people, or exactly how Bliss conveniently only gets rid of the memories they need gone. Their ambiguity works though because it makes them scarier and powerful. It keeps the reader on their tones of just exactly what the trio is capable of. Also, it builds up anticipation for the next issues.
However, there’s also Mabel, Benton’s wife and Perry’s mother. So far, she’s just a passive character, even the beautiful dance scene between her and Benton does more to characterize him. Bliss is obviously a father-son story, but I still can’t help feeling that Mabel is underwhelming, especially after Coyotes offered a superb cast of women and girls equal to the few male characters that appeared. I still think the O’Hara family are great characters. I hope Mabel gets to develop more in later issues.
Another mixed bag is the world building. Feral City is introduced during Mabel and Benton’s backstory. We don’t see the full city, but are treated to a section of it. Both Caitlin and Sean establish the setting as a whole from this single splash page. Just look at the architecture with all its grit and decay. Combine that with the narrative caps personifying Feral City as a place that spies on you as much as the predators that live in it.
We get to further learn just how messed up this place is in the next scene. As Benton walks by hospital rooms, we see. a woman slashed by her partner for trivial reasons, a man drained of his blood on the mere assumption of a crime, and a torturer waiting for his victim to heal so he can further torture him. Jesus in a Buick! This place makes Sin City look like 100-Acre Wood!
That’s as much as we get to know about the world though. While I admire keeping the reptilian humanoids cryptic, I still feel like not enough was established about the world. I don’t even know how Lethe fits into all this. She’s not even mentioned by name. I only know she’s involved because of the solicitations. For a series compared to American Gods, I was hoping for just a little more of an established mythology. Coyotes #1 did so flawlessly, or at least from what I remember. I suppose it’s a matter of subjectivity.
Speaking of subjectivity, it’s time to get serious. The main themes of Bliss are Forgiveness and Redemption. In spite of everything his father did, Perry’s trying to convince everyone to spare him. If they don’t, Lethe will destroy Feral City, and possibly the whole world too. It’s a very interesting twist. It’s also one that’s going to divide readers.
Issue #1 focuses on Perry’s perspective, and he paints his father in a sympathetic light. He recalls memories of Benton’s love for his family, like when he fought off a mugger to bring Perry oranges while sick in the hospital. He then danced with Mabel to comfort her after getting an exorbitant medical bill. As much as I criticized this scene, I can’t deny how beautiful it is.
Bliss has also been compared to Breaking Bad, and I can definitely see similarities between both Walter White and Benton O’Hara. The thing is Walter White gets steadily less sympathetic during the show’s run. It’s hard to justify his actions when the bodies start mounting up. It stops mattering that he only wanted to provide for his family. By the end, most of everyone, including the audience, has turned on him.
We already know Benton’s crimes. His downfall has already happened. That’s driven home when we see the faces of all his victims’ loved ones. Their grief and anger is painfully clear. It can’t be blamed on brainwashing. Benton chose to be a killer. Bliss merely wiped away any guilt he might have felt, which he eventually does as evidenced by his suicide attempt.
Perry’s perspective cannot erase his father’s crimes. In fact, the focus on one side of the story makes him suspicious at best, and manipulative at worst. Perry does have a reason beyond self-interest. If Benton isn’t forgiven, Lethe is going to annihilate Feral City, probably the rest of the world included. You would think “Forgive my dad or an ancient deity will burn us all to a crisp” is a good trump card to play, but Perry doesn’t. This whole song and dance in the courtroom makes no sense.
Now, I know Sean Lewis. He’s a writer that plays the long game. All the unanswered questions are purposefully left in the air, both to build anticipation for subsequent issues and give time for readers to reflect. He’s a writer that wants to encourage critical thinking as much as entertain. That’s what I love about all his comics. I’m not one of those readers that demands to know everything right away. Hell, I despise that kind of thinking. I’m definitely thinking a lot about Bliss #1, which is why I have concerns.
Forgiveness and Redemption are clearly themes Sean is tackling here. It even came up in Coyotes, which took the latter half of the series into a wildly new direction from your typical revenge tale. Setting up these themes around a horrendous individual is a daring risk, one that could have a big payoff if done well. On the flip side, it’s potentially a disaster if the bad guy is unjustifiably let off the hook. So far, I’m not really convinced Benton deserves forgiveness because I can’t find justification yet, and I’m concerned the Lethe angle could be a manipulative plot device if nuance isn’t applied.
I think the reason I’m worried is everything happening in real life right now. If you don’t know, a number of professionals in the comics industry have been outed as sexual predators. This isn’t the first time. It’s been an ongoing problem. Some perpetrators have been reprimanded, but usually only if they become too much of a PR problem. Two camps have come out of this discourse. Those who want justice but also healing and reform, and then those that want no second chances.
I mostly agree with the former, but I can also see where the latter are coming from. Forgiveness means nothing if perpetrators don’t really change, not if all they’re given is a slap on the wrist. Hell, many times they don’t even get that. I was told once that forgiveness isn’t for the perpetrator, it’s also for the victim, a means to let go and be free of all the hurt. It’s a nice thought. Too bad that same person hurt me worse than anyone else ever has. They weaponized their own advice to get away with it. Since they show no remorse, I don’t feel compelled to forgive them.
That doesn’t mean forgiveness is impossible, nor that it can’t heal both parties. However, it is a complicated issue, there are no easy answers, and no one case is the same. Also, personally speaking, there are crimes that are just unforgivable. Some villains just deserve to burn, end of story.
With everything said, I applaud both Sean and Caitlin for tackling these themes. It frustrates me and I question its moral implications, and that’s a good thing. I’m so tired of stories that are unchallenging, that only want to assure an audience’s moral certainty. I want to fight with a story, argue with it, have it dissect me, and vice versa. For that alone, I recommend Bliss #1 on top of Caitlin’s amazing artwork. Whether or not the story succeeds depends on how it unfolds. At least for now, I’m compelled to keep reading.
Story: Sean Lewis Art: Caitlin Yarsky
Story: 7.5 Art: 10 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy
Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review