Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Drowntown: guns, ladies, hapless PI'sand a talking panda

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Part pulp noir, part sci-fi, featuring a hard and hulking PI, big guns, beautiful girls, sleek, sexy aquabikes, anthropomorphology,and much more, Drowntown could very easily have gone very wrong. I’m sure to some people that line of description will sound pretty wrong in itself. In this first of 3 volumes, Morrison takes an all hands to deck approach, giving the audience the full hand of players involved, the elements in place -and it works.
The setting is London futureopolis, but not quite as envisioned. The long-predicted climatic changes have boomed into effect, leaving the world and the capital submerged in water, making roads and cars obsolete, and forcing  the wealthy to retreat to their literal towers to escape from rising waters and the unseemly results of ever increasing human/animal genetic DNA splicing. Money, as ever, lies in patents, properties, politics and weaponry.
Morrison gives us a fantastic opening- our, um, hero in danger. Done many a time before yes, but done again here with verve and wit that makes it fresh once more. Up to his neck in mud and water, with guns of various sizes pointed at him, we get the seen-it-all-before, wise-cracking internal monologue of the rather bummy, but richly christened PI, Leo Noriet. As a reader you recognise and side with him instantly- the tough, dubious but ultimately good guy, here in the guise of a looming bearded, Hawaiian shirt wearing frame- less the dashing, loveable rogue, and more the affable, funny guy.  Saved at the last minute by a  human-hyena hybrid of indeterminate will and purpose, Leo is soon reminded of that old addage; nothing comes for free. His mysterious saviour turns out to be in the employ of one Alexandra Bastet, underworld figure,  African leader, object of the West; suspicion and greed.
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While Alexandra has risen swiftly to power, she remembers nothing from the first 19 years of her life or how she came to find herself in Africa, other than that when she was ‘found’ she spoke with a London accent. Naturally keen to find out what has passed before her enemies do, she hires Leo to find out exactly who she is. Meanwhile, another lady of mysterious origin, bike courier, Gina Cassel finds herself catching the eye of heir-with-a-heart,Vincent Drakenberg, whose father’s company aims to control the weather, humans, hybrids, DNA patents- pretty much everything. And all these erstwhile people, it would appear, are linked in some way; the questions of how and why remain elusive.
As I said, Morrison chucks in a whole load of players, but never veers off track; hooking and maintaining the reader’s interest, setting up shop- introducing the various characters, getting plot-lines rolling in a healthy manner, dropping clues, hints, but not giving too much away just yet either. He’s aided and abetted in large part by Jim Murray’s sublime artwork: the way he draws the water is insane: green and murky, with thickness and dirt and heaving swells of movement that you can see. I would really have liked to see more of the world Morrison and Murray have created here, simply because what we do get looks amazing and I’m curious and eager to it built upon. A little more focus and inclusion in terms of the physical effects, changes and minutiae of having a semi-drowned world would be fantastic and hopefully will be expanded on in the upcoming books.
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I loved Drowntown, and yes, it ticks a multitude of my ‘narrative favourites’ boxes: crime/mystery/sci-fi/interesting worldscape/anthropomorphic characters, but I wouldn’t have loved it if  it was bad, if those things were all jumbled together in a incomprehensible mess. Morrison’s plucking of tropes and scenarios from various genres, mixed with strong original elements really make this a super read; he uses humour, in particular, with finesse, balancing it perfectly- Noiret’s interactions with the rat community serve as the undisputed highlights of the book.
There are a few quibbles that niggle here and there; the characterisation and relationship of Vincent the rich heir and Gina the poor good-hearted biker girl is in danger of being sketchily superficial- she, at least, is saved by a sudden and truly unexpected turn of events towards the end ,but it is difficult to muster any enthusiasm or empathy for him. It could simply be that at this stage their arc requires introduction and nothing greater, but it feels inadequate. Which brings me to my next point-  I don’t know how long it takes Jim Murray to produce this art, but at 48 pages long, and one would imagine 2 volumes of similar length to come, I can’t help but feel the whole narrative would have served as a meatier, more fulfilling experience, had it been served as one, especially when you take into account this cant be read as a stand alone book. Of course, part of that is also due to the fact that Drowntown is so good I wished it was longer and I wished those second and third volumes were in my hands now.
Drowntown reaches high and achieves much of it, comedy, adventure,  intrigue, entertainment and sumptuous art- I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything else quite like it for a while.
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