Wednesday, May 16, 2012

99 Days

Written by Matteo Casali
Art by Kristian Donaldson

I read 99 Days, one of the Vertigo Crime graphic novels in two sittings, and something strange occurred overnight with this book.  When I read the first 75 pages or so, I felt that writer Matteo Casali was simply going through the motions of touching on any number of standard plot points in a police procedural, or a piece of fiction touching on the Rwandan genocide.  I wasn't that impressed with the book.

Then, I picked it up to finish the last hundred pages, and found that either my mood changed my perception of the book, or that I had put it down in exactly the spot where Casali turned the book around into something that attempted to grapple with some very important issues.  I found that I became pretty immersed in the book from that point on, and it stayed with me the rest of the evening after I finished it.  That's kind of rare.

This story is set in Los Angeles in 2010.  A young woman has been discovered in a South Central neighbourhood hacked to death with a machete.  Two LAPD detectives, Antoine Boyd and Valeria Torres have been assigned to the case, which quickly spirals out of their control.  When it is learned that the victim was the ex-girlfriend of a leader of the LA Crips, who had since been dating a Blood, a gang war sparks off.  While all of this is going on, someone keeps killing people with his machete.

This could have stayed a pretty conventional police procedural at this point, but we readers learn (as, eventually, does his partner) that Boyd was an orphan of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  More than that, he was a participant, forced at the age of twelve to kill Tutsi's (despite the fact that his closest friend was one) and perform other degrading acts.  Years later, after much therapy, Boyd has his life together, despite having to take medication to aid his moods, and being generally regarded as a 'quota hire' by his colleagues.

Needless to say, this case is bringing up some issues for Boyd, and the way in which he reacts to it was not what I expected.  Casali does a good job of twisting the plot in a few directions over the course of this story.

What I most appreciated were the parallels between Rwanda and LA.  Sure, the '99 days' bit is a little too obvious, but what I most liked was the American shock radio jockey whose reports on the gang war echoed the open encouragement and incitement of genocide that set things off in Kigali.  Casali has clearly done a ton of research in writing this book, and that's always appreciated, especially since I've done my own reading on this topic (Note:  read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda; it's incredible).

Kristian Donaldson's work on this book is also interesting.  He isn't given the space and freedom to go wild, as he did in Brian Wood's Supermarket, instead keeping his pencils tight and in line with the rest of the Vertigo Crime books.  My favourite scene in the book has to be all Donaldson though - Boyd frequently sees the shade of his childhood friend out of the corner of his eye - in this one place, what he thought was his friend was really a Shepard Fairey Obey poster.  It's a cool, if throwaway, moment.

This is one of the best of the Vertigo Crime books, an imprint that seems to have disappeared, as I don't think any new books have been published in this line in quite a while.  They frequently disappointed, but I had the feeling that Vertigo was finally starting to get the mix right on these books.

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