Saturday, May 11, 2013

Caught Red Handed by Matt Kindt

Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes
by Matt Kindt
First Second, 2013
Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes is the new original graphic novel by Matt Kindt, out this week from First Second. This thing seems to have come out of nowhere considering how deep we are into Kindt's superb ongoing superspy series from Dark Horse, MIND MGMT (he finished it some time ago). But a left-field surprise like this from one of mainstream comics' most distinctive voices is something to celebrate, and Kindt certainly gives us plenty of reason to celebrate in this wonderful new work. Red Handed is so completely unlike Kindt and exactly like Kindt in so many ways: focusing on a notorious detective and a string of seemingly unrelated crimes, it breaks the Kindtian mold of espionage storytelling that he has built his name on, but it is also wonderfully emblematic of so much of Kindt's prior work with a broad range of richly detailed characterizations and a unique art style thankfully unlike anyone else in comics.

Detective Gould of the Red Wheelbarrow Police Department is one of the most extraordinary minds working for any police department in the nation, an investigator of near supernatural power in catching criminals of all stripes. Part of it is the almost monomaniacal devotion to apprehending criminals, part of it is the almost Orwellian network of electronic and human surveillance he has set up across the city. There are newsclippings throughout the book that paint a picture of Red Wheelbarrow as a town that is increasingly rife with crime on the one hand, but with a nearly 100% capture and conviction rate on the other thanks almost solely to Gould's superdetective skills.

The setting of the book is so deliciously undefined. Red Wheelbarrow is a small big city somewhere in the northern United States, and it takes place 10 (20? 40?) years ago (or, perhaps, tomorrow). Kindt's enigmatic watercolor infused art sets the mood. In every way that time and place are a malleable anytime and anyplace, his vividly realized characters each have a unique identity and purpose. Kindt seems to be the master of the slightly broken human, every minor and major character (except for, at first, Gould and his wife) a sharply realized picture of someone who has lost too much or can't find themselves. These characters carry the story (though it comes to pass, they don't drive it).

The crimes presented, that Gould easily and quickly solves, are distinguished by their disparate and wide-ranging nature. Murder, art theft, pickpocketing, vandalism, fur smuggling, a "smut rung." The perpetrators are all complex and fully realized people with complex motivations for their complex crimes. One man steals a Picasso and cuts it up. He founds a business centered on buying famous works of art and cutting them up into massive jigsaws, selling the pieces to art lovers who cannot afford to own the masters but can certainly afford to own a piece. There is the woman who steals chairs... school chairs, restaurant stools, benches. She makes connections to the pieces based on who has used them in the past. Part of it is a weird OCD, part of it is motivated by a deep trauma. And then there is mysterious Tess, who's "secret heart" may be the driving force of the story. She doesn't do anything illegal, but she may be the most criminally minded of all of them. Character after character comes into view, each with a unique crime, each apparently unconnected to the other. But as the story moves forward, we see that there are connections between the characters, that there is a mysterious force at work that is weaving a complicated, intricate web through their lives and their actions, years of planning and manipulation and weaving to catch Gould, the world's greatest detective, in a crime so transcendent, so complicated that even his mind cannot grasp the the full picture.

Gould is presented as obsessed with catching criminals, to a Ditkovian level of objectivism. There is no sense of degree to him, simply the rule of law and the stark black and white line crossed by those who violate the law. It doesn't remotely occur to him to stop crime, just to track down and incarcerate the perpetrators. Throughout the book we see bits of a conversation (an interrogation?) between Gould and someone. This someone is Gould's nemesis, a nemesis as perfect at their task of menace as Gould is at detective work. They debate Gould's limited thinking, the other party arguing that there is a difference between crime and immorality. There are arguments about art and crime and the art of crime, but Gould doesn't budge from the philosophical core that has made him world-famous, but there is something else going on, some recent horrific act that drives Gould and his antithesis to their fates.

Red Handed is an intricate thriller, deeply invested in the lives of the criminals (if you can call them that) and those that would stop them. The questions are hard and the answers are harder. It is a deep mystery achieved by one of the medium's modern masters. Matt Kindt continues to cement his place as one of mainstream comics great original voices, his art continually astonishing. You'll want to read this twice, just to find the connections and the hidden superstructure, only to find that there are even greater mysteries beyond answer.

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