Two Dead, a dramatic crime noir comic, explores racial injustice and abusive police in a corrupt post World War II Little Rock, Arkansas.
The story is told from a number of perspectives, including a racist chief detective haunted by a ghost from his past urging him to go to great and abusive extremes to clean the city. We also follow a rookie detective and WWII vet, trying and failing to hold his chief accountable for his actions, along with two black brothers who respond to their tragic past and the continued racial injustice in their city in opposing ways. One leads the city’s black police force while the other becomes increasingly more involved in the local mafia as the story unfolds.
Van Jensen, a crime writer in Little Rock, loosely based this story on true events, murders, and injustices from this dark time in the city’s history. As is typical of the noir genre, the story is filled with corruption and characters who are usually morally ambiguous at best and often haunted by their past. The story is dramatic and will captivate readers who want suspenseful stories about deeply flawed people.
Many will also be intrigued by the social commentary evident throughout the story, but that really comes together in the final pages, and then in the “Afterward” by Jensen. Kemp, the white WWII veteran and detective, is offended and outraged by the racist abusive tactics of Chief Bailey, but his interventions are often ineffectual. Kemp sometimes even seems to be swayed by Bailey’s supposedly good intentions. However, it is when Jacob, the black police officer, calls out Kemp’s inaction and the systemic racism in the the war and the Little Rock Police Department, that Kemp starts to take more direct action to end Bailey’s reign – which he argues is more dangerous to the citizens of Little Rock than the out of control mafia.
Nate Powell, the artist behind the John Lewis March trilogy, brings this story to another level through his illustrations. Much like the stark shadows of classic film noirs, Powell relies heavily on black throughout the book to invoke the corruption hidden throughout the city and the dark haunting the characters. Few of the panels are of a uniform size or shape, and the outlines of many are absent or fade into the background of the page. In the most intense moments of the story, the panels are at their most complex, bleeding and flowing into each other invoking feelings of chaos and a loss of control. However, there are also moments with an intense pause, where one image or scene fills an entire page or spread. In the moments after a particularly vicious shooting, we see the silhouette of the murderer outside at a grill as the smoke billows over him into the city. There are powerful moments and images in Powell’s art throughout the book to bring the story to its potential.
This book is a must buy for adult graphic novel collections and for most high school collections, especially where crime fiction and social justice books and comics are popular. Van Jensen and Nate Powell are both white men with ties to Little Rock. They researched heavily while creating this book, and deftly brought to light issues of race and police corruption in their city’s past while also connecting this story to these same issues in modern society through the “Afterward.” In the end it is a white character who stops Chief Bailey, by using his power to stand between a white cop and the victims of his violence.
By Van Jensen
Art by Nate Powell
Gallery 13 Comics, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)