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The Names (2015)
Book Reviews

The Names (2015)

A Wall Street sci-fi thriller that feels like an aborted effort at a larger world-building exercise that was mercifully cut short.

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One of the more frustrating things about mainstream American comic books is how often they take what might have been a truly intriguing story on its own and muck up the works by insisting aliens, tentacles, demons, or some demonic presence be in there somewhere. The machinations of the “real world” are seldom ever left to their own devices, to live or die, creatively, by the storytelling efforts of those writers and artists presenting them. Nope, it’s usually aliens, tentacles, and demons FTW.

The Names, which collects all nine issues of Vertigo’s limited run series into one thick volume, is a prime example of such a muck-up in action.

We first see Kevin Walker, successful Wall Street trader, high in his posh high-rise office, being manipulated by a gangly man calling himself The Surgeon to commit suicide by jumping out his window. And, just in case anyone find this sudden action suspicious, his medical records will be manipulated to show him battling depression and, thus, a likely candidate for suicide. We’re not dealing with your ordinary killer here; this guy’s got connections.

Kevin’s apparent suicide doesn’t make sense to Katya, his gorgeous 25-year old widow, now left to pick up the pieces. Did I say gorgeous? Katya is nearly perfect, with a heavenly body and a never-ending wardrobe to match, it’s not difficult to see why any man would be lucky to have someone like her. Oh, she’s also got just enough training in armed combat to keep the baddies at bay, a skill she’ll need to survive.

But Kevin also left behind his teenage son, Phillip, who suffers from “selective mutism”, which apparently is short for mathematically gifted autism. He’s a genius, but one with a host of personality defects. He’s also not Katya’s biggest fan, blaming her for monopolizing his father’s attention after his mother’s untimely death. This strained relationship is only made worse because of Phillip’s other major issue, namely a severe sexual repression; he masturbates constantly to sexy pictures of his step-mom. A step-Oedipal complex, you might say.

What would compel a man to take his own life? A better question might be who. Now, banded together following Kevin’s death, these two opposites must work together to solve the mystery of Kevin’s death, which includes dealing with and surviving the deadly organization known only as The Names.

It won’t be easy. Hot on their heels is The Surgeon, whom we first met convincing Kevin to jump out his office window. He’s a big-headed Joker wannabe (who oddly resembles Leonard Nimoy) that’s also in charge of The Names’ internal unit of enforcers, The League of Psychopaths.

Underneath all this craziness are The Dark Loops (note the book’s favorite naming mechanism for its organizations), which are apparently a collective of “transmuted parcels of sentient information” that have managed to muck up the world’s markets and currencies by possessing humans. The code is coming alive, and it wants to Kill. All. Humans. Or clear out their bank accounts, at least.

If the idea a of parent figure and gifted autistic child with the gift to decode mathematical patterns on the run from a dastardly group sounds at all familiar think back to the largely forgotten 1998 Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising. It’s pretty similar, and just about as disappointing.

The Names is the type of story that constantly feels like it’s trying to say something relevant or important about its underlying premise, in this case Wall Street scoundrels and the perils of capitalism gone bad. You know, a message that gets Elizabeth Warren fans and Occupy Wall Street protesters jazzed up and ready to rah, rah, rah! Unfortunately, any insight or social commentary intended is lost under the weight of lazy comic book trappings and bizarre filler.

The Dark Loops are sentient just because they are, just as they’re able to “jump the species barrier” and wreck havoc on the world’s markets. None of this makes any sense, but it doesn’t have to in this stylized, fashion-conscious world of cat and mouse.

As the shadowy governing body in control of the world’s markets the titular The Names seem too incompetent and organization to be as influential as presented here. And what of their enforcers, the League of Psychopaths? Yeah, putting a group of crazed wackos in charge of meting out punishments and silencing enemies wouldn’t raise any suspicions or red flags. Nope.

More than anything, this could have been a really solid chase story, had its energy not been constantly sapped by the invisible hands of generic world-building excess of Comic Book Land. The lure of corrupt markets and diabolical traders, sentient, species-crossing nanocode, psychopathic killers and sexy widows all vying for attention are simply too much for this overstuffed potato.

Peter Milligan is such a prolific comic book writer than I’m not surprised he’s chosen to frame his cautionary tale of Wall Street malfeasance among 1% overlords among parallel tales of crazed psychopaths and transhumanism; diatribes about financial markets and economic breakdown analysis is usually the domain of pompous ‘literate’ graphic novels.

Whenever there’s plot holes or something complicated needs explaining the story just sallies forth, brushing off what might have been truly interesting explanations “by a process of logic too convoluted to explain” to readers. Okay. It’s pretty clear the setup prefers showing off Katya’s impressive thongs and – admittedly – well paced and seriously bloody action bits than making any sense of its intriguing setup.

As his lead character Katya is a veritable cyber of what passes for a perfect feminist fantasy, or what a repressed comic book feminist fantasy looks like; black (with fluctuating Asian features), incredibly sexy, perfectly proportioned – with skin-tight wardrobe to match (one outfit gives her serious cameltoe), yet able to beat up men (almost all men, by the way) several times her size. Her personality is all over the map, sometimes she’s soft and sensitive, at others nonchalant and flippant about what’s at hand. And let’s not forget her gay best friend slash personal trainer. But she’s always – and I mean always – fashion sensible. Girl looks good

If nothing else, Fernandez’s artwork is appropriately trippy, dizzying even, as he twists and bends every perspective and anatomical feature to suit the mood and body type. His work in dressing Katya is also first-rate, easily the most fleshed out part of the entire series – if you catch my drift. Every time we see Katya she’s adorned in a new outfit, each sexier and more fabulous than the next. For a woman supposedly on the run from gangs of nebulous organizations and psychopathic killers, she sure does find the time to dress smart – even taking some time out to go shopping to shore up her wardrobe.

By far the most interesting thing in this compendium, visually, are the enigmatic and surreal covers by Celia Calle, each crazier and more visually distorted than the next. Seriously, these would be frameable pieces, if only the subject matter merited the effort.

For all its titillating artwork, The Names often feels like an aborted effort at a larger world-building exercise that was cut short, perhaps mercifully, as it barely manages to keep our interest even in this limited series. The premise of sentient code reeking havoc among both the financial systems of the world and it’s shadowy controlling forces has serious potential, but the story told here never lives up to that promise, turning from serious to seriously icky without missing a beat. Pass, unless you need some hella good fashion tips.