The Roberts, a two-ish mini by the writing team of Justin Shady and Wayne Chinsang with art by Erik Rose, seems like a throw back to the serial killer chic of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.
Pop culture fads - like the civilizations that spawn them or their upmarket analogs: art movements - run through four stages of development before before collapsing: primitive, classic, baroque, and decadent. In the case of serial killer chic, the exemplars of each stage remain with us: respectively, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, the Hannibal franchise that exploded with the film adaptation of Silence of the Lambs, the novel American Psycho, and Se7en. Though these were just the highest points of a vast continent of trendy serial killer junk that has, for the most part, been submerged by the waters of our fickle popular attention. We still recall Bret Easton Ellis's OCD satire of Wall Street greed and media violence, though we tend to forget, for example, that Paul Theroux also tried his hand at the exploitative genre. Always a handy figure for filmmakers, serial killers with over-the-top motives and methods pretty much carried the horror genre limping along until the mid-1990s slasher revival. This time period also gave us the bizarre spectacle of Oliver Stone following up his epic J.F.K. with the psychotronic, but vacuous Natural Born Killers. A little late to the party, even Spike Lee decided to crank out a serial killer pic. Shirts with Manson on the front could be found in Sam Goody's suburban record shops. The mainstream media happily ran inch-filling stories on whether or not serial killers represented an evolutionary adaptation to "modern life." The figure of the serial killer didn't vanish, of course. But the weird moment when figures like Hannibal were not only seen as icons, but as essentially realistic passed us by. Movie-goers have no problem with serial murder, what they can't stand is over-earnestness.
The high concept pitch of The Roberts is Cocoon meets Dexter. In the Shady Lanes Retirement Community, two aged serial killers, the Boston Strangler (they caught the wrong guy) and the Zodiac Killer, are whiling away their golden years, both hiding under the name Robert. They talk shop, boast a little, and eventually decide to hold a contest: who can knock of the well-meaning but mentally deficient old biddy that lives down the hall from both of them. Flush with new-found purpose and the youthful energy that only human predation can provide, one of the killers starts expanding the parameters of the game, threatening to bring the heat they've so long avoided crashing down on them.
Shady and Wayne settle on a very unusual structure for their story, dedicating pretty much the entire first issue to character building and serial killer small talk. In a very leisurely way, we watch the Strangler and Zodiac trade stories and put up with indignities of the old folks' home that live in. They are built like a comedy team: the Zodiac is verbose and friendly, but a little goofy. The Strangler is more sharp-witted, but more grim and gloomy. The Zodiac is always pulling the Strangler to awkward social functions, the Strangler is always deflating the Zodiac's curious notions of self importance. There's a particularly nice scene in which the two killers discuss movies that have been made about them. The Strangler hates what Tony Curtis did to his character, but the he still shames the Zodiac because he was most recently depicted by several nobodies. The joke here is the Strangler's flick is a relatively mediocre film while the Zodiac's film was an Oscar nominated de-romanticization of the whole serial killer figure. The reason for the flicks' differences is lost on them both; they just want to know who played them.
The entire "game" plot rolls mostly through the second issue and is handled efficiently. Playing off the reader expectations regarding the use of the Strangler's narration allows the writers to pull a clever bait-and-switch that gives the whole thing a twist that doesn't seem forced. It does feel unevenly "compressed" compared to the breathing room the characters previously enjoyed.
Rose's art has a scrawling, nervous, almost outsider art feel to it. His jittery lines render the ravages of old age with a particular violence. The Strangler, especially, appears to have his wrinkles carved into him. Rose isn't big on backgrounds, often dropping out detail or simply forgoing the backgrounds altogether. While this occasionally makes his blocking difficult to figure out and can obscure the flow of action, it does jibe nicely with the raging monomania of the Roberts.
Curiously, the book's obsession with serial killer minutia is the only drag. Part of what drove the serial killer chic era was the refusal to see grotesquely mundane aspects of serial killer. The killer's became mythological predators in a modern world that had become a jungle. Less was said about how, in general, most serial killers were barely functional individuals. Far from being evil geniuses, the records of the killers showed that community apathy and police blundering were more often than not the reason they could continue their murderous rampages. Like all good pop icons, the killers couldn't survive being outted as pathetic. The Roberts suffers from an overabundance of the romantic mentality without showing any understanding of the flip slide of that coin. The name-dropping and research would be made more palatable if the reader felt that the authors knew that their characters were, at base, just really shitty human beings. This is odd sense of killer-cool is further reinforced by the extras the team has packed into the trade, including copies of several letters from Charlie Manson and Richard Ramirez. It's unclear if we're supposed to laugh at the incomprehensible ravings of Manson or give the authors cred for communing with evil. In my opinion, neither result would justify even the slightest possibility of giving Manson the solace of knowing he's still thought about and discussed in world outside his prison.
That said, the original premise is fresh and the characterizations compelling. The art is striking in a suitably off-kilter way. The whole package hangs together well. The Roberts is a well done, inventive, and refreshingly low-key slow-burn thriller.