Two Dead is a compelling drama, set shortly after World War II in the United States. Racism was rife, gangsters ruled the streets and men were happier to shoot their problems than solve them. Gideon Kemp has returned from fighting in Europe a changed man. In a flashback in the first few pages, we see that his service was complicated, and he’s haunted by a friendly fire incident in which he killed a fellow American soldier.
Back home he passes through the FBI school and ends up as a detective in Little Rock, Arkansas, which has problems of its own. The town is divided into coloured and white areas, and the white police won’t enter the coloured side of town unless it’s to haul out a suspect. To protect themselves, the coloured population have set up their own police force, with little love lost between the two. However, the town is really run by the mob, who have the town’s leaders in their pockets.
The white police are headed up by a blood-crazed right-wing lunatic, who has a genuine desire to clean up the town but believes it can only be done by murdering anyone who looks at him funny, covering up his crimes with lies and false evidence. Meanwhile, the leader of the mob is his brutal equal.
Mixed up in the middle of all this are two men, brothers who’ve ended up on opposite sides of the tracks. One heads up the coloured police force and wants nothing more than to protect his people, but is waging a war of attrition against the white police. The other brother finds himself rising up the ranks of the mob, hoping that he can make enough money to escape from the purgatory of his town.
This only scratches the surface of this extraordinary book, which is simply crammed with complex characters, living and dying in a brutal world. Few of them come out of it well, victims of their own greed and prejudice. However, it’s a horrific but fascinating glance at a moment in history, beautifully written by Van Jensen.
It wouldn’t be quite as magical without Nate Powell’s stunning artwork. His characters bring Jensen’s personalities to life, with a fluidity of style that just flows through the pages. His portraits are a perfect balance of style and realism, channeling an incredible richness of personality.
No surprise, then, that this book gets top marks from me. The story is deep and challenging, the art rich and splendid. You can’t really ask for much more in a graphic novel.