A heroine unexpectedly emerges amidst the horror (and it’s not who you think).
In comic miniseries, it’s a risky move to take what we have been built up to know in the first chapters of the story and completely pull the rug out from under the reader in the final issue. Sometimes it works brilliantly, and other times it fails miserably. I’m pleased to report that in the case of Breathless, the gamble is successful.
The premise: there is a big bad pharmaceutical company that has been creating monsters to harvest permanent cures for diseases. However, instead of releasing those cures to the public, it’s slowly releasing only semi-successful versions in order to ensure a consistent flow of money and guaranteed recurring patients/consumers. One day, a pharmaceutical lab that investigates the bodies of many of these escaped monsters discovers a cure for asthma, and when the word is accidentally leaked online by one of the lab employees, the company sends monsters to take the lab out. It is mostly successful, but a few survive and are now planning to expose this scandal to the world.
Coming into the issue, I thought things were going to be pretty predictable. Scout, our main character, was going to save the day, be permanently cured of her asthma, and the pharmaceutical company was going to get its comeuppance and Grace-Eisley would come into her own and everyone would be a hero. And by the issue’s end, that’s indeed exactly what happens. Yet what makes it so messed up is that the way all this goes down is not what we expect at all. If the last issue was a breakdown of why Arthur Mathis, the lab’s boss, was a coward and not a powerful menacing threat, then this issue does the same for Scout, our protagonist, in almost the exact same way. In a sense, we should have seen the foreshadowing using Mathis to know that we were going to learn the same about who and what Scout really is in this final chapter.
After a brief setup with Grace-Eisley recording her exposure statement and the pharmaceutical exec, his son, and “Paulie Walnuts,” their henchman, agreeing to meet and discuss demands and terms, the action begins to rip. Farren the succubus remains the secret weapon of the series with her offbeat quirks about enjoying being patted down, but when violence breaks out, she showcases an even more sadistic side. In addition to unleashing a somewhat hilarious and disturbing power that had only been hinted at in previous issues, she’s also illustrated in a very graphic way demonstrating how deadly she is. While Renzo Rodriguez had done a decent job showing off his talent with different types of monsters and various action scenes, there are two moments that are overwhelming in their size and power that simultaneously serve as the artistic and narrative climaxes of the story. The colors in these scenes by Mara Jayne Carpenter are bright, unsettling, and get across the fact that there is no going back.
The main area of focus though, is Scout. In the latter half of the book, the negotiations break down and in one fell swoop, Scout is revealed to not only be selfish, but also unbelievably cowardly, to the point where she will drag innocent lives into the mix. Is this desperation justified, given the disease she has to deal with? Writer Pat Shand doesn’t comment on that, but it’s something to consider. In any case, this opens up Grace-Eisley’s eyes to her mentor and allows her to walk away and ultimately claim the role of true protagonist of the series, while the myth of Scout as a tough and brash heroine is tarnished. A year later, her reputation is fully destroyed in the epilogue, where a few scenes and her politically worded answers about certain cures expose who and what she truly cares about. The final panel is open-ended and hints at monsters not only being real but also metaphorical. The way this is all done is quick, sudden, and nothing short of brilliant. The role reversal in particular of Grace-Eisley and Scout is a thing of beauty. Where Grace-Eisley unintentionally put lives at risk, Scout deliberately endangers innocents. Where Grace Eisley was just scared and naively focused on her own life and world, Scout is an actual coward and only cares about herself.
There were only a few problems I had with the issue, though. Logistically, I thought the setup to the showdown seemed a little clunky. In particular, the start of the violence felt a little engineered and unnatural; it didn’t make sense to me that “Paulie” wouldn’t have been aware that Springheels were going to attack if he took out his gun and that Farren as a succubus wouldn’t have been a threat. But more than this, even though I knocked the last issue for this, I felt a bit let down that a return to the macroeconomic element of the industry as a whole was not explored further. The fact that a path was hinted at that could have been explored made me lament this further.
None of these issues take away from a satisfying and unexpected end to this series. Originally billed as a story that would explore the nefariousness of the pharmaceutical industry, the bonus of this final issue (and the real hidden gem of the series) is a simultaneous character journey of a naïve, frightened neophyte becoming a confident, strong hero and a tough, alpha female being exposed as a cowardly, desparate, selfish monster. The takeaway: for better or worse, people are not who we think they are, and sometimes we don’t realize the potential we have in ourselves.