More than 20 years after a crime spree that shook the Boston underworld, the masked vigilante is back in the game.
True crime comics can be a bit of a mixed bag, as the real-world setting can cast a pretty heavy shadow. In Dead Rabbit, Gerry Duggan and John McCrea’s attempt to put their own slant on the New England gangster story, the comparison to genre stalwarts like Boondock Saints, Black Mass, and The Departed will be unavoidable – and occasionally unflattering. This opening issue spreads itself a little thin in attempting to build a legacy for its protagonist before introducing us to his decidedly more mundane reality, and getting us embroiled in his return to a life of crime. I get that you need a hook to get people into a new and unproven series, but by the time we get to Rabbit’s wheelchair-bound epileptic wife, it feels like a bit much.
So our story centers around Martin, a man who spent much of the 90s as the masked bandit Dead Rabbit, a pseudo vigilante who would just as quickly rob a mobster’s safehouse as the First Republic Bank in Charlestown. Since he called it quits, Dead Rabbit has become a bit of a local legend like the Comm Ave Runner or DJ Nite Train. The news regularly does puff pieces to commemorate the anniversary of his many crimes, all the while embellishing how much money he walked away with — something that frames the relatively desperate state of affairs Martin and his wife Megan find themselves in. See, whatever money the Rabbit managed to…rabbit away from all his years on the job has long since run out, and the bills are piling up. As such — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — our man Martin is led back into a life of crime, despite making a promise to his wife that he was done. Tale as old as time.
That’s sort of the issue with Dead Rabbit as a whole: It just feels entirely too familiar. The gangster with the heart of gold trope has been done before plenty of times, but it’s far from the only well that Duggan and McCrea go to. Martin is a pastiche of several characters and caricatures from the genre. He’s every weary gunslinger who’s ever been “pulled back into the life” out of necessity. He’s also the “secret badass” cliche, working a boring normal job (he’s a Walmart greeter, even though there isn’t one in Boston. The nearest one is all the way out in Quincy) that starkly contrasts with his extracurricular activities. He also falls into the “small-time crook who bites off more than he can chew” trope when he inadvertently stumbles upon a human trafficking ring run by the very same mobsters he used to hit when he was a full time thug. This naturally will set the rest of the story in motion, but it doesn’t lend the series a lot of originality. I mean, they even lift the “recognizing a criminal by what they’re buying” scene from Breaking Bad wholesale, so there aren’t many unique elements to this one.
A lot of this familiarity could be written off if the art were eye-catching or special enough to take your attention away from the sameness, but while John McCrea’s pencils aren’t bad, per se, there’s a lot of wasted potential here. McCrea has a habit of adding too many lines to his panels, which not only muddies the image, it often ages the characters from panel to panel. In some sections, for example, Martin looks to be modeled off of Daniel Craig, while in others he comes off more as an Archie Bunker by way of Pat Boone type, and the crowding of the features is only exacerbated by the murky color palette chosen by colorist Mike Spicer. Every scene in the issue is dominated by a different color, but all are awkward shades that just don’t pop in a way that catches the eye. The sequences set in bars and other dens of inequity suffer the most from their reliance on purples and browns, whereas the Walmart scene is awkwardly bright — which are elements that I think make a ton of sense on paper, but just don’t come through the way the artists may have intended on…well, paper.
The aforementioned section at the Mart suffers from a few other issues as well, most notably the frequent dropping of the surrounding aisles and customers in favor of a stark white void of a backdrop. Again, I can get the idea that led to it (provided the intention was to highlight the isolation of the characters and the focus on the moment between them) but it just doesn’t work. It’s just one of the visual narrative choices that probably seemed awesome in the creative team’s mind, but just didn’t come together as they had hoped.
I don’t want to be entirely negative, but even the parts I like have some issues. There’s a brief flashback of Rabbit chasing a guy through the gray streets of Southie, for example, that has an great use of shadow but is spread across a gatefold splash page that McCrea choses to fill with a million sheets of paper for some reason, making it look like Martin’s beating down a terrified criminal right after a ticker tape parade. Shoot, even the character design of Dead Rabbit feels like half of a good thing. There’s something to be said about its minimalism and real-world aesthetic, but the suit, mask and cap just screams “gritty 90s indie book,” and again, not in the way that may have been intended. I feel like there was a period where Dark Horse had about five vigilante characters that looked like this, and the fact that he’s basically just Grendel with one of those LED masks from The Purge just feels undercooked, rather than a knowing throwback.
Overall, and despite what it may sound like, this is not a bad book — it’s just a disappointing one. I think Duggan has done some great work in the past, and doing an homage series isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Dead Rabbit feels like it never bothered to come up with a new or interesting take on the genre. This is a by-the-numbers crime vigilante comic that wears its influences on its sleeve, and that’s fine if it’s what you’re looking for. I was just hoping for a new or more interesting slant on the same old tropes that isn’t here. Hopefully it’s just world building jitters and the book’s real promise will shine through in coming issues. For now, though, Dead Rabbit is just another crime comic.