Take one-part Batman: The Animated Series, combine it with the tone of Warren Ellis’ RED, and you get Assassin Nation. Writer Kyle Starks approaches the underworld of assassins with satire and tongue-in-cheek humor, never letting up on the thrills or set-piece moments. Issue #2 strives to take a closer look into the backgrounds of the remaining killers-for-hire after the first issue‘s Hunger Games-style opening salvo. Certain moments target a deeper tone, providing insight into what makes a person trade life for money. Unfortunately, the attempted balance between humor and more in-depth characterization of the characters falls flat; comedy and absurdity dominate the book. Readers looking for a title with more profound themes should look elsewhere; conversely, if you merely want a swath of bullets and blood, welcome home.
Boss Rankin is the former number one assassin in the world, and current head of a major crime family. After attempts have been made on his life, Rankin hires the best-ranked assassins from around the globe to protect him. Unfortunately, but somewhat expected, the meeting became an all-out barrage of death and destruction when it was discovered a mercenary had attended the meeting solely to collect on the contract for Boss Rankin’s head. Only eight remain to take up Rankin’s offer to serve as his private security force. All are here for one reason: money, but Maxwell Bishop has revenge on his mind. Despite the bounty, Rankin refuses to remain in hiding. With a business meeting to attend, this hodgepodge of murderers steps out for the first time as security for hire. What can go wrong?
Assassin Nation #2’s attempts at character building and nuanced relationships are shallow at best. The larger group of Assassins are caricatures of stereotypes typical to the genre. With names like David Bowie Knife, the Mamba Twins, and even F*ck Tarkington, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to figure out how one-dimensional most of them turn out to be. Appropriately enough, most of them don’t remain alive long enough to warrant unpacking of their backstory. The one glaring exception is the relationship and juxtaposition of Boss Rankin and Maxwell Bishop.
Boss Rankin is like the ex-jock living vicariously in the glory days of being of the starting quarterback. He continually harps on his time as the world’s best killer, going as far to envy Maxwell for being a part of the vicious battle that left 12 dead. Maxwell, on the other hand, sees it for what it truly is: “awful.” The retired killers have managed to step down from a profession that punishes longevity and have come out on the other side with completely opposing perspectives. The only thing fueling Bishop’s desire to see the mission through is his desire to discover who killed his significant other, the culprit is likely among the remaining survivors. Rankin is driven by his endless lust for power (and saving his own skin). Kyle Starks handily manages to cram a lot of insight between the men into two pages of dialogue; however, the gradation is too far and few between, leading to some apparent predictions to the actual killer of Maxwell’s husband.
A perfect example of this “crammed” storytelling is a series of flashbacks that take place among the assassins during a rare moment of downtime. Dave (no fancy nickname) presents a team-building exercise that involves the group detailing their first kill. Pretty basic stuff by assassin standards, right? Each flashback is concisely told in exactly five panels, showcasing Stark’s capacity for the medium — short but sweet stories told in a tight package. Once again, the brevity makes predicting how things play out even more apparent. Who didn’t get a story? How important are these people when they only get a fraction of panels dedicated to them? In the end, Assassin Nation feels more like the story of two has-been assassins at odds with one another, rather than the glut of killers it was purported to be.
With a comic book steeped in murder (or any comic for that matter), the art must be addressed. The sheer brutality can be approached in several ways, but artist Erica Henderson’s work dilutes any implications of gratuitous violence. From the front cover to the closing panels, Henderson’s art brings back memories of Bruce Timm’s extremely recognizable style on DC’s animated shows like Justice League and Batman Beyond. Her style is both a blessing and a curse for the book. On the one hand, it allows for violence on brutal levels without alienating portions of the audience. Consider how your average cartoon can showcase violence but remain suitable for most children. On the other hand, death in Assassin Nation feels less significant, lacking substance or sobriety.
If nothing else, Assassin Nation is pure, simple escapism catered to fans seeking a straight forward story of revenge. There’s nothing wrong with that, on a surface level. However, with a bevy of books on the shelves garnering readers’ attention, Assassin Nation may get lost in the shuffle for not providing the depth most mature readers have grown accustomed to.