Saturday, October 9, 2010

Review: Torso

Torso A True Crime Graphic Novel Jinx Torso Killer Brian Michael Bendis Marc Andreyko Eliot Ness Cleveland Ohio Red Skull Image Comics Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko
Artist: Brian Michael Bendis
Collects: Jinx: Torso #1-6 (1998-99)
Published: Image, 2000; $24.95

Torso is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. It seemed like a perfect fit for me since I find a lot of Brian Michael Bendis’s early work pretty enjoyable, and since the story is tangentially related to one of my favorite movies, Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. The movie follows federal agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) in his efforts to bring down the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone, and ends with Capone being convicted of tax evasion, the only charge Ness and his team could get to stick. Torso is based on the actual story of what Ness did afterward, which was to take over as Safety Director for the city of Cleveland. Before long, though, the city is struck by a series of bizarre murders committed by a serial killer known as the “Torso Killer.”

The real-life story here is pretty fascinating, and it’s clear that Bendis and co-writer Marc Andreyko did a lot of research for the book. Unfortunately, an interesting concept and solid research don’t necessarily make for good writing or artwork, neither of which are to be found with any consistency in Torso. The story follows not just Ness, but two detectives who have been assigned to the Torso Killer case. None of the characters are very easy to sympathize with – the detectives are interchangeable and bland, and Ness comes off most of the time as little more than an arrogant jerk. The writing is pure Bendis, and if you’re at all familiar with his recent work then you know exactly what I mean: the book is full of ridiculously talkative characters who ask and answer far too many rhetorical questions in as choppy and stilted a fashion as humanly possible.

But what kills the book more than anything else is the art, which is quite possibly the laziest I have ever seen in a comic book. Each character has no more than five different facial expressions, which Bendis simply copies and pastes for every single panel, changing their sizes and their positions in relation to each other as the situation warrants. Think of it like trying to tell a story with an industrial-sized box of the same five stickers. Perhaps in an effort to make the book “dark and gritty,” almost every expression in Bendis’s limited repertoire is heavily shadowed, even when the characters appear in settings that should be considerably brighter. For scenes in which something other than an extreme close-up is needed, the characters usually appear simply in silhouette. It’s worth noting too that text at the beginning of each of the book’s six chapters claims that Torso was “created and written” by Bendis and Andreyko, and “executed” by Bendis. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be a pun; if it is, I’m not laughing.

If the book were only 30 or 50 pages, I probably wouldn’t have minded the repetition in the art so much – but at nearly 300 pages, I was sick of even looking at Torso about a third of the way into it. In fact, I think it was around that point that I realized I would rather have just read the actual script than the comic itself. It’s not just that the art is boring; it’s that it actively works against the story. The ending in particular is an incomprehensible mess, due mostly to the fact that everything and everyone in the last few pages looks exactly the same. I honestly have no idea what happens in the final scenes, although I’ve determined that it involves multiple decapitations (with one character somehow being decapitated twice, as far as I can tell) and at least one character being alive for some reason after having died in a fire just minutes earlier. Does that sound confusing? It should, because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. In fact, in the process of writing it down I very well may have actually made it sound more coherent than it really is.

As I’ve already mentioned, the true story that Torso is based on is undoubtedly an interesting one. Don’t let that fool you into reading this disappointing comic, though – it will only frustrate you and leave you with more questions than you had before you started. If you’re really that interested in the subject matter, picking up a history book seems to me like it would be a much better bet.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5


  1. So the same five facial expressions were used between characters for 300 pages? Oh God this sounds awful, I'm kinda shocked that it even got a 1.5. The sad thing is it seems like the story should've had so much potential as well. Ah well, nice review Marc, here's hoping you get a better trade to review next week.

  2. Thanks for the comment, JT! Yeah, I had really high hopes for this book and it was a complete and total let-down. It might make a good movie, and I think it really could have made a comic too, but the way Bendis "executed" it just didn't work at all.

  3. Well, my first class of the day was cancelled, so that finally gave me the time to check out your post, Marc! And it's put me in the perfect mood for the rest of my classes later on in the day. First off, what the HELL was Bendis doing the art here for?? When I think Bendis, I think inane dialogue, NOT artist! So that right there was weird in and of itself.

    As for the story, the premise sounded REALLY interesting. When I read your first paragraph, I was thinking, "Hey, this sounds like something I might want to read." and then by the time I got to the end of the review I had changed to, "Man, I'm GLAD I never picked this up!" Great review Marc, and it's put a big smile on my face for the rest of the school day, so thanks for that!

  4. Haha, I'm glad to have brightened your day with a review of a terrible comic! Bendis actually began his comics career as a writer/artist, and some of that stuff, like Fortune and Glory, is pretty good. He stopped drawing once he started writing for Marvel.

  5. It's disheartening to learn that a piece of work amounts to 300 pages of trash. (At some point, someone had to have realized that, you would think). Anyway, this review was very entertaining to read. I certainly laughed a couple times at your bitter tone. Great job, my friend.

  6. I'm surprised that you mentioned Fortune and Glory, without talking about the main plot, which was trying to turn Torso into a movie. I don't remember seeing much repetition in the art, but then, I flipped through the book pretty fast just to get a gist of the story. I wanted to see how it ended, since it was supposed to be a shocker, but I was less than thrilled with the results.

    I've noticed that American artists that use realistic art tend to have the least amount of facial expressions possible. Just look at the Golden Age of comics, and you'll see the squared-jaw heroes are remarkable stoic in their looks, hardly showing their emotions for fear of being unrecognizable.

  7. Thanks for your comment, DeBT. I guess I didn't mention it because Fortune and Glory really only uses Torso as a means to an end -- as an excuse to satirize Hollywood in general. The movie that the main character tries to get made could literally be anything, since it's totally incidental to the plot.

    Tying that into your second point, I noticed a lot more range in Bendis's artistic style in Fortune and Glory than in Torso, and I think a HUGE part of that had to do with him attempting a much less realistic look. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that "realistic" arts have less range in terms of facial expressions, though; Bryan Hitch is the first counterexample that comes to mind. Plus, there are a lot of "less realistic" artists who are just as limited. Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley tend to reuse panels ad nauseum in Invincible, for example.