COMIC REVIEW: Insiders Vol.1: Chechen Guerrilla (Cinebook Reviews #23)

InsidersVol1If you’ve explored the latest issue of the Geek Syndicate digital magazine you’ve probably read my interview with the publication team that make up Cinebook, so they’ll need no further introduction here.  Just in case you haven’t spotted the magazine, here’s a link to take you there.  The interview’s on page 28.  (Go, go.  I’ll still be here when you get back.)

Nice folks, huh?  I’ve reviewed their output for some time now, and they keep pulling new and interesting fruit out of their comic cornucopia.  Insiders falls into the action/intrigue genre, typified by books like Largo Winch and XIII.  It definitely falls at the more mature end of the market, being fairly plot heavy, full of nasty twists, and raising some pretty complex issues.  Whilst not (yet) reaching the heights of the previously mentioned books, Insiders certainly shows potential.  Organised crime is rife, linking up across the world in a net of foul corruption.  The waters have gotten so muddied that its become impossible to see where the enemies end and the allies begin, but Dick Matthews, ex Director of the CIA, means to clean things up.  He’s got a plan that requires a special kind of person.  The plan is Project Insider, and she is the last person the cartels are expecting.

Writer Jean-Claude Bartoll spent 6 years as an investigative journalist, covering such topics as drug trafficking, the slave trade and mercenaries, so it’s safe to say he knows a fair bit about infiltration and organised crime.  He puts that knowledge to good use, crafting an international plot that feels believable in terms of method and motivation, yet retains its sense of grand villainy.  Najah Cruz is the Insider, sent in alone against the wolves.  She’s an enigmatic figure: extremely capable, determined and brave.  Her closest comic book comparison would be Marvel’s Black Widow, though Najah is far less showy and doesn’t (as yet) use her sexuality as a weapon.  Whilst her past is sketched out, we get very little knowledge of the woman inside the Insider.  What crumbs we do collect is sufficient to see her as a heroine though, which lets us care for her when things start to go wrong.  It’s this essential element of personal threat which centres the tale and twists your guts in all the right places.

The art is handled by Renaud Garetta and the colours by ‘Scarlett’ – and what a fine pairing they make.  If the devil’s in the detail then he’s all over Insiders.  You can tell you’re in good hands from the cinematic opening alone.  The Chechnyan landscape is cold, rugged and hard; the denizens desperate and outgunned.  The way the scene unfolds as the truck is pursued by the helicopter; the way rescue arrives, and the classic hero pose could easily come from a Bond movie.  The images frequently burst from their panels in line with the action, conveying the illusion of speed and movement perfectly.  It’s an absolute masterclass.  If the book had continued along these lines I’d be giving it 5/5 for the sheer thrills and artistry.  Having said that, it’s to the writer’s credit that he tries to achieve more, even if it ultimately fails to live up to that electric opening.  To be fair, there is actually a pretty good balance set, with quieter moments allowing time for exposition and orientation.  It can be pretty tricky to pull off ‘quiet’ without degenerating into talking heads, but Garetta makes every panel count in building relationships between characters and showing us their world.  Having a fight every 4 or 5 pages doesn’t hurt the pace either.

This is one of Cinebook’s double features, a volume containing two trades worth of material.  I think it was a wise decision here because Insiders very quickly becomes top-heavy, plot-wise.  The first half deals primarily with the activation of Project Insider, showing us Najah in action and laying the groundwork for the next volume in terms of the villain.  It’s clear that Bartoll has put a lot of thought into the mechanics of his story, but equally clear is his determination that we understand every aspect as we go along.   Ironically, by bogging himself down with details I found certain story elements less easy to follow.  Whilst the socio-political understanding would give us a better background to the action, it can also get in the way of it.  I found that the sheer number of footnotes and expository dialogue sometimes left me drowning when I wanted to fly.  That said, they still manage to keep the story moving along at a brisk pace.  There are enough locations, engagements and twists in the first half to leave you wanting more.  Thankfully things ramp up a notch in the second half.  Operation Offshore is the opening gambit in our villain’s grab for power.  It’s a tenser affair as Najah begins her infiltration into the criminal landscape.  From the very beginning she faces obstacles that threaten to reveal her, but she faces them down with aplomb, thinking quickly on her feet and adapting accordingly.  Stand out moments include rescuing the journalist and the final assault, as well as some gorgeous landscapes (check out that waterfall on p 60.)

It is sometimes a little difficult to follow all the pieces as the game unfolds, but it definitely benefits from a second read.  The artwork is stylish and dense, without showboating, while the multitude of environments are boggling.  Perhaps the colours could have been more vibrant in places, but this feels a little churlish.  American comics are often so garish that European colours can pale by comparison.  I enjoyed watching Najah kick seven kinds of butt through the pages – I get a real kick out of spy stuff – but the story wasn’t as slick as it could have been.  Part of that is the dirty and complicated nature of the job, but part of it has to come down to the story-telling.  With smoother exposition I would have given this book a solid 4/5 but damn, I found those bits clunky and repetitious.  Overall it may not quite hit the spot for me, but I’m certainly up for seeing how the series develops.  You should give it a go, too.

Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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