Familiar Crimes In A Strange New World In Johnston And Greenwood’s ‘The Fuse: The Russia Shift’ [Review]
On its own, the police procedural doesn't have that much traction within modern comics. In the early days of the medium -- especially in newspaper strips -- it was a different story, and straight-up police tales were among some of the most popular of the day. A little over a decade ago, though, everybody seemed to realize the potential to mix police procedurals with other genres, frequently to fantastic and award-winning results: Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top Ten; Gotham Central, by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and others; and Powers by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming. Those books realized the natural fit that cop stories had within superhero stories, and thus a sub-genre was born.
But there's still plenty of room left for cop shows in comics, and over the last few years, the sci-fi procedural has definitely been in its ascendance. With Antony Johnston and Justin Greenwood's The Fuse, we have a new standard by which to judge all others.
When critics and reviewers say that a setting is as much a character as any other, we don't really mean it, unless we're talking about Danny the Street or Ego or something like that. Otherwise, it's just a nice, catchy way of saying that the world is so fleshed-out, and the setting so fascinating, that we might be more interested in the surroundings than the protagonist, the villain, or the love interest. You could say the same about The Fuse and it wouldn't be a slight against the characters: as enigmatic, interesting, and well-rounded as Detectives Ristovych and Dietrich are, the Fuse itself is the real star of the book.
A geosynchronous space station orbiting Earth, the Fuse is populated by over a half-million people, some of them indigenous, born and raised in Midway City; but the station was built by expatriates escaping one thing or another, and it continues to be a beacon to those seeking out a new life.
The Fuse has its own government, culture, and class systems, and a turbulent, bloody back-story. It's a precarious society built in a place that seems barely held together, and in this chaotic world that's built on the premise of autonomy and new beginnings, Detectives Ristovych and Dietrich have volunteered to enforce the law.
As with any good cop story, the partners leading the case have to play well off each other, and Johnston has built a relationship between the two leads that crackles with years of storytelling potential. As the veteran, "Klem" Ristovych is a rarity in comics: a well-written, strong-willed, and interesting woman who's probably closer to sixty than forty. She's lived in The Fuse since its inception -- helped build it, even -- and knows Midway City inside and out. Tough and cynical, she's a perfect foil to her new partner, Detective Ralph Dietrich, who she refers to as "Marlene."
A young, black detective from Germany, Dietrich volunteered for the Midway City beat and orbital life without understanding all that it entailed, and is soon exposed to the grimy inner workings of its politics, history, and proud but conflicted community of exiles.
In The Fuse Vol 1: The Russia Shift, Johnston introduces us to the Fuse with a mystery similar in breadth and scope to television's The Killing or (yes, I'm dropping it) The Wire. The murders of two cablers -- the homeless population who live in the sections between the levels -- lead Ristovych and Dietrich to the highest levels of Midway City government, chasing a case that started in the Fuse's bloody history, decades ago.
It's not the details of the mystery that drive the story, or the fascination in figuring it out that drives you to keep reading; it's what each turn reveals about the characters, the culture, the infrastructure, and the history, nuance, and completeness of the world Johnston and Greenwood have created.
Having worked together on the apocalyptic epic Wasteland for several years, Johnston and Greenwood have already proven themselves adept at world-building, but the density, history, and specificity of the first six issues of The Fuse is so impressive that it feels like the pair have hit a new level. The mystery itself is an interesting one, with several twists and big reveals, but the mystery is just a mechanism, a tumbler that unlocks the wider world of the Fuse.
Johnston and Greenwood are each hitting their stride as storytellers as well. Johnston has several very good comics under his belt, but The Fuse might be the best application of his talent yet. The Fuse is totally unlike anything else he's ever written, yet Johnston is perfectly at home in this crime/sci-fi hybrid, and his characters are fuller, his dialogue sharper than ever before.
Likewise, Greenwood is stretching out into areas we're not used to seeing him in with impressive results. The Fuse is ultimately character-driven, and Greenwood's economical cartooning and cramped framing -- a subconscious reminder that all of this takes place in a tin can -- get a lot of mileage out frequent walk-and-talks.
Where he really shines, though, is his approach to the technology and environs of the Fuse. Even though the story takes place 100-plus years in the future, there's still a lived-in, run-down, commonplace feel to all the wonders of living 22,000 miles above Earth, in a satellite that's barely holding together, and ready to descend into mania at the slightest nudge.
In The Fuse, Johnston and Greenwood imbue the crime/sci-fi story with the depth and complexity of world-class procedural drama. A layered, articulate mystery that tells the story of a fascinating new world, The Fuse Vol. 1: The Russia Shift sets a new standard for the genre.