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‘Area 10′: You Need This Comic Like a Hole in the Head [Review]

Detective Adam Kamen has a problem with Henry the Eighth. No, he’s not a history geek incensed with Showtime’s sexy-fication of history; he’s a detective in the Vertigo Crime graphic novel Area 10, and he’s hunting a killer (named after the oft-married monarch) whose victims have been turning up decapitated, and their heads taken away.

Kamen ends up taking a six-week break from the investigation, however, when a crazy person stabs him in the head with a screwdriver and lands him in a hospital. It turns out Kamen has undergone involuntary trepanation, the ancient practice of drilling a hole in one’s skull to allow blood flow into the brain and open the mind to new forms of perception. Kamen is soon hallucinating, possibly seeing visions of the past and future around him that he can’t control.

Written by Christos Gage with art by Chris Samnee, Area 10 is a modern thriller about the hunt for a killer who takes people’s heads being pursued by an NYPD Detective with a hole in his head. Yes, Area 10‘s story deals quite a bit with the concept of trepanation, and offers a tense, sometimes disturbing take on modern noir that’ll please crime fiction fans and readers uneasy and yet curious to discover more.Unable to sleep, Kamen forces himself to stay on the investigation with the help of a sympathetic doctor specializing in potential brain damage cases. The doctor happens to be a she, and from the moment she first appears, you don’t need to be able to predict the future in order to assume she and Kamen will end up engaging in activities involving naturally occurring holes in the body.

Kamen’s character is both the strongest element of the story as well as an unintentional spotlight on the undeveloped rest of the cast. Gage does an excellent job of creating a protagonist we view with competing amounts of sympathy and suspicion, unsure of how much of the truth of his condition we’re seeing right up until the end. But how much we see of Kamen is a contrast to how little we see of his partner, his doctor/girlfriend, his boss, and his ex-wife. They’re all pretty one-dimensional characters, existing to provoke parts of Kamen’s personality rather than to be any kind of developed, interesting presence on their own. Which isn’t bad necessarily, it just means this isn’t a story for anyone primarily focused on character development.

The draw here is the mystery. And while Gage has a few television scripts to his credit, having penned episodes of Law & Order SVU and Numb3rs (as well as one of the finest television films ever made based on misheard lyrics of The Who), Area 10 has more of the feeling of Fringe to it. It’s pseudoscience and metaphysics mixed with a police procedural, although again lacking a larger cast of quirky characters.

All that being said, Area 10 should come with a warning. See, I’m trypanophobic. That’s the term for someone with a pronounced fear of any medical procedures involving needles. I can’t look at injections or similar forms of doctor-patient-pointy-metal interaction without getting chills and feeling as though my skin’s squirming underneath the surface all over my body. And Area 10 repeatedly brought out this reaction in me, over and over again.

If I were to let the part of my brain responsible for those reactions write this review, it’d just be a sequence of “AAAAAHHHH!!! AAAAHHHH!!!” of differing lengths, capitalization, and number of exclamation points. Area 10 made me physically uncomfortable in a way that far more gory and violent comics never have. And not because it’s over the top. Chris Samnee’s art is gorgeous and well-suited to telling a noir story in simple black and whites in a way I never would have expected after seeing his work in more brightly colored comics. But the way it shows trepanations in a straightforward manner is a hundred times more creepy, to me, than a glorified disembowelment.

It’s very effective at setting a discomforting mood throughout the story, but might be a little too much if you’re particularly repulsed by skin, bone and blood being pierced by a long, pointy bit of metal. I’m guessing that for a normal reader it sets a perfect tone, but I’m a little too sensitive to the visuals presented and had to take a series of breaks to sit in the corner, huddle into a fetal position, and rock back and forth until the scary head-hole pictures in the book went away.

So that’s Area 10: a nice mix of noir, police procedural and metaphysical mystery. It’s probably a must-avoid if the sentence “screwdriver jammed into skull” makes you shake your body as if you’re trying to throw off some horrible sensation, but a satisfying mystery worth checking out for crime drama fans.

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