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Garth Ennis & Craig Cermak’s ‘Red Team’ Is A Good Start For a Dark Tale [Review]

Some people deserve to die. They’re so vile or anti-life that leaving them alive would only result in misery for everyone they meet. At the same time, is it right to kill them? In Red Team, Garth Ennis and Craig Cermak are exploring this conundrum. The titular Red Team are a small squad of elite police in New York City, and one day they decide to murder a criminal they can’t collar the normal way. Instead of telling a high-octane story about cops who have been pushed too far, Ennis and Cermak are telling the other story, the one where breaking the law has consequences and hard men and women doing hard things aren’t welcome.Americans love vigilantes. Maybe not the real deal, but the idea of vigilantes? We can’t get enough. One man or a small group of men — they’re almost always men — up against the system, or drug dealers, or bankers, or terrorists? We eat it up. We like vigilantes because sometimes life isn’t fair. Drunk drivers get away scot-free, drug dealers operate with impunity, and the police get to kill innocents and walk away heroes. Why isn’t there someone out there who can rescue us from the people we can’t stop? Where’s our John McClane, Frank Castle, Bruce Wayne, Matt Murdock?

In Red Team, Ennis and Cermak give us our vigilantes, but with a twist: there’s no glory here. The four members — three men, one woman — of Red Team don’t fire twin submachine guns with a quip and a grin. They don’t get into high-speed car chases. They don’t lay a big fat kiss on the girl at the end. They’re at the end of their rope, upset, and willing to do the unthinkable.

I wasn’t familiar with Cermak’s art prior to reading Red Team, but I can see why Dynamite chose him for this story. The vast majority of Red Team #1 is composed of a series of conversations, essentially, and Cermak handles them well. Characters that are troubled, angry, and tired look it. Cermak has a fairly realistic style that puts me in mind of frequent Ennis collaborators like Jacen Burrows and Steve Dillon, instead of John Pugh and Goran Parlov.

Cermak’s realistic flourishes, and Adriano Lucas’s dulled palette, are crucial to Red Team‘s tone. There’s no glory here, and Cermak never glamorizes the leads or the action on the page. I never felt like I wanted to be these guys, or that what they were doing was justified. The art goes a long way toward making sure that tone stays consistent. Cermak never goes big, for lack of a better term, and the book is better for it. He may go big later in the series, when things begin to spiral down the drain, but the first issue is the one that sets the tone for the rest of the series, and Cermak does a pretty good job of making this feel like an intimate, low-key comic instead of an action/adventure tale.

Red Team is Ennis working in a mode similar to Punisher MAX, but even more restrained than that. In Punisher MAX, Ennis still needed to feed the beast, so we personally witnessed the Punisher murder dozens, if not hundreds, alongside the moments when the series flashed dark or brilliant. Red Team feels like a cross between Punisher MAX and Ennis’s war stories. We have the frank exploration of violence and vengeance that made Punisher MAX such a fantastic comic, but it’s tempered by the muted, melancholy tone that often shows up in his war tales.

Ennis’s story is simple and familiar. The four members of Red Team have been pushed to the limit by a local kingpin called Clinton Days. After the death of a cop, and the subsequent murder-by-cop of that cop’s assassin, they decide that they’ve had enough. Something has to be done, and if that means stepping outside the law, so be it.

I expected Red Team to be about the team getting away with murder, but that doesn’t appear to be the case at all. The first page features a member of the team being interrogated, and he explains what happened to them in the past tense. There’s an air of finality and melancholy to the first issue, as if there’s no hope left to be found.

Ennis and Cermak are building up to something big and ugly and inevitable. They cover enough ground in the first issue to open up several avenues of destruction, and I’m curious to see where the story goes over the next six issues. The first issue defied my expectations. I figure the next six will, too.

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