Bastard’s Waltz, written by Mark Bertolini and illustrated by Giovanni Guida, is the story of the ludicrously named John the Bastard, notorious, high-ranking super-villain past his prime in dire need of police protection. He insists on the assistance of one man in particular – secret service agent, Ezekiel Sweet. In exchange for his safety, he promises to provide a full account of all his crimes, including names, dates, and other illicit details. This puts him on the radar of not just his pursuer, but also the entire criminal underworld, who would rather keep their secrets buried.
Right off the bat, Bastard’s Waltz has a brilliant premise. It might just be me, but I’m somewhat of a sucker for a bodyguard/crime thriller, especially if the body being guarded belongs to an unsavoury character. If you throw in garish, yet colourful super-villains, consider my money forfeited. There is a lot of potential here in exploring how the super-criminal underworld operates, playing up the clash between the law-abiding bodyguard and his conniving, duplicitous client, or even examining the conflicts of interest caused by this arrangement as it affects both the police and the criminal underground. The first issue leaves a lot of doors waiting to be opened.
The writing is quite good. It doesn’t waste any time and gets straight to the point. The pacing in the 3-act structure is great. It read like a breeze on my first go. Mark Bertolini clearly knows what he’s doing with the plot dynamics and the character work, considering how many first issues of comics generally have a character versus plot problem, with too little of one or the other. It’s not an easy balancing act to pull off in a rigid, 22-page format. Bertolini manages to put in healthy doses of both, with a definite sense of intrigue for future issues.
I particularly liked how mellow the issue was, for the most part aiding in the build up to a great cliffhanger. My favourite bit was the first conversation between Ezekiel and John before he turns himself in to the police. It was a necessary moment of dialogue-based exposition interspersed with interesting character choices. The confrontation was tense with both characters on their toes, yet not overtly hostile. Both characters came off seeming pragmatic and disciplined in the face of danger. More importantly, it made me entirely forgive the fact that one of the main characters is called John the Bastard.
While I can emphatically get behind the writing, the art and colouring are a letdown. Art choices alternate between drab and confusing. The colour pallet is ill-considered and flat, unless one of the main characters or ancillary criminals is in view. A large chunk of my gripes with this comic come down to a disconnect between the writing and the art style.
The image on the right encapsulates all the art’s problems at once. The panels have inconsistent character design (facial features emerge and disappear with no rhyme or reason), the backgrounds are unbelievably scarce and the colouring is wrong-headed (the sky in that third panel is the same colour as the walls in the apartment, making the transition so jarring). It’s a shame that a lot of the environments come off flat, and far too many colours are reused without any sense of the implications of those repeated tones. While I don’t believe backgrounds and rooms have to be meticulously detailed (Ben Templesmith’s work on Fell is a great example of this), there’s still something missing that prevents each location from looking like a cohesive whole. In the end, the environments come off flat.
However, I will say that the main characters are very distinct, and the various mobs have a presence to them. The character design is interesting and effective, with each character having their own flavour and archetypal appeal. There is something to be said about capturing a sense of intrigue within 22 pages. With only a few panels between some of the side characters, the creators really stuck the landing. Part of this was helped by the colour-coding on the caption boxes, which was a nice touch.
In the end, Bastard’s Waltz is a well-written book that suffers from lacklustre art. However, that doesn’t stop it from being a genuinely good read with a smooth flow, right up until the ending cliffhanger. It leaves just the right questions open and makes quite an impression. The premise reminds me of Scott Snyder’s first All-Star Batman arc, which is a very high compliment. While it’s not a perfect book, I would gladly pay full price for the trade paperback.