9 Sep 2009

Graphic Perception: UNION STATION

By Matt C

UNION STATION
Writer: Ande Parks
Art: Eduardo Barreto
Oni Press $11.95

I’ve always been fascinated by the wave of crime that washed over the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. It was an era where the likes of Al Capone, John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow became household names, some being treated as heroes by a public coping with the Great Depression and that failed Noble Experiment, Prohibition. It was also a time when J. Edgar Hoover established the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a force to be reckoned with, deploying ‘G-Men’ to tackle the rise of the gangster.

One episode during this period I wasn’t familiar with was the incident known as the Kansas City Massacre in June 1933, where four law enforcement officers and the prisoner they were transporting were gunned down outside the city’s Union Station. It was an event that led directly to the fledgling FBI being given the authority to wield more power, and there are claims that Hoover manipulated events (including pinning the murders on Pretty Boy Floyd when there was no evidence he was actually present) to achieve his desired outcome.

For his first original graphic novel, writer Ande Parks (perhaps better known to some for his inking work with frequent collaborator Phil Hester) successfully weaves historical fact, elements of the various conspiracy theories, and his own fictional embellishments to produce a gripping, illuminating crime thriller. As you would expect there’s plenty of corruption, coercion, and political manoeuvring as good men discover sometimes the safer option is to stay quiet. The characters in Union Station may seem like familiar archetypes, but the historical truths that provide the book with its backbone lend them extra weight, making the events depicted more affecting. Eduardo Barreto’s art takes much of it inspiration from the gangster movies of the period, blending the square-jawed seriousness with shifty criminality. Bar a couple of scenes with some dodgy angles (breaking the ‘180 degree rule’, filmmaking fans!) it’s spot on throughout, and the infamous shootout is handled magnificently with just the right combination of violence and confusion.

Union Station originally appeared in 2003 and while I have no proof to support this I’m hazarding a guess that this re-release was timed to coincide with Michael Mann’s excellent movie, Public Enemies. Although ultimately telling different stories, they are both set in the same timeframe and both feature a shared scene: the killing of Pretty Boy Floyd by FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale in Mann’s movie, although not named here). It was the right move on Oni’s part – if it was their motivation – because, as well as dealing with a famous episode of American crime in the ‘30s, they both capture (to different degrees, admittedly) the romance and reality of the gangster lifestyle.

It may be beneficial coming to this book with a little background knowledge of the real-life events to give it a historical context, but even without that this is a great read that may well nudge you into looking further into not just this particular case, but the whole era when guns and gangsters ruled the streets. 7/10

1 comment:

Justin said...

Great review of an overlooked gem!