While staying indoors for the past several months like a responsible adult, I’ve spent many idle evenings revisiting some of my favorite crime-related television in series like The Wire and The Sopranos. Part of what makes these stories resonate, even two decades after they debuted, is they emphasize the human elements of their narrative. There are no elaborate heists or bigger-than-life characters, instead they focus on the realities of life as they intersect with particularly dynamic lifestyles, like those involved in criminal conspiracies. Bog Bodies—a slim, self-contained volume of comics—lacks the scope and cultural commentary embedded in these shows, but it captures the tone that made them timeless wonderfully. It’s that tone and the ability of writer Declan Shalvey and artist Gavin Fullerton to construct lifelike characters within it that make Bog Bodies a damn good, feel bad comic.
The plot follows a one crazy night routine as the young gangster Killian finds himself on the run from former “co-workers” in the wilderness surrounding Dublin. Various secrets are slowly revealed along with the nuanced personalities of Killian and one of his pursuers Keano. Rather than deliver exposition at the start, the story emphasizes the chase and life-or-death stakes very early and allows space for questions to be resolved only after investing readers in the moment. It’s a smart framework that showcases Shalvey’s storytelling instincts as a writer, and it makes for a propulsive comic that’s difficult not to finish in a single reading session.
Readers familiar with the genre will likely recognize many of the elements present with the key dilemma and character relationship striking a very familiar note as In Bruges. However, the attraction of this story doesn’t rest in its inventiveness, but how it engages these tropes in a new setting. Fullerton and colorist Rebecca Nalty make the mountainous terrain as much of a character in the story as Killian or Keano. The winding roads, lonesome houses, and unnavigable blend of forest and marsh, all create a lonesome locale that enhances the key ideas of the story. When Killian finds himself lost, they immerse readers in that feeling, but capably reestablish the terrain in tense action sequences when understanding the lie of the land is essential. Fullerton establishes a sense of scale with the eye of a minimalist. Long leas and harrowing hills only require a few thick brushes of the pen to detail this isolating landscape.
Characters often require a few more details, if only to denote the age and scars accumulated in hard living. Each figure is memorable the moment they appear on the page—they embody familiar types without ever appearing as cliches. If Keano had been raised in New Jersey, he would be at home in a sweatsuit at the Bada Bing! strip club, while Killian wears Ziggy Sobotka’s luck on his sleeve. These visual types make it easy for Shalvey’s dialogue to infuse the characters with additional depth, providing readers plenty of information on lifestyle and status, so they can then read further into each exchange. Shalvey also manages to bring the language of his native Ireland to life, infusing plenty of local color in a natural fashion. After 100 pages, each person wandering through the wilderness is distinct and this one night feels like a chapter in a sprawling world without neat beginnings and endings.
It’s the surprising depth of this slim volume that makes it easy to recommend. Readers seeking out crime comics will certainly find plenty to love in this story’s sudden violence and relatively realistic approach to terrible acts. Yet the development of both Killian and Keano in these pages offers something far beyond the attractions of genre fare. Together they construct a portrait of loneliness and regret that lingers longer than any action sequence. Combined with a final twist that makes a second reading seem mandatory, they give Bog Bodies a soul that’s difficult to deny. In spite of all their terrible mistakes and misjudgments, they are undeniably human and infuse this dark portrait of the Irish countryside with a spectral spark of sympathy.
Published by Image Comics
On May 27, 2020
Written by Declan Shalvey
Art by Gavin Fullerton0comments
Colors by Rebecca Nalty
Letters by Clayton Cowles