I’ll admit, I had no idea that “Codeflesh” existed before I spied it on the shelf at a used bookstore a few weeks back. I had no idea Joe Casey wrote a story about a thrill seeking bail bondsman with a double life as an ass-kicking vigilante tracking down the very fugitives that he allows out of prison in the first place. I had no idea that Charlie Adlard, in his pre-Walking Dead days, drew these 8 short stories in a style similar but ultimately very different from the one that landed his name in the credits of one of the most successful tv shows of the last five years. Because of that, I also had no idea how good this immensely brief crime epic was.
Click on down to find out just how good.
Over the years, Joe Casey has proven himself to be a master of the comic book medium on multiple occasions. I will admit though, that that is a fact that I often forget until he just absolutely beats me over the head with it. Reading “Codeflesh” is one of those occasions. Coming out in 2001-02, the book predates all the of the bail bonds dodging shenanigans of Dog the Bounty Hunter taking redneck America by storm, and hits long after Boba Fett became a cultural icon. Bounty hunting has always been a somewhat attractive profession in popular culture. Something about generally seedy characters getting paid to hunt down and bring in a culprit someone decided was even seedier than they are appeals to human curiosity in an almost unique way. I suspect this is because, at its core, bounty hunting is a gray a profession as can be, and gray areas are usually where the best stories come from.
Which brings us to Cameron Daltrey, the star of our show and one of the more unique bounty hunters I’ve ever observed in that he isn’t REALLY a bounty hunter in the traditional sense. During the daylight hours, he sees to it that some of the most fearsome super villains are released from holding knowing full well that they will blow off their eventual court date and he will need to drag them back in. To accomplish this, he doesn’t hire a bounty hunter, but rather pulls on his bizarre bar code mask and beats the tar out of the men he once advocated for himself. No money is exchanged, so on a fundamental level Daltrey’s business is a bit of a financial black hole, but on another level his status as a bounty hunter is somewhat dubious. His actions cast him in a light that makes him one of most morally ambiguous anti-heroes I’ve ever read. On the one hand, he protects people by taking the bad guys off the streets. But on the other hand, he very literally put them back there in the first place. Had he not paid their bail, they would have rotted in holding until they were eventually sentenced and put away forever. Yes, he cleans up the messes he makes, but if he hadn’t of made them in the first place then ultimately “good” would prevail. So, out of a gray area profession comes an even more gray character.
And I love gray characters.
I love not knowing whether or not I should be rooting for him since, as a master of his own fate, I’m not sure he really deserves it. Sure, Casey gives him a jilted (stripper) love interest that spurns his love, but all the good that really does for the story is providing the impetus for the fantastic final chapter (more on this later) and doesn’t really provide any emotional resonance. There isn’t a lot to like about Daltrey, yet in reading his adventures you nevertheless become enthralled with him. Much like knowing something bad will happen right in front of you and being unable to turn away, Codeflesh inspires similar emotion in its reader. It is a grim story, full of blood and bad choices that you know could be easily avoided. In other words, it is life on the comic page.Continued below
However the true highlight of the story is the final chapter. The foreword to the collected edition I read called the story Eisner-esque and while I think that is a pretty dumb comparison because nothing in comics today (or ten years ago, as the case may be) comes close to the magic that is Will Eisner’s work, the way in which the story is told is almost entirely unique as far as my history with comics goes. The simple description is that Casey is telling two stories at once, both the story of Codeflesh chasing down one of his marks and the story of Cameron writing a letter to his spurned girlfriend in an attempt to win her heart back. However, rather than intercutting the two or overlaying the latter story via captions over the former, Casey takes things one step further and actually has the letter being read through the mouths of the characters in the overall tag and bag adventure. While overlaying one story with another is not an uncommon practice is comicbookland, actually having one flow directly out of the other one like this was downright jaw dropping. I’m doing a horrible job of describing this, I know, but it really is one of those “you need to see it to get it” situations. But if I didn’t feel that way about the whole book then I wouldn’t be writing this recommendation.
Moving on to Adlard’s art, I’m realizing now that Charlie Adlard is probably one of my most viewed artists these days due to his consistent contributions to The Walking Dead. That having been said, I love that he managed to surprise me with his work on this story. The Charlie Adlard I’m used to is the super blown out, high contrast post-apocalypse crispy Charlie Adlard. For The Walking Dead, his look is both clean and stylized while also having plenty of grit thrown in when needed. For Codeflesh, grit is the name of the name of the game. The dirtiness of the images perfectly matches the dirtiness of the story. Which is not to say that Adlard’s work here is, in any way, bad. His characters are full of emotion and his pages carry weight and balance to them as his characters shoot, enflame, bounce and break across the page. However his pencils are not all that crisp, his lines a little less solid and precise. His characters appear to exist in equilibrium with their environment, not unlike Frank Miller’s work in “Sin City”. Which is exactly the tone he needed to set to match the tone of the story.
Overall, “Codeflesh” is a stunningly good, if not brief, example of Master comic book work in full effect. Not good work, MASTER work. Work that proves you don’t need to write 500 issues of an ongoing or turn in pages in time to meet some company’s quota. Work that cuts right into your soul and makes you doubt yourself, words and art that work perfectly in sync and stories that take chances people wouldn’t expect and make them work where others would most assuredly fail. THAT is Master comic storytelling, and “Codeflesh” is a masterful work.