The White Suits: Dressed to Kill – A Bright, Sharp, Deadly Affair
By Alex Mansfield
Sure, those white suits are snazzy as all get-out, but trying to get blood out of those vanilla-enameled beauties has got to be a Sisyphean task. The blood never really gets washed away, though. It seeps its way into the fibers of the psyche and the cultural fabric of our world. Every drop of spilled blood haunts someone. The White Suits: Dressed to Kill is a story about these unstaunched ghosts born from unbridled violence and left lingering in the hearts of those looking for both truth and redemption. Frank Barbiere writes this visceral noir-driven espionage tale and stands back as artist Toby Cypress crafts a furious and stylish fever-dream of a graphic experience.
The tail end of the Cold War sees the Russian underground scourged by the presence of a finely attired gang of ruthless criminals. Their actions are felt directly on the cold and chaotic back streets of Moscow and indirectly in the suburban backyard of one American family. With cunning sword swipes and forceful blows, the White Suits made their mysterious presence known without being seen. They were phantasms of assault; the ghosts of violence.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the White Suits disappeared, but the reverberations of their fierce exploits can still be felt. Driven by the unexplained disappearance of her father, Sarah Anderson dedicated herself to law enforcement, eventually working her way into the FBI. She may say she's fighting the good fight, but she's really fighting history. Refusing to give in to the one mystery she has yet to solve, she finally gets a break in the form of an amnesia-stricken roughneck named Prizrak who happened to once wear an ivory suit. And the White Suits have returned, this time on American soil. Alternating between these two haunted narrators, Barbiere and Cypress craft a story rife with the type of action and expression that can only be done in the comic book medium.
Barbiere is proudly wearing his influences on his nicely pressed sleeves here, with the type of gritty noir found in Sin City or Criminal abundantly found on every page. But it's not mindless or trite, even at its most Tarantino level of hyper-violence. Instead, Barbiere smartly keeps his focus on his two pseudo-protagonists and allows their own separate, yet similar, motivations to drive the story believably forward. Anderson is obsessed with finally putting her father's death in context, with giving it meaning and purpose as opposed to simply letting it live as the monster that killed her mother. Her rage has festered, and pushed her to extremes, but she's still a calculating and morally structured character who's wrestling with demons. Prizrak on the other hand, is a walking, gun-toting Shakespearean tragedy of a man. He seeks an impossible redemption and more often than not he isn't even fully aware why that is. They're both broken, emotionally crippled characters that are thoroughly compelling and deftly handled, even if their own affections towards each other develop inexplicably quickly given what's happening around them.
The White Suits themselves, save for their leader, are thankfully never fleshed-out beyond being well-dressed murder machines. Instead Barbiere allows their untouchable aura of sleek invulnerability to hover virtually throughout. The first two acts of this collection paint the White Suits in such a way that the reader is both immediately attracted and repulsed by their adept brutality and efficiency at eliminating the criminal underground. It's smartly handled in a way so as to be unsure if they're working towards an ultimately heroic goal or not. Interestingly, the plot progresses to a point in act three that's reminiscent of a Metal Gear Solid game with its government cover-ups and rogue mercenaries and I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't a tad underwhelming, largely because the mystery behind the White Suits' motivations was also their appeal.
But, obviously, Barbiere had to provide a larger goal beyond 'cut off limbs, shoot guns, and pound heads while riding motorcycles because awesome' and it works because the story is holding true to its influences. It still feels a little too neat, a little too convenient, even if it is self-aware – Sarah even proclaims "You're insane!" after a particularly large exposition-bomb gets dropped by a villain. But Barbiere has ensured that the pace of the book would be an unrelenting affair and so if the end feels too quickly resolved, it still feels natural to the established tone. It's a script that could easily be adapted into the next summer shoot'em-up blockbuster, but the visual impact of this series could never be matched in any other media.
Toby Cypress' work is an enigmatic flurry of design and form. It's as though The New Yorker caricatures dropped acid and stepped into the world of Yellow Submarine and asked a drunk Bill Sienkiewicz to document it. Cypress makes you feel uncomfortable and awed throughout. A black and white and red menagerie of expressionistic anatomy that's buoyed by innovative layouts and visceral hand-written sound effects, the entire experience would be right at home in the horror genre if it wasn't so mesmerizingly effective as a rapid fire action-laden narrative. The art elicits the incongruently confusing attempt to piece together a puzzle that Prizrak is faced with, able to make out flashes of clarity amidst a sea of shattered shapes and blood-soaked mass.
Beyond just the wholly unique line and ink style, Cypress makes brave choices on each page. Color is used to great effect in its scarcity and the change in direction from a sequence of black and white panels to a full color splash is intentionally jarring. A light flare here, a blurred effect there, the incorporation of designed graphics, and the titling landscape pages mirroring the effect of a plummeting plane, are all what makes Cypress' work in this book an event that has to be seen to be believed. Is it a style that's going to immediately click with everyone? No, not by a mile, but I'd urge anyone who's used to the house style of Big Two comics to throw their apprehension out the window of a three-story building and take their time to notice the skill on display in the White Suits. It is a black and white bacchanalian orgy of discordance and beauty and it is undoubtedly the reason you should buy this book, if for no other reason than to remind yourself what comics can do.
The White Suits: Dressed to Kill isn't breaking any new ground plot-wise, but it never intends to. Barbiere delivers an action-thriller firmly rooted in noir typography and crafts two fully-realized, flawed and likable lead characters to pull you into that darkness. The real impact comes from Toby Cypress' art, which should hit you with the subtlety of a rifle-butt to the face. This is a book that begs you to take your time while still driving you through its pages like a mustang out of hell. Like the titular squad of ghostly killers, this hauntingly beautiful book will stay with you long after you've finished it.
Alex Mansfield is a simple being. Born and raised in New York City, he has an appropriate fear of nature and an unyielding suspicion of small talk. All of his understanding of pop-culture and basic human interaction comes from comic books and The Simpsons because what else is there, really? Currently a writer and Assistant Editor for All-Comic.com, you can also follow him on twitter @focusedtotality
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