In anticipation of its second volume’s release next month, for this week’s graphic novel pick, I selected the newest series by the comic book and graphic novel veteran, J. Michael Straczynski, Ten Grand.
Following last week’s trend of super agents/guns-for-hires of organizations, Ten Grand is the story of a former mob contracted enforcer, Joseph Fitzgerald (who is referred to as Joe in the series and for the rest of this review), who took his last job to get out of the life and ended up in a contract much more difficult to maintain and handle than that of his severe mob boss. Joe is the hired agent of Heaven, kept on earth to do what he is asked to and resurrected from death in order to continue to do anything and everything Heaven requests.
Oddly enough, Heaven’s tasks for Joe are not as easy or as peaceful as one would expect. In fact, the contract exists because Joe could only choose between separation from his beloved wife, Laura, with eternal damnation in Hell or long-term separation from Laura by remaining on Earth as a perpetual agent of Heaven, with the benefit of 5 minute breaks to see and spend time with Laura in the time window between his noble death on the job and his resurrection to continue his now destined work. Given the darkness and evil of Joe’s past, his contract requires him to dig into the darkest, most decrepit corners of humanity and the edges of Hell. In order to repent for the sins of his first life, Joe, in each of his resurrected lives, must do the dirty work of Heaven: tracking the work of the devil and preventing the devil and his demons from taking over Earth.
In his spare time, beyond the jobs requested by Heaven, Joe works as a private investigator for people in the most dire situations for a fee of $10,000, thus giving us the title of the series. The first volume of Ten Grand begins with the job to find Sarah Thomas, the sister of Debbie Thomas, a woman who hires Joe for the job. Sarah joined a new demonic cult known as the Divine Will, and her sister Debbie is very concerned about her whereabouts since joining. At first, the request seems like an easy one, but it quickly spirals out of control when Joe realizes that the leader of the Divine Will, Brother James, is an agent of the devil’s demons and the man who he had killed previously in order to avenge Laura’s death.
The job to find Sarah eventually transforms into the personal quest to find and destroy Brother James. On the surface, Ten Grand is a story about vengeance, but as the narrative unfolds, we embark on a modern spin on a mythological battle between good and evil with an expansion on the worlds of Heaven and Hell and all of the planes in between. In the tradition of mythology, we meet many archetypal characters, ranging from the blind prophet to the guardian angel. And in the same tradition, there is cryptic symbology and an understanding of the abilities and difficulties to pass between the different dimensions of existence.
Though Ten Grand contains the supernatural forces and events expected in any mythology, its elements of realism make it captivating and relatable. The characters in Joe’s reality on Earth are by far some of the most interesting. One of them is the spirit of a woman who committed suicide but has not left Earth because she is too attached the the memories in her home; she communicates with and longs for the company of Joe, who was one of the first people to try to understand her spirit’s cries after her death. Another is a coroner at the local morgue who interacts with Joe as if he were a regular customer. Another is Lenny (who we barely meet), the bartender who allows Joe to run his private investigation business in his bar. Like any good mythology, Ten Grand blends the supernatural with the real, with both worlds containing fragments of each other, and making the narrative seem like it is not to far from our own reality.
Beyond the characters and the pretty awesome premise, what I think is the most interesting about Ten Grand is its discourse on salvation and damnation and what happens if your fate does not include either one. With the help of the artists Ben Templesmith and C.P. Smith, Straczynski presents multiple options for those who cannot be sent to Heaven or Hell. There are some who are determined travelers of the planes like Joe. There are messengers of the planes like the spirit who remains at the home she died in or the blind prophet, Johnny. And there are others who are stuck in purgatory, those whose souls are lost and do not belong.
Ten Grand is an original, imaginative modern mythology, with thought-provoking criteria for existence in the different levels of afterlife. In an enlightening discussion with the boat guide on what looks like the River Styx, we find out that those who are in purgatory are those who betray their hearts and suppress their souls in life. According to Straczynski’s myth, the people who remain in purgatory are those who have eroded their souls by the time they die: the people who concede to what is expected of them without thought and the people who live lives determined by other people, or in other words, the people who settle and become complacent with lives they do not want. Ten Grand is a fascinating story about a very flawed man who lives an almost futile existence, but in its narrative paths, it allows us to ask ourselves who we want to be, what afterlife we hope to reach, and how we should and should not act to try to get there.
Ten Grand is available via Image Comics. Volume One was released in January 2014, and Volume Two is set to be released on November 12, 2014.