You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man - Kickback / by Erik Sugay

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“I'm no rat. In a town this bent, who's there to rat to anyway?” - Jim Gordon, Batman Begins

It’s fitting to start this off with a quote from a modern crime film because David Lloyd’s Kickback is cut from a very similar, stellar cloth. If you are familiar with the meaning of the graphic novel’s title, you should have a very good idea of how Kickback unfolds. The parallel between rising power and the propensity for corruption is the main backdrop for this masterful crime-noir thriller.

Unlike the future Commissioner Gordon, however, Kickback’s Joe Canelli is a crooked cop. Fortunately, he’s so much more than that. (Otherwise, it’d be tough to root for him.) We first see Canelli as man lacking distinct direction, plagued by his own self-perceived powerlessness. He’s crooked, sure, but he's also torn. Unlike most, his participation in the corruption is the result of his belief that the system is rigged in a single, unchangeable way. He’s resigned himself to that notion and his bottled-up frustration at that idea hints at hidden depths. These flaws make Canelli believable, relatable, and unmistakably human. Additionally, a confusing, recurring dream and selective amnesia pave the way for moving characterization.

Being similar to crime films, some elements of Kickback might be predictable if you’ve seen your fair share. (Really, there are only so many options to deal with a shady informant, story-wise.) However, the tale does throw some curveballs and, even when these conventional elements surface, they do well to extend the adventure and expand the scope of the mystery. And what a well-paced mystery it is. Nearly everything is deliberately placed so the story and action never let up.

The presentation is stunning. Muted colors and stark black shadows comprise most scenes. And rather than overpowering the art, any modern technological techniques are used to supplement it, mostly to convey movement or create focus. Lloyd opts for a clean, show-rather-than-tell approach, and the presentation is all the better for it. Some scene transitions involve unrelated events being framed in similar ways from one panel to the next and are astoundingly executed. (One standout has a brutal physical interrogation cut away briefly to another scene’s background television, wherein the televised boxing match commentary coincides with the previous scene’s altercation.)

But the quality of the presentation is taken to an even higher level in this digital release.

I have been skeptical about the concept of digital distribution replacing physical, but this iPad exclusive release proves it a viable method for graphic novels. Functioning within its own individual application, this version of Kickback collects the entire tale and provides an easy-to-navigate interface with minimal, but useful options to peruse it. A content index sections off the story and extras (including a refreshingly unrestrained interview and production sketches), listing the segment and chapter titles on the left with a slew of appropriate thumbnails on the right. The app will remember where you left off and you can also save multiple bookmarks.

The real game changer here is the “Play Audio” button. It’s ever-present on the lower navigation bar and, for the most part, it’s grayed out. However, whenever it’s colored, make sure to press it for some excellent audio commentary by the creator himself. It’s akin to a DVD extras’ commentary track, but considering the still medium of graphic novels, the notes are easy to follow. The select individual pages that offer accompanying clarifications cover story and design choices (and how some personal opinions and experiences affected those choices) in lengthy detail and truly provide a greater understanding of what the artist intended to convey. It’s incredibly eye-opening.

The inclusion of the audio commentary is an extraordinarily in-depth feature that establishes digital distribution’s advantage. I read it without the audio commentary first and then went through it again, pressing the audio button whenever it was available. It’s amazing how many things I missed the first time around. Frankly, all digitally released graphic novels should be given this amount of care.

Come to Kickback for the absorbing crime story and wonderful character development. Stay for the exceptional features of the digital release.

TL;DR: A digital release of a previously overlooked crime-noir thriller where corruption remains standard practice, until someone starts asking dangerous questions. The film-like quality of the story makes for an excellent read, but the accompanying audio commentary is where it really proves its value.

Kickback is written and illustrated by David Lloyd. You can purchase a Dark Horse-published physical copy here or we would recommend the iPad exclusive digital release by Panel Nine Publishing here.