Elk's Run
by Joshua Hale Fialkov, Scott A. Keating, Noel Tuazon (Villard, 2007)

Elk's Run was somewhat handicapped during its initial serial publishing phase when it suffered from the usual economics that plague the comic-book publishing industry. Hot potatoed from one place to the next, it dropped out of sight completely when one company folded. Seven Harvey Award nominations later, Elk's Run has resurfaced in its entirety in graphic novel format, complete with more than 100 pages of material not seen in the original run.

At the end of the Vietnam War, a group of disillusioned, battle-weary former soldiers decide to create a completely self-contained Utopia in the middle of the wilderness, a place safe from the hedonistic influences of the world. Nothing from outside is permitted. But keeping their curious, adolescent children from wanting to see the world beyond the borders of their isolated town of Elk's Run proves to be a bit tougher than the town founders planned. In a matter of days the situation spirals out of control as the Shirley Jackson lottery-style of justice proves to be too much for some of the town's resident teens. Horrified, they decide to run away. Like a match touched to a powder keg, events quickly implode and all hell breaks loose.

Elk's Run is a real page-turner, no question of that. Writer Joshua Hale Fialkov creates a dark mood that pulls you right in from the very beginning. There is obviously a great deal of passion and thought put into the story. But the very first problem encountered is that Fialkov doesn't seem to have spent very much time sorting out his character's motives.

For all its suppositions about standing up for one's personal beliefs, there is no real, coherent exploration or explanation of who these men are and why they have done what they have done, beyond the revelation that they are Vietnam vets who saw perhaps a bit too much action than was mentally healthy. How they got from the fields of Vietnam to a Ruby Ridge/Waco style existence is only sketchily filled in, and the explanation itself is so standard it's almost corny. Their actions might have made more sense had Fialkov done a better job of making his characters more three dimensional, less like a caricature of a bunch of bitter rednecks clinging to guns and religion. The lack of clear reasoning beyond what would, under any other circumstances, be considered stereotyping of the most limiting and damaging sort flattens the story midway and takes a lot of the fun out of it.

The other problem with Elk's Run is the difficulty in making out what it is you are actually seeing. Tuazon's lines are so heavy, and with such little variation, that it's sometimes impossible to distinguish one character from another. Likewise, Scott A. Keating's colors are rather muddy, which almost drowns a number of pretty cool action scenes.

Elk's Run's true strength is in fact the action, which is truly dazzling. One sequence snowballs into another, the tension ratcheted up tightly with each escalation in violence. Action is Fialkov's forte, and here it's entrancing and very well paced, pulling the story through and holding the structure together well enough to sustain interest.

Still, Elk's Run is not quite the story it could have been. It settles for taut, tense action that never really lifts it to the level it could have gone to. It's important to create an emotive connection with the characters. Given the situation these people are in -- leaving the world behind because it's gone mad, then shrugging off years of passivity and rejecting a system that isn't truly protecting them -- there should have been some terrific emotional turmoil generated. While the internal rebellion does have an impact on the story, it lands with a very soft thud when it should have registered something along the lines of a meteor crash. A better understanding of the former soldiers' thinking, instead of some by-the-numbers First Blood-style contrivance, would have gone a long way toward creating a sense of urgency and empathy.

Unfortunately, there is no real sense of an emotional underpinning beyond something borrowed out of the pages of dozens of rejected Hollywood scripts. Instead of a lasting effect, Elk's Run, while engaging on the level of being a suspenseful tale, leaves the reader with nothing more than an impression of petty dictatorship gone wrong, of white men acting like little boys obsessed with guns and violence and killing. As a cohesive whole, though, Elk's Run does manage to make a point that there is a vast difference between survival and escapism. A good effort, and, in spite of the shoddy characterization, a decent enough read.

review by
Mary Harvey

6 September 2008

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