Victor LaValle's Destroyer by Victor LaValle
Publisher: Boom! Studios | Release Date: Feb. 28, 2018 | Pages: 160
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Comic books can be an important, sometimes even vital, medium to discuss societal issues and the politics of our time. Victor LaValle’s Destroyer by, conveniently enough, Victor LaValle, aims to do these things and only succeeds in minor ways, providing occasional commentary and motivations for its characters, but opting instead to exploit the medium’s tropes in all its goofiness.
Destroyer starts off strong, with an impressive opening panel of Frankenstein’s monster sitting atop the edge of an iceberg. Even in this Antarctic desolation, where he disappeared into at the end of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, the creature cannot escape mankind’s propensity for violence. Immediately upon his introduction, the monster is engage in a brutal assault against a whaling boat disguised as a research vessel.
Humanity has learned nothing in his two hundred-plus years of absence, and returning to the mainland, Frankenstein’s creation cuts a bloody swath across the US in search of his last remaining ancestor. A distant offspring of Victor, African-American scientist Dr. Josephine Baker has resurrected her distant relative’s research in order to give new life to her son, a 12-year-old murdered by police.
LaValle had a number of opportunities over the course of Destroyer’s six issues to examine, in depth, the propensity of police to shoot first when confronting blacks and the fear of Others. It’s an issue of clear importance throughout the book, but one that never receives as much attention as it should. Baker is fueled by her grief and wants revenge — both of which are certainly understandable — but rather than giving us a deep exploration of her state of mind and the politics surrounding Destroyer, LaValle is more interested in staging huge action scenes between Baker and her rebuilt and reborn son fighting a massive robot, and Frankenstein’s monster tearing people limb from limb before fighting a massive robot. Whatever political relevancy Destroyer could and should have possessed is lost beneath long stretches of silliness.
While it would have been possible to craft a strong political statement about our current state of affairs and the violent persecution of minorities by supposed authority figures alongside epic action sequences, such a balance is totally lost here.
Too often, Destroyer tries to inhabit too many worlds, as if LaValle isn’t entirely sure what he wants this book to be, which is a shame considering how well he tackled similar issues in The Ballad of Black Tom. Here, LaValle chooses to play it safe — too safe, in my estimation — opting for the paths of least resistance and inoffensiveness in an effort to appease general mainstream audiences.
To its credit, though, Destroyer does have some wickedly cool science fiction elements, which it uses to great effect to provide a modern update to Shelley’s ideas. Using nanotechnology and cybernetics to resurrect Akai is chillingly plausible, and Baker has given him extraordinary powers in an effort to build her instrument of vengeance. Our first glimpse of Akai and his abilities, put on full display while his mother is held at gunpoint, is spine-tingling and beautifully drawn.
In fact, Dietrich Smith’s art is the book’s absolute strongest point. Smith’s illustrations are beautifully rendered and his character designs are on-point. His Frankenstein’s monster is a wicked study in contrasts, the creature powerfully strong but slimly built, his centuries in solitude making him look like a starving hobo if not for the scores of stitches and staples holding his crudely constructed and mismatched body together. Akai, meanwhile, is a much sleeker walking dead man, his sunken-eyed child’s body stitched together from his post-mortem autopsy, enhanced now with plenty of scientific upgrades and what looks like kevlar plating. I absolutely loved Smith’s stylings for Dr. Baker, outfitting her in the book’s early chapters with a sort of mad scientist guise complete with an apron bearing a bloody handprint. The shock of white curls in her hair reflect how deeply grief has aged her, but it also pays a nice, subtle bit of homage to the bride of Frankenstein.
Neither Smith’s art, nor LaValle’s script, pull any punches when it comes to violence. Destroyer is, first and foremost, a science fiction horror story. We get plenty of torn bodies, severed limbs, spilled guts, and decapitated heads throughout the six-issue run. If you’re looking for straight-up action, Destroyer has it in spades. And personally, I’ll never not love seeing racist rednecks torn apart by a savage, bloodthirsty monster.
While Destroyer does have some strong points, it’s ultimately wildly unbalanced with too many ideas and not enough time spent exploring those concepts or the people in the middle of it all. This sucker moves like a runaway freight-train, plowing violently through everything in its way, including some of its most important messages. What should be a politically relevant work ends up a muddled Michael Bay-styled work of Hollywood action, with one big fight sequence after another until the book finally runs out of steam and quickly crashes to a deeply unsatisfying halt.
I’d been looking forward to reading Victor LaValle’s Destroyer for a good long while, and I had high hopes for the book, particularly following the author’s excellent The Ballad of Black Tom. I had hoped LaValle would give Frankenstein the same level of cultural and political significance he gave to HP Lovecraft with his makeover of The Horror At Red Hook. Unfortunately, Destroyer is too tame, too concerned about its mass-market appeal, and too driven by wild spectacle over deep substance. It does have a few sequences of worthwhile reflections throughout, certainly, but ultimately those moments lose out to flashy robot fights.