For a massive graphic tome about a female contract killer imported from France, do not expect it to be a La Femme Nikita rip-off. To do so would be to underestimate Jean-David Morvan as a storyteller and illustrator Bengal as his graphic translator. If anything, it is a Greek Tragedy thrown headfirst–screaming–into the chaos and madness of the twenty-first century. It is stylishly sick, twisted and unapologetic in its conclusion; punching me with each new perversion the characters inflict upon each other; revealing them like hidden puss filled wounds.
NAJA (Magnetic Press) can be a cold blanket to wrap yourself in, but what do you expect from a sadistic nightmare?
When it comes to crime thrillers, Morvan has a finger on its pulse more than most. In the past few years, there have been a smattering of crime thrillers produced in comics–with Greg Rucka’s Stumptown (Oni Press) getting a lot of attention recently–but Morvan has proven with NAJA he is a cut above the rest. It is an assassin saga worthy of a big screen adaptation. But after pondering Morvan’s prose with his unreliable narrator’s caption boxes moving and flowing with the images Bengal renders within the panels, I am convinced it should remain a graphic novel. Morvan and Bengal become partners-in-crime; working in a synchronicity on the book no filmmaker could mimic. I would hate to see them try.
NAJA tells the story of a number three assassin who works for an agency which is actually a cabal of contract killers run by a mysterious figure known only as “Zero”. After fulfilling a mission, Naja is assaulted in her home by an enigmatic stranger she names, “He”, and is told by him he is there to save her. The stranger, “He”, tells her “Zero’s” number one assassin is stalking the underground to find her and erase her from the agency’s employment list. Why? Because he wants to prove to “Zero” he’s the best and no one else is needed in “Zero’s” stable of assassins.
This, of course, is all a ruse and soon Naja finds herself teamed up with the unwanted company of fellow agency assassins, “One” and “Two”, whom she needs in order to survive. Why? Because it’s literally murder out there.
To further complicate matters, Naja finds herself in love with the mysterious “He” because the young man is the first person to make her feel anything. From her past, Naja has a condition she procured from an automobile accident–her body cannot register pain within her nerve endings–and as a result, she is devoid of emotions as well. “He” has stirred the emotion of love within Naja in a way she has never experienced in such intensity which drives her to see the mission to its end. It also exposes how truly broken Naja is as a human being.
There is so much going on within this graphic novel, I will spare you any further details other than to give this book very high praise for its execution. It’s almost perfect.
There are tons of spoilers but I will resist the temptation to expose them. But, I will say the coupling of Morvan’s prose–whether it be in caption boxes or word balloons–with Bengal’s rendering of the action taking place within the novels panels is flawless. It’s beautiful to witness the flow–Morvan’s unreliable narrator’s sober, somber monologue, paced like line-breaks within the stanzas of a poem, found in the caption boxes which are then contrasted against Bengal’s hyper-kinetic action between the assassins and their attackers, presents two different tones which are woven together like the gauze of a blood-soaked bandage. Their narrative explains Morvan’s morose, dark tale through revelations which are then passed to Bengal to visually illustrate their effects upon the characters’ psyches through their emotional reactions and ultra-violent outbursts. Yet these assassins’ bloody, violent tantrums are focused–executed between the three minions of “Zero” like a well-choreographed dance of slaughter.
But to what end?
If I were to reveal it, I would be dropping the mother load of all spoilers upon unsuspecting comic fans and I promised not to. In order to describe the soul-crushing revelation of Naja‘s journey of self-discovery, one could compare it to the emotional destruction found in the plot of OLDBOY–whether it be the film or manga–and almost to the level presented in the French Extremism film, Martyrs. Being a genre generally neglected by American comic fans, crime thrillers are available–win awards–but are not always the most popular. Regardless, Morvan and Bengal have provided an on-ramp for those starving for something different from superheroes and zombies. Fans of Robert Ludlum, Jean LeCarré, Richard Stark (aka., Donald Westlake) and even filmmaker, Luc Besson, will find a lot to keep them glued to the pages of NAJA.
Assassins, Hitmen, Cleaners, Mechanics–whatever the buzz word of the week is for contract killers–NAJA is about an assassin searching for her soul. Or is it? I like to think of it more of a game of “Curiosity-Killed-the-Cat” and, personally, I love it. I love it when stories of hired killers go deep into the personal psyche of the human being who takes up the trade as a means of employment and self-definition–exposing their rational or lack thereof. Morvan clearly agrees and provides the world of crime thrillers with an unforgettable gallery of killers who are absolutely priceless; making me hope Morvan will revisit them in future prequels.
‘There’s a darkness with the abnormal psychological make-up within the characters of NAJA‘
Most of the reviews or previews of NAJA I’ve read just give us the usual prattle about a hit woman who can’t feel and is targeted; forcing her to fall-off-the-grid and “kill her way to answers”. How rude. How utterly disrespectful to Morvan and Bengal who have brought more to the table than “Just-Another-Hit-Man-Story”. It just proves to me they didn’t invest the time to discover how good a graphic novel NAJA is–it’s not enough the reviewers didn’t “get it”. You can’t just breeze through this novel like an issue of Spider-man. This is a book that puts the novel in graphic novel–you must read it as such. And there’s a reason why Magnetic Press has a ribbon bookmark sewn into the spine–it’s not just for show–because the publisher wants you to take the time with NAJA and to realize there’s more to Morvan-Bengal’s graphic novel than just what’s on the surface. I did and was rewarded.
I have friends who prefer Morvan-Bengal’s MEKA (Magnetic Press) over their sadistic assassins’ opera, NAJA, and I can honestly understand why. But I can’t agree with them. There’s a darkness with the abnormal psychological make-up within the characters of NAJA which they project like psychic auras upon their world; shaping and unleashing a tsunami of madness to swallow it whole and them with it. This is why I will be pulling down NAJA from my top-shelf collection of hardcovers more often than MEKA; cracking it open again to share in Naja’s metaphysical suffering.