Sometimes it’s nice to sit down with a good whodunit and deduce a mystery along with characters in a good book. “The Fuse, Volume 1: The Russia Shift” is just such a book and spins a yarn that mixes science fiction with a crime procedural. The world created in this first volume dwells within the not-too-distant future on a floating society made from technological ingenuity. Writer Antony Johnston focuses on very few characters, making this book feel very intimate. Every crime dramas needs its mystery-solvers and Johnston brings Detective Ralph Dietrich and Sergeant Klem Ristovych fully to life. With the simplicity of Justin Greenwood’s art and Shari Chankhamma’s colors, focus is placed on story, dialogue, and emotion instead of bombastic action.
Detective Ralph Dietrich voluntarily decides to leave his native Germany and settle on the massive and man-made technological world of the Fuse that hovers in space above the planet Earth. Everyone believes he’s insane for volunteering to protect a place that is far from perfect. He is assigned to be veteran homicide detective Klem Ristovych’s partner and Ralph is instantly thrown into a murder mystery after landing on the Fuse. People are not who they seem, surprising twists and turns arrive at inopportune times, and the two law enforcers instantly endear themselves to the reader.
Although the personal lives of the book’s protagonists are sporadically hinted at to great effect, real-world issues infuse “The Fuse” with timeless as well as timely qualities. Politics, race, surveillance, and class are dealt with in a way that enhances the story and is never heavy handed. Characters such as mayor Rocky Swanson of the city of Midway naturally bring with them built-in notions that any reader from any country would sympathize with or recognize. Johnston ingeniously uses storytelling techniques, such as making the “cablers” poor untouchables, to great effect.
Klem and Ralph are intriguing characters that Johnston brings alive through realistic dialogue. Ralph’s dialogue can be stilted and wooden at times, but that is because he is coming from country where English is not the primary language. You can imagine him boning up on the basics of English through either Rosetta Stone or watching American television. He remains a mystery, yet also retains the reader’s interest. Upon reaching the end of the book, there is a line of dialogue that intimates the next volume of this story will become even more intriguing.
Klem is one of the most memorable comic book characters in recent years. She is strong, funny, and is an older white-haired lady. Seeing someone of her age (which appears to be anywhere from her 50s to early 60s) and appearance is an unusual sight in a comic book. She’s a refreshing character who just happens to be an older woman. It’s difficult to discern her sex when she’s first introduced. Whether this was on purpose or not, Johnston and Greenwood could be commenting on the fact that her gender is not important to the character. Her personality and characterization are so well-developed that whether she’s male or female is irrelevant to the story.
Like Ralph, Klem’s dialogue is distinct and brings her character to life. She’s intelligent and uses humor to lighten the grim world of the Fuse. Cursing and ribbing others is a coping mechanism in a world that is not unlike that of Earth: corruption and underhanded dealings occur here as often as they do on terra firma. Her dialogue, like everyone else in “The Fuse”, sounds like that of anyone on 21st century planet Earth. Small touches like Klem playfully calling Ralph by the name “Marlene” after the German actress Marlene Dietrich is just one way of making everyone in the book come alive. The bit between her and Ralph where she mentions Batman is also particularly humorous.
Johnston is not the only one who brings the Fuse to life. Justin Greenwood’s art is simple, yet stark. For a science fiction book, there is very little science found within it. Greenwood places the emphasis on the faces of each person and bringing out the emotions (or keeping them hidden) that makes this book a master class in how characters cannot only deceive one another, but the reader as well. In order for a crime procedural to be successful, the deception has to be realistic and believable. Greenwood not only does this in an expert fashion, but is able to bring a subtlety that reflects from the believability. An example of this is the lack of gore. Gunshot wounds don’t distract from the proceedings and a light trail of blood does more than bombast could ever do for a book like this one.
The muted, earthy colors in “The Fuse” are perfect for a machine world that is sterile and a story that focuses on just the mounting evidence leading to a humdinger of a mystery. Shari Chankhamma, like Greenwood does with his art, brings a simplicity to her coloring that adds realism to the proceedings. The levels of the Fuse where the poor and middle class dwell within are drab and often gritty. Grey, green, and black frequently shade panels of a book where brightness would be inappropriate. One of the brightest places in the book just happens to be the morgue. Chankhamma is in service to the story and knows exactly what Johnston and Greenwood are trying to accomplish.
“The Fuse” is not what this reviewer was expecting and that is a good thing. The back of the book says it is within the genres of crime and science fiction. It is so much more than that. It has those elements but, above all, it’s a fun book. Johnston, Greenwood, and Chankhamma have created characters that gradually reveal themselves and build backstories as the issues go by. These creators have plans for Klem and Ralph and these six issues are just one mystery among many that are hopefully waiting for them to solve for many more fascinating issues.
“The Fuse, Vol. 1: The Russia Shift”
Written by: Antony Johnston
Art: Justin Greenwood
Colors: Shari Chankhamma
Letters: Ed Brisson
Publisher: Image Comics
Original Publication Date: August, 27, 2014
Collects “The Fuse” issues 1-6