Think of every inspirational feelgood movie you’ve ever seen. The story of an underdog struggling against impossible odds – and their own personal weaknesses – to find their inner strength and triumph at the boxing match/bobsleigh race/spelling bee/whatever, while learning something about themselves in the process. Breakneck is a little like that. Only in the case of Ethan Shade, the heartwarming triumph over adversity comes in the form of mass murder and punching children in the face.
I praised the first issue for its intriguing concept and rich characterisation, but this second issue is actually a big improvement. After getting the world-building and introductions over with, you get a sense of writer Mark Bertolini being more comfortable in this world now, and feeling free to cut loose and have some fun. As such, he unfolds the narrative with all the ease and assurance of a seasoned pro, with the action setpiece that dominates the issue’s first half flying by. This whole sequence is brilliantly executed, with an increasingly exasperated Shade taking on thinly-veiled Batman and Robin analogues Signalman and Kid Signal. In particular, the needy Kid Signal (“Blast! He got the better of me, Signalman! I hope this doesn’t mean you’re going to replace me with a new Kid Signal!”) steals the show here.
Not that the issue is top-heavy, by any means. The second half, covering Ethan Shade’s joyride in Signalman’s stolen vehicle (as well as a funny conversation with Signalman’s butler), gives us some valuable insight into the relationship between Ethan Shade and Doctor Winter (through the latter’s hologram, given that he’s dead), as well as some of the motivations that not only drive Ethan Shade, but supervillains in general. Doctor Winter’s simple assertion of, “You’re a supervillain, for fuck’s sake. The laws and rules that govern people do not apply to you.” Given such a justification, the choice of villainy could be painted as a kind of noble rebellion against society’s soul-crushing depression. Not that this is right by any means, but it helps us sympathise with our villainous protagonist to look at things this way, and the portrayal of the heroes as either self-righteous jerks or faceless menaces certainly helps us get further into his mindset.
This issue is also a big success for artist James Boulton. I had some complaints with his clarity in the previous issue, but thankfully those issues were largely rectified this time round, without Boulton losing in the process any of his singular style. Some of the sparse, open-plan layouts remind me of latter-day Joe Kubert, while the scratchy, psychadelic character design bears certain parallels to the pencils of Frank Miller in that essential piece of superhero canon: The Dark Knight Returns. With some refining and fine-tuning, Boulton could very well emerge as a unique artistic voice to reckon with.
Another cliffhanger introduces a mysterious new player into the plot as the issue wraps, leaving me eager for more. Breakneck is so far succeeding in what I believe all comic book miniseries’ should aspire to do: get better with each issue. This is a comic that marks the emergence of two notable talents in Bertolini and Boulton, and any fan of the superhero genre should check it out.