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Trading Up: Three Strikes for Crime

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I like crime. I like going through second-hand bookstores, looking for that missing Chandler novel because I refuse to replace the joy of buying a new copy - though the Random House editions to look very enticing - for the joy of an unexpected Dan Marlowe turning up in the 'S'-section while looking for a Starkings novel. I adore going through every issue of Ed Brubaker's Criminal and making mental notes of all the writers he throws around, thanking him every day for leading me to the Hard Case Crime books. Aside from Criminal, there aren't that many great crime comics around. And no, Tekno Comics and Mikey Spillane's Mike Danger doesn't count. However, Don McGregor and Gene Colan's Nathaniel Dusk get you good marks for mentioning.

Three Strikes, written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (New Mutants, New X-Men, Skinwalker) and illustrated by Brian Hurtt (Queen and Country, Hard Time, The Damned), eschews detective fiction and firmly slams its fist on the crime fiction table and it's a banger!

For every action there's an equal reaction. Or at least that's what we're told, but Rey Quintana just learned the hard way what Noah Conway already knew. Rey's a good kid who's made some mistakes. He doesn't run with a gang and he's working hard both at his job and in his community college courses. Noah's an ex-cop who became a bondsman in a failed attempt to salvage his marriage. It didn't work and now his job has taken over his life all over again. One more mistake triggered the three strikes law into action and as result, Rey and Noah are on a collision course. But after the collision, who will be left standing and what will be left of their lives?

DeFilippis and Weir weave a beautiful and horrific tapestry between the two perspectives of the protagonists. It is evident that both tales are going to smash at a certain point and one of them has to 'lose' if this term holds any meaning in the morally shady world of Rey and Noah. Unfortunately for both of them, the law has no shades of gray and justice is only relevant for whoever puts the term on his tongue for whatever justification of whatever point he is trying to make.

The 'three strikes'-law is an ethically and morally very shaded law. According to Wikipedia it states that the "Three strikes laws are statutes enacted by state governments in the United States which require the state courts to hand down a mandatory and extended period of incarceration to persons who have been convicted of a serious criminal offense on three or more separate occasions." California is one of its strongest supporters and has further expanded on the before-mentioned law, effectively putting their own spin 'serious criminal offense'. It is exactly this dark side that is being explored in the Three Strikes GN. One moment, ... one choice is all it takes to set in motion events spiralling ever downwards on the criminal trail until it the players hit rock bottom in a rock hard conclusion.

The writers take their time to tell their story and detail very minuscule the path that Rey takes when he is faced with his sentence due to the three strikes law. We see that his decisions do not arise only from his environment but also from his character. The same holds true for Noah, the bondsman on the tail of Rey because he skipped bail. They are both well-rounded characters from the moment they appear on the page. They handle the dual perspective quite well and get the most of it in the dramatic moments, balancing Rey's social problems with Noah's family troubles expertly. You are rooting for both men, unable to choose because they are both in the right. A good crime book does not thrive on the crimes committed or on violent shockers, it thrives on the characters and the things they are forced to do because they see no other way out. And that is what makes this a great crime book.

Brian Hurtt's artwork only adds to the intensity of the tale. Striking a good balance between cartoon and figurative art, he's not afraid to splatter the ink on the page. Going from smooth brushwork to compact crosshatching, he follows the beats of the story perfectly with a clean panel layout and solid storytelling. He has a slight tendency to make his characters look a tad too young but that's the only comment I can give on the otherwise superb art in the book. It makes me want to check out his creator owned The Damned comic, also by Oni Press where he handles all the art chores himself.

The shelf section labeled crime in comic stores does not take up too much space but there should be a big arrow pointing to Three Strikes. A true and blue crime comic of characters who find themselves outside of the law because justice sometimes just doesn't factor into real life. DeFilippes and Weir collaborate to perfection with Brian Hurtt to chronicle the tragedy of Rey Quintana slipping down into a black hole because of the Californian interpretation of the three strikes-law, dragging bondsman Noah Conway with him on a dark violent path of no return.

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Three strikes is a 160 pages black and white GN and is published by Oni Press  in 2004, retailing for $14.95. It is available in finer comics shops everywhere.

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