Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s The Legend Of Luther Strode #6. Written by Justin Jordan (New Guardians, Shadowman) and drawn by Tradd Moore (Legends Of The Dark Knight), this issue spotlights the skill required to choreograph huge comic-book action sequences. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)
Excessive violence in comic books isn’t anything new, and over the past 25 years, graphic brutality has trickled down from mature readers’ books into formerly all-ages titles like X-Men, Justice League, and Batman. There’s violence everywhere in comics, but there are few places where it’s an essential component to the story like in Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore’s two Luther Strode miniseries. The action in The Strange Talent Of Luther Strode was devastating, but for The Legend Of Luther Strode, the creative team goes bigger and bloodier with dynamically choreographed fight sequences that combine the mass destruction of a Michael Bay film with the graceful bloodshed of The Bride versus Crazy 88 scene in Kill Bill Volume 1.
I’ve been reviewing So You Think You Can Dance for TV Club since 2011, and the criteria the judges on that series use to evaluate dance could be applied to Justin Jordan and Tradd Moore’s work on this series. Those judges are looking for clear movement, expressive bodies and faces, strong use of the space, and a firm balance of technique and character. The comics medium changes the context of those requirements, but the ideas still hold true. Can a comic-book artist choreograph a fight sequence where the reader feels the impact of each and every action? Do characters’ emotions clearly read in their body language and facial expressions? Is there a distinct sense of location? Does the technical spectacle complement the characters and story? The Legend Of Luther Strode #6 answers these questions with a resounding “Hell yeah!” as it concludes the miniseries with the year’s most over-the-top, gruesomely violent fight sequence.
Luther Strode was a wimpy teenage geek before he discovered “The Hercules Method,” a self-help guide in the back of a comic book that transformed him into one of the “talented,” superpowered instruments of murder whose ranks include the biblical Cain and Jack The Ripper. The first miniseries was a tragedy that showed the price of Luther’s strange talent, but the second has jumped forward five years and shifted focus to Luther’s relationship with high school sweetheart Petra, building an epic romance that provides emotional stakes in the midst of all the carnage. Luther Strode remains Justin Jordan’s strongest comic-book work as he takes on projects at DC and Valiant, but his story wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Tradd Moore’s artwork. Moore is an artist with a clean, expressive style that doesn’t sacrifice movement for detail, and his ability to choreograph an exciting fight sequence is up there with greats like Frank Miller and Walt Simonson. His skill reaches new levels of excellence in this issue, which finds Luther and Petra chasing Jack The Ripper in a mall littered with mutilated bodies.
Shock and awe is a major part of this book’s appeal, and the creators constantly outdo themselves with each new outlandish action sequence. This issue begins with a two-page spread that zooms out to show multiple floors of the mall ornately decorated with flayed corpses, from bodies speared on support columns to hunched-over naked people arranged around the edges of fountains. It’s a powerful, deeply disturbing image, especially after considering just how much time Moore spent rendering it in such meticulous detail. The shot also establishes the battlefield for the rest of the issue, giving the reader a strong idea of the spaces size. Felipe Sobreiro’s colors accentuate the impact of the spread, covering the mall in a cool blue that makes the red of the blood pop on the page. The colors register before the bodies, and all that blood in such a huge space is an immediate indicator that something very wrong has gone down.
As Petra helps the mall’s survivors escape, Luther faces down Jack in the kind of spectacular fight sequence only comic books can produce. The three-panel sequence where Jack and Luther collide is ingeniously laid out to create exhilarating motion while showing the destructive force of their fight. The first panel is a vertical shot of Luther inches away from punching Jack in the face; the power of Luther soaring through the air is so strong that it shakes the very foundation of the building, sending dust and debris through the air that Moore uses to accentuate the action. Once Luther makes impact with Jack, a horizontal panel shows Jack grabbing Luther and kicking him into the ceiling, where he bounces back to tackle Jack from behind. It sends Jack through the floor and into the next panel, revealing that Moore’s black panel gutter is actually the architecture of the building in silhouette. The second panel in the sequence is the perfect example of how a comic book can capture a fight sequence unlike any other medium. The two figures are traveling through space and time in one static image, and it’s the reader’s imagination that fills in the gaps of movement between the three pairs of Jack and Luther.
There are various character design elements that add to the flow of action: Luther and Petra’s long hair, the flowing tails of Jack’s jacket, the stripes in Petra’s shirt. Those stripes do the same job as the bandages that wrap Jack’s legs and face, creating a sense of vibration even when the characters aren’t in motion. The graceful lines and full muscle extensions of a dancer’s body are exaggerated to superhuman lengths in Moore’s art, pushing the human body to extremes that have a fantastic visual energy. There are a few places where the anatomy becomes downright alien, but as a whole, this issue spotlights Moore’s knowledge of the human body as he morphs it to create kinetic images. The cartoonish exaggeration makes it easier to enjoy the sheer spectacle of the fight in the midst of all the dying bodies, giving the story a tone that is somewhere between a Robert Rodriguez movie and Looney Tunes.
Every so often there’s a truly awe-inspiring trick on So You Think You Can Dance that gets the audience roaring with applause, a moment where the music, choreography, and dancers come together with breathtaking force. For the writer, artist, and colorist of this series, that moment of breathtaking creative synergy comes when Petra saves Luther by chain-sawing Jack in half, soaking the hero with a geyser of blood. In the panel before the money shot, Luther tells Jack, “I’m not going to kill you,” and then Petra rams the chain saw in Jack’s back. “She is,” Luther finishes, delivering one of those great stereotypical action-movie lines that is perfectly suited for the events on the page. Jordan isn’t going for anything exceptionally cerebral in his script, and Luther’s line is the type of tongue-in-cheek cliché that becomes totally badass when he says it standing in a wave of blood gushing from Jack The Ripper. And what pretty blood it is. Moore and Sobreiro know how to make gorgeous gore, and the surge of red evocatively visualizes the speed and power of Petra’s weapon.
When I reviewed The Walking Dead #100 last year, I asked, “How far is too far?” in reference to the graphic violence of that title, which manipulates the audience’s emotions through sadism. Violence has a much different purpose in The Legend Of Luther Strode #6, with the creative team exaggerating it to create a huge spectacle. There is no “too far” for Luther Strode, but the refined craft of the creative team makes it more than just a mindless massacre. It will be very hard for Jordan, Moore, and Sobreiro to top the events of this issue in The Legacy Of Luther Strode next fall, but they’ve proven that they’re up to the challenge.