Written by: Pat Shand
Line Art by: Renzo Rodriguez
Colours by: Mara Jayne Carpenter
Lettered by: Jim Campbell
Publisher Black Mask
Ah, Breathless, where to start? I came into this book with my expectations set medium-high. A fun, violent romp through a world infested with monsters that at the same time provides a scathing satire of the state of medical care in the US sounds great. I don’t get to combine social policy and shotguns anywhere near often enough.
Breathless follows Scout Turner, a cryptozoologist at a shady private research facility, who, one day, while digging around in a monster’s guts, accidentally discovers a cure for asthma. This sets in action a chain of events that reveals the lengths that the pharmaceutical industry will go to in order to keep the money flowing in.
The art is good, but oddly dissonant. In a story where you have corporate espionage alongside murderous cryptids, one might expect something a little gritty, reflective of the unpleasantness that pervades in the plot, but everything is pretty clean. It sort of feels like a violent X-Files episode that’s been forced into a Saturday morning cartoon’s clothing. It’s not bad, just…off.
The characters are a mixed bag. We have corporate villains who, while not exactly twirling their moustaches, certainly have a cartoonishly warped sense of moral justification to their actions. Grace-Eisley serves the role of comic relief sidekick, without ever being especially funny or relieving. Farren the succubus is kind of fun when she’s not being gross (I know that’s her whole thing and that it’s referenced in the text, but I found that the joke wore a bit thin rather swiftly). And then there’s our protagonist, Scout.
Scout is an odd one. On the one hand, she’s a genius; this we know from her job as a cryptozoological researcher, but also because we’re told outright that she is on a couple of occasions. She’s also an inexplicable badass. No sooner does the horror of her situation present itself than she is blowing said horrors into mince with a massive shotgun. She doesn’t bat an eyelid. But then again, she did once hit a mean kid with a stick when she was a child so I guess it checks out. The main issue here is that I never really felt like I had much of grip on a character that I assumed was supposed to be the reader’s way in to the narrative. As it stands, we have a surly, distant lead who drags the plot kicking and screaming behind her whether it wants to move or not.
I think that my main issue with Breathless is the social commentary, more accurately the lack thereof. I’m aware that in the foreword, writer Pat Shand says that he is not looking to preach with this book, merely to question the nature of the status quo. I think it’s here that my opinion on the book becomes a little clouded by my own political biases.
If the purpose of the book is merely to spell out the fact that paying for essential medication in the US is frequently prohibitively expensive, then it certainly does so (on one page in particular this is done with the subtlety of a brick bat appendectomy), but to what end? Tonally, this is presented with frustration and resignation, not righteous indignation and rage. Sure, you don’t want to be preachy, but be braver than this. For a book with the repeated motif of ‘PAY TO LIVE’ the delivery of the sheer horror of that reality is surprisingly toothless.
The result of this is that I found the insidious nature of the real-life stranglehold that Big Pharma has on so many people to be far more frightening than the cold-blooded homicidal bastards that populate Breathless. I’m not saying that I think it’s okay to wipe out a building full of people, but as actions go there’s a certain honesty to it.
On the whole, then, this book feels to me like a missed opportunity. What could have been a rallying cry for systemic change ends up coming across as someone pointing at a problem and saying ‘Innit awful?’, as if they were addressing a bout of inclement weather. Once this became apparent I was left listlessly wading through a competent if unspectacular action comic with monsters fresh from the set of a Resident Evil film and villains who could definitely stand to camp it up a touch.
Not a bad read, by any means, but it feels like it could have been so much more.