Written by Matteo Pizzolo
Art by Amancay Nahuelpan and Tyler Boss
Lettering by Jim Campbell
Published by Black Mask Studios
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
“Now let me welcome everybody to the wild, wild West / A state that's untouchable like Eliot Ness” - Dr. Dre
Calexit is a book that hits your brain like a slug to the chest. You finish it and your ears get a little hot. This is a work of fiction, but it feels so real. And that’s part of the strength of what writer Matteo Pizzolo and artist Amancay Nahuelpan have created here. They imagine that the California secession movement, Calexit, was successful, but to somewhat tragic ends. A state already dealing with massive infrastructure failings as part of a large country would hardly be self-sustaining on its own. But rather than tell the story of how the revolution started or how it ends, Pizzolo and Nahuelpan take the road less travelled - they show us how people survive.
The reality of these characters’ lives is unsettling, but they are doing what they have to do. For Jamil, that means dealing drugs to local Homeland Security agents, delivering packages and cracking wise. He has a drone with a built-in AI that serves as his companion and enables him to work by keeping track of various customers’ orders ad information. He’s a bit of a scamp with that smuggler’s charm that works so well for Han Solo minus the overcompensating masculinity. Jamil’s easy to like and provides an easy point-of-view character for readers. It’s hard not to root for him despite the contradictions in his personality and actions. He’s a fully formed character, and that’s what is key to this book. That’s how Pizzolo treats all of his characters. We don’t get that much time with Zora McNulty/Donato, but we come to understand her quickly. She’s adopted. She’s the de facto rebel leader. She’ll resort violence seemingly only when pushed to it. But even her patience has a limit, and her anger is real. These are the different ways in which survival manifests itself.
Pizzolo’s approach to pacing really impresses me as well. Mostly because the story moves but the exposition isn’t overwrought. (In one scene, it’s actually played as a joke.) And for any reader that thinks they need to suspend disbelief to have read these characters talking about the crazy state of current events in their world, I invite you to eavesdrop on basically any conversation going on at happy hour in the wake of the latest storm of tweets. It’s all we talk about. Why wouldn’t these characters?
And despite the dire circumstances that Jamil, Zora, and the rest live in, this book does have a sense of humor about it. Pizzolo writes a whole sequence outside the Chinese Theater that features some familiar costumed heroes juxtaposed with villains who look eerily (and no doubt purposefully) like Steve Jobs and Steve Bannon. But none of these shambolic imitations of Captain America or Wonder Woman are going to have the save day. Jamil isn't even going to be particularly heroic. He’s going to do the job that gets him some cash and keeps him out of trouble. Survival remains the key theme, even in the face of evil.
Artist Amancay Nahuelpan does an incredible job bringing this world to life, and that helps make Pizzolo’s work so much more effective. By creating a California that looks recognizable but just slightly off, Nahuelpan is able to sow the seeds of discomfort in readers. It all looks right, but something is wrong. L.A. is overrun with a faceless enemy. It’s unnerving. And the faceless helmets of the soldiers helps underline the characters’ existence as well. Nahuelpan’s expression work is excellent, whether he’s using it for comedic or dramatic effect. We only get to see the characters’ reactions to the soldiers. We don’t get to see how the soldiers feel in any given situation. Their presence in any scene is in human and it draws your eye in every panel. Danger is always present. Colorist Tyler Boss keeps his palette fairly simple, opting for consistency over experimentation. It works well because when he does stray from that the intention is clear, whether is a wash of red in a panel signaling impending doom or bright pinks and oranges to show the changing light of the day.
Calexit is the most political book on the stands right now. Hell, it might be the most political book of the year. But it doesn’t succeed just because it builds a story our the worst fears some of us might be able to perceive under our current administration. In part, it succeeds because at the end it acknowledges the context of its existence. The creators use the backmatter to speak directly to their intentions and to show readers that resistance isn’t futile. Pizzolo interviews activists and fellow artists about the ways they resist and how their personal politics intersect with what they do. A comic book isn’t going to change the world. I know that. You know that. The creators know that. But art can be part of what spurs people on to do things bigger than themselves. Calexit is a triumph not just because the craft and the storytelling is good, but because by the end of it, it asks “so what are you gonna do?” Moments like this never last. Books like this don’t either.