Written by Declan Shalvey
Art by Philip Barrett and Jordie Bellaire
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
From the first page, Savage Town is looking to offer a sense of place –- specifically Limerick City, Ireland - opening on a run-down playground. Semi-detached housing lines the background, while the slide and swings in the foreground are littered with junk; a broken tire, planks of wood, but mostly empty cans. Two kids discuss how someone they know ended up in hospital as a result of robbing Neddy Hogan, their speech injected with contractions and slang that seems strange at first, but becomes decipherable through the context provided.
Described on its title page as “One of those Graphic Novel Yokes” and dedicated to Steve Dillion, this story is penned by Declan Shalvey, who started his career as an artist and has since tried his hand as a writer with last year’s serialized Nick Fury, Jr. story that ran in Civil War II: Choosing Sides. This is a far bigger project, over 100 pages, and loosely based on events that occurred at the turn of the millennium. If you’re unfamiliar with Limerick City, or Ireland in general, never fear, because Shalvey, Philip Barrett, Jordie Bellaire, and Clayton Cowles flesh out their take on the area with a remarkable amount of detail. In short, it’s the kind of place where you can tell someone to “hit the bricks” only to get hit with a brick in response.
Jimmy 'Hardy' Savage not only offers himself as inspiration for the title of the book, but as the point of entry into the story itself. He runs a gang, but it’s one that’s vastly overshadowed by the bigger operations run by the Hogan Brothers and the Dawsons. Up until now, the boundaries of each gangs’ turf have been respected, but the city’s been a pressure cooker for too long and is now ready to explode.
Providing you’re not a strange to stories about crime and the mob, you’ll understand that this trouble is inevitable, but Shalvey takes time in getting to the point where it all goes wrong, more content with using the space that a graphic novel affords over the single-issue format to let the characters interact and see what they have to say. It’s a deliberate sense of pacing, one that’s more interested in the story of the characters over the plot of what happens. While it can seem slow to start in the early stages, around 40 pages in, the dynamics gets more personal and it starts to click together.
With this additional space and time in hand, Shalvey opts to start Jimmy’s story in a pub where the drinks are already flowing. A story about a city and the crime that springs from it might suggest comparisons to The Wire, but the way that Shalvey writes the interactions between the many patrons of this pub feels closer to the work of Guy Ritchie. They offer expletives, reversals, and retorts with a laugh that gives Savage Town a cadence and rhythm that’s intrinsically linked to its setting and sets it apart from other stories that utilize similar narratives.
Unlike old standby urban sprawls like New York City, Ireland does more than just provide a backdrop to this narrative, and Shalvey’s biggest interest appears to be the milieu of the area. As this becomes more deeply developed, it seems more and more likely that the turf war is just the necessary catalyst to throwing the city into disarray and seeing how the characters deal with that. This is also likely what will make any further installments all the more interesting for how different the field of play is come the end of the book.
Of course, for all the work that Shalvey puts into making this setting feel distinct, Barrett and Bellaire are just as responsible for fleshing out the area, creating a city that feels cohesive yet has distinct areas. They do so through a melding of roughness and realism, where the cars are scratched and the in-process housing project has already been graffitied. This also applies to the characters, with the pair crafting an expansive cast. Looking at individual panels might suggest that this is more of a looseness, but examining the whole work shows that they’ve put a level of care into ensuring that they aren’t over-designed or too polished. Bellaire uses colors that provide an earthy, more muted feel. The grass is more brown than green and the buildings are dim with run-down exteriors and interiors that have been given a layer of paint that’s long since worn away. Special mention should also be paid to how the pair depict the violence of the book, conveying it in brief, but intense flashes of red.
The book also contains a number of extras, deemed “Bonus Craic.” There’s several sketches and a detailing of the design process which highlight how much work was put into ensuring the colloquial feel of the book. All in all, Savage Town is a story that you’ve likely heard before, but not in this dialect. It takes time to attune yourself to it, but Shalvey has such a strong handle on the language he utilizes that it shouldn’t be completely indecipherable as he gradually builds to a final line that ends the narrative on a grace note. The team have created a rich world around a familiar narrative archetype, but considering their desire to tell more tales, it’s a solid start for Shalvey’s long-form storytelling, and hopefully a fitting prologue for more Savage Town in the future.