‘Altered Boys: The Book of Billy’ issue #1.
Written by Michael J. Uhlman, Brian Wasiak and Jon C. Scheide.
Art by Robert Rath.
(No specific credits for colours, letters or Editing).
Full Colour – 49 pages – £5.59 (ComiXology).
Published by Shinebox Press.
The Story – This comic opens with a lone man confronting a priest and demanding that he writes a confession on a legal pad and signs it. This man tells the priest that he must admit to his crimes of abusing young boys or he will shoot him right there and then. If he does write this confession he will be allowed to drink a poison and pass away peacefully. The priest becomes enraged, refuses the easy way out and is shot and killed for his troubles.
The narrative then flips back to 1984 and four young friends are raising some low level hell as is common of boys of that age before they go to do their duty as Altar Boys at the local church. Their playfulness extends to some drinking of the Holy Red Wine and throwing stuff about before an enraged Father Fitzgerald catches them. Fitzgerald in his anger points out that one of the boys, called Billy, has his shirt untucked and continues to sexually assault him before taking him into the sacristy alone.
We are then transported from that horrific act to the present day where three of the friends are at Billy’s funeral. They argue about what could have been done before going to a diner to discuss it further over a meal. One of these men called Michael decides to take matters into his own hands, or so we believe.
Things become complicated and people you may not immediately expect to get themselves involved appear to influence the course of the following F.B.I. investigation. The first issue leaves some plots dangling for the second issue.
The Cover – This is a strong cover than does that trick of showing some of the stories through a strong central image. The Church doorway in fiery yellow and orange/the hanging rosary adjacent to the automatic pistol and the left stacked image of the avenging male work well. They are also not misleading. Whilst this isn’t exactly represented inside it does frame the story nicely.
I am a little curious about the credits. The three writers are shown in a larger font than the artist? Inside we only get these repeated and there is nothing showing anyone else’s participation? Editor? Letterer? I’ve had a look and the three writers are professionals in the filmmaking business…….hmmmm….more of that in a minute.
The Review – Listen, as a Catholic Boarding School survivor and ex-altar boy there’s nothing I like more than watching predatory religious hypocrites getting murdered. I was prompted to read this after I saw someone reply to Pat Mills (also an old boy at my school) with a link to this story. Pat had been pointing out the numerous crimes that had been hidden by the Catholic Church over the last century and it had be suggested he turn this into a comic book story. I have some mixed feelings about this first issue.
By about page six during my first reading pass I realised that I’d seen this dynamic of childhood friends and an abusing priest somewhere before. It is hard not to make comparisons to the movie and novel Sleepers that came out in 1997 from Barry Levinson. Whilst it veers away from the more realistic Sleepers by the end of the comic and more into a conspiracy thriller vibe it is very similar in setting and tone. I’ll be mentioning this again later but three three writers are movie guys …..
The art works and drenches the pages in the dirty city streets and guilty faces of the cast. You know who is who and even in the time jump sequence you fully realise what is happening. This is a thriller that is of course dealing with a subject that is incredibly impactful to many of us who grew as Catholics. I saw my fill of physical abuse by men (and woman) who claimed to be ‘of God’. I often credit this brutality as the reason I ran off so quickly into the arms of sensible atheism. It is this atmosphere that Rath deals in so well. Whilst he shows the beauty of the high ornamental ceilings and altars of a traditional church at the same time you feel the metaphorical dirt that sits just behind the illumination of the multitude of candles. We can see past the veneer of respectability and pureness to the reality of physical, sexual and mental abuse hanging ever over our heads as we knelt to pray. When the priests react to their ultimatums it’s done with a righteous energy. They can do no wrong…. they are Priests! All of this shows in their faces.
This first issue is fair length at forty-nine pages and over twice the length of an average Marvel/DC comic. But there isn’t that much going on. The pacing feels so much more like the first episode of a television series in the building of back story and the laying of upcoming twists and turns. It dwells too long in wide shots and the back and forth of diner/office/cemetery discussions. It also leaves the reader with a handful of plot moments at the end that are presumably dealt with further down the line. The lack of comics storytelling knowledge is also on show in the lack of credits and their strange cover copy font sizes. We also see a rather awkward set of head shots and film credits on the last page using terms like ‘accomplished screenwriter and playwright’ or ‘Award winning writer, director, and producer who studied at NYU, UCLA and University of London’. We also bizarrely get details of their hobbies (swimming and golf if you are interested) but barely more than a single mention of comics! Oh hang on, one of them does mention ‘Graphic Novel’.
I know a movie/TV pitch when I see one!
Conclusion – I admire the subject matter and the artwork but I’m afraid that I can’t recommend this comic. There is also a second issue released but at such a high price for a single issue comic in a digital format at £5.59 I decided to save my money. I hope it does get made as a TV series and that in doing so it evolves into something a little less along the lines of that aforementioned movie. I’d watch it with some popcorn.
Many thanks for reading.