Red Handed by Matt Kindt is an artistic graphic novel and so much more (available May 7, 2013).
Red Wheel Barrow is your average American city except for one significant trait: none of their crimes go unsolved. While this seems to have had no effect on the crime rate, the good people of Red Wheel Barrow can rest assured that hometown hero, Detective Gould, will swiftly bring any evil-doers to justice. With his embrace of technology, an established network of eyes and ears on the ground as well as his own fine deductive skills, Gould is commonly lauded by the townsfolk as the greatest detective since Sherlock Holmes.
Coming in to the tenth year of Gould’s tenure on the force, he’s faced with a wave of strange, seemingly unrelated crimes. There is a woman who steals chairs, and another who orchestrates the theft of street signs. There is an international art thief, and a pickpocket, and several people who are convinced that what they are doing is art, regardless of the consent of the other participants.
The narrative switches back and forth between Gould and the law-breakers, bringing up questions as to what it means to commit a crime. With the street sign thefts, for example, done in order to expedite the artistic process, the criminal responsible asks Gould,
Who pays for [art] grants?... The people. With taxes. They also pay for street signs. So what's the difference? A few road signs here and there get taken. And they get used for a greater good. They get replaced with the same money that pays for grants. The people's money. For something that everyone benefits from. If you steal an apple from an orchard and the farmer never notices, in the grand scheme of things... that apple would have in all likelihood fallen off the tree and rotted before it was harvested. Is that wrong?
Gould, of course, has a much narrower view of justice, and is almost wholly absorbed in the task of nabbing the guilty. This leads to friction between him and his wife, Annalyse, whose increasing alienation from him causes her to throw herself into using her neglected artistic talents to open an art gallery. Gould finally begins to see the pattern linking all the strange crimes together, but will he be able to stop the endgame that threatens to upend his ideals of truth and justice before it destroys everything he holds dear?
Matt Kindt has written a book that is a two-fold meditation on criminal activity and the artistic impulse. On its surface, Red Handed asks what it means to be a criminal, and depicts with delicacy the various paths that can lead to delinquency. He successfully shows that you don’t have to break the law to be a criminal, but also pleads for an approach to crime that is preventative instead of retributive. When Gould and his nemesis have their showdown, the latter bluntly tells him:
You're obsessed with crime after-the-fact. With glory that you can deflect with false humility. It's become a game for you. But there is humanity and people at stake. You... need to wake up... Your lack of intervention is a crime, Gould. You could prevent most of the crimes that you solve in your sleep.
Kindt also had some very thought-provoking things to say about fine art, and the parallels between artists and criminals. The saying “good artists borrow, great artists steal” is illustrated throughout this graphic novel, in loving homage to the late Chester Gould who created the iconic Dick Tracy. Like the deceased cartoonist’s, the line drawings of Red Handed are uncomplicated. Here, though, they are washed in lovely watercolors that, as with the narrative, provide an almost deceptively gentle counterpoint to the seedy crimes and violence depicted. The art is as much metaphor for the philosophical aims of this graphic novel as the story itself, quite the accomplishment in a book that is less straight-up crime noir than an endeavor to provoke discussion as to the ultimate price of art.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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