Book Review: Red Border by Jason Starr (writer) and Will Conrad (artist)
By Brian GreeneApril 10, 2020
“Be careful what you wish for” is an adage that often holds a lot of truth. Eduardo and Karina, the young, middle-class Mexican couple who are the main characters of Jason Starr’s new graphic novel Red Border, didn’t exactly ask for what happens to them in this story. But being saved by a vigilante when they were moments away from being murdered by a pack of drug cartel thugs is something anyone would want to happen if, you know, they were about to be murdered by drug cartel thugs. But what if being saved in this way is only going to lead them into a nightmare of a kind that is ugly enough to make them almost wish they had died before?
Eduardo and Karina are from Juárez. They’ve run afoul of the cartel and its vicious head honcho because Karina witnessed some of their criminal activity and reported this to the police. The cartel learns Karina’s identity and they come after the couple at their home. Eduardo and Karina manage to escape from the heavies initially and decide their only hope to be safe from them in a more permanent way is to flee to Texas. But at the border, the artillery-wielding thugs track them down and are ready to mow them down. And that’s when a bizarre savior in the form of a redneck-y American named Raymond Colby Benson III materializes, blows all the cartel guys away, ushers the couple onto U.S. soil, and welcomes them (along with a young Mexican boy they befriended at the border) into his family’s Texan ranch. But what if what they find at the Benson home is even more nightmarish than being chased by killers who want them dead?
Starr, who now has a long history of writing both graphic novels and comics, in addition to his run of (superb) noir novels, has come to be a sure hand at authoring text for this kind of medium. Red Border is dark and edgy in ways that will appeal to readers who appreciate his crime novels. For this work, which is being published by AWA Studios, he is ably joined in the effort by artist Will Conrad, colorist Ivan Nunes, letterer Sal Cipriano, and cover artist Tim Bradstreet. It’s being released over four monthly installments, #1 having appeared in mid-March. I’m writing this review having devoured the first installment the day it was released and having read part 2 in advance.
What makes the story and its illustrations work are a set of balances. There’s some fiery, blood-and-guts violence over these first two issues, and some of the characters are wildly over-the-top (yet believable). But Eduardo and Karina are “normal,” relatable people. They seem like a couple any of us might know. They argue a lot, oftentimes due to Eduardo (who’s a university professor) being a know-it-all and conversation hog. But they kiss and makeup. They are torn about things like whether crossing into the U.S. was the best move when they realized the cartel was after them, and then what to do about the fact that the Benson family seems to be a pack of Mexican-hating rednecks who may have sinister plans for them. They don’t always agree about what moves to make when in these predicaments, but they’re forced to make choices and come together on decisions, anyway. Sounds kinda like life, right?
A compelling, edgy, suspenseful, timely graphic novel with an effective combination of loud goings-on and everyday human life complexes
The illustrations and lettering in Red Border help to create and sustain the balances described above. The more outrageous characters have cartoony appearances, while Eduardo, Karina, and their new friend are drawn to look more normal. The lettering gets loud when it needs to be, and more somber when that’s called for. Another plus to Red Border is the fact that it’s not beat-you-over-the-head political. Matters around the U.S.-Mexico border have been a daily top news item here in America since Trump took office. But Starr’s story, while using this timely backdrop as a foundation, doesn’t ask readers to take a political side as they follow the tale. You’re just watching this normal, average, young couple from Mexico as they escape one nightmare scenario only to land in another, and waiting to see what will happen to them. Sure, you’re rooting for them, even if Eduardo seems like a full-of-himself ass at times; but you’re not cheering in a way that has you taking any kind of stance about the border control controversies.
All told, Red Border is a compelling, edgy, suspenseful, timely graphic novel with an effective combination of loud goings-on and everyday human life complexes. And the fact that it’s coming out in installments gives those of us who enjoy it something to look forward to, as we figure out what to do with ourselves in the environment the coronavirus pandemic has created.