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There’s a solid concept at the center of Savage Things #1, the debut issue of a new series created by writer Justin Jordan and artist Ibrahim Moustafa. The series centres around a shadowy organization that, decades ago, located and abducted children they believed were budding serial killers. They took these kids, nurtured homicidal tendencies within them, and trained them to become weapons. The series opens with this organization now recognizing the dangers of this project when one of their “weapons” commits a startling act of barbarity.
Justin Jordan has said that he wanted to merge the horror genre with the espionage genre, which is actually a really cool idea. And the idea of serial killers working as covert agents is interesting, to be sure. But I had more than a few issues with Savage Things #1, which is problematic both in its depiction of mental illness and in its lack of relatable characters.
The story opens in 1991, when a young boy returns home after setting a fire in a field to find his parents shot dead, and the killer in the house. The boy is taken to a secret facility and enrolled in a program called Black Forest with other boys, whereupon he is told that he and all the other students there are sociopaths, and therefore monsters. The doctor in charge of the project tells them that they will be trained to be “our monsters.” This story is crosscut with events happening the modern day when a bloody mass murder forces those same leaders of Black Forest to turn to the now grown boy from the beginning of the issue to clean up the mess.
My problem with the issue, and I’ll admit that this may be resolved with further issues, is that I’m a bit uncomfortable with the way the creative team deals with the issue of sociopathy. Look, I get that this is a thriller series, not a psychology text, but the “doctor” character in the issue basically makes the argument that all sociopaths are inherently going to be lethally dangerous serial killers and that’s not accurate. Also, no one is diagnosed a sociopath under the age of 18.
Now, can a series about a sinister organization recruiting troubled kids with signs of growing antisocial personality disorders and nursing them into living weapons work? Absolutely. But the speech this Doctor gives really rubbed me the wrong way, as it was troublingly specific. If he had been vague and had simply listed off certain signs the kids had exhibited without diagnosing them, I probably would have been fine with it. He does list certain traits/actions the kids all share that led them to be selected. And those traits are often associated with the childhoods of serial killers. But he calls these kids monsters and then right after that calls them sociopaths. As if having the disorder makes it inevitable they will become serial killers. I’m not someone with a mental illness. But I know people who do live with forms of mental illness, and simply being a sociopath, though it indicates a disregard for laws, recklessness and impulsivity, that alone doesn’t make every sociopath Hannibal Lector.
I’m not trying to be the kind of killjoy that says you can’t use mental illness in a story, or you can’t have a cool story about serial killers. I want to be clear that I WANT this series to be as awesome as its concept promises. But after reading I couldn’t shake the idea that I wasn’t sure if the creative team was saying all serial killers are usually sociopaths, or all sociopaths will inevitably become serial killers. There’s a difference. And it bothered me and took me out of the story. I wish they had either been more general and less authoritative, or that they had been really specific and nailed the psychology so that I didn’t have that feeling.
This brings me to my other issue with Savage Things #1, and that is the lack of any entry into any of the characters. The kids are the most obvious point of entry for sympathy or identification, but the issue keeps them at arms length, presenting them largely from the point of view of the Balck Forest project leaders, who at best see them tools to be exploited and at worst see them as inhuman monsters. Now, it’s clear that the kid codenamed Abel is going to be our protagonist and I’m also pretty sure we’ll get more inside his character in subsequent issues. But the first issue is supposed to hook the reader with compelling and interesting characters to bring you back for more, and this issues features a murderous and cruel thug, a Doctor willing to exploit children, and a protagonist who is unreadable. I’m all for having complex and morally grey characters as your leads, but then it’s even more important to provide them with something relatable to latch onto, and quickly, because otherwise you risk a lack of investment on the part of the reader.
Look, there’s definitely things to like here. Moustafa’s art is really top notch, utilizing realism and a clean design sense to accentuate the espionage elements without skimping on playing up the more horrific, serial killer aspects that give the concept such a punch. The art really has a good hold on the pace of the story, and the Moustafa makes the action scenes work as well as any blockbuster movie without losing sight of the more horror-based approach to the nature of the Black Forest operatives like Abel.
In the end, the elements that took me out of the story made Savage Things #1 not work for me. And it’s entirely possible that the issues to come will resolve them. Maybe the creative team wanted to present Black Forest without comment and will refine and define their approach to Abel and his colleagues’ sociopathy as they go. Maybe they’ll take us deeper inside Abel and he’ll emerge as a lead we as readers can get behind. I hope so. Because if the story remains simply about an organization trying to build their own monsters and those monsters turning on them, I’m not sure it will live up to the promise of its concept. 4.5/10