Newburn #5: Faked Prison Blues

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When used correctly, a cliche can be put to good use. That’s why the works of Shakespeare are full of them, and people hardly care. A cliche, when done poorly, can elicit a groan and poke fun at its cheesy nature, it’s the idea of ​​”knowledge is power”. It’s a sentiment every nerd has heard in their lifetime that takes some creative deployment to ring true. In Newburn #5, the cliche is tested and put to good use as the motive for Detective Newburn’s current case.

Newburn #5 continues writer Chip Zdarsky and artist Jacob Phillips’ descent into the fabric of New York’s criminal element, picking up with the mob detective behind bars. Newburn has apparently been blamed for the murder of a member of the Albano family and is set up to be cellmates of one of the family’s former capos, Sal Russo. Sal quickly sides with Newburn, until it is revealed that the detective is there to gather information on the man. It’s a standard, stripped-down procedural case, but Zdarsky influences a distinct tone for the characters that makes this book so engaging to read. Both Newburn and Sal know that knowledge equals power, especially in prison, and Sal acts as a good foil to Newburn’s always-in-control attitude.

Zdarsky creates tension in the issue with forces closing in on Newburn from all sides. Working as a detective for the crime family, he’s gone through and put a lot of these inmates in chains, and they’re obviously looking for a pound of flesh in return. Zdarsky and Phillips exercise incredible restraint, giving the audience only one action scene. Newburn himself only has to throw a punch before he finds himself face down against a table, a member of the Black Council ready to inflict hell on the detective. It is only through Sal’s intervention and request for a favor that Newburn lives to solve the case. The scene is a great way for Zdarsky to show Newburn’s self-awareness, keenly aware of his position in the criminal underworld, never begging or trying to cut a deal in return for his mercy. Even bleeding from the face and smashed against the table, Newburn knows he holds the cards and is already two steps ahead.

The twist on the issue is also relatively straightforward and only comes courtesy of the spectacle of being helpless in Newburn’s side. Newburn isn’t the killer, but here in the joint for Sal to basically confirm that he leaked the information to the Dark Council that had the Albano killed. It’s not the most shocking twist, but as with everything in this book, it’s so well executed and plotted that it doesn’t need to be. Zdarsky lets the story unfold like a procedural through and through, and makes the book feel like that heartwarming episode of Law & Order that could be watched before bed, or the mystery paperback that needs to be beaten and flayed.

Phillip’s art is as concise and captivating as ever, and the coloring of the book is what stands out. Bonding work is more restrained and lends itself to the rigid and sometimes claustrophobic sense of prison. Phillips doesn’t play with composition or panel layouts in the same way as previous issues, but it feels like a deliberate choice, based on Zdarsky’s straightforward storytelling choices and where the problem lies. Where Phillips sings in this number is his color choices, oranges and reds contrasting with drab beige and prison grays. The pages of the fight between Newburn and the other inmate are striking, with Phillips using the red of Newburn’s bloody mouth and nose to contrast the grays of the metal table. Combined with Phillips’ decision to use that same red as the background for the specific panels where Newburn and the inmate connect their punches, it’s an eye-catching choice that grabs attention and amps up the physical action.

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