The first arc of Rodney Barnes and Jason Shawn Alexander’s Killadelphia ranked among my favorite comics of 2020. It was a breathtaking, gorgeous, layered story that blended absurd-yet-scary horror with gritty, grounded character drama. So, naturally, I was pretty excited to see where the comic would go from there. That first volume ended in a way that opened numerous narrative doors for future stories. And that’s a pretty exciting place for a second arc to find itself. Now, to be fair, Barnes and Alexander certainly take advantage of those numerous avenues—but it comes at the cost of narrative coherence. While the first volume of Killadelphia was something new and exciting, the second volume feels like more of the same—with all of the pros and cons that come with that. The world is explored with more depth, but the narrative is often unfocused, with an ending that’s less of an ending and more of a beginning for another story. There’s too much going on and not enough time to explore it with. (3 out of 5 wands.)
NOTE: This review will remain as spoiler free as possible.
Killadelphia vol.2 – “Burn Baby Burn”
Written by Rodney Barnes
Illustrated by Jason Shawn Alexander
Adams’ battle to reshape the United States in his own twisted vision might have been thwarted for now, giving Jimmy Sangster a moment of respite, but the war for a new America rages on! Now, as Abigail steps out of the shadows, she unleashes a new violent terror upon the city some have renamed Killadelphia. But this time, it’s about creating as widespread a web of fear imaginable as she rips the beating heart from the city itself.
Can Jimmy stop her or will history repeat and force him to meet the same fate as his father?
Volume 2 of Killadelphia feels less like a story in its own right and more like the setup for a story you’re gonna get in the next arc. Here, Abigail Adams picks up the pieces of her (now fully-dead) husband’s plan, deciding to take control of humanity by force, rather than slowly eating away at the outskirts of humanity and living in the shadows. And that’s the gist of it. She has some of her underlings attack prominent Philadelphia people—including the state’s governor and a famous rapper—resulting in Jimmy Sangster investigating the murders. On paper, that makes for a compelling story. And for a while, it is one. But it all kind of falls apart due to a lack of focus. Instead of furthering the main plotline, much of the arc is dedicated to fleshing out the stories of Abigail and her vampire family. This wouldn’t be a problem if those backstories felt more tied into the arc’s main story, especially since a lot of them are very compelling and give Abigail and her vampire family a lot more depth than they previously had. But that’s not really what happens. In one issue, numerous pages are spent developing a character’s backstory who’s almost immediately killed later in the same issue (or at the beginning of the next, I don’t quite remember). Stuff like that makes these diversions feel pointless. Why learn about a character who’s immediately killed off? Now, to be fair, a lot of this is very interesting, so your mileage may vary. It just didn’t work so well for me.
I often complain about comics trying to cram too much story into six issues, resulting in things going unexplored. And that’s definitely something that happens here. There’s a lot of world-building and a lot of character expansion, but it all feels a bit rushed. Jimmy suffers the brunt of this lack of focus, as his arc feels woefully underexplored. He seems to be adjusting to life without his father, even taking over his father’s job. But then, the moment Abigail and her vampires start attacking people, he immediately resurrects his father. And it’s kind of like… why? I mean, the comic does explain this, but it feels like a lot of the previous arc revolved around Jimmy learning to move past his father, so it’s a little underwhelming to see him return to that mindset so quickly. Abigail’s storyline doesn’t fare much better. Abigail’s plan never fully makes sense because the story never really explains what she’s going for. It always exists as a sort of vague “out of anarchy, our new society will rise” kind of thing. And maybe its vagueness is the point, but the comic doesn’t entirely communicate that. Instead, it just feels sort of underdeveloped. And, honestly, given that most of these vampires know of Abigail’s past, the fact that any of them trust her to be acting in their best interests doesn’t quite work for me. This might also be the point, but I still feel like it wasn’t communicated as well as it could’ve been. All of the pieces are there, but they never quite come together for me. In all honesty, if the goal for this arc was to expand upon the various vampires, I wish the comic hadn’t done anything with Jimmy at all. Just cut away from him entirely and really lean into the idea of this being a pause in the action, meant to expand upon the various vampires. But, alas, that’s not what happens.
I think the biggest problem for me is that this is an arc without an ending. This arc ends on the mother of all cliffhangers, without doing anything to bring the story to any kind of a conclusion, and without that ending, all of the pieces don’t feel like they properly come together. The sixth issue of this arc feels less like the climax of a story and more like the middle chapter of one. And that’s really frustrating. Had the sixth issue brought the story to a close, it would’ve resulted in an arc that wasn’t quite as good as the first arc, but still enjoyable. Instead, we’ve got something that just feels formless. It’s a lot of (admittedly enjoyable) world-building, the seeds of a plot, and the promise of a satisfying ending. And that’s just… not what I look for in an arc of a comic. It’s the exact reason I don’t read comics as they come out, choosing to wait for arcs to be collected in trade paperback collections so I can read the whole story in one go. For me, a collected volume of an ongoing comic comes with the implicit promise of containing a full story—unless it explicitly tells me that’s not the case (think DC’s Doomsday Clock being split into two volumes). To be fair, this arc ends with the promise of a pretty killer conclusion in the next arc, but that kind of an ending leaves the previous six issues feeling like you’d treaded water for a while. None of this inherently means that volume 2 of Killadelphia is bad. There’s a lot here that will please most longtime Killadelphia fans—of which I am one. But on the whole, there were as many things that didn’t work for me as there were things that did.
All of that being said, though, there’s still a lot to like about Killadelphia: Burn Baby Burn. Most of what I liked about the first arc is carried over here. The characters are compelling, even if some of them feel a bit underserved. The dialogue is so well-written, razor-sharp, and full of wit. The atmosphere is exactly the same; there’s still that perfect mixture of horror and absurdism. The world-building is excellent and the connection that’s drawn between the oppression of vampires and the oppression these characters felt when they were human is well worth exploring, especially in the context of how easy it is to argue that Abigail is only continuing that oppression. Most enjoyable of all, though, is Jason Shawn Alexander’s artwork. The artwork here remains as gritty and grounded as it was in the first volume, with Alexander continuing to play in a sort of noir nightmare world. The vampires get to be even more horrific this time around, as the violence is more brutal than ever. This is one of those comics that’d be worth reading for the artwork alone, honestly. It’s just really gorgeous work and I continue to appreciate how well Alexander realizes Barnes’s vision.
All in all, I feel like Killadelphia is a title that might be best read as a monthly thing, ignoring the confines of various arcs. As an ongoing storyline, these issues are compelling enough. There’s a lot of cool stuff set up here with the promise of a cracking conclusion to come. But as a self-contained arc, this is a bit disappointing. It’s all set up with no payoff and that’s not really what I look for from a graphic novel collecting an arc of a comic. Reading it this way feels like you’ve read half a story, whereas reading it monthly probably doesn’t result in such a strong feeling. It’s more akin to watching a TV show that’s gone on a hiatus, where you expect these kinds of cliffhangers. Still, if you’re a fan of Killadelphia, you’re gonna find a lot about this to like. It remains one of the most daring and creative comics being published right now, and I’m very excited to see where it goes in its third arc, given all that happens at the end of this one. Plus, this volume includes a backup story called “Elysium Gardens,” which is all about a group of werewolves and tackles many of the same themes as the main Killadelphia title. It looks like “Elysium Gardens” will directly tie in with Killadelphia sometime in the future, so that should be pretty exciting too. Overall, if you’re a fan of Killadelphia, you’re gonna read this title anyway. And if you’re not, I don’t think this will change your mind, but I think you should still give the series a try as the third arc looks to be an exciting one.
3 out of 5 wands.