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Spotlight

Family and Freedom Race West in Rick Remender and Bengal’s Death Or Glory

By Mark Peters

The dramatic tagline is worthy of a summer blockbuster: “FIVE thousand miles, FOUR heists, THREE days, TWO psychopaths, and ONE woman who’s had enough.”

The Long and Winding Road

But at its core, Death Or Glory—a new Image series written by Rick Remender and illustrated by French upstart Bengal—is a relatable story about a kickass heroine dealing with relatable problems as well as insane mayhem. It also dives deep into political realities that plague 27 million Americans without health insurance, a scenario Remender became intimately familiar with early in his career.

The writer describes Death Or Glory as “part Convoy, part The Professional, part Thelma & Louise. We follow Glory, raised free in a convoy, off the grid, amid the last men and women truckers fighting life-threatening automation on the American open road. Now, in order to pay for her beloved, dying Father’s surgery, Glory has three days to pull off four dangerous cross-country heists with mob killers, crooked cops, and a psycho ex-husband all out to bring her in—or die trying.”

Despite the extremity of her predicament, Glory promises to be one of the most down-to-earth heroines in comics. “So many action heroes are completely unaffected by the action itself because they're tough-as-nails ass-kicker types. That's not Glory. Glory is not the stern-faced, ready-for-a-fight ass-kicker. Violence doesn’t come easily to her. She's a regular person: a trucker, a mechanic, and a racecar driver. She's just a grease monkey who was raised in Yuma, Arizona. She's never shot anybody, never held a gun before, never even been in a fight. We place her squarely in the center of a lot of very bad people and see how she reacts.”

Glory, as revealed in flashbacks, is also a daddy’s girl: she was homeschooled by her father, Red, after her mom died in a car wreck. Red imbues her with a salient independence and self-reliance, and she can do plenty as an accomplished mechanic and driver. Red also raised Glory like her mom wanted: “off the grid and out of the cesspool.” Cesspool is a synonym for swamp, and it’s used similarly in the series to bash all things governmental as anti-freedom. In Glory’s world, a Social Security number might as well be a prison sentence.

Death Or Glory begins in a trucker convoy and uses this off-the-grid subculture to full advantage. Remender says the choice of trucker culture was inspired by his own fantasies about heading out for the open road: “I often daydream of grabbing the family, leaving everything behind and heading off the highway. I love my job, but it’s cost me my youth sitting in front of the computer. So, when I’m overwhelmed, I romanticize the idea of a convoy—this band of brothers and sisters, the last free people in the country. I wanted to explore the idea of pure freedom and what it would entail to avoid the traps of modern society. Life without a credit card or a mortgage, to live completely free, job to job, no other entanglements.”

Glory’s family and friends embody that freedom; they comprise a classic subculture that’s rejected the main culture and its oppressive, depressing commercialism. “Glory and her family in the convoy don't want big houses or shiny things weighing them down. They only want to live unencumbered from the things that tie all the rest of us down. They want to avoid a life of indentured servitude, seeking out all the material shit we think we need, that we really don’t need. Of course, there is a downside to their freedom: no Social Security, no medical insurance, forged driver’s licenses, and living hand-to-mouth means that when her father needs a liver replacement, they have no means to pay for that.”

Finding money for that liver replacement, by hook or by crook, propels Glory’s 5,000-mile adventure with dubious company. Much like Breaking Bad, this plot wouldn’t work in a country with universal healthcare. Remender has a very personal reason for writing about this topic: “My wife suffers from an autoimmune disease, and we were very young and very poor when it first began to attack her. So, we got to experience the broken parts of the American medical system firsthand—because her disease is so expensive, nobody would insure her. Add to that the fact she’s an immigrant and couldn’t get an in-house job. We were just shit out of luck. Then the insurance I had found a way to kick her off due to some kind of bureaucratic loophole. We were saddled with a crippling debt that hung over our heads for years and years. Until Obama changed the law in regards to insurance companies being able to railroad people with pre-existing conditions, we couldn’t get her insurance for many years.”

With this series, Remender is making lemonade out of those crippling stressful years dealing with America’s insane healthcare system: “I wanted to build that frustration into the story here and deal with that ugly aspect of America and the consequences people face for trying to live a life free from corporate desk jobs and the like. Write what you know.”

The family element of Death Or Glory mines a persistent theme for Remender, from the post-apocalyptic submerged desperation of Low to the manic cross-dimensional clan drama of Black Science. Death Or Glory shows how families shape lives and induct you into larger groups that define you as much as your DNA. “This is about the true value of a tribe,” Remender says. “Glory's family and situation aren’t perfect in the traditional sense, but it is to her. The convoy is her family, and they prioritize all the small things we often let slide through the cracks in modern life. Her father broke away from the grind of the rat race to raise her free and give her the opportunity to stay that way—and she means to. But when he falls sick, we begin to see the price of that freedom, and Glory is forced to make some hard choices. What would you do to save a family member who gave up everything for you?”

Glory’s makeshift family hangs out at a roadhouse bar called the Rowdy Rooster, which is likely to join classic comic book bars such as Noonan’s Sleazy Bar (from Hitman) and the Undertow (from Criminal) as a setting for bonding and binging. “The Rowdy Rooster represents home and community for our cast,” Remender explains. “My wife is English and often talks about how the local pub back home is a congregation spot for the community, a place where people gather and spend time together frequently. We don’t have that same sort of institution intrinsically built into our average modern American life, and I think we all secretly desire it. Glory does have it, and has something besides her father to lose.”

Where Humanity and Anarchy Collide

French sensation Bengal’s gorgeous art, which has been seen on covers for All-New Wolverine and Supergirl, brings a kinetic beauty to often devastating subject matter. The collaboration between Remender and Bengal, like so many writer-artist pairings, evolved naturally. “We’ve been talking about doing a book together for years. It just took a long time to get the planets to line up. He’s one of my favorite artists in the world and has been for a long time. He was very high on the list of people I had to work with at some point. We developed the hell out of this project over the course of the last few years. We did our work, I beat up outlines, then started over, then changed direction for years. I’d written an entire first issue that we ended up throwing out and starting over. This is definitely our best foot forward, and I couldn’t be more proud of the series.”

Remender promises that he and Bengal will bring readers plenty of drama and mayhem alongside a strong character study rooted in family dynamics and social issues. As for how to achieve a balance, Remender doesn’t see any conflict between the personal, relatable stuff and the bonkers, explody stuff.

“I want my cake and I want to eat it,” Remender says. “I want to write big thrilling stories grounded in honest human life. So I always try and find a topic that I care about, something I'm passionate to write about that fits in whatever genre it is I'm writing in. That mix is mandatory for me before I pull the trigger on doing a project. Balancing that is fairly tricky, but it is just that— balance. I use my guts, and my editor Sebastian Girner, to get a feel for when I have enough of each. I know when I care about a character, when I've done the thing that invests me, and I trust that will be the same for the readers. Then I let the action go nuts, but always born out of character. When the action is rooted in the character’s journey, people care about it. If you miss the character stuff, the action is hollow and feels dumb.”

At bottom, Death Or Glory is about freedom, family, and how it’s never easy to do the right damn thing. And sometimes, doing the right thing involves robbing a bank.