Sci-Fi Comic Book Tackles the Ethics of On-Duty Police Shootings

White Cop Kills Black Man.

This headline is disturbing, but hardly surprising anymore. Sides have long been drawn on the issue of use of force by law enforcement. Black Lives Matter activists blast police for racism and murdering people of color without consequence. Blue Lives Matter cops scold activists for undermining officers’ ability to defend themselves.

Enter The Burning Metronome, a Denver-grown supernatural murder-mystery comic that writer R. Alan Brooks plugs as “Twilight Zone meets The Usual Suspects.” The starkly drawn, photorealist story about six explorers stranded on earth examines the psychology of a white cop who killed a black man. 

The tone is raw, the pace riveting. Undercurrents of racial antagonism course through the story line. Dion Harris’s drawings and Matt Strackbein’s coloring boldly run a stylistic gamut from noir and neo-realism to downright trippy. The series promises to be captivating by cleaving to sci-fi tropes and high melodrama. The guts of the story are partially rooted in the political concerns of the movement to stop police brutality and murder.

The three artists, in their thirties and forties, met at a party in December. After chatting, they realized they had shared aesthetic and cultural sensibilities. They were interested in addressing the growing national debate over police violence, but wanted to do so in a way that was neither heavy-handed nor didactic and that brought humanity to both police and to those they kill. More important to the trio: They wanted to entertain. So they decided to collaborate. 

Though Brooks’s sympathies lean toward communities of color, he seeped himself in the literature of the police-led Blue Lives Matter movement to accurately represent the perspective of a cop who shot someone while on duty. He interviewed cop friends. He did what his father, a journalist, would do: put aside personal politics and aspired to be fair.

“I think, at some level, it can't be all malice and hate. There must be something deeper that each side believes, so I really tried to find it with police,” he says.

Brooks wants The Burning Metronome to explore the ethics of policing, but without being preachy.

“With this story, I want people to be first entertained. Then after, to have a moment to revisit their perspectives in life,” Brooks says.

The series prologue and the first violent, claustrophobic episode, which the artists have released for free on their Tumblr page, raise more questions about the plot, the characters and the ethics of on-duty police killings than answers. The artists will launch a Kickstarter on September 5 to pay for the printing of their 150-page comic book featuring six issues.

As one of the brains behind MotherF##cker in a Cape, a Denver podcast about marginalized people in geekdom, Brooks has thoroughly mulled over identity politics and comic-book culture.

He remembers being an eight-year-old kid and the only child and person of color surrounded by forty-year-old white guys at a Comic Con. “I couldn’t even buy black Vulcan ears,” he jokes. 

Things have turned around. Thanks to science-fiction authors of color such as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, who weathered discrimination and garnered huge fan bases, geek culture has diversified. People of color are actually represented as more than just bad guys, and once-marginalized authors now have a shot at publication. 

While racism has been far from uprooted in the comic-book scene, when it comes to multiculturalism, “the geek world has expanded beautifully,” Brooks says.

Comics do have more diverse casts than ever, yet still “the default seems to be white men,” he says.

Brooks's work resists that cultural homogeneity. The Burning Metronome features characters from various races, genders and ethnic backgrounds; whiteness is not the status quo. Politics are woven into an emotional barn-burner of a story in a way that V for Vendetta, The X-Men and The Black Panther have all done.

“I think the people who'll want to back our book are people who like depth and introspection in their comics, along with action, and who want to support diversity in comics, both on and off the page,” Brooks says.

But depth, diversity and social commentary aren’t his primary goals. “This is a fun read. It's pointless unless it's entertaining. And that's what we aim for."

If episode one shows what's to come, the artists hit the mark. 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris