2 out of 5
Flipping through the pages of Gateway City and selecting one at random sets expectations a’flutter: Russell Mark Olson’s mash-up of 1920s gangsterism with – yes – aliens produces some gloriously pulpy pages, with densely era-perfected dialogue that snaps and an earthy orange/brown color palette (applied with an assist from Olson’s wife, Emily) that grounds the wild visuals. Selecting any random page makes you desperately want to read this thing.
Actually reading it, unfortunately, is a mess.
The positives above hold true: detective Lefty Lundqvist’s investigations into a double homicide spread out almost immediately to have him meeting and scuffling with all sorts of wildly inventive creatures, and the Golden Age sense of awe bursts off the page with back-and-forth banter and expressive linework that directs your eye around the page masterfully. But after this initial setup, which carries us through most of the first issue, Olson lets a key element of Gateway City drift way out of control: whether or not we’re supposed to be surprised that the St. Louisans are getting down with beings from other planets. They way they’re presented suggests that it’s a twist, but the way everyone interacts with them doesn’t. But I can’t goddamn tell which way I, as a reader, am supposed to take it, which is the biggest blow to the book’s tone, as you’re perpetually waiting for someone to acknowledge what’s going on on the page – the story can’t truly be unleashed without doing so – but when they do, it’s completely in passing, making it seem like you must’ve missed some early mention or connection. This restlessness is doubled down upon by something that’s not quite evident in a simple flipthrough: the scene-to-scene construction. Olson jumps between characters and scenes without properly scaling it within context of the overall story, and on a more micro level, we have characters who should be a focus of a page or scene acting from off panel; reactions or revelations left between panels or pages. Again, it lends a sense that there was something that you’d missed, and as the story continues to add on more and more alien creatures to its cast – who each have their own agendas, apparently – the feeling gets worse and worse. By as soon as issue two, the transportative magic suggested by the art and tone has dissipated.
With, perhaps, a bit of simplification to the story – things get cosmic when the sci-fi gangsters bit was already enough – and more of an eye on smoothing out pacing, I suspect that Gateway City could have more often met the promise its randomly sampled pages offer. Olson has a great ability to set tone in an instant, and certainly ideas to spare, so I don’t doubt there’s a better application of those skills on the horizon.