HARD PLACE #1 by Doug Wagner and Nic Rummel
Wagner and Rummel explore a new side of the crime thriller genre in HARD PLACE #1. By focusing on a reformed criminal and themes of forgiveness, HARD PLACE #1 worms its way into the reader's mind. While plotting and characterization can feel a bit rushed, AJ Gurney is a relatable and interesting human character with deep potential.
85 %
The New Crime Thriller
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“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” — Michael Corleone, GODFATHER III

This single line from one of the greatest crime flicks in history perfectly summarizes Image’s new book, HARD PLACE #1. But unlike GODFATHER’s Michael Corleone, HARD PLACE’s AJ Gurney has finally escaped the cold grip of crime. Gurney was the best getaway driver in the business. For years, he ran bank heists for the Russian mob. However, a nearly fatal car crash ended his career. The police found him in the wreck of his vehicle, and courts sentenced him to five years in prison.

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We meet AJ Gurney on the day of his release from prison. Tired and dreaming of a simple, normal lifestyle, he returns to Russian mob leader Maxim Sidorov and cuts all ties to his empire. Sidorov tells him to never show his face again. With his past behind him, Gurney returns to his father’s house and begins to work in his failing auto shop. When the bills come in, the Gurneys have to face the truth that they are not breaking even. The only way to survive is a loan. At the bank, AJ’s past, though, comes to kick him in the teeth. Two masked men enter. They recognize AJ as the legend he is, and they force him to help in their heist.

Between a Rock and a…

Hard PLace #1
Courtesy of Image Comics

Approaching HARD PLACE #1, I expected a high paced, action packed thrill ride full of fast cars and even faster bullets. In fact, I almost dreaded it. The bank heist thriller was overdone before the OCEANS franchise became popular. However, HARD PLACE #1 was a slow walk through the park. Much of this can be attributed to the expositional nature of a first issue. Writer Doug Wagner had to put in the pages to introduce us to this fictional world.

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In the end, though, HARD PLACE #1 is not meant to be a thriller. Gurney is a former criminal, emphasis on former. Wagner takes us through AJ’s world at a slow pace to teach readers that this man has reformed. He even goes so far as to risk his own life to cut ties with his former boss. AJ’s life is behind him, and from a plot standpoint, this was a brilliant move. Heist stories typically glorify the thieves. THE ITALIAN JOB is the perfect film example, featuring a bunch of attractive and funny individuals that end the day as a criminal family.

However, AJ’s story focuses on the way crime divided his life. All of the flashback portrayals of AJ’s criminal background are painted in muted grays and stark reds that pay witness to the horror of it. We see the car crash as this terrifying, life-changing experience, one that is wholly separate from the bright colors of AJ’s current life. Also, the portrayal of Sidorov, while a bit cliche, fed this overwhelming sense of difference. When we meet Sidorov, he beats a man so badly that he has no teeth. But Wagner’s genius thematic focus also shows that crime took AJ away from his real life. Crime kept him away from his father. When Pops was injured, AJ could only stay awake in his prison bed and hope for the best. Wagner locks on to this inherent guilt from page one, and it goes a long way to humanize AJ Gurney.

Does Crime Pay?

Hard Place #1
Courtesy of Image Comics

Thematically, HARD PLACE #1 succeeds beyond a doubt. In terms of plotting, though, the story felt a bit rushed. We never fully linger in any one scene. The dialogue is rich and interesting, but Wagner moves the reader between scenes rapidly. This never felt truly jarring, and Wagner did manage to make the experience enjoyable. It also still felt cohesive. Wagner managed to cover a lot of ground in this first issue, and that is a marvel in itself. But by the time the final bank heist came about, I could only wonder what was happening. The bank heist itself, though meant to be a cliffhanger, happens far too fast. In a page, AJ sits down to talk with a banker, the bank robbers enter, and then the banker is dead. Wagner almost leaves the reader behind in the rush to finish the issue.

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However, where this rushed feeling makes the story falter is in the characterization. AJ Gurney feels like a well-rounded character, and incredibly interesting. However, I never truly connected with anyone else in the cast. Sidorov is a bundle of mafia cliches spun together, without anything truly new added to the formula. AJ’s cop buddy only acts as a tool to explore the backstory. Wagner explores AJ’s relationship with his father with a deep care, but I never felt invested in his struggle. I hope that Wagner gets a chance in future issues to dig deeper into this cast. So much potential lies in the group that I’d hate to see it wasted.

Final Thoughts: HARD PLACE #1

Courtesy of Image Comics

With all of that said, HARD PLACE #1 is most definitely worth your time. While he rushes the plot, I trust that Wagner only wants to get us to the heart of this series. With an interesting main character and an overarching theme that doesn’t glorify the criminal lifestyle, I would call Wagner’s story a success. If nothing else, artist Nic Rummel’s interiors should sell you this book. His linework looks starkly blocky and heavily inked, reminding me of modern animated shows like THE BOONDOCKS. Wagner’s take on the cliched crime thriller genre feels new and unique, and any foibles should be overlooked for the things it brings to the genre.

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