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Billi 99
by Sarah E. Byam and Tim Sale
Dark Horse Books, 200pp
Published: October 2002

While some of what I'm reviewing in The Illustrated Corner nowadays are books that I bought from their creators at events, most of them are ex-library copies that I bought cheaply at sales and most of those are books I haven't got round to until now. This one was published in 2002 as a graphic novel and it collected a four-issue Dark Horse comic book series from 1991 into one volume.

And it feels notably ahead of its time, even if it was inspired by what the author saw in Detroit in the eighties. Like the movie They Live, which was a commentary on yuppies when John Carpenter originally wrote it, it's only become more topical over time and feels like it could have been written this year. Sure, it's set against a dystopian urban landscape that's reminiscent of an emptier Gotham from the early Dark Knight era of Batman comics, but it explicitly looks at life at poverty level during a time of extreme discrepancy between incomes and that feels like the wealth gap of today.

Following the Batman comparison, Sarah Byam introduces us to a billionaire vigilante in 'Billi 99', but we only see him in flashbacks because he's dead before the beginning of the story and his death flavours everything that follows. Ray Chadam was the CEO of Chadam International and, like Bruce Wayne, he was an ethical corporate leader, a man who ran his business but also utilised its funds to quietly take care of the people who needed that help.

Very differently to Bruce Wayne though, his vigilante persona was a very simple one, sans any billionaire tech. He was the Sword of Toleado, his costume a mask and a cape and his weapon a rapier. If that makes you think of Zorro more than Batman, then you are definitely on the right lines. He did what needed to be done on the streets of the Cordon, the slum area in whatever dark and dystopian city this is, and the Sword was feared by its hoods and lowlifes. But the Sword is dead now, leaving only despair. It's notable that there are very few children in the book, which I took as a clear sign that the future is not hopeful.

Well, there is some hope, because there's Billi, who never goes by Billi 99 in this book and I have no idea why it's even called that. I could only guess that it's an attempt to sound like a Bruce Springsteen song, but that seems like a stretch. Anyway, Billi, the waitress who works in the Cordon and knows all its street people, is secretly (at least initially) Billi Chadam, daughter of Ray Chadam and inheritor of a large percentage of his Chadam Industries stock.

She's here because she's hiding from the cops, who firmly believe that she murdered her father. Planted evidence will do that, you know, and she has nothing to combat it. So, she's in the Cordon, trying to solve his murder and so clear her name in a way that does not expose his secret identity. And yes, she absolutely knew her father was the Sword of Toleado. She also has his costume and his sword, and she sees no reason why she shouldn't continue his legacy on the streets, if not in the boardroom.

I loved the clash of timeframes here. Dystopias ought to feel timeless, but this one is drawn like Tim Sale had only read one comic book and it was Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns'. He's actually a big name in the business now and had won an Eisner by the time 'Billi 99' was collected into the graphic novel format, but this is early work for him, done at least primarily in what looks like monochrome watercolours, and I'm sure he'd agree that it isn't his best work. It's dark and moody and claustrophobic but it's not particularly original except in the context of merging an early pulp hero with a film noir uncertainty and an eighties reinvention of a comic book icon.

Where it shines for me is in the unusual way that it's told. The author is Sarah E. Byam and she, probably very deliberately for 1991, told this story from the perspective of a young female lead, brought up well in a privileged environment, who has effectively been cast down to mingle with the lower classes, with whom she has a closer bond, an abundantly human one. While acknowledging in the Chadams that rich doesn't equal corrupt, Byam doesn't look at the privileged with much respect here. This isn't a rant against the 1%, but there are characters here who are quintessentially that and they make for tired villains. Other characters who may be just as villainous but still have a heart are much more worthy.

Beyond Billi being a female character, a female vigilante and a female inspiration, the other massive departures from superhero convention are that she's a) very credibly flawed, b) unable to help everyone, even though she wants to, and c) becomes quickly identified by a growing number of people, who proceed to help her. The times are so hopeless at the street level and the Sword of Toleado is such a symbol of hope in that hopelessness that these people don't even think about turning her in for a reward or spilling what they know to the papers. They only think about helping her and so that's exactly what they do and that feels unusual but empowering.

There are downsides. Some of it is far too moody, in its attempts to capture that Frank Miller magic, and that feels dated. The ending wraps up a little too quickly and cleanly for me. And the art had me confuse a couple of characters, which gradually became so jarring that I had to backtrack and re-read to realise my mistake. But its heart is very much in the right place and there's much raw emotion to be found within some of the stories within the story, those of Audrey and Karen and others.

That's, in part, because these are stories of ownership. There are no slaves per se in the story but everyone is owned by someone, whether that's a landlord or a customer or a union. Nobody has the power to do what they want, except for the Sword of Toleado, a heavier burden for Billi to wear because of that. She may not represent the only take on freedom here, because one character is free because of his adherence to honour, a surprising characteristic in this book but a welcome one. However, she's the only take on freedom for the majority of the characters, who welcome her because of it. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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