After going through three publishing houses, multiple collaborations, and the eternal wrath of “Margaret Snodgrass”, The Goon has reached its 15th anniversary (or ‘gooniversary’, as creator Eric Powell punned on Twitter).
I personally love The Goon, and I have a hard time comprehending how others couldn’t. It’s a demented American Gothic. It’s a wickedly funny, warped fable. It’s a supernatural pulp gumshoe story. It’s a sci-fi carny circus. Reading it is like dropping acid and then watching Deadwood whilst listening to The Dunwich Horror on audiobook.
If The Goon has any spiritual counterpart, it’s Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. (The two heroes have even crossed paths on their quests to pummel as many freaks as possible).
The two comics are set in worlds where everything is bent out of shape, where monsters and demons and other horrors roam the Earth. Why? Who cares? Both authors don’t bother with any “You’re a wizard, Harry”-style explanations. The worlds of Hellboy and the Goon are creepy and horrible places, and the good and bad alike just have to deal with it.
Both heroes are throwbacks to the Americana myth of the big tough guy in a trenchcoat who punches first and asks questions later, all the while chewing a cigar or taking a break for a shot of whiskey. The colour palettes of the comics are sickly greens, bruised purples, burnished golds, cold blues, and dour browns. And both comics rely on myths and folklore for the creation of certain beasties (Baba Yaga amongst others for Hellboy, Rumpelstiltskin’s story being adapted for the Priest in Goon).
But there are vital differences between the two texts. Sure, both heroes often do battle against monsters to protect the innocent, and the reasons for this are determined in their childhood. But whilst Hellboy was guided by the moral compass of his adopted father Professor Bruttenholm after being saved from the clutches of the Nazis, the Goon started his journey when the main parental figure in his life, his aunt Kizzie, was murdered by a mafioso. Hellboy does what he does for Bruttenholm, the bureau, and the world at large. The Goon was motivated by his own desire for vengeance, and he was a mob enforcer before deciding to turn his pugilistic talents to protecting folks from “slackjaws”, his nickname for zombies. Hellboy is shadowed by the knowledge that he is Anung un Rama and could possibly bring about Ragnarok – the Goon has been through the dark and has seen the light.
Hellboy has the B.P.R.D, a team. The Goon? Well… the Goon has Franky, who is not perhaps as cool as Abe Sapien, but he can still give his opponents a damn nasty knife to the eye.
In Hellboy, Mignola uses real locations, people, or political movements to ground Hellboy’s world, to make it appear as an alternate universe similar to ours. The Goon’s world is just completely nuts. It’s a world where Spanish kaiju can act as butlers to mad scientists with metallic skin. A giant spider sits in on a game of cards at Norton’s bar, and none of the characters blink an eye.
And The Goon is just flat-out funny. Hellboy has small moments of black comedy, but the comics compared to the movies are pretty damn dark, my friend. In contrast, through dialogue bordering on non-sequitur, outrageous situations, and characters full of weird or perverse neuroses, Powell crams as much gonzo stuff as he can into the world of The Goon.
For example, Issue #44 opens with the Goon and Franky trying to smuggle booze into Mexico, and they do so by having the liquor contained in clocks. The reason for this, explains the Goon to Franky, is because “The Mexicans have always appreciated a well-crafted clock. And they love booze.” (Okay.) Later in the comic the lonely and inebriated El Hombre Del Lagarto sings to the moon in broken Spanish: “Lizard man must break his face with vengeful goats just love the lizard man just a little…”* And because everyone’s favourite drunken kaiju tries to carry off a Mexican villager, it’s up to the Goon to beat him up with chickens, as Lagarto fights back by whirling around – you guessed it – a goat. It’s complete and utter madness, but it works.
The reason that it works is because whilst some comics are just off-the-wall like that one, throughout the series Powell tempers the lunacy with moments of sadness and poignancy. Whether it’s Merle’s death for being a snitch, Buzzard being cursed to a life of cannibalism and despair, or the Priest being tortured at the hands of the Indian, The Goon has these moments where the laughter dies and things get grim. But one keeps reading anyway, because The Goon’s narratives are worth being invested in. They’re stories where the heroes manage to win against the odds, allies come from the unlikeliest places, the villains are fascinating character studies, and slowly but surely the hero’s backstory is built brick by brick. It seems almost old-fashioned to make comics like that these days, where everything is postmodern gritty torture and paaaaain, but that just makes reading a comic where you laugh on one page, feel horrified on another, and then feel uplifted at the end all the better.
So the big question for me becomes: Why isn’t there more love for The Goon in other media? And yes I know the argument that a comic being turned into a movie can be seen as “validating” the art form for the masses, but I think that if people get into The Goon via a film then that’s just awesome. I stumbled across The Goon in a library, but I got totally into Hellboy after seeing Guillermo Del Toro bring him to life onscreen.
I also understand that we live in a world where things aren’t always fair when it comes to art. Carnivale was cancelled after two seasons and yet Charlie Sheen stayed on the air with Two and a Half Men for eight years before being rewarded with another terrible show for his douchebag behaviour.
But lo came Kickstarter, and the people hath spoken! Funding to create an animated film of The Goon came to fruition in 2012, with David Fincher set to direct and Clancy Brown voicing fhe Goon and Paul Giamatti voicing Franky. And this author wept, for it was good. (Nothing worse than realizing an actor you think would fit a character perfectly doesn’t get the role – damn you, Jesse Eisenberg).
And so, to celebrate fifteen years of slapping slackjaws, dodging Bog Lurks, and the endless turf wars of Lonely Street, I raise a (metaphorical) toast to Eric Powell and Dark Horse Comics. And if you aren’t reading The Goon, why aren’t you? Do it before Franky comes along, or you might get a… KNIFE TO THE EYE!
*That translation was brought to you via Google Translate. I speak not a word of Spanish, so make of that interpretation what you will.