I picked up several comics at the recent San Diego Comic Con, so I’m having a look that them all as I get some good reading time. All of these comics are first-time reads for me, and I knew nothing about any of them other than what the folks at the publisher’s (or creator’s) table told me. So, while some of these titles might be well-known, bear in mind that I’m approaching all of these as a first-time reader.
The Goon: Chinatown
Eric Powell’s The Goon is a noir-style detective and fantasy adventure set in prohibition America, steeped in 1930s pulp values and with a knowing wit and intelligence. That much I can discern from this one trade paperback from Dark Horse, number 6 in the Goon series, but recommended to me as a good starting point by Powell’s associate at Comic Con. (Powell both writes and illustrates.) A series with a great reputation and a fair amount of history, this was my first encounter with the title character and his sidekick Franky. The Goon is one of those “loveable lugs” from this sort of genre history, with a scarred face, blind in one eye and a generally mangled visage that he hides partially underneath a slouching Irish cap. I would have accepted this taciturn Robin Hood-like character, a benevolent gangster, in fact, without any backstory and that was clearly the only option available until this extended story, from 2010.
The question asked by Chinatown is simply, how did the Goon become The Goon? The answer, as Powell himself addresses in his long discussion at the end of the paperback, is obviously, “A woman.” In this genre, that’s always the answer. Powell spins this backstory, taking place “some years ago” in Chinatown, with a rogues gallery of the typical pulp characters: a femme fatale, a wronged man who acquires power beyond his ability to wield and the classic “Fu Manchu” ancient Chinese villain, with temple and robes and the all necessary special effects.
The Goon and Franky are not that different in the earlier passages, save for the fact that Goon’s face isn’t scarred. Goon has fallen deeply for a woman named Isabella, who comes to him for help. She works for Xiang Yao, the Chinese villain, and would rather not be bound to that society. Xiang Yao, for his part, is all business, as he wants control over the shipment of bootleg liquor through the docks, a trade now entirely under the control of The Goon. That’s the “some years ago” story. In the present day, there’s a new villain in town named Mr Wicker, who obviously is under the power of some sort of magic spell that creates a shell around his entire body. The Goon easily mixes these genre elements, and 1930s noir always had a touch of its German Fantasy roots, so finding magic and mystical elements here doesn’t seem incongruous. In any case, Mr Wicker seems to have a personal grudge against Goon and is recruiting local criminals to lead a campaign against him.
Powell doesn’t lose us as he mixes the past story with the “present” story by subtle uses of color and panel arrangement. When in doubt, check Goon’s face: if he has the scars, it’s the present day.
The love story follows a fairly predictable trajectory, as Goon’s relationship with Isabella, once he demands her freedom from Xiang Yao, begins to take over his life and distract him not only from work but from his friends. Goon walks right by crime being committed in his protectorate, and Franky is bitterly jealous of all the time his friend is spending with this new woman. In fact, Goon is deadly serious about “Bella” and proposes that they move away together. Bella, in a heartbreaking scene, simply breaks up with him and walks out. The Goon clearly had the wrong idea about the nature of their relationship. It occurs. Powell gives us five consecutive panels then showing The Goon’s emotional breakdown as he looks at himself in the mirror after having lost the woman with whom he saw his future. It’s a shattering sequence, as Goon realizes that a woman such as Bella would never go for an ugly “mug” like him. His self confidence shattered, Goon hardens, striking out at the small time thugs that were taking advantage of his romantic sabbatical with a meanness that seems to ill-suit him. When he finally arrives at Xiang Yao’s lair, to exact his revenge, he is sporting no less than two blood-soaked machetes and, one senses, some Tarantino music as well. It’s the battle with Xiang Yao, complete with the usual tropes of invoking an ancient Chinese legend and mystical power, that gives Goon the scars we see on his face today. And no, he doesn’t get the girl.
The “present day” story parallels this earlier episode, as The Goon is sweet on a local cabaret singer, but her brother, aptly-named “Skinny”, doesn’t approve. So, he steals a book of ancient magic and makes himself into “Mr Wicker”, who The Goon is forced to kill during their inevitable confrontation. This drives a wedge between Goon and Skinny’s sister forever. No girl for The Goon, once again.
I enjoyed The Goon’s heart and style, although it didn’t really transcend the genre. Then again, perhaps not all stories have to do that. I’m curious that the book is officially billed as a comedy, even winning an Eisner in 2008 for Best Humor Writer and Artist. I guess I started on the wrong book: there’s little “funny” material in Chinatown, but it was a compelling and engaging story none the less. I’m curious to read more of this series.
The Guns of Shadow Valley
Well-known as a web comic series, The Guns of Shadow Valley is getting a handsome hardcover release from Dark Horse next month, as well as a print version covered by a Kickstarter campaign. At their Comic Con table, they were proudly displaying a full hardcover edition of the handsome and stylish book, but due to weight and space constraints I had to limit myself to a small “convention preview” pamphlet. Luckily, the comic is still available on their website, and the convention preview edition is simply the first section of the first chapter. I continued reading that chapter and had a look at the next (there are seven chapters available as of 2014), and this was certainly enough to get a sense of the story.
The Guns of Shadow Valley is a western, but one with some supernatural elements. Westerns are a quite adaptable and exploitable genre (for evidence, I point to the American Film Industry) and can easily accommodate magic rings and dark powers in their deep, rich mythology. In fact, the late 19th century is a curious time for technology and superstition, as the legions of Steampunk enthusiasts have already realized. Besides that, the old west was littered with beliefs like “Ectoplasm” and “Spirit Rapping” and that most apocalyptic version of Christianity, always on the lookout for dark birds and pale horses.
I’m pleased to say that, at least in the first few episodes, the magic elements are handled with a very light touch. The convention preview is little more than a series of western genre tropes, complete with bar room, whiskey, poses, “draw”-ing and a shootout in the street. This shows that the writers, David Wachter and James Andrew Clark and artist Thomas Mauer are competent, capable comics creators with a solid grasp of the genre. I had to read a bit more into Chapter 2 online, partially out of curiosity and partially simply to get a sense of what sort of original direction this story could be taken.
Interestingly enough, one of the most engaging characters is a gigantic Chinese muscle man, hired, like many of his fellow Chinese immigrants in those days, to help build the railway. He has superhuman strength, prodded on by an ancient and frail “master”-type, strong enough to literally punch through rocks and hills, a handy skill for a railroad construction worker. There are other odd characters, like a covered wagon containing an obese, constantly eating man and a small, hairless, naked boy. (Their situation is illustrated without explanation.) When the large Chinese man finally breaks away from his “master” near the end of Chapter 2, insisting on using his powers for good, we can see the plot thickening.
For those who were fans of series such as HBO’s Carnivale, I think you’ll find a great deal to enjoy in the western gothic world of Shadow Valley.