Monday, May 25, 2009

Turning Actual Pages: Looking at The Goon: Nothin' But Misery

Book Referenced:

The Goon: Nothin' But Misery by Eric Powell

published by Dark Horse Comics

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Is it heresy to boast about a print comic on the site of a web-based comic? How about for a webcomic author such as myself to proclaim Mr. Ripley-level devotion to a print comicker? Fifteen years ago you would have heard me pine to be anywhere near Jim Lee. Luckily, the creators to whom I currently bow fill a much larger stable. The most recent addition is a man named Eric Powell.

I'd heard of the comic The Goon for years, keeping a peripheral eye on the print comic world since I'd formally left it probably more than ten years ago. Because of said absence from the comic-buying world I never picked up a copy of The Goon or its trade collections since it debuted in 1999, but I'd glanced at a few issues and always admired its striking covers and terrific character design. I unfortunately was unable to secure any legitimate fanboy status with The Goon because I only went out and bought a copy of the trade paperback collection after hearing about David Fincher's CG-animated telling of Powell's The Goon starting development (animated by the brilliant Blur Studios; if you're unfamiliar with their work--get familiar!). I found a copy of The Goon, volume 1 at the stupendous Berkeley, CA comic book store, Comic Relief (of which I spoke at length earlier), though the book is not hard to find, it was just the first time I'd actively looked for it.

After a few readings, I come here to speak webcomic heresy: I want to be Eric Powell, the print cartoonist. As a webcomicker, I should strive to be original, update daily and stay away from story-based comics, but fuck if Powell makes me want to eschew all of those unspoken clauses (even he only "updates" bi-monthly). Before Powell comes to kick my ass by calling him unoriginal, I emphasize the fact that The Goon is at least fourteen kinds of original, but its originality comes from Powell's gleeful treading of the waters of genre and storytelling mores. At once his books are 1950s horror comics, biting social satire, 1930s gangster pastiche, and...I don't even know what the hell Franky is. The book is an amalgamated love sonnet to EC Comics, where every I is dotted with a one-liner and each sentence is punctuated in gore.

The Goon: Nothin' But Misery is as good a place to get into the world of the Goon as, I'm guessing, nearly any other Goon book (don't start with The Goon: Chinatown because it is all origin story, and The Goon Noir does not feature Eric Powell at the helm, thus its canonicity is up for debate). This is not an origin story and is not, as such, necessarily the place one needs to start. Of course, by virtue of the fact that this simply is the first volume of the series, many prominent characters are introduced here, but none to the point of extreme narrative importance (you learn who the major players are––Goon, Franky, The Zombie Priest, Buzzard––and get familiar with the major places of action––Lonely Street, Norton's Bar). I have since picked up volume 2 (My Murderous Childhood and other Grievous Yarns) and though many secondary characters from volume 1 pop up in volume 2, knowledge of what happened in the first volume is not necessary to enjoy fully these further adventures.

Such leeway is granted when confronting the Goon trade paperbacks because of another word that is constantly associated with the series: pulpy serial. The stories of The Goon are very episodic. In fact, they are less than episodic--they read more like five page punchlines that suddenly reveal a piece of a greater plot slowly moving forward, but only after a second reading. What this shows the reader is that Powell is doing one thing above all else when crafting Goon stories: he's having fun. In a two-part interview with The Daily Cross Hatch Powell explains:
[The] one goal I had was that I was going to play to my strengths and do exactly what I wanted to do. And if you look at the book, for better or worse, that’s what I’ve done.

Powell's nostalgic reverence for horror pastiche, dark humor, and artistic whimsy evoke, for me, the work ethic of the artist with whom I most closely associate Powell and his Goon-world: Mike Mignola. Though not immediately quotable (I believe the following paraphrase comes from an interview on the Hellboy Director's Cut DVD), Mike Mignola created his beloved Hellboy on similar grounds. Loving his work in comics, Mignola felt to some degree unsatisfied with his work and created a character and premise which would allow him to draw the things he loved to draw most: monsters. This same attitude also created Frank Miller's Sin City (if I remember, the things Miller liked to draw most were "cars, guns and girls").

Luckily, from the pet projects of these two artists to whom Eric Powell most easily compares, successful and critically acclaimed film adaptations have been made, a promising if not completely circumstantial outlook for the future The Goon feature film.

Powell's art needs to be mentioned. No one can look at any single page of The Goon and say he's not any good. Nothin' But Misery (and all the other books, surely) are a mixture of technique, consisting of (but not limited to): traditional pen & ink, pencil, painting, and even photographs.

If I'm to be a self-proclaimed heretic, then let it be over Eric Powell's series, itself dancing on the edge of honest heresy (if not falling right over into it). The book is style and class and brilliance. Being a budding comic creator, that combination is indeed nothing but misery...because when I see The Goon I say, "That's what I want to do."

Further Reading:

An interesting interview by Publisher's Weekly about a censored Goon story.

Powell talks about the Goon movie on Hero Complex, a Los Angeles Times blog.

Official Goon website.

Dark Horse Comics