The Goon: Rough Stuff
by Eric Powell
(Dark Horse, 2004)

I realize that not everyone is going to enjoy The Goon: Rough Stuff. Maybe you have an unreasoned prejudice against comics. Maybe you're some kinda sissy who can't handle a real man clobberin' zombies, fishmen and the Mollusk Mafia in the name of home, Aunt Kizzie and pork chops!

Sorry. Got a little carried away. Eric Powell's writing can take a person that way. It's goofy stuff, to be sure, but that goofiness is a weapon. Powell is one of the comedians who knows a good jester can say anything and still get a laugh. And so this is a comic that can move from a genuinely poignant flashback to the devil in a Hawaiian shirt with no cognitive dissonance, a world where the villain can be a stylish vampire, a giant monkey-man or a gangster willing to use children as bulletproof vests. Powell can hit home, all right, but he'll have you laughing so hard you won't notice he's connected for a good 10 minutes.

The Goon is basically the story of a gangster thug, the sort of guy usually named Knuckles or Bruiser in ensemble gangs, keeping order in his patch of the city. The city happens to be infested with zombies, werewolves are standard neighborhood residents and the supernatural is generally about as shocking as finding a 50-cents-off coupon for a pack of soda -- but otherwise it's a gangster story. The look of the Goon's hunting grounds is stolen from a 1930s newsreel, and once Powell settles down into his own style, the soft color palette and sketchbook shading add to the old-fashioned appeal, making the Goon's comic-violent adventures reminiscent of Max Fleischer's work on Superman, or more closely, Popeye.

That level of artistic skill takes a while to develop. The first story is indeed rough, although Powell's eye for composition and character design are clear from the start. By the time the Goon reveals the dark secret behind his mob boss Labrazio, Powell's style has smoothed out and he's free to roam into a charcoal-shaded illustrative flashback or combust a flamboyant vampire with style. It's obvious he knows how to draw realistically, but doesn't bother; the Goon lives in a world of distinctive style, like Krazy Kat or Pogo. Realism would suck half the life out of it, and with so many zombies already roaming the street that would be a grim thing indeed.

Despite its random violence and reeking undead, The Goon: Rough Stuff, like all the best crime stories, has an honest heart at the center. Its buck-toothed hero is more sheriff than crook, and the wild gangs that roam the permanently depressed city follow their own weird -- and sometimes wyrd -- code of ethics. Underneath the violence and zombies is a thoughtful look into the alienation of the underclass, the deterioration of the inner city and the redemption that can be scraped from the very bottom of the barrel.

And there's a zombie chimp. You just can't beat that for value.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 14 May 2005

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