April 27, 2010

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Goon Volume 6

Written by Eric Powell
Illustrated by Eric Powell
Dark Horse

All the little hints up to this point in the Goon's history play out into this story of love and heartbreak, as Powell finally lets us see the early years of our favorite thug.

As a strange creature terrorizes the Goon's city, he's reminded of what happened when he was just a young man taking over Labrazio's mob and dealing with the Chinese mafia. In both cases, a woman holds the key to the Goon's troubles, but has he learned anything from his earlier experience?

Powell opts to tell this story in graphic novel form, rather than in the main comic, and it's easy to see why. While this is filed within the other Goon trades, it's quite different. The first thing you see is a page stating, "This Ain't Funny," and that is completely true.

Unlike the normal comic, which features absurd actions, crude jokes, and a semi-serious storyline, this volume is very much written as a tragedy. There aren't any cute moments here to take the edge off the seriousness of Goon's rough life. This is as unvarnished a portrayal of what it's like to live as a professional gangster as you can get, once you peel off the supernatural elements that creep in as part of the comic world Powell created. Goon pays for his actions in ways that he will never share with anyone else, not even Frankie.

It's not easy to try and write a prequel, but I think Powell does it well, especially since he uses a current story to balance things and prevent him from having to spend too much time possibly creating awkward moments. The Goon is still trying to learn his way in the early parts, and it's interesting to see him at this time in his life, though the lack of humor does take something away from that. While there is no shoe-horning to make things work, there's also a sense that even in the modern sections, this is not our Goon.

There are some awesome moments in this comic. Powell takes several full pages to show a mental change in the Goon, all without words. Just a few subtle changes from page to page, rendered in painting-level detail. The Goon's climactic battle again the foes who bedevil him (both past and present) are well done, and take just the right amount of space. By the end, we're left understanding the Goon a little bit better. The trouble is that it's only a little bit, because it doesn't feel like "our" Goon.

While the comic itself is extremely powerful, I can't help but feel like it's a bit too far out of the norm for the Goon to be considered good. I feel like Powell was experimenting with what happens if the Goon loses its sense of humor, and I think the answer is just a bit too dark. The things that we like about Goon and Frankie are lost because their personalities are moved all the way into the realm of the serious. It's nice to see in a small dose, but over an entire graphic novel, it makes it feel closer to the Christmas Carol parody than part of the canon of the world.

I think that's the main reason why this wasn't serialized in the ongoing comic. Its tone is just too different to fit in, which is a shame because it's a well-plotted and well-written story. The trouble is that it's just not a Goon story, at least not to me. As a fan of noirish stories, I thought it was great. As a fan of the Goon comic series, I felt it was lacking that irreverence that makes that comic so unique and good, trade in and trade out. Volume five had a lot of serious moments, but at no time did you feel like you had to give them gravitas. This graphic novel demands that you take it seriously, and that's where I had a problem.

I can't take the Goon seriously, that's the point. Unfortunately, in Chinatown, I think Powell either forgets this or chooses to ignore it. You can warn the reader all you want that it's going to be different, but that doesn't mean they aren't going to remember all the poop jokes you usually tell anyway. If you're going to try to be different, use a different set of characters or ideas. Otherwise, I think you're setting the reader up to expect one thing and get another, and that's never good.

Goon Volume 6 is a solid read, but it's not really a Goon book. It's like South Park suddenly turning into Hamlet. No matter how good it is, you don't want Cartman speaking in completely serious iambic pentameter. At the end of the day, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of finding this venture into the Goon's past to be both a great story and one I can't recommend if you like the Goon more than you like Powell.

If you love Powell's art and storytelling and want to see his range, then you should read this book. But if you're into the Goon because it refuses to adhere to the rules of decency or convention, then you are going to walk away disappointed. This is not an essential book to read, and probably should be skipped if you fall into that camp.