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Graphic Novels Reviews

The Goon: Chinatown and The Mystery of Mr Wicker

Writer/Artist: Eric Powell
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
[Four and a half]

Satyajit Chetri Sep 27, 2009

Popeye, to most people, is this wisecracking cartoony sailor who woos the awkward Olive Oyl and occasionally pops a can of spinach to knock out baddie Brutus. It comes as a surprise then, when one reads the original Elsie Segar stories from the 1930s, to find out that Popeye was originally conceived as a hot-headed, muscle-bound brawler. The original character used his fists to make his way out of an argument just as casually as he went about decimating the rules of grammar while talking, his romantic life secondary to his penchant for fisticuffs. 

It would not be wrong to call Eric Powell’s Goon the 21st century incarnation of EC Segar’s creation: like Popeye, the Goon is a bruised, battle-hardened roughneck who cracks skulls first and talks later. The only difference is that while Popeye was the morally-upright hero, the latter’s antecedents are shadier: He rules a town ”“ a virtual Nowhereland that could be any depression-era locality in America – as the hired muscle of a gangster named Labrazio, and thus his violence (and that of his partner-in-crime Franky) is unmotivated by altruism of any kind, channeled more towards maintaining the gang’s position of strength. To this crime-filled cesspool, Powell adds a bunch of supernatural elements, an antagonist called The Nameless One, who leads an army of zombies and is in the process of subverting the Goon’s control over the town. Over the course of the series, which is a monthly comic-book published by Dark Horse, we are introduced to a variety of outré characters that inhabit Powell’s demented world ”“ mad super-scientists, cannibal hobos, vampires, werewolves and even occasional zombie-apes. That maniacal potpourri is augmented by a liberal dose of twisted black humour, the kind that would make a politically-correct readers scream bloody murder. 

Unlike assembly-line productions common in mainstream comics today, where writers, pencillers, inkers, colorists and letterers are all distinct entities brought together by work-for-hire requirements, the biggest strength of Goon has always been Powell’s one-man approach to things. His singular vision, wrapping a skillful meld of plot, dialogues and artwork into one coherent, sizzling package has earned accolades throughout the industry. On Chinatown, this maverick creator outdoes himself.  This is Powell’s first standalone graphic novel, one that required him to put the regular monthly comic-book on hiatus for some time. The end-product is a hardcover offering that is not only aesthetically stunning,but also serves as a turning point of sorts in the Goon saga, as Powell followed it up with an arc that was darker and much more serious than the storylines that preceded it. The artwork morphs from vivid, psychedelic water-colours to muted sepia tones, as the story flips between the present and the past. Little wonder then that it won Powell the Best Painter/Multimedia artist prize at the 2008 Eisner Awards ceremony. 

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At heart, Chinatown is an origin story, retelling the Goon’s run-in with Chinese hoodlums in the past, an encounter that left him scarred in more ways than one. This tale of the past is intercut with a plot-line that occurs in the ongoing saga, as the gangster’s stomping grounds are invaded by a new threat, a seemingly-invulnerable straw-covered creature who calls himself Mr Wicker. At the same time, the Goon is trying to mend bridges with the local nightclub singer Mirna. Things come to a head as the identity of Mr Wicker is revealed, and we get a deeper glimpse into what made the Goon the man he is through the past events of Chinatown -  it involves heartbreak and loss of face, a potent combination for a violent hoodlum.

Chinatown elevates the series, so far identified with a bizarre mix of over-the-top violence and humour, into something that is affecting and almost tender at times. It handles themes like friendship and loyalty ”“ Franky’s devotion to the Goon even as his friend ignores him when wooing his ex-flame Isabella; Mirna’s reaction to the Goon’s offer to help. It is not that the book is completely lacking in fisticuffs, far from it, in fact. There are moments of outright brutality in the book, untempered by the sheen of cartoon ridiculousness that Powell had coated it with earlier. But the hard-hitting moments are not the violent ones: a brilliant scene comes towards the end of the book, where the Goon, having heard the harshest four words of his life, his life’s work collapsing around him, staggers to a mirror. The next five pages are silent, full-page images of his reflection, as his face first twists with pain, cracks in tormented grief and slowly transforms into seething rage.

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On the negative side, there’s the weak misdirection Powell tries to indulge in while making the reader wonder about the identity of Mr. Wicker. A few of the plot-lines are left half-explained, like Isabella’s eventual decision (which I would have thought is left to the reader’s interpretation, but subsequent issues have clarified this). What happens because of this is that Chinatown, while a great way to hop aboard the Goon saga, becomes a meal that gives you one helluva main course, but decides to postpone the dessert for a later day.

Just as Powell’s creation seems to channel Segar, his storytelling is undoubtedly inspired by master graphic-novelist Will Eisner. Chinatown, in particular, bears the distinct stamp of Eisner’s experimental efforts, both in his panel designs and his masterful use of secondary characters. Most striking is the brilliant use of pathos to etch the main character’s past ”“ it is like you suddenly realise that you have been laughing at the characters’ exploits for the wrong reasons, and that playtime is over. The title page of the book, sans dedication or acknowledgements, reads “This Ain’t Funny.” It sure isn’t, but it makes for some fine reading.