THE GOON: CHINATOWN AND THE MYSTERY OF MR. WICKER by Eric Powell
Before I read The Goon: Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker I’d heard of Eric Powell’s creation. I’d even picked up an issue and dismissed it (probably more for the reason that it was a mid-book in an arc and I was reading way too many comics at the time).
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one to make that mistake. From its inception in 1999, The Goon has – from time to time – been dismissed by readers and retailers. Well people, it’s time to put a halt to that.
Eric Powell writes and draws the bi-monthly comic book, but he infuses it with passion and a keen eye for characters that aren’t cut from traditional hero material. Powell’s writing is spare and lean, appearing over his bold, brash art only when necessary. It’s hard to say if Powell is a better writer or a better artist. I’d say that he’s a lot like Frank Miller when Miller was writing and drawing Sin City. Powell’s as easily at home in his Depression-era metropolis as Miller ever was on the grimy streets of Sin City.
After runs at Avatar Press and Albatross Exploding Funny Books (Powell’s independent comics publishing venture), The Goon found a home at Dark Horse Comics. Six graphic novels plus one hardcover have been published previously.
The Goon: Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker is an original graphic novel that hasn’t been gathered up from the bi-monthly issues. Dark Horse Comics backed Powell’s desire to tell one of the most important stories in the Goon’s history and release it as a hardcover.
The book is a sheer delight from cover to cover. I was immersed in the characters from the beginning. Powell tells two stories in the graphic novel: one from the Goon’s past and the other in the present. Using sepia tones to separate the pages recounting the past was simply brilliant. The change is subtle and doesn’t jar the reader. I was pulled through the stories effortlessly, turning pages as the two stories kept dovetailing back into each other.
In the pages Powell pulls from the Goon’s past, we see him as a wide-eyed child. His mother was the circus strongwoman, but she had definite ideas about her son growing up to be a good man. Longtime readers know that the Goon’s mother was killed by Labrazio, a gangster that everyone in town seemed to owe.
Labrazio kept all the information about those debts in a book. After his mother was killed and Labrazio talked about how stupid she was, the Goon lost control and killed the gangster. The Goon decided not to tell anyone. Instead, he passed himself off as Labrazio’s chief enforcer and basically took over the whole crime syndicate.
With a background like this, the Goon doesn’t come across as heroic. He’s definitely an anti-hero. But he has heroic tendency. Powell’s world is peopled by off-beat supernatural creatures as well. You’ll find zombies, skunk-apes, cannibalistic hoboes, robots, vampires, and werewolves in the pages of this comic book, and you’ll probably be just as fascinated by the mythology and stories as I became.
In the graphic novel, the Goon experiences romantic complications that suck him back to that earlier time in his life when he went through similar circumstances. Of course, the earlier life had him matched up with Chinese gangsters trying to muscle in on “Labrazio’s” territory. Their leader turns out to be a shape-shifting, fire-breathing dragon.
The present story involves the Goon’s love for a nightclub singer who spurns what he has to offer. There’s also a new threat on the streets: a mysterious being that seems to be made of wicker. He calls himself Mr. Wicker, and he’s out to unite the underworld against the Goon and take over. Mr. Wicker has a secret that rips the Goon’s world apart again.
As I read the book, I couldn’t help being reminded of Popeye the Sailor. I mean the Popeye Elzie Crisler Segar created that strode defiantly through the panels of Thimble Theater, not the spinach-swilling near-superhero he became in the cartoons. Popeye didn’t even show up in the original strip until it had been going strong for ten years. But the Goon has the same earthiness and vulnerability of those long-ago strips, and there are the supernatural elements.
The Goon: Chinatown and the Mystery of Mr. Wicker is an amazing read that I finished in a single sitting, then found myself immediately wandering back through the pages to study the art and the interpersonal relationships that Powell builds and renders so gracefully. Everything in the book is tight. It constantly pushes toward the two resolutions that hammer the Goon mercilessly.
The Goon is an ugly brute of a man. He’s got scars all over the left side of his face and his left eye is dead. In this graphic novel, you get to find out where all those scars came from. More than that, though, you get a peek at all the scars on his heart and understand more about why he’s so hardcore about running “Labrazio’s” business.
As a side note, you also get to see a lot of his relationship with Franky, the guy who watches the Goon’s back. This friendship between these two men is done so well and so muscular that you can’t help but root them on. These are men that Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck would have known and understood completely.
Powell’s art is simple at first glance, but not to look more deeply is an injustice to his craft. He draws it to look simple, to be easily absorbed, but if you take time to realize that he had to plan each panel and to work hard to keep it that simply, I think you’ll be blown away as well. The sepia tones of the story set in the past contrast to the present-day story, but the color even in the present-day story is subdued and never overpowers the action.
If you’ve never read The Goon, this graphic novel is a fine place to jump on. And if you’ve been a longtime reader, this is the story that you’ve been waiting years to read. Now I’ve got to go back and read the previous volumes.