Suburban Dysfunction & Blaxploitation

Ghost World
By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics Books, 1998; $11.95)

I skipped the movie version of Ghost World when it came out because I could tell from the previews that it wasn’t my cup of tea; stories of suburban angst make my skin crawl (ie: I hated American Beauty), suburban teenage angst even more so. But, I convinced myself a while back, there’s no way I could not read the critically acclaimed graphic novel it was based on, right? In retrospect, that was as silly as thinking I couldn’t just skip House of M and Infinite Crisis, and in all three cases I ended up poorer for the effort.

Best friends Enid and Rebecca are two unappealingly self-absorbed teenagers who project their own self-loathing onto everyone around them, stumbling through their final year of high school while slowly drifting apart from each other. Daniel Clowes chooses to tell their story almost too-subtly, offering discordant slice of life vignettes that attempt to illustrate their “growth” but mainly serve to remind the reader how annoying and shallow they are. It falls into the same trap many autobiographical efforts do, in every medium, of believing one’s life is more interesting than it actually is, and I came close to putting it down, unfinished, several times.

Clowes’ artwork is the main highlight here — clean and, at times, unexpectedly emotive — but it’s neither enough to inject life into his dull, plodding story nor make his lead characters the least bit interesting. Charles Burns’ Black Hole covers similar ground in a much more intriguing fashion, with a compelling story that is equal to his impressive artwork.

Ghost World: Don’t believe the hype.

Shot Callerz
By Gary Phillips & Brett Weldele (Oni Press, 2003; $11.95)

Shot Callerz came completely out of left field for me, as I picked it up one day on a lark because I recognized Brett Weldele‘s name from The Surrogates, a mini-series from last year that I still haven’t finished reading, but whose scratchy, stylized artwork stayed with me. If its title didn’t scream blaxploitation loudly enough, the cover certainly did, but I gave it a shot anyway and was surprised to find it is an unexpectedly entertaining read. The whole blaxploitation genre is one I generally don’t like, but like any genre, in the right hands, it can result in an entertaining tale.

By day, Gary Phillips is apparently a novelist in the vein of the influential Donald Goines, and judging by his crisp writing in Shot Callerz — a classic hardboiled, bullets-and-broads tale of double and triple-crossing, blaxploitation meter unabashedly set to full-throttle — he’s not only a master of the form, but one who clearly has a genuine love for it. (As opposed to, say, Quentin Tarantino’s fetishistic obsession.) After a short story “prelude” introduces the main players and sets things up, Phillips jumps right into the action as his lead, Nea Garvin, is shot in the back by her boyfriend on the heels of a successful heist where she served as the inside woman, and is left for dead. What follows is a fast-paced tale of revenge that is highlighted by Nea’s evolution from naive hoodrat to pistol-packin’ mama, complemented by a colorful cast of supporting characters and an unexpectedly sentimental ending.

Weldele’s sketchy black-and-white artwork is an effective mix of the realistic and impressionistic, complementing the morally grey tone of the story very well. His dynamic page layouts and camera angles communicate the fast pace of the story while allowing it to breathe when necessary, and each of his characters are distinctive and emotive, both facially and in their body language.

I’m still not a fan of blaxploitation, but credit where credit’s due. Shot Callerz isn’t high art by any means, but if you enjoy hardcore, gritty crime stories like Ed Brubaker’s Criminal — or, god forbid, thought Wings of Anansi was any good — you’ll love what Phillips and Weldele have to offer.

One thought on “Suburban Dysfunction & Blaxploitation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.