Greg Houston seems to have sprung into the world of comics fully (or at least mostly) formed. With Vatican Hustle, his first graphic novel, he immediately establishes himself as a talented artist with a unique sensibility, making him a creator to be watched.
He’s crafted an entertainingly goofy story, riffing on blaxploitation movies of the 70s and just engaging in whatever sort of strange, silly nonsense he feels like throwing onto the page. It makes for a really fun read, but feels strangely empty, not completely satisfying from a story or character standpoint. It might simply be an output for whatever comes pouring from Houston’s subconscious--which is enjoyable enough, but not really something that sticks in the memory as much more than an entertaining diversion.
Oh, but entertaining it is!
The plot of the story ostensibly follows the badass Boss Karate Black Guy Jones, street-level defender of Baltimore and professional Man stick-it-to-er, as he gets hired to track down the missing daughter of a local crime lord. He ends up pursuing her to Rome, hoping to catch up to her before she gets sold into the Italian porn industry, but the chase is most definitely not the point here.
Instead, Houston takes every chance he can to go off on tangents following side characters, exploring the absurd world he’s created here and seeing what sorts of antics his bizarre characters get up to. We encounter oversexed porn stars, disgusting white pimps, feral clowns, themed hoboes, a leprous clown butler, and a thug afflicted with “gigantic pieface disorder”.
However, other than our hero himself, the best creation might be the Pope, whom Houston imagines as a beefy bruiser that wears leather-jacket versions of the papal robes; uses his position to lure every woman he encounters into sex; constantly consumes booze, cigars, and heroin; gets in violent barfights; and uses his holy influence to cheat at dice.
The whole thing becomes a guessing game as to what Houston will come up next, and what sort of ridiculousness he’ll have his characters do. Scenes rarely end the way one would expect, and Jones almost never gets into any actual fights. Instead, Houston will spend pages on a jokey conversation in which the participants rattle off funny names for porn stars and dirty movies, or an argument between hoboes who have dressed up as an American Civil War re-enactor (in Italy!), a Renaissance Festival guy, and a mime.
However, as much as Houston’s crazy concepts and goofy dialogue amuse, his art is what really brings the story to life. He has a highly exaggerated style that tips over into grotesque, with characters sporting stretched, bloated, wrinkled, and in other ways horribly distorted faces and bodies. There’s not a normal-looking person in the book (although crowd scenes do occasionally feature background players who look like caricatures of real people, which is as close to attractive and realistic as this book gets). Men have jowls that hang down to their collarbones, cauliflower ears that look like little mini-donuts stuck to the sides of their heads, and eyes that disappear under wrinkled brows.
The women don’t fare any better--often sporting gigantic teeth protruding from rictus-like grins, eyes that stare forward vapidly, and breasts that balloon up to reach their chins.
As for the settings, everything looks like a seedy back alley lined by dingy bars and vomit-filled gutters. There’s a great visual joke when the scene shifts to Rome, and the establishing shot looking over the city has the exact same crumbling rooftops as Baltimore--but with the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the background. It’s an ugly, horrible world that Houston has created here, and he’s built it with care; he's only too happy to frolic in its muck.
The world certainly gives Houston plenty of opportunity to deliver laughs, whether in Jones’ exclamations (“My karate hand is getting’ twitchy!”), the way all the porn films mentioned (even the ones involving donkeys) seem to involve pizza delivery, the fact that the street snitches in Rome and Baltimore look identical, or the constant bickering of the themed hoboes. And he also provides plenty of over-the-top grotesquerie, with a violent drug trip being pretty disturbingly effective, along with the constantly horrified expressions of most anybody that Jones presses for information, like the wrinkled, pimpled face of a white pimp named Geech. There’s constant freakiness within these pages, sometimes funny, often gross, but never boring.
Houston’s relative inexperience in the world of comics does show in the way he uses many, many narrative captions to describe what is going on. This isn’t always a bad thing; at its best, the narration adds to the sketchy atmosphere, making everything seem like a lurid fever dream being described by a crazy person. But sometimes it can get tiresome, reiterating what we can already see happening in the artwork, overexplaining what characters are thinking, or simply filling entire panels with text in lieu of actual imagery. The Pope having “love” and “hate” tattooed across his knuckles is a good sight gag, but it’s kind of ruined by having the omniscient narrator point it out. This much text is the kind of thing that, while not ruining the experience, can get to be a bit too much.
If there’s any other complaint to be made, it’s that the overall narrative arc doesn’t really satisfy. The whole book seems to promise a final confrontation between Jones and the Pope, but when it comes, it’s something of an anticlimactic letdown rather than the expected action-packed brawl. That’s probably Houston taking the unexpected route, but the ending seems less entertaining than the one hoped for, which is a shame.
Perhaps Houston is planning a sequel, in which case he’s definitely left readers wanting more. He’s got such a unique visual sense and instinct for crafting memorable images that one certainly hopes he’s not done with this sort of thing. It’s enough of an assault on the senses that readers might not be begging for more, but they’ll certainly be happy to have some anyway.
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