When you crack open a book about a villainous gang of gunfighters, you usually expect a good deal of gun violence, detailed and circuitous plans to rob trains, and more than a little übermasculine, drinking-from-a-dirty-glass charm. Chris Blain's Gus and His Gang subverts all of these expectations, instead giving us a sex-filled ballad in the visual vein of Krazy Kat's George Herriman. There's hardly a page that goes by in which one of our outlaws isn't obsessing over a femme du jour or making an epic journey in the hopes of getting a little action.
This might sound like the potential for outrageous comedy, but much like the clichés of the Old West, Blain subverts even this potential for zany misadventures and blundered capers, and every robbery is carried out perfectly, leaving the three outlaws just a little bit jaded. Somehow, as the disjointed scenes from the lives of these cowboys progress, it all becomes very absorbing--even when the titular Gus disappears halfway through the book, never to return. Things begin to coalesce into a continuing narrative, and it all starts painting a broader picture. These are not disposable comic characters, even if their exaggerated noses and floppy arms suggest otherwise.
After Gus vanishes, the book takes a decidedly even less amusing turn as it starts to explore the life of outlaw Clem, who is a married man with an adorable daughter (whose rare appearances are a highlight of the book). Unfortunately, Clem also happens to be madly in love with a vibrant and mysterious redhead, and he's racked with a huge, cyclopean monster of guilt that follows him around. The whole thing finishes quietly and without a typical resolution, which leaves me hoping that Blain will scribble out some more casually awesome pages to continue the unfinished sagas of the likeable outlaws.
Blain's art is deceptive. At first glance, it's scribbly and exceedingly loose, and details nervously shift from panel to panel, but it all adds to the very emotive, very kinetic nature of the fast-paced stories--and even when Blain's stories are slow tales of romance, he seems to drop huge swaths of panels to give the reader only the barest amount of information to unite subsequent scenes, effectively speeding up the viewing process to a breakneck pace. The combinations of colors and expert arrangements of characters and landscapes in regular and irregular panels draws you into a completely realized (however bizarre) universe. Every panel creates a deep sense of atmosphere.
It's an adult comic, though, with a few scenes of explicit cartoon sex, profanity, and surprisingly little gun violence. Bank robberies are usually executed between panels, so all of the missing violence is replaced in full with sexual pursuits and actions.
And overall, Gus and His Gang is way more enjoyable than I expected it to be. I came away from it feeling as though I learned to appreciate the art form more, and that's a unique gift.
-- Collin David