Hey gang, back again! I loved re-reading Doc Bizarre, MD so much for last week's entry of Joe Casey's work that I went ahead and decided to cover Charlatan Ball this time around. Just like Doc Bizarre, Charlatan Ball is by Casey and Andy Suriano, and it is a delight. It's also a bit different from the other two works I've glanced at so far, in that it's 6 full comicbook issues together, instead of a one-off graphic novel like Doc Bizarre or a series of half-length comics like Codeflesh.
If I'm remembering correctly, this was my second exposure to Casey's work on a monthly basis, but not as it was being published; simply as a trade paperback collection, similar to how I first read Godland. It's also a book that, just like Doc Bizarre, showcases what a delight we're all missing out on every month that Andy Suriano doesn't have a book on the shelves. His art style in this collection is still definitively from the dame person you see in Doc Bizarre, but it's a different flavor. The EC horror trappings aren't present this time around. It's more of a fluid Kirby with a healthy dose of Disney animation and some circus poster art (think this by way of John Buscema). Because of the carnival vibe, we have a much wider and delightfully garish color palette at work here, courtesy of Marc Letzmann. And believe me, in this book, garish is fun. We see all sorts of crazy backgrounds, from an otherworldly bazaar to a freakish alien forest to a technomagical fortress. For settings that varied, you don't want drab grays or browns. You need vibrant, and Letzmann delivers on vibrant. Suriano also gives us what is possibly the most terrifying anthropomorphic rabbit ever seen in fiction.
Speaking of characters, plot, story, all that good stuff: at it's core, the story is very entertaining. There's not a lot going in terms of higher meaning or purpose, but for a story about a conman and a foul-mouthed rabbit thrown from a sleazy magician circuit into an inter-dimensional tournament of mages, pyromancers and warlocks, it gets the job done. Unfortunately, it suffers from being an incomplete story. There are six issues collected in the paperback Image published, and alas, it looks like that's all we're getting. I can't seem to find anything specific on why to share with you, so it looks like it's safe to assume it just went the way of Battle Chasers, Steampunk, or (until recently announced) Miracleman before it. The lack of a proper ending, even for a 6 issue arc, leaves a lot to be desired, so if you're looking to get a whole story in one go, there are other Casey projects out there that are what you need, and honestly, an incomplete story is a tough sell on anyone, so don't feel bad if you decide to skip it.
If you do want to read it, though, there is plenty to recommend. The first is, Casey's dialogue. It's a weird mishmash of slang, banter, and almost-too-inside comic terms that somehow lend to showing us a fully realized setting. None of the deliveries of "bastich" or "fraggin'" feel out of place, because there's no effort made to wink at the camera or feel self-satisfied with making a reference. You either get it or you don't, the book doesn't care either way. Honestly though, you're not going to be missing anything if you don't quite get where these weird words come from. It also has a neat effect of making the setting feel like a specifically comicbook world. Sure, the crazy magic and ridiculous outfits do that too, but the dialogue has a definitive "sequential art" vibe going on.
There's more to this than just snazzy wordplay, though. The story itself is pretty fun, if I say so myself. As mentioned before, the main character, Chuck Amok, is a two-bit sleight-of-hand specialist working low-rent strip clubs and worse. Meanwhile, a diminutive devil named Demon Empty is gunning for the number one spot in a no-holds barred wizard tournament the next dimension over, and kidnaps Chuck to act as his "spoiler" (his words, not mine) to wipe out some weaker competition and let him sneak a few spots ahead. So this wizard-ing may not be for the Harry Potter lovers, unless someone wants to read a fever dream interpretation of how magic works. We also get to see some neat comic culture pastiches of various wizard characters, and a bunch of mages that look like Jack Kirby got into the conversion van painting business. I love it, because under Casey's guidance we get many voices and many motivations even for characters that only occupy our attention for a page or two. This is a fully fleshed out wizard tournament, so get front row seats.
There's something peculiar about the character of Chuck Amok, though, that stands out in a Kirbyesque tale such as this: he's an audience perspective character. Now, I'm not saying this is special because "look at Sam, he can point out the obvious!" It's special in that Kirby (the most obvious source of influence here) never really engaged in this sort of storytelling device. Sure, you have Jimmy Olsen in the 4th World Saga, but he's still Superman's pal, with his own powers and zany adventures. Jimmy isn't grounded perspective material. In Chuck, you have someone who spends almost the entire story reacting to events around him and expositing in an appropriately shocked manner, and that is an ingredient not seen in The New Gods, The Eternals, or even the Fantastic Four: a human view.
Of course, this brings us back to the incompleteness complaint. I know I brought it up once, but it bears a small repetion here. Joe Casey introduces a new element into the insanity of this story and makes you care about Chuck Amok and his rabbit sidekick and then yanks the carpet out from underneath you on closure. The book ends as the first "season" of stories for these characters, but all the buildup and climax is just the beginning of the beginning, and you'll get what I mean when you reach the last page of issue 6.
Ultimately, I recommend this book, if I'm being completely honest. In fact, I can point to this one as a decent place to start reading Casey period, if you're wanting something splashier than Codeflesh or longer than a one-off like Doc Bizarre. Aside from some far-out splash pages that'll make your jaw drop, the core conceits presented here are not so unfamiliar to the average comicbook reader as to make the work impenetrable. What does make Charlatan Ball stand out, though, is the groovy way familiar and original concepts are put together to give us a fresh, unique, and righteous read. It feels, when you take in the dialogue, plot, and visuals as you do with any other piece of sequential art, like a book fueled by comics and love of them as a whole. Nothing is symbolism or nostalgia for nostalgia's sake, this isn't made to make you think of a specific work. But I believe it's made to make you think of fun. Of what reading about a hapless cad and his put-upon rabbit thug sidekick can make you feel, which for me was giddy with excitement for every new chapter.
I don't know, off the top of my head, how available the Charlatan Ball is where you are located, but the link I provided up top for it leads to some nifty direct downloads. If any of you are feeling brave, go ahead and pick up the first issue and let me know what you thought. I'll be around on twitter to hear what you have to say. Love it? Hate it? Fill me in! I'll be back next week with a surprise entry!
The rest of the entries in my Joe Casey series can be found here.