Title: The Complete Pistolwhip
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Jason Hall and Matt Kindt
Artist: Matt Kindt
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
The Complete Pistolwhip collects the stories of Jason Hall and Matt Kindt’s independent crime comic: Pistolwhip, its sequel The Yellow Menace, and the short stories Mephisto and the Empty Box and January. Together, they form an intricate tapestry woven throughout an ensemble cast of interesting, nuanced characters.
Pistolwhip inhabits a setting that seems to be just prior to America’s involvement in World War II, but it’s never solidly defined, which I think is perfectly fine. It’s the era of radio drama, movie serials, and pulps. The eponymous character, Mitch Pistolwhip, is a private detective with a sturdy hat, a gray suit, and a flapjack habit. Pistolwhip is competent enough, and his lingo would sound right at home in a Humphrey Bogart movie, but he’s not nearly as tough as a Marlowe or a Hammer. He’s a bit of a subversion of the hardboiled private dick; while he never reaches the level of a parodic bungler, he never quite shakes his core as a bellhop who loved comics and the pulps, either. It’s an interesting engagement with the trope.
As I mentioned earlier, Pistolwhip is very much an ensemble book, despite being named after the bellhop-turned-detective. This collection starts with Mephisto and the Empty Box, a shorter tale about Mephisto, a stage magician who searches for a way to return his wife from a disappearing act gone wrong. The original Pistolwhip follows the intersection of the stories of Pistolwhip, a German named Mr. Vogel, the femme fatale Charlie Minks (who, like Pistolwhip, seems a subversion of the trope she embodies), and “Human Pretzel,” a mysterious and reclusive radio show writer in a wheelchair. After a tense three-way gun standoff between Vogel, Minks, and Pistolwhip, Hall and Kindt play with chronology by flashing back to the events in each of their lives that led to the standoff. With each subsequent story, we see a little bit more of the broader story until we see the whole pattern. It’s spooled out enticingly, and though it may seem oblique at first, everything resolves into the big picture by the end.
January is an eight-page story about Captain January, an associate of Human Pretzel. Mitch Pistolwhip appears briefly, and January makes reference to important events in the rest of the Pistolwhip mythos, but there’s not much to talk about beyond that, as interesting as it is. The Yellow Menace, however, is of comparable length to Pistolwhip. It features a crime spree by a criminal who has named himself after an antagonist in the popular Jack Peril multimedia franchise. To fight the Yellow Menace, Pistolwhip teams up with a flesh-and-blood Jack Peril. As much as Pistolwhip wants to believe his hero is a real person, most of the people around him know the “real” Jack Peril is probably just a delusional man in a costume. The “real” Yellow Menace commits crimes based on the Menace’s misdeeds in Jack Peril pulps, comics, movies, and radio episodes. These media are condemned as lurid and obscene by Roderick Loom, author of Enticement of the Naïve, gossamer-veiled send-ups of Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent, the catalyst for widespread hysteria about comic books in the ’50s.
Both Pistolwhip and The Yellow Menace deal extensively with one of my favorite themes in fiction: how fiction and reality reflect each other. It would be difficult to explain in the case of Pistolwhip without trying to explain the whole story and spoil the excitement of reading it, but naturally, The Yellow Menace features this explicitly with its Yellow Menace and Jack Peril copycats. The “real” Jack ends up being perhaps the most tragic and sympathetic character in the whole Pistolwhip saga. Yellow Menace also examines the role of xenophobia in popular culture of the era while simultaneously subverting it – in a Jack Peril comic book, when advised not to trust “the foreign element” in his fight against the Menace, Jack insists that “Evil doesn’t care about the color of our skin or what language we speak,” and indeed, the Menace is not from a foreign land after all. Plus, as mentioned above, Roderick Loom is a blatant, screaming analogue for Fredric Wertham, a key figure in comics history, one of my personal favorite subjects.
Kindt’s art is interesting, but I never quite curried to his style of drawing figures. This is solely a matter of personal taste, though, and this isn’t to say it isn’t good. It fits well with the story Kindt and Hall are telling, and the lines are crisp with a faded, pulpy color palette, which I rather enjoyed. Something about the linework occasionally delivers a surreal, dreamlike quality, particularly in Mephisto and the Empty Box. Poisoned or drugged characters skew the perspective, squashing and stretching in the frame. And I was incredibly impressed by Kindt and Hall’s layouts. There’s clearly a 9-panel grid in play, but Kindt and Hall play around with it enough to keep it fresh and interesting. A panel that seems to stretch horizontally across the page continuously may actually depict three moments, and not necessarily in continuous space. One of my absolute favorite uses of layout occurs in Mephisto and the Empty Box. A window depicts a green leaf on a tree in the first panel. The second column in the row has three vertically stacked panels that depict the leaf blown off the tree, then turning brown, and finally being replaced by a snowflake positioned in its trajectory. The final panel in the row depicts the same tree from the same window, now covered in frost. It’s an impressively ingenious method of communicating the passage of time. Panel borders of flashbacks and dreams are wavy like the thought bubbles of old. Panels depicting the action of a Jack Peril radio episode are shaped like an old radio. The lettering has a handwritten feeling, which occasionally makes it difficult to make out, but only occasionally. Usually the words are still clear, and the style is interesting for its novelty, especially combined with the lack of balloon borders for dialogue.
The Complete Pistolwhip is a handsome hardcover filled with great stories, and it includes plenty of behind-the-scenes extra material in the back. Though the art isn’t entirely to my taste, there are many interesting elements to it that I really appreciate, and the writing made me think. Those are marks of successful comic storytelling.