Today, guest writer Greg Smith and Drew are discussing Twelve Reasons To Die 1, originally released May 8th, 2013.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“If you had a pussy it’d be getting wet right now.”
Greg: One of these literary passages is an iconic introduction embedded into our cultural consciousness, instantly recognizable in its quality and efficiency in setting up the work’s major themes. The other is Charles Dickens’ A Tale Of Two Cities.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of the Ghostface Killah-presented Twelve Reasons To Die, a companion work to a recent concept album.
If you’ve never entered the Wu-Tang Clan and their 36 chambers, I highly encourage you do so, not just because they’re one of the most influential hip-hop groups of all time, but also because they’re huge pop culture fans, with beats and lyrical content borrowed from B-movies, pop Eastern philosophy, and comic books. The most recent cross-medium manifestation of this obsession was RZA’s ill-conceived labor of love The Man With The Iron Fists, a 2012 trainwreck of a film that suffered from haphazard editing, an incoherent script, and a lack of personality. This project, conversely, is both a successful exploration of the Wu-Tang’s loves and interests and an engaging and entertaining self-contained comic, because of its simple storytelling, crystal clear world-building, and sheer force of point of view.
The issue is split down the middle, with Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon tackling two storylines. In the first, titled The Lead Years, we follow the Delucas, a “social club with a goal” — that goal being to be the most dominating and efficient crime family in Italy. They enjoy the hedonistic fruits of their labor for a while — until they’re ambushed by a group of enigmatic enemies led by “fucking weapon” and obvious Ghostface Killah stand-in Anthony Starks. Yes, that’s correct, Anthony Starks. As in the plural of Tony Stark. As in holy cannoli are these Wu-Tang guys postmodern dorks.
The second story, titled The Dead Years, opens with a visceral and cryptic burst of violence, as an anonymous man is mauled to death by a group of wolves led by a black sheep with red eyes. We then jump to a young record collector only referred to as Mr. Migdal. He delivers a rare vinyl to a client, who reveals his disturbing reason for wanting the record: a friend of his was mysteriously murdered while listening to it (perhaps supernaturally), and he must now collect it and the 9 other records like it.
Why does Starks want to completely annihilate the Delucas? Why does this old man want these death-dealing records? This first issue asks more questions than it’s ready to answer, and yet I don’t feel cheated or jerked around. Rosenberg and Kindlon (with a story credited to Rosenberg, Adrian Younge, and Ce Garcia) have a lot of balls to juggle, with multiple storylines, mythologies, and Wu-Tang brand management to consider. Thus, I appreciate how streamlined the intentions of this issue are. It oozes with style and atmosphere, yet it never feels excessive or distracting. Rather, the story machinations, like Starks, the wolves, or the death-record, are ruthless. Mathematical, even. Build the world, build the world, introduce a major plot point, then abruptly conclude. If the issue introduced and dealt with numerous plot points, rather than building to just one, the focus could be diluted and muddled. It’s a style of writing that, while admittedly formulaic, works for me so far; however, it puts a ton of pressure on the next issue. The best stories adhere to the simple rules of cause and effect — this happens because that happened. Here, we see stimuli that should have an enormous effect on the narrative world, yet the story ends before we see that effect. If the next issue doesn’t deal with the ramifications, it could ultimately cripple the power of the title.
Plot points and narrative mumbo-jumbo aside, I can’t emphasis how much I enjoyed the world-building of this issue, and it’s all thanks to a word with an ambivalent cultural connotation: Genre. The Lead Years is a “crime story” and The Dead Years a “horror story.” I assign these labels not to constrain what these stories can do nor suggest they’re lesser because of their genres, but rather to point out how freeing these labels are. Because we, as savvy consumers of cultures (not unlike the Wu-Tang Clan), immediately conjure tropes when we hear the signifiers of “crime” and “horror,” so much leg-work is done for the creators of the work. There’s no sense of boring, sledgehammered exposition because there doesn’t need to be. Instead, Rosenberg and Kindlon jump straight into scenes of action, violence, momentum, and trust that we’ll not only keep up, but thank them for refusing to hold our hand.
What do you think, Drew? Am I, a self-admitted fan of hip-hop and B-movie culture, cutting this issue too much slack? Is there an emphasis of empty style over substance? And what of the aesthetically contrasting, yet spiritually similar art styles of Breno Tamura and Gus Storms? Also, should I have used the phrase “I can think of at least twelve reasons to read this comic” anywhere? I’m kicking myself; I definitely should have.
Drew: Actually, Greg, I applaud your restraint — it’s not always easy to avoid those puns — but you raise enough points (over eleven, I’d say) to render any oversights moot. You’re absolutely right to bring up the genre trappings these stories revel in. Rosenberg and Kindlen seem fixated on efficiency, employing many shorthands beyond genre to set this world.
The most obvious example is Anthony Starks. We are barely introduced to him at all — the splash Greg included is the final page of that chapter — but we already know that he’s a hyperviolent badass. The entire story is devoted to explaining just how tough and powerful the 12 Delucas are, and then Anthony Starks walks in and beats the holy living shit out of them with his bare hands. I’m reminded of that old joke where the Pope asked to drive his limo for the day, and the cop pulls him over for speeding — he doesn’t know who is in the back, but he knows the Pope is his chauffeur. Similarly, we’re lead to believe the Delucas are the most badass guys in all of Italy, but they turn out to just be punching bags for the REAL gangster.
Taken on it’s own, the obviousness of the connection between Starks and Ghostface Killah makes this feel like a bit of a vanity project — he wants to make it clear to everyone that he’s THE baddest motherfucker around — but this feels more like dressup than a genuine assertion of badassery. Indeed, Ghostface is all over this issue — from the call letters of the WGFK radio station in “The Dead Years” to his face appearing in the cloud (of bees?) that killed the unfortunate record owner in the panel Greg included. That level of self-aggrandisement will almost certainly strike some as off-putting, but only because they’ve forgotten how absurd the idea of asserting your awesomeness with a comic book is.
Because, really, how are the myths presented here supposed to fit in with those we already associate with Ghostface? He’s never presented himself as a criminal OR as the recorder of cursed LPs (which is presumably his fictional connection here), so again, this is more like make-believe than straight-faced braggadocio. In fact, the only piece of 12 Reasons to Die that really jibes with popular opinion of Ghostface Killah is that he’s a masterful storyteller. Of course, it’s unclear just how much of a role he takes in the storytelling of this issue, but both stories tap into their respective genres with an assuredness that is rare in even the trope-iest genre stories. It’s a strong first issue, that bodes well for both of these stories going forward.
That said, I think mileage will vary with this series based on familiarity and appreciation of the tropes in play. To pop-culture-obsessed, Tarantino-worshippers, this romp through genre trappings is a pleasure, but this issue might leave everyone else scratching their heads. It may be early to tell, but this gives puts off a confidence that I suspect will warrant that Tarantino comparison — hell, the act-closing shift in focus reminds me quite a bit of Deathproof — which I suspect is high enough praise to recommend this series to most of the folks around here. It may feature a world you know, but it may also be a world you love — and really, isn’t that what MANY comics are already about?
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?