Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Moonshine 1, originally released October 8th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
It’s the notes you don’t play that matter.
Drew: I don’t think this quote means what people think it means. It’s often extrapolated into the hackneyed quote put in jazz snobs’ mouths that “you have to listen to the notes they’re not playing,” as though jazz is somehow about carving melodies of negative space in solid blocks of sound. To me, this quote suggests almost the complete opposite, reminding players that jazz isn’t about playing all the notes, and that a well-placed rest can be remarkably effective. It’s the corollary to the art axiom that every line must have a purpose — a good artist must omit whatever doesn’t meet that criteria.
Obviously, “purpose” carries some value judgements that can vary from artwork to artwork, but for comics, we might understand the purpose to be “conveying the narrative.” Again, this will vary from instance to instance — sometimes, set-dressings will be important for establishing the setting or a specific mood, other times, they might needlessly clutter a moment of action or emotional turbulence — which is why good artists will vary that level of detail. I’d like to suggest Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso are masters of that kind of precision, giving their readers exactly what information they need when they need it — no more, no less — and that Moonshine 1 stands as a shining example of this mastery.
Take the introduction, for example. Each panel conveys successively more information, but never more than we absolutely need. It starts about as spare as can be:
It’s just a location, a year, and the silhouette of three men in the woods. We don’t know who these men are or why they’re out in the woods at night. Subsequent panels flesh out their story a bit more, revealing that they’re well-dressed G-Men on the hunt for a bootlegger, but that’s just about it. We don’t even learn their hair or eye-color because it’s irrelevant to the story. We learn there names only enough to understand that they have names; we see their faces only enough to understand that they have faces.
I know that last point sounds odd, but Risso being Risso, he only ever shows us as much face as is important to the moment, which for this introduction means we never actually see a full face, just enough of their eyes and mouths to highlight the terror when these men are attacked:
It’s an idiosyncratic approach, but it’s hard to argue with how effective it is. Moreover, it fits so fucking well with Azzarello’s narrative sensibilities, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean, check out the way the two introduce their lead character:
He’s barely featured in his own introduction. We see where he is, we meet his boss (and learn how he got there), but we never see his face. It’s not for another two pages that we finally see Lou Pirlo in all his glory, dressed to the New York nines in his finest double-breasted suit, sticking out like a sore thumb in the backwoods of West Virginia.
This tortuous introduction may build mystique or even reflect Lou’s personality — he’s later chastised for introducing his employer before properly introducing himself — but I’m inclined to read it more as restraint on Azzarello and Risso’s part. We didn’t need to see Lou’s face until they show him to us, and even after that, they tend to use it sparingly, often obscuring it in shadow when his expression would add nothing to the narrative. And they use it with that level of precision. Check out how they handle two different moments where Lou’s hat casts a shadow across his face:
The first example reveals that the inky-blacks aren’t obligatory, and instead are deployed quite specifically to emphasize what isn’t inked out — in the case of the latter example, it’s Lou’s eyes. We might have read Lou’s surprise just as clearly if we had seen his whole face, but it certainly wouldn’t have made for as striking an image.
The effect is a narrative that is as taught and efficient as possible — there are no irrelevant details, confusing choices, or extraneous lines cluttering the story. If you see something, it’s either relevant to your understanding of what’s going on right now, or will absolutely become relevant later on. It’s an aesthetic that Azzarello and Risso have chiseled to perfection over their many years of collaborating, and this issue demonstrates just how effective it is.
Patrick! I realize I barely commented on the actual events of this issue. Do you have any reactions to adding a supernatural element to an Azzarello/Risso gangster story? Or thoughts on the hints we get about Lou’s demons? Or Holt’s ability to always be more competent that Lou assumes? There’s a lot going on in this issue, but it’s all pretty subtle — I guess that’s the trouble with keeping such a tight lid on details.
Patrick: There’s a tight lid on the details, but there’s nothing stopping the more thematically relevant bits from flowing like some backwoods moonshine! Drew, I’ll piggy-bag off your assertion that Azzarello and Risso are making very deliberate choices about when exactly to dole out information, but I think I want to push back a little on the idea that there’s no value judgment behind it. We may be introduced to Lou sideways, and he may introduce himself by using his boss’ name first, but we have a titan of intelligence and power in this issue which does the exact opposite. When we meet Holt, he’s posing as one of his lackies — instead of dressing up and trying to project an image above his station, Holt even slums it. Risso obliges with lovingly detailed rendering of Holt’s face, right down to that awesomely disfiguring scar.
Holt is Lou’s opposite in nearly every way. He wears probably the most hill-billy outfit in a book full of ’em, he pretends to be less important than he is, and while Lou’s face is often obscured in shadow, Holt’s is almost always perfectly lit. I love seeing both of these characters in the same panel together, as Risso will often suggest that the shadows over Lou’s face are being cast by this glorious mountain of a mountain-man.
They are shadow and light, and it’s sort of interesting to see the good/evil dynamic reversed here. Holt’s the ultra-competent, and shockingly brutal, villain, but he’s the one who has mastered light. No doubt that plays into the amazingly subtle supernatural elements of this story. I feel silly having to spell it out here, but am also a little relieved that Drew also didn’t mention it explicitly in his piece above — these guys are werewolves, right? There are a ton of visual hints and nods to the moon, an obvious symbol for werewolves. The cover and title page literally have moons featured hugely, and that very first panel Drew posted above suggests the same imagery in the single lantern held by the lead G-Man. And that whole scene ends with — guess what — a whip-pan to the sky and a full-damn moon. Risso puts all of that moon imagery on hold for most of the rest of the issue, but you better believe he comes back to it by that final page.
Plus, there’s the name of the series: Moonshine. That’s one of those titles that’s so fucking good, it almost makes me think this thing was named first and conceptualized second.
Which shouldn’t suggest that anything is conceptually amiss here. Lou casually harassing the women in town deftly illustrates the concept of man-as-beast, and with both of our lead characters presenting misleading identities, we’re knee deep in duality from the jump. Duality is sort of a pet theme for these creators — Drew and I dug into the duality of Lono’s relationship with God in our exhaustive discussions about 100 Bullets: Brother Lono — and I can’t wait to see where they take it here.
There’s a lot less personal history here than in Brother Lono, but I think that gives room for the setting itself to come forward as the real star. We see hints of it here and there. There’s a living, breathing society at the heart of this issue: from the hayseed who doesn’t know what pasta is to people singing and dancing out in the woods. There’s a duality there too, drawn across racial lines — we see the white folks walking around during the day in town and the black folks at night in the wilderness. That’s a time and a place which is ripe for racial commentary, but no statements about this duality are being made just yet. As Drew points out, that may not be the purpose of this issue. We’re just getting survey of the sonic landscape now, and I can’t wait to hear which notes won’t be played.
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