by Drew Baumgartner and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Dyin’? Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Do ya hear that? Are ya hearin’ it? Come on. You’re welcome to it, ol’ timer. Let me know you’re up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it.
Luke, Cool Hand Luke
Drew: It’s hard for me to read genre fiction through anything other than a deconstructionist lens. I mean, it’s hard for me to read anything through anything other than a deconstructionist lens, but this is especially true of genre fiction, where by definition conventions must be explicitly followed. Fortunately for me, that postmodern generic awareness is just as prevalent in creators as it is in audiences, so I’m never struggling to find multidimensional, self-aware, fully postmodern genre fictions. But the good ones, the ones that actually force me to reexamine the genres they’re deconstructing (rather than just having fun with some winking references), are few and far between. But Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso’s collaborations have always gone a step further. Beyond cute self-awareness or even symphonic use of references, Azzarello and Risso’s work offer new perspectives on the foundational genre pieces they take on. That is to say, their comics don’t just gain meaning from their references — their references gain meaning from the comics. They’re almost a purer form of postmodernism, digesting entire genres in a few issues, offering new readings to even the most familiar works of art.
So, if my epigraph (or the issue’s chilling homage) didn’t give it away, I’m most fascinated by Moonshine 8‘s connections to Cool Hand Luke. I’ll admit, my familiarity with southern chain gang narratives only has that one reference point, but holy hell do Azzarello and Risso wring it for all it’s worth. Sure, they’ve got a protagonist on a chain gain and a hard-driving Boss that doles out cruel punishment, but the clever bits come as the issue deviates from the familiar. Check out how quickly Lou’s fellow prisoners turn on him after Boss Dirt threatens to punish them for his misdeeds:
There won’t be any games of poker or lighthearted bets about eating hardboiled eggs in this gang — Lou is totally alone here.
But that subverted expectation doesn’t upend the whole homage. When Lou is taken out for his first shift on the chain gang, he asks for permission to relieve himself. And while Cool Hand Luke might have primed us for bush-shaking shenanigans, the actual experience Lou has behind the tree is much, much weirder than an escape attempt:
Lou didn’t try to escape this time, but he did receive encouragement to escape from a vision of his long-dead sister. That sounds for sure like a recipe for trying to escape next time, which might just set this whole story up for more Cool Hand Luke references next month.
Though really, the thing that had me most excited about all the Cool Hand Luke stuff — the thing that had me spouting off about references gaining new meaning from their inclusion in this comic — comes when Lou seems furthest from his escape attempt. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated the religiosity of that film as it plumbs the depth of human despair, but this issue helps me understand what it means for these characters to confront the absence of God. For Luke, that’s summed up in the quote I kicked off this piece with, but for Lou, the death of God is accompanied by the birth of something much more sinister.
Lou may also have a mirrored-glasses-wearing hardass pursuing him, but the devil in his life is something else. Now, whether that devil is Enos’ werewolf (who L’ago refers to as the Devil early in the issue), Tempest, or even Lou’s own alcoholism is left up to us, though it occurs to me that none of those things are mutually exclusive. Though it does make Lou’s despair a bit different from Luke’s — if Luke was in hell, his hope came from escape, but Lou’s hell isn’t home to his devil, which leaves him with nowhere to run. That’s a crushing thought, leaving Lou with no hope long before he’s even had a chance to escape.
Man, Patrick, I don’t know what your relationship is to Cool Hand Luke, but I found myself wanting to watch it again after reading this issue. Has this shed any new light on that movie for you, or am I overstating just how insightful this issue is? I may be the only person who chuckled at that “so I shook” line, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t one of the most quotable lines from the movie. Also, I’m not sure we have any choice but to call this arc “Cool Hand Lou,” even if Lou never does convince his bunkmates to play poker with him.
Patrick: Here’s a classic Retcon Punch twist: I’ve never seen Cool Hand Luke! But I am very interested in the way prison movies (or really, any movie that locked up the main character) inevitably end up making incarceration seem like kind of a good time. Sure, you’re not a free man, but you can play cards or read all the books in the library or cheat on the warden’s taxes or start some kind of elicit business. These sorts of prison opportunities are narrative crutches, but probably not demonstrative of the actual prison experience. That experience is bound to be dehumanizing first, and all other things second.
That’s exactly what Azzarello and Risso show us in Moonshine 8. The religiosity may be buried in Cool Hand Luke, but Azzarello can’t help put place it front and center of Lou’s story. And while Lou’s suffering seems like the clearest link between his imprisonment and an absence of God, Azzarello and Risso are careful to illustrate just how others many characters have had their God replaced by someone (or something) else.
L’ago is the first great God substitute that we get in this issue. L’ago’s goons even talk about him like he’s on a plane above them. One of them points out that this is literally true: L’ago is on the second floor and they’re outside on the ground. His buddy spits back, “Little fucker could be standin’ out here with us an’ he still be lookin’ down.” It’s a clever bit of rhetoric from a mafia goon too dumb to realize he’s seconds away from being mauled by a werewolf. Of course, he’s not actually being clever, Azzarello has searched the character’s psyche for his honest emotional assessment and pulled out the thought most relevant to the themes of the issue. L’ago is God — solely capable of judging, and balancing light and dark.
If that’s too abstract for you, the scene continues with L’ago interrupting Cacciatore’s silver-bullet-sign-of-the-cross.
Risso shows us every single step of Cacciatore’s ritual here, making sure there’s no confusion about he’s doing. Check it out — there isn’t another moment in this issue which is realized second-to-second like this. Compare it to the scene Drew posted above where a fellow prisoner knocks Lou on his ass:
What happened there? Burly dude grabs Lou by the collar… POW… Lou’s on the ground and a shoe was involved. The blow-by-blow isn’t important here.
It is important that we see Cacciatore performing the whole cross with the bullet (that he proceeds to kiss, like it’s a string of rosary beads) before loading that sacred bullet into his rifle and taking aim. It’s a hightening of a religious practice, but one that seems perfectly apace with the hightened conceit present in a werewolf crime drama. Cacciatore has blessed his bullet — effectively trying to curry God’s favor — only to have his real God intercede and put a stop to the whole thing.
These opening pages lean pretty heavily on the difference between the cool blue light of the moon, and the warm yellow light cast by fires (like the match or the lamps inside the building. L’ago labels the outside as the devil’s domain, and it’s not hard to see why. The blues and blacks give the wolf numerous places from which to strike. Which means that the interior light necessarily represents the opposite of the devil: God. Risso and his color assistant Cristian Rossi always show L’ago in this divine light, even when the rest of the panel is bathed in cool night light.
Of course “L’ago is God” makes it sound like he’s some benevolent being. He ain’t. The world of Moonshine may not see a difference between Gods and masters — both are exercising control over men. That godly light I’ve been talking about? That shows up in the form of the burning sun baring down on Lou and the rest of the chain gang.
Incidentally, I think this is some of Risso’s strongest work. If there’s another single panel in a comic this week that expresses theme and mood as efficiently as this one, I’ll eat my iPhone.
God is gone, and Lou Pirlo has to come to terms with what his replacement for God is going to be. Right now, it’s Boss Dirt, and it looks like Tempest is waiting for her turn at the wheel. But then what? Back to booze? Back to money? Maybe he follows in his father’s footsteps and ends up worshiping at the altar of grief the rest of his life. Or, as the final pages suggest, he’s going to be able to embrace the moon — a true absence of God. No replacements.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?