by Patrick Ehlers and Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Hence, the enlightened ruler is heedful, the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace and an army intact.
-Sun-Tzu, The Art of War
Patrick: Risk is terrifying. It’s so often the barrier to achieving anything worth achieving. And there’s a safety, a presumption of success by default, that comes from risking nothing. Sun-Tzu preaches measured responses and caution in all action. That same caution is as big a benefit for the characters of Brian Azzarello and Eduaro Risso’s Moonshine 9.
Azzarello and Risso like to express this caution as distance. Most of the clear-cut victories in issue nine belong to the people who were smart enough to stay the fuck out of the fray. The first example comes early, in almost a non sequitur — underscoring L’ago and Tempest’s tête-à-tête is a brawl between two stray dogs and a street cat. This is happening right outside the window, and it seems like one hell of a position for the poor cat to be in. It’s a life-or-death situation as these poor animals fight for their lives. But this intense, intimate death drama is undercut by a neighbor tossing water out the window to shut them up.
Ol’ Stripy Pajamas here risks nothing in dousing these nocturnal brawlers. Moreover, we didn’t even realize he was on the scene, or that he was armed with a bucket of water, until it’s too late to do anything about it. It’s a simple choice — and Ol’ Stripy Pajamas probably isn’t consciously channeling Sun-Tzu in this moment — but this action does set a precedent that Azzarello and Risso will iterate upon and subvert for the rest of the issue.
Take the Warden’s sharpshooter for instance. Azzarello and Risso take a page and a half to establish the whereabouts of Warden, Lou Pirlo and his not-friend-friends on the chain gang. When one of the convicts tries to make a run for it, Boss Dirt appears as though out of nowhere.
I love that Risso keeps most of the action here off panel. There’s no panel of the gun being raised, or sites narrowing in on his target. Hell, we don’t even see the shot or the impact, just the immediate aftermath of this poor guy getting shot. Boss Dirt is able to act from above the fray, and he does so with absolute success and at no risk to himself.
The third instance is Cacciatore taking out Enos. Cacciatore was denied the opportunity to shoot Enos in wolf-form last issue, but there’s no such denial here. This one happens so fast and so surprisingly, I had to flip the page make to make sure I understood what was happening. We see Enos take the hit before we know where (and who) it came from, but a lot of the usual signifiers of gun violence are missing or obscured. Enos, being mid-transformation, isn’t reeling from the shot — there’s just a strange splotch of red over his heart and a stray BLAM sound effect. After the page turn, Risso gives us the chilling explanation.
(As a little aside, I love Risso’s decision to sign this panel. He leaves one signature in every issue, usually right as the themes of the piece are really taking shape. This issue is obviously no exception.)
Ol’ Stripy PJs. Boss Dirt. Cacciatore. All three succeed because that are cautious and stay out of harm’s way. When our characters do put themselves in harm’s way… well, it shouldn’t be any surprise: they are beset by harm. I think you can make the argument that Tempest fucked up by trying to get too cozy with L’ago, but the most obvious example of a lack of caution leading to ruin is poor, stupid Lou Pirlo. Lou even makes fun of his chain gang buddy for being afraid of snakes. AND THEN LOOK WHAT HAPPENS TO MISTER “I AIN’T SCARED OF SNAKES.”
Of course, maybe that’s undercut by the fact that Lou wakes up from a combination of poisoning and drowning. Drew, what do you think? Are we maybe just seeing the short-term successes of the characters who keep themselves out of danger, and the gradual strengthening of those characters being tested in the fucking furnace?
Drew: It’s funny — I was coming at this issue from the opposite direction. I was focused less on the short-term successes of the likes of L’Ago, and more on the long-term plans of the likes of Tempest and Lou. Er, as much as either of them can be said to have long-term plans.
For Lou, it sure doesn’t seem like he has a plan beyond being careless with his smart mouth. Side-eye from Boss Dirt and warnings from Emmet and Mean Tom emphasize how reckless Lou is being, but it’s picking up a snake that drives that point home. But like, is he just being a smartass (and a dumbass), or does he have an actual death wish? Or maybe he knows enough about his situation that it’s a “death wish”? I half expected this not-death to be Lou’s ticket off of the chain gang, a ruse he could keep up just long enough to get those dang leg irons off. Instead, his miraculous revival happens in full view of everyone (and pointedly, while his legs are still shackled):
As much as I may have wanted Lou to have a clever secret plan, it sure seems like he’s just kind of bumbling through this. Though, you know, it’s also clear he’s got supernatural forces on his side. If death can’t hold him back, I don’t see much hope for John Law.
Tempest at least had a plan, though it obviously goes to shit. Enos is dead, L’Ago has Hiram, and Mama is now aware of (at least part of) her treachery. But maybe the immediate success or failure of this plan isn’t as important as her motivation: she wants to escape her Appalachian home. In this way, we might see a link between her story and Lou’s — they both want freedom, they’re both incredibly reckless, and while this issue seems to give them their comeuppance, both are alive to fight another day at the issue’s end. And I suppose they’ve both learned something, too: Lou learned that he can’t die (at least, not from that “combination of poisoning and drowning” Patrick mentioned), and Tempest learned never to trust L’Ago. That’s new knowledge to both of them, which puts them on the upswing, even as their immediate plans blow up in their faces.
In that way: yeah, I definitely think the wins in this issue are decidedly short term, and that we’re watching Lou and Tempest learn from their failures, setting them up for long-term success. Then again, this issue also reveals just how formidable L’Ago is as an opponent. It’s not that he stayed out of the fray, but that he had several kinds of backup prepared against the fray. Tempest’s plan relied on Hiram being dead, so L’Ago shows up with Hiram alive. Mama’s plan relied on Enos tearing everyone to shreds, so L’Ago has Cacciatore lying in wait with a silver bullet. He’s not avoiding risk so much as he is insuring against it.
Which I suppose leaves that allegory of the dog/cat/man with bucket sequence an open question: who is which, and what does “winning” look like? Is it living to fight another day? Is it tearing the enemy to shreds? Or is it just dumping water on the whole thing to make it stop (however temporarily)? There are just as many kinds of defeat, which means just as many kinds of caution our characters may need to adopt. Lou and Tempest may be learning, but L’Ago clearly has the head-start on that front.
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