[17 April 2014]
As collaborators, writer Brain Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso are best known for their decade-spanning, 100-issue crime/conspiracy comic 100 Bullets. Like any series of that size, it has its ups and downs, but overall it’s a remarkable book with a dense cast of characters who are all a mix of likable, evil, flawed, and insane. As rich and impressive as that title is, Risso and Azzarello have worked together on several other projects as well, before, during, and after their time on 100 Bullets. So here begins a four-part examination of a selection of those works, starting with the first time these creators came together: Jonny Double. Though it’s not as ambitious or complex as 100 Bullets, they are similar in content or tone, so Jonny Double makes for a decent taste of what this team would produce down the line.
The star of Jonny Double is also its title character, a private investigator who fancies himself hardboiled but is really just headstrong and impulsive without quite enough talent to back that up. Because Double is the narrator and point-of-view character throughout the four-issue series, Azzarello writes it and Risso draws it in a straight-faced, almost classic pulp noir style. It’s not as over-the-top as that genre can often be, but it’s pretty spot on as far as Double’s vocabulary, self-image, and arrogant swagger, as well as his tight-lipped personality and grizzled appearance. Though he often recognizes when he’s making he mistake, he’s just as likely not to, because he thinks he’s smarter and more observant than he really is. Not that he’s a complete fool; Double’s got some moves and experience, which is why he makes it out of this story largely intact. But he doesn’t ever figure out exactly what went down, not all the details, anyway, because he’s not that skilled a detective. It’s an amusing and subtle little twist Azzarello and Risso incorporate, intentionally having the book look and sound like a million other detective stories, but skewing it by making the protagonist relatively inept.
Double gets hired by a mysterious rich man to watch the rich man’s rebellious teenaged daughter and keep her out of trouble now that she’s hanging with the wrong crowd. On the surface of it, this almost sounds too familiar. To liven it up, that job quickly turns into Double helping the young woman, Faith, and her friends steal money from what they think is an inactive bank account left by Al Capone, but ends up belonging to a completely active and dangerous mob boss named the Sausage Man. By the time all of that has hit the fan, the story is only half over, and bodies start to rapidly pile up along with plot twists, until Double ends up having no choice but to turn himself and the money in to the Sausage Man and confess. Even then, there are a few final surprises, including a revelation I won’t spoil that shakes up the seemingly clichéd overprotective dad/angry daughter relationship nicely at the end. It also turns out the Double and the Sausage Man have a strange, funny history, something established in what seemed like an inconsequential character-building anecdote Double tells in the first issue. There are a lot of good moves like that during the conclusion, where Azzarello gets to show off how tightly structured and well-planned this narrative has been all along. It’s something he’ll do more than once in his career.
Speaking of which, there’s a lot in Jonny Double that echoes throughout all the work Risso and Azzarello have done together since. They like to operate in dark spaces, telling tales of liars, killers, narcissists, sadists, and sociopaths. They find the humanity in these characters and shine a light on it, even if all that accomplishes is to make them look even uglier than they already did. In Jonny Double, everyone’s a deceiver so no one is entirely trusted by anyone else, with good reason. The combination of their constant individual lies and collective hubris end up leaving almost everyone in the cast either dead or broke and beaten. Everyone, that is, except for Dexter, one of Faith’s friends who was probably the worst liar of all, robbing his own roommate in the middle of all the chaos and running away with that money after the rest of his crew has been killed. Also, of course, the Sausage Man ends up fine, losing only about two million in the end and still totally a powerful and wealthy criminal kingpin living on top of the world.
Yet even with all these dishonest, despicable people filling its pages, and even with a main character who lies not only to others but to himself and therefore the reader, Jonny Double is a compelling book, because everyone still feels real. Risso gives them full emotional ranges, subtle bits of body language and fashion and facial cues that clue the reader in on who they are beneath their false words. Azzarello, meanwhile, wastes no time in knocking down the walls of lies his characters have built and watching them get buried in the rubble. That is the thrust of this narrative, and the one-two punch of relatable jerks immediately getting their comeuppance (and then some) is gripping and rewarding.
My impulse is to look for a lesson beneath this tragic story about the consequences of greed, deception, and self-importance. I’m not sure one is to be found. Because there’s no real sense of any lesson being learned by anyone in the book, and with Dexter and the Sausage Man coming out ahead, there’s certainly no unifying philosophy of bad people always getting what they deserve. Instead, Jonny Double seems to exist not because Azzarello and Risso had something larger or more important to say with it, but because they just had a good story to tell and knew they could do it right. At any rate, that’s the end result, whatever their true motivation, and this is perhaps the thing that stands out as being most different about this series when compared those that would follow. While a thoroughly enjoyable read, there’s not that much commentary on our own world here, beyond the fact that horrible, selfish people are out there stealing from and murdering each other all the time. That’s a message that comes through loud and clear, but even it isn’t the true focus of this comic. It’s about one particular guy, the man whose name is also the book’s title, and the story of most interesting and dangerous thing that ever happened to him.
There is something else that Jonny Double does share with future Azzarello-Risso collaborations, and that is its violence. It’s not an aggressively or overly violent series, but it doesn’t shy away from violence at all, either. The creators both make smart choices so that the violence that’s present isn’t overdone or off-putting. I don’t know whether to credit Azzarello, Risso, or both with this, but a decent amount of the violence happens off-panel, so all the reader sees is the aftermath. A cop bursts into a bathroom with his throat already cut. Double gets a bag of severed hands, but we never see the actual severing. The horrible results still matter to the story, so all the violence hangs over the series and haunts it, but it doesn’t all have to be put on display. There is still some real-time, though, and when that happens Risso makes it brutal. The blood is thick and there are a lot of tight shots so the full impact of every blow can be felt. When Double has his gun out, you can see the heft of it, and the same is true when the Sausage Man pulls a knife. These weapons look especially heavy and solid because they hold such power over the narrative, as does any act of violence, and both Risso and Azzarello respect that enough not to overstuff the story with fight scenes.
While perhaps not as deep or memorable as much of what would come, Jonny Double marks a strong debut from the team of Azzarello and Risso, and shows them working as a surprisingly cohesive team right away. They seem to get one another, because the words and images fit together so well, creating a powerful atmosphere around an arresting main character in no time, then unfurling a fun, vicious, efficient little narrative to go with him. To tell this story as quickly and entertainingly as they do without needing to dilute or simplify it is a great feat of comicbook construction, and requires the creators to be on the same page for every page. Jonny Double is obviously the byproduct of a clear shared vision, and reading it makes it easy to see why these two would work together again so often.