[8 May 2014]
Where Spaceman was an example of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso stretching their legs a bit and venturing into new, more complicated territory, Brother Lono is practically the opposite. It is Azzarello and Risso sticking to concepts and characters so familiar and simple that the result is a watered-down version of work they’ve done in the past. As a sequel of sorts to 100 Bullets (the full title is 100 Bullets: Brother Lono) some amount of old hat is perhaps to be expected, but in this case it’s not a matter of the old series being too much a part of the new one. Brother Lono’s plot is largely disconnected from the events of 100 Bullets, and it is only the title character that even ties the two together. The problems in Brother Lono stem more from its lack of nuance or unpredictability paired with its overabundance of violence, torture, and all-around ugliness. There’s too much darkness without anything resembling light, and the entire eight-issue series is a slow boil building to an inevitable ending that goes down pretty much precisely as expected.
Lono was a major character in 100 Bullets, arguably the meanest, most sadistic, most psychopathic member of a cast chock full of heartless murderers and other villains. In that title, he relishes violence, and is particularly skilled at dishing it out in fatal quantities. At the beginning of Brother Lono, he’s already done a 180-degree turn around in attitude and demeanor. Gone is his shit-eating swagger and eagerness for a fight, replaced by a certain amount of shame at his ultra-violent past and a genuine desire to stop himself from ever acting that way again. It is a struggle for Lono, one that gets over-emphasized throughout the book with long and long-winded scenes of Lono’s self-reflection and deprecation. He fantasizes in graphic detail about how to kill the people he doesn’t like, and is haunted by nasty-looking spirits of those he’s killed before, all while the captions drone on about what kind of man he is vs. what kind he wants to be.
This internal torment might be interesting if it wasn’t made so obvious from the very beginning that Lono was a man capable of great violence but fighting against those urges. That’s clear even before the first of these self-reflective scenes, because Risso and Azzarello are both quite good at quick, subtle character development. A few smart lines from the people in Lono’s current, peaceful life about who they think he really is, coupled with his stiff, almost agonizingly restrained body language is more than enough to fill the reader in on his grim history and his present attempts at redemption and self-control. And it’s apparent from the get-go that Lono’s inner killer will eventually break out, because he is the living embodiment of Chekov’s gun. We know he’s going to go off, and we know who he’ll hit when he does, but it takes so long to get there and the sights along the way are so unappealing that by the time Lono actually snaps, the feeling is less one of excitement at finally seeing him in action than it is a nagging anxiety to get it over with already.
The focus of Lono’s foreseeable rage is a massive drug empire called Las Torres Gemelas, or The Twin Towers. Throughout Brother Lono, the reader gets to spend time with many members of Las Gemelas, including its leader Cortez and a handful of his most wicked underlings. There’s never any actual drug dealing done on-panel, but they talk about the business a lot, in between an excessive amount of killing and torturing and the like. In the very opening scene of the series, we see them not only physically ruin a man, but also threaten his infant child and turn his girlfriend into a sex slave, all before killing him and leaving his mangled corpse on a public park bench. So it’s impossible to miss what rotten, soulless monsters these guys are right away, but that doesn’t stop Azzarello and Risso from continuing to rub our noses in it over and over again. They’re never really depicted as three-dimensional human beings, just single-minded machines that are only interested in money and mayhem. They are paper-thin because their true purpose is not to be full, interesting characters, but to be the easily disposable targets of Lono’s violence at the end of the narrative. If they had any depth, it would be harder to let Lono cut them down with such ruthless efficiency in the finale, because they’d be real characters worthy of a more thoughtful end. As it stands, they’re barely caricatures, so when they die en masse it feels neither good nor bad but simply over at last.
Neither irredeemable characters nor over-the-top violence are anything new for this creative team, but what sets Brother Lono apart from other Risso-Azzarello collaborations is that it has very little to offer beyond those well-worn elements. They oversaturate the issues, leaving little room for anything relatable, amusing, or interesting. The closest thing to a good person there is in this book is Linda May, the D.E.A. agent who goes undercover as a nun to try and bring down Las Gemelas, but ultimately just covers up Lono’s massacre of them and leaves it at that. So even she isn’t especially upstanding, and worse than that, she’s dull. Everybody is kind of dull, each character immediately placed in a very simple and rigid role that they never get to break out of for even a moment. Only Lono goes through any significant change, but it’s one we see coming too early. Plus really it’s just him reverting back to his true self, so it doesn’t read like a true change but a by-the-numbers plot turn.
Azzarello’s narrative is atypically straightforward. Las Gemelas are the purest of villains, and they prod at Lono in gradually worse ways until he’s finally forced to strike back, at which point he tears through them with James Bondian invulnerability until their entire operation has been dismantled by one guy overnight. A lot of the awful stuff Las Gemelas does actually isn’t connected to Lono at all, nor does it add anything except for superfluous awfulness to pad out the pages. There are no satisfying twists, and the only shocks are those that come from the graphic visuals, not the story. There are a few attempts at surprises, or at any rate there are some things that surprise the characters, but all of them are fairly easy to predict from the audience’s point of view. We know that May is a D.E.A. agent because Las Gemelas say that one arrived on her bus, and she’s the only person to get off of that bus who’s a viable candidate. At first, Cortez claims to work for Las Gemelas, telling everyone that the twins themselves are away on business. But it’s immediately clear that, in practice at least, Cortez is in charge, and once we see the deformed body of his sibling hidden away in its creepy glass box, the reality of the situation comes into focus. He doesn’t admit it out loud until the end, though, but by then there’s no real weight to that confession for the reader. Azzarello is normally much sharper in his plot structure, able to have his characters stay true to themselves while still pulling some unexpected moves or revealing truly stunning secrets. In Brother Lono, everyone is a blunt instrument, so the resulting story is just as blunt.
Risso’s work is no weaker on a technical level than ever. Some of it is the most detailed work he’s delivered, and it all certainly leaves a hell of an impression. It’s just so unrelentingly horrific, piling on the gore even when none is needed, that the effect is largely off-putting. There’s a weird amount of intense animal cruelty, often incidental to the scene but thrown in seemingly to prevent any lulls in violence from lasting more than a few pages. Which the story hardly ever lets it do, anyway. There are, as I’ve said, a lot of torture scenes, many ending in executions, and Risso goes all out on every one. He uses many close-up shots of wounds, terrified eyeballs, and torture devices in action, really driving home just how painful every part of the experience would be for the victim. Which wouldn’t be so bothersome if the purpose of these scenes was anything other than reiterating what scumbags the members of Las Gemelas are, something we understand from about the second page of issue #1. Brother Lono often reads like a mere showcase for Risso’s most aggressive blood-and-guts art, because it’s not all there in service of the story being told. If that’s your favorite thing about Risso as an artist, I suppose this would be a good book for you, but normally his violence is a necessary part of a greater whole. Here, it makes up so much of the whole that it drowns out the rest, and with no clear narrative benefit.
Azzarello and Risso work well together even when they aren’t firing on all cylinders, as in Brother Lono. It’s still a clear story, if maybe too easy to follow, and it’s still well-drawn and well-written overall, with the possible exception of Azzarello’s pun use being somewhat less graceful than usual. The problem with Brother Lono isn’t that it’s badly executed, but that it’s too unambitious in its goals. It reaches those goals, I think, but they’re easy to reach, too easy for creators of such proven talent. I kept hoping Lono would find a non-violent way out of everything, that he’d maintain his new self, that the story wouldn’t go the easy, obvious route. But the final shot is a victorious Lono lighting a cigar while Las Gemelas’ home base burns around him, the severed limb of one of their number on the desk in front of him. It’s an image that says a great deal about the series that led up to it, a celebration of chaos and destruction designed mostly to remind the world that Lono is a hardboiled badass. Mission accomplished, I guess, but I’m not sure it was worth the space it occupied or effort it took to create.