Ruffians is the kind of book that has the potential to appeal to everyone from superhero-obsessed fanfolk to jaded indie fans, from "cute critter" enthusiasts to teenagers who shop at Hot Topic.
When a publisher wraps its premiere comic book in a cover featuring a blue anthropomorphic bear clad in a pair of boxing gloves and a purple cape staring pensively at a bludgeoned murder victim at his feet, it's almost too helpful. Such a cover immediately renders a reviewer's endorsement or criticism superfluous at best and, more likely, outright irrelevant; some of you will see the cover and turn away no matter how earnestly I praise the comic, while others will be determined to adore the comic no matter how viciously I attack it. Fortunately, my policy is to never let myself grow distracted by the fact that I am superfluous (or even irrelevant.)
The opening panel of Brian Canini's Ruffians is a black and white alternate angle of the same scene from the cover, and the following is where the comic will win you or lose you, I suspect: the opening caption accompanying this unlikely image is, "A turkey sandwich on rye..."
Or perhaps it might change your mind if I note that this silly, improbable caption leads, in defiance of any expectation a rational reader might have developed at this early point in the story, to a truly poignant moment just four panels later, wherein we discover that the victim on the cover was a friend of our protagonist, who notes, "And now, as I walk away from another bloody rooftop in Robin Square, all I can think of is what he ordered last night at the coffee shop."
This is followed by a cute moment in which our protagonist, Scar, sits drowning his sorrows in a neighborhood bar, lamenting the many dead bodies he's seen over the years... and a fellow patron naturally assumes he's a mortician. Scar is wearing a cape, as I've noted, and so it's a nice chuckle-worthy moment as you shake your head at the silly patron for thinking Scar could be anything but a superhero.
Turns out he's a hitman.
Ruffians veers off into wildly unpredictable territory like this throughout each of its first four issues. Perhaps its biggest surprise is that Scar, the cute blue bear on the cover, quickly proves to be a legitimately menacing figure. A dinner conversation with his good friend Black Jack (whose murder launches the story) reveals that Scar at least occasionally employs goofy cartoon violence to take out his victims (dropping an anvil on a mark's head in one case.) But we are shown no such goofiness. When we are invited to actually watch as Scar goes about his work, what we see is a vicious, sadistic brute, someone who might exchange pleasantries with you one moment only to punch or stomp or stab you the next. In one particularly memorable scene, Scar waves a knife in the face of another barfly in a bathroom stall before pounding him into a broken, bloody wreck to the accompaniment of such unsettling sound effects as "SNAP!" and "CRACK!" Therefore, the juxtaposition between Scar's cuddly-cute appearance and his career (or indeed his vocabulary: "Fuck you. Ya don't know shit.") quickly becomes not nearly as startling as you might expect.
I'm going to indulge now in some lazy shortcut thinking for a moment and go High Concept on you to try to sell Ruffians the way a Hollywood pitchman might sell it: "Imagine a new Care Bears movie... directed by Quentin Tarantino!" And I'm not (merely) trying to be cute here. If you strip away its Cuddly Critter trappings, Ruffians is at heart a believable story about hitmen and loyalty and revenge. And yet its those same Cuddly Critter trappings that prevent Ruffians from becoming Just Another Hitman Story. We're so accustomed to stabbings and beatings and gunplay, not just in comics but also on TV and in movies and songs, that we take them for granted. Canini chose to populate his universe with Critters, and while he may not have done so in order to make the violence they inflict on one another more startling or upsetting than it would be if his characters were humans, that is still the end result, and it makes for one hell of a surreal and entertaining read. (The fact that a good number of the peripheral and supporting characters in Ruffians in fact are human is admittedly a complication, but it's a complication that I find intriguing.)
Whether these characters are human or Critter would be immaterial, of course, if the words that came from their mouths were not engaging and credible. Canini's dialogue feels honest and natural without becoming overly distracting the way so many attempts at "real folk talk" can be. (Even celebrated examples such as Alice Walker's The Color Purple or Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting can be impenetrable to many readers.) Most of the characters in Ruffians speak in some variation of a basic barfly/white trash dialect ("I don't know what da fuck you're talkin' about" and "So, Norma, how much longer on that sandwich?" and "All right, yall's food will be right up, fellas," for example), and it's not that Canini is particularly showy or clever with this dialogue, but it supports the story and feels... earned, somehow. It is Canini's dialogue, in fact, that pulls the reader so completely into the story, and helps the reader to forget that our weary, defeated protagonist soothing his existential angst in a bar is in fact a talking bear dressed as a superhero. (Stephen King comes to mind, with his uncanny ability to use convincing dialogue and characterization to seduce readers into accepting even the most absurd or fantastic premise.) And lest you come away from this review with the mistaken impression that the characters in Ruffians speak only in southern drawls, here are a few dialogue samples to show you just how simultaneously harrowing and comical the chatting in Ruffians can be:
"Dead people walk through my dreams, Scar."
"You're going to force me to carve your heart out with a Spork."
"I'm expecting company in a little bit here, and what kind of first impression am I going to leave with a three-foot-tall blue bear hitman bleeding to death in the middle of my living room?"
Unfortunately, while Canini's black and white artwork has personality, the action sequences in Ruffians can be alternately static and confusing, often requiring a second or even a third look for clarity's sake. Backgrounds, meanwhile, are often merely implied or even outright blank. However, you could argue that such minimalist backgrounds remain true to the style and heart of many old cartoons, and that they are no different, really, than watching the park ranger run past the same tree and grassy knoll twenty times in pursuit of Yogi Bear.
Each issue of Ruffians leaves the reader feeling simultaneously satisfied and enticed to read the next, which is really all one can ask of any serial narrative. Brian Canini is a born storyteller where structure and pacing are concerned, and the same can be said for his characterization and dialogue. If his already promising artwork can evolve to the point that it is a better match for his misleadingly sophisticated writing, then he will no doubt develop a loyal following in the comic book industry. Ruffians is the kind of book that has the potential to appeal to everyone from superhero-obsessed fanfolk to jaded indie fans, from "cute critter" enthusiasts to teenagers who shop at Hot Topic.
Our victim Black Jack has yet to be properly fleshed out in the few flashback sequences in which he has appeared, and our hero Scar has already confronted and fought Black Jack's murderer by the time the second issue begins, but Ruffians is nonetheless a gripping comic with many fascinating mysteries that remain unsolved. Who was Black Jack, really? Why did he wear a mask? How and why did he and Scar pursue such a doomed, violent career in the first place? How will Scar escape his dire circumstances and seek revenge for the murder of his close friend? Why is Scar's strange world partially populated with talking animals? (Or is that last just something that we should accept as a fun quirk inherent to the premise, as we would if we sat down to watch an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon?)
Most intriguing of the many mysteries Ruffians offers its readers, however, is just this:
Where will Brian Canini take his story from here, and where will his storytelling gifts take him?