Derek McCulloch, writer of Pug, was nice enough to send me a galley proof of this graphic novel, so let’s check it out!
A few years back, McCulloch wrote Stagger Lee, which is quite a good read. Pug, unfortunately, doesn’t come up to the standards set by that book, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just a bit of a lesser work. It’s drawn by Greg Espinoza and will come out from Image on 30 June.
McCulloch tells the story of Jake Mahoney, a down-on-his-luck boxer in the 1950s. He’s a decent guy who was once at the top of his game, but something happened in his past and now he’s just a lonely bruiser.
Early in the book, he gets a job with an “importer/exporter” named Albert Hirsch as a tough guy, helping him collect debts. He goes around with another man, Whitey Podulsky, and Jake just stands there, looking tough, in the hopes that the debtors won’t give them too much trouble. Meanwhile, McCulloch flashes back to Jake’s last fight, when he was offered a bribe to take a fall and the decision he made about that.
McCulloch structures the book rather well, with 15 “rounds” – chapters set in the present – and “rest periods” in between, which are much shorter and show the flashback episode (he makes sure each chapter begins and ends with a sound effect that approximates a bell ringing, which is clever and rather subtle; I didn’t catch it the first time through). It’s not a bad way to create the story, as it allows us to slowly see how Jake got into his present situation and contrast that with how he is today – we know early on that his wife and child left him, for instance, but McCulloch keeps us guessing about exactly why they did.
It also telegraphs how he will react to the central conflict in the present story, even though we’re fairly sure where it’s going anyway. In the past, we see what kind of person he is, so the choices he makes in the present are made more clear. McCulloch could have simply shown one flashback, but by breaking the past section up into “rest periods,” each one has a bit more impact. And it creates some interesting “cliffhangers” in the present, as McCulloch ends each “round,” not exactly at a dramatic point, but at an important point. The structure of the book is very interesting and hides some of the flaws of it.
Because this is a flawed book, but I’ll get to that. First, some more good things. McCulloch does a good job by not overwriting – he allows Espinoza to tell some of the story with facial expressions and by simply allowing the characters to look at each other meaningfully. Too many writers forget the visual aspect of comics, and McCulloch doesn’t. Jake, as the star, is especially well done, as he must show toughness most of the time but Espinoza must also be able to show how broken he is inside. During the boxing scenes, Espinoza is good at showing the way the two fighters move around each other and how Jake gets into position for his loss (yes, he loses; of course he loses!).
I don’t love Espinoza’s art, but he has his moments.
In conjunction with the art saying what other writers might feel compelled to put down is the fact that, especially in the flashback, McCulloch leaves things rather ambiguous. Jake is offered a bribe, but he’s unsure about it. His wife and young son come to see him and she tells him if he throws the fight, she’s leaving. He has a decision to make, and although we know it ends badly, McCulloch doesn’t delve into Jake’s or Natalie’s (his wife’s) psyches too much, allowing us to speculate about what’s going on. In the present, Jake has hooked up with a topless dancer, and once again, McCulloch doesn’t dig too deeply, but we understand that Jake still hasn’t recovered from the fight that ended his career. As he remains a decent guy, he always thinks he’s doing the right thing for those around him, but he’s blind to what it might really mean for himself and those around him.
Despite some good writing, the book itself is not great, simply because McCulloch’s plot is nothing special. This isn’t really a character study even though the quiet moments between Jake and those he interacts with are the best parts of the book. In his job as tough guy, he comes across a deadbeat with a young son, and of course he sees his lost son in the boy. When the dad doesn’t pay his debts, things get uglier, and of course Jake doesn’t want to let anything happen to the boy. Once Jake gets the job as a tough guy, we can predict pretty much everything that happens in the book, and McCulloch doesn’t do anything to veer off-track. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the plot, it’s just very familiar. McCulloch and Espinoza save it a bit with the characterization and the way Espinoza shows Jake slowly falling more and more into despair, but it’s like a predictable movie that is saved by the acting. It’s too bad – there are some very nice moments in the comic, but they don’t add up to a fantastic whole.
Still, I can recommend you giving it a look, even though it’s not a strong recommendation. McCulloch is good at creating real characters quickly, and Jake’s descent from reputable boxer to a loanshark’s flunkie, while familiar, is done well, helped by Espinoza’s occasionally haunting art. I still have to warn you that it feels quite familiar, which counts against it. But it shows why McCulloch is a good writer, and I’m looking forward to his next project.
Tomorrow: Crime fiction, Milligan-style!
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