Despite being a big Mike Mignola fan, I’ve never really encountered Lobster Johnson before. While Hellboy has a certain mordant humor, most of Dark Horse’s Hellboy-universe offerings recently have been singularly grim. Opening a comic about a hero whose name and symbol suggest that his superhuman power involves crustacean junk, I expected a more light-hearted jaunt through the supernatural.
“Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus” #1 defies that expectation. It’s a badass homage to the classic two-fisted pulp stories of the thirties, which were self-serious almost to the point of ridiculousness. From the opening sequence of firecrackers at a Chinese dragon dance to the thinly-veiled racism of a law-and-order cop, the issue is rife with the classic tropes of the vigilante pulps. At the same time, it’s written with thought and intelligence that appears in little details; for example, the footnotes noting triangle-bracketed foreign languages don’t just say “Translated from the Chinese” as expected, but give the specific dialects, which both respects the reality of Chinese culture and suggests a much wider world than can be shown in a few pages.
Despite being inspired by non-superheroic pulps like the Fu Manchu novels, it’s a Hellboy spinoff, so there has to be something supernatural somewhere. Readers only get a whiff of the more-than-human in the very last panel, which features some of the scariest masked monkeys ever seen (again and again in nightmares). In fact, it’s Sebastian Fiumara’s art that, throughout, suggests the presence of the supernatural.
For the most part, the pages are built on simple panels that give the book a retro feel. This pattern is only broken a few times, always with good effect. Within the panels, Fiumara has a knack for focusing on incidental details that always suggest more than they say. But he also brings a modern sense of motion that helps the pages resist looking like they belong in a museum. A couple of Tong enforcers get introduced in a panel that could be pulled from a samurai manga, with a dynamic tension in their poses that suggests not just their badassery but their personalities and fighting styles.
Dave Stewart’s coloring also carries a lot of weight in “A Scent of Lotus.” As befitting a retro pulp story, almost everything is washed out in earth tones, but there are flashes of garish color when the guns come out. Stewart has a lot of fun with the lenses of everybody’s glasses, especially Lobster’s, which are invariably a threatening orange glow in the murk of the Chinatown night.
If “Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus” falls short on anything, it’s that there isn’t a clear sense of what’s at stake. There are killings of Tong members, but since they’re generally wicked gangsters, it’s not clear why readers (or Lobster himself) should really care. Why is Lobster investigating? Whose side is he on? What would be lost if these gangsters just kept getting killed? The comic skirts around all these questions, and thus, interest in the mystery is more academic than emotional, which makes it somewhat hard to get invested in the drama. Luckily, the pulp action is there, and the art is great, so the comic is still a blast even if it’s ultimately a bit unsatisfying.