I am a big Joe Casey fan. I've hunted down obscure fill-in issues he's penned (or just scripted), I've written extensively on his work, and, generally, devoted more time and energy to his work than any sane person should (aside from Casey himself). Yet even I am losing patience with "Charlatan Ball," a series that seemed so promising -- until I actually read it.
Chuck Amok is a fairly middling stage magician who finds himself whisked away to different planes of existence and in the middle of a competition between beings with real magical powers to see who is the most powerful. His rabbit-in-a-hat Caesar has turned into a giant talking hare with a gruff attitude and a fowl mouth, and they're both struggling to survive it all. This issue acts as the big reveal for the two of them as the being in charge of the competition steps in and saves them from destruction, and then explains it all to them.
Again, put like that, this issue should be better than it is, but the manner in which it's executed just falls flat. Casey uses a tongue-in-cheek, absurdist approach here not entirely dissimilar from the one he uses in "Godland," but it crosses the line from being kind of witty to just flat-out annoying. Even attempts to recognize the lameness of the narration by intentionally hamming it up don't work. Add in that Chuck is borderline mentally challenged, unable to grasp even the simplest of concepts much of the time, and there's little to grab the reader. Chuck is meant to be the everyman type of hero, but he's so cowardly and clueless that I spent this issue hoping he'd die and we could actually move onto a character worth reading about.
One scene, though, does manage to amuse and charm: the Demon Empty, who has brought Chuck into the competition to assure his own victory, has to deal with the bank foreclosing on the mortgage for his castle. His response is to wreak havoc in the bank and it plays rather well, filled with bombastic speeches and kiss-ass lackeys. Andy Suriano's art helps here as his depiction of Demon Empty is both menacing and humorous, finding a great balance.
Suriano's art is both a strength and weakness for the series with its Kirby-esque look that can't help but draw comparisons to Tom Scioli's work on "Godland." That both books have a similar tone in writing and art handicaps "Charlatan Ball," which just can't compete. Beyond that, Suriano's art is fluid and expressive, much less rigid than most people influenced by Kirby and does work for the more stream-of-consciousness style of writing.
Sadly, Casey just can't make this simple story work with his off-the-wall bits of dialogue and not-so-subtle pop culture references. Five issues in and there's no sign of improvement.