Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Black Cherry by Doug TenNapel

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is a regular feature at pattinase, the blog of crime writer Patti Abbott. Log on each week to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

Graphic novelist Doug TenNapel's Black Cherry is less forgotten than never particularly well-known in the first place. TenNapel has built his career around absurdity, and his most famous works feature robot-hijacking cats (Gear) and space-suit-wearing annelids (Earthworm Jim). Silliness, exaggeration and an artfully sloppy art style are the tools of his trade. But Black Cherry represented a shift away from speculative subject matter to a combination of hardboiled and horror.

Small-time crook Eddie Paretti is in over his head. Stealing from the mafia isn't smart to start out with, but when The Family also happens to be your employer, well, that's a sticky situation for the shrewdest operator. And Eddie ain't that shrewd. Still, he's bright enough to know that his boss, Don Mauro, might wise up to his larceny one day. So when a rival crime boss offers him big bucks to swipe a body from Mauro's mansion, Eddie jumps at the opportunity. Who knows? Maybe he'll have enough left over to help find the girl that got away, a beautiful stripper named Black Cherry. Eddie snags the body, only to discover it isn't dead -- or human, either. Soon he finds himself pursued by a whole host of demons, a kindly Catholic priest and a comely new convert to the church who looks an awfully lot like a certainly lady he once saw spin around a pole.

The best part of Black Cherry is TenNapel's style, hands down. Intentionally loose, his black-and-white illustrations make masterful use of light and shadow, recalling classic film noir. (Click here to read the first ten pages, but heed the content warning.) The screwball plot is more of a take-it-or-leave-it affair. Longtime fans probably wouldn't bat an eye at possessed hitmen, a jive-talking katana-wielding angel, and a sight gag that takes a very literal interpretation of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Casual readers, though, may end up baffled by all the incongruity. However, the biggest sticking point is Black Cherry's edginess. Over-the-top slapstick works fine when married to an upbeat tone, but joining it with grim tropes is an uneasy union indeed. A decapitated demon dominatrix whose severed head spurts blood like seltzer? An elephantine flesh-eating squirrel that references the Sermon on the Mount after having a chair leg broken off in its eye? Gag and gag after gag about forcible sodomy? Yeah, you get the idea: The approach alternates between the ridiculous and offensive. TenNapel's work is worth getting to know, but start instead with his free-to-read Web comic Ratfist. This Cherry's sour.

(Picture: CC 2007 by p.v)

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