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A review a day: Hard-Bullied Comics vol. 2: Dead Zep

I promised more Steve Earnhart comics, and I deliver!

I was first introduced to Hard-Bullied Comics (back when it was called Hard-Boiled Comics) when Mr. Steve Earnhart sent me a copy a few years back. It was a comic featuring Billy Blackburn, a hard-drinking, ass-kicking private investigator in Los Angeles in the year 2024. It was a wacky mixture of pulpy detective fiction and weird sci-fi (animal/human hybrids, for instance), and it was balls-to-the-wall insane. Hard-Bullied Comics (volume 1) might not have been great, but it was entertaining as hell.

I met Earnhart a few years ago at the San Diego con, and I see him there every year. He keeps threatening to come to Phoenix and say hello, but he never does. The bastard! He’s a huge dude with a shaved head and looks like he could kill you with his thumbnail, but he’s a hell of a nice guy and loves making music (he’s in a band) and making comics. He gave me the individual issues of Hard-Bullied Comics (volume 2) last year, but I wanted to read them all together, and he was having some problems finding an artist for the fourth (and final) issue (Earnhart finds good artists to draw this comic, but then they get snapped up by Marvel and he needs to find another – it’s uncanny!), so I never got issue #4. So this year he gave me the trade. Because he’s awesome. So this trade, which is $13.95, is drawn by Federico Dallocchio for the first three issues, while Rafael Ortiz draws issue #4. Both of the artists are Argentinian associated with Altercomics. Included with the trade is a CD with a “soundtrack” for the book – it’s not bad, actually. Kind of 1980s hair metal blended with some 1990s Nu-Metal. You might hate that kind of music, but if you do like it, the disc is fun. Earnhart helpfully provides you with the tracks you should listen to while you’re reading each issue. I haven’t done that (I listen to the CD while I’m writing the review, damn it!), but it’s keen that we have that option.

Anyway, the comic is, much like the first series, a rather insane blend of ultra-violence and dark humor, and it works well. This is less violent than the first story, actually, as Earnhart is more concerned with deepening the relationship between Billy and his best friend, Knuckles, who’s having some post-traumatic stress from his time in the Marines. Earnhart shows us, in flashback, that something strange happened in Shanghai four years earlier, when Billy’s platoon was ambushed on a mission. Meanwhile, in the “present,” Billy gets hired to find out what happened to a famous rock star named Zeppelin Monroe. His mother is convinced that he’s dead, but his band, Dirt/Nap, is performing that night, which kind of makes her story sound a bit crazy. But Billy takes the case, of course. He needs the money, like every good noir detective!

Earnhart is quite ambitious in this story – Knux’s flashback story ties into the present, as we see some of the animal/human hybrids that Earnhart introduced in the first series and we get more into how they came to be and what it has to do with Knux and Billy. Zeppelin’s manager is one of the hybrids, and he was also part of Billy’s unit, so the question of what happened to him (and appears to be happening to Knux as the book goes along) becomes more important to Billy. Of course, there are plenty of suspects in Zeppelin’s murder (oh yes, he’s dead, and how he’s still performing is also part of the mystery), and it’s really the only part of the book that’s a little weak – if we follow the well-established principle of murder mysteries (which I’ve explained before, but I won’t here, to preserve a bit of the mystery), the killer is obvious. Even so, Earnhart does a nice job with the clues leading to the murderer, as Billy and his pals actually have to use their brains instead of just beating people up until someone cracks. It’s a lot of fun to read the comic, because it’s clear that Earnhart is getting better at balancing the craziness with some strong character work and he also has a bigger plan for the characters (let’s hope he can keep finding artists to draw it for him). This is a bit more open-ended than the first series, but he does wrap up the murder mystery nicely and give us enough hints about where the series is going, so there’s that.

I’ve come to the conclusion that artists who rely on lots of photo referencing, as Dallocchio does here, should stick to black and white. Dallocchio’s art is quite strong, as he mixes the photo referencing with good pencil work and shading, and I think the lack of color helps because coloring tends to flatten everything and take away the shadows, which help add dimension to photo-referenced art. I’ve seen a bit of Dallocchio’s art for the Big Guys, but not enough to come to a conclusion. If I recall correctly, it seemed a bit stiffer than what we see here. I could be wrong, though. Ortiz, who steps in for the last chapter, is a more traditional pencil-and-ink guy, and he definitely has a cleaner line than Dallocchio does, but his work is a bit less fluid. It’s still strong art, especially for a tiny comic like this. Earnhart has a good eye for talented artists, which gives me hope for future installments of the series.

I must admit that I want books like this to succeed because they’re so far outside the mainstream and you just know that people like Earnhart are doing it simply for the sheer love of comics and not because they’re making a dime on it. But just because you do something for love doesn’t mean it’s any good, of course. Luckily, Hard-Bullied Comics is a good comic, and even though Earnhart still has some issues, mostly with dialogue (it’s a bit clichéd sometimes and often too on-the-nose plot-wise, as he lets the characters lead us where we need to go), it’s refreshing to see that he’s improving with every issue. He has a good, twisted imagination, too, and that’s a plus when you’re writing a hard-boiled science fiction detective comic. If only Frank Miller would get off his back!

Tomorrow: Globe-trotting adventure!

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