The perennial complaint about the grim and gritty age of comics is that it’s too fucking dour, lacking the warmth and weirdness of the Silver Age, its works nearly always not as mature as they think they are. So let’s give thanks to John Arcudi and James Harren for their work in Rumble, undoubtedly the weirdest, goofiest grim and gritty to hit my cluttered digital desk since I don’t even know the fuck when. Packing an epic, mythological backbone supporting a gonzo Americana tale and featuring a checklist of post-Identity Crisis tropes extending from severed arms to decapitations to questionable detective work, Rumble is the kind of pop comic that delights in reminding everyone this shit is supposed to be fun and maybe we can be grim, gritty and still not so serious.
That mission is transparent by page two, as Harren’s gorgeous, Lone Wolf & Cub-indebted mountain vista opening is immediately offset by the carefully paced reveal of our true setting, the kind of backwater shithole that has a roadstop Paul Bunyan laying in its own shit. Page one may hint at otherworldy majesty where a sword-like mountain leads into some shady dude’s hilt-like visage, but Harren and rock star colorist Dave Stewart only tease you with that breathtaking fresh air scenery in order to make the descent into the murk and mire all the more traumatizing. Like Southern Bastards before it, we’re given an extra reminder of the dumpiness of the setting by the presence of a dog relieving itself on the landscape, except here he’s got three legs and is merely the first of the seemingly fucked up and malfunctioning animals who not only serve as foreboding warnings of what’s to come but get off better than their human counterparts.
Chief amongst these loser humans is Bobby, a smalltown bartender who serves in opposition to the cliché of the stoic tapsman by never shutting the fuck up. Here Rumble brings to mind that other grimy comics connected Americana mythological epic American Gods, as Bobby shoots the shit with an Odinesque old timer named Mr. Cogan, who menacingly responds to Bobby’s inquiry about whether he’d ever been in a war by stating he was in “the biggest ever.” Cogan is old, but he doesn’t necessarily look WWII old, he’s more the leathery agelessness you’d associate with a shaman or a fallen god. Even before a sword wielding wraith enters the picture and attacks Cogan, there’s also the matter of Cogan’s Sacred Eye ballcap and how it matches up with the eye imagery Harren saturates Rumble in.
Outside of the gritty aesthetic Harren and Stewart provide in the backdrops, it’s this apocalyptic imagery that sets the grim tone of the debut, clashing with the seemingly worthless inhabitants of this little pocket of the world who are trapped in a looming celestial conflict. It’s mature like Breaking Bad is mature, which means it’s got grotesque violence and questionable ethical alignments but it’s also adult enough to joke about it. Even a severed arm is considered ripe for the joking and two demonic looking beasts that pop up end up defying expectations by being the most polite and well mannered characters we’re introduced to.
Arcudi’s deft characterization and flavorful dialogue goes a ways towards making this drab world so lively, but really and truly Rumble is James Harren’s showcase through and through. Harren has mostly made his mark in the pages of Hellboy-spinoff BPRD, but Rumble is a new universe and he is therefore given a lot more room to let his freak flag fly. Never exactly referential, Harren’s style is situated in a dimension near James Stokoe and Ronald Wimberley, exquisitely detailed but propulsive and rhythmic, prone to abstract action sequences that hone in on violent moments while everything else is a blur, like Marcel DuChamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2 and a Chuck Jones short forcibly joined in a single page zine, i.e. just look at this shit:
Harren’s character work is maybe even weirder, emphasizing cartoonish attributes, whether it’s all moustache-and-grimace features of a cop or the Triplets of Belleville-look of a potentially doomed cat lady. Cogan looks like a lost Jamie Hewlett creation, but that sword wielding wraith looks like a Sam Keith joint, and Bobby looks like an elven Chew stand-in, yet none of that is really accurate, Harren is on some other kind of frequency, probably aware of other styles but too tuned in to his own artistic personality for it to really cause any disruption. Point being they all look wholly different from the too frequently faceless and bland characters that dominate the pop comics landscape and if you can’t see that I’m worried we can no longer be friends.
Comics over the last couple months (or is it years?) have left a bad taste in my mouth more often than not, so yeah, maybe I’m a little lusty here, aroused by the verve and swagger of Rumble, prematurely ejaculating a bunch of critical junk that will lead to later hand wringing and neglect. But I doubt that, I’m more inclined to lean optimistic for once and say this is just a damn good pop comic that deserves more looks than it will probably get. Either way, I could go for more shit like this, more frequently.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover