Not long ago I got a an email from Derek McCulloch with a link to a number of pages from his and Greg Espinoza's graphic novel Pug, published by Image Comics. He also gave me an option of getting a review copy if I was interested. I read and enjoyed the pages, and let him know that I appreciated the offer would be interested in reading the whole thing. I knew I recognized his name, and he had mentioned that he has had entries in all 4 Issues of Popgun, which I have done cover to cover reviews of for the first 3 volumes. I went back and read how I had reviewed his work previously, and then it came to me that this was the guy who wrote the Stagger Lee graphic novel that I had liked so well. That made it even more exciting for me since I had really enjoyed that. It turns out I had nothing bad to say about any of his works that I had commented on previously.
I had commented on one of his pieces in Popgun that I thought it was evocative of Brubaker's Criminal. I had said that because I felt that even in an anthology piece we saw solid charicterization and a humanization of the characters that is part of what stands up so well in Brubaker's series, and something that he is recognized for, as an industry standard for crime writing in comics that has real depth and quality. I think that was a good call, and I think it holds up. I think that McCulloch doesn't need me comparing his work to anyone else, as it obviously is his talent, and it stands on its own.
Pug is a good story, and not an unfamiliar one. It has at its core a fairly standard concept. Variations on the theme of a boxer just outside of his prime who has something in his past that casts some doubt on him, and finds himself a bit damaged physically or mentally, and or emotionally have been done. Stories of a boxer approached by the mob to throw a fight have been done. We've seen the woman in a boxer's life unable to stand by and watch her guy let himself be destroyed punch by punch. We have seen the knee breaker with a conscience, but it is a disservice to the quality of the story to suggest that it is really just a collection of things we have seen.
The thing about Pug, is the number of levels it has working within it. Espinoza's art is great. It is clean black and white with good faces and expressions. It doesn't get in the way of a fairly simple story of a fairly simple man who has a lot of decisions to make, but doesn't say a whole lot about them to anyone. The art is used consciously to tell the two parts of the story that are being laid out simultaneously as the book progresses. Slightly different styles are used to set them apart as well as to convey a sense of remembering the past, and even the single page pictures between the many small sections add greatly to the story telling.
The book uses a great mechanic to get everything across. On the cover, before you even open the thing up you have a picture of the main character taking a punch that you have to imagine most people not even being able to get up afterward. There are two stories that are being told simultaneously in the book. One of the stories takes place prior to that punch, and the other one takes place several years after it in the 'present' of 1962. Each piece of the present, starts with a ring girl holding up a round card. Each piece of the past, leading up to a fight that the mob told our protagonist Jake to throw, in which that punch on the cover is thrown, is marked by a page of Jake in his corner, and the designation of Rest Period. Getting these two pieces of his story delivered in that fashion, absolutely make this story in my opinion. It builds everything up, and lets us see who he is and how he got there at the same time.
Jake is a quiet man. This is another thing that has been done. I tend to love 'quiet man' characters. For as big and powerful as he is, and for as many punches as he has taken, he is a good and caring man. He is a man with feelings and concerns, and a strong self consciousness about his own shortcomings, failings, and past mistakes and regrets.
Jake has a girl who is a good woman who wants only for the two of them to have the life together that is within their reach. She isn't judgmental, and she loves him. He has a son. He has a first wife that left him, but not because she didn't love him. There is a lot of character and story squeezed into this 86 or so pages of comics.
I don't want to give the story away. If you want a fuller synopsis of this, they are out there, but that is never what I want to do in my write ups.
I really enjoyed this book, as I think it takes a lot of things that are familiar (which can be a good thing in story telling. We revisit things because they resonate. common themes become a type of shorthand, and it allows you to get into them faster, and it also makes the variations stand out stronger. It gives more impact to the things that aren't the same. Characters are consistent and believable. The end isn't my favorite, and maybe comes a little heavy handed, but it isn't bad. I think for being a picture of a bloody punch, the cover is pretty and really grabbed me. The book is the size of a current comic turned sideways. I don't love that configuration as it makes the book a bit floppy for my taste, and a little hard to keep a handle on. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it was a thought I had a few times while handling the book, reading it.
This book is well worth checking out. I am a sucker for this sort of story, and Pug does it right.