Fun Fact Y’All: If reading Graphic Novels has taught us anything (besides how to rock a mantle or successfully build a functioning yet self-effacing alter-ego) it is to temper our expectations before we pick up a new one. That sounds incredibly pessimistic we know and oh, how we wish it wasn’t true but the sheer number of books we’ve picked up, butterflies flapping wildly at our midsection only to realise they are trite clichéd productions built around formula and reusable tropes, would quite possibly blow your minds.
And yet. When Lobster Johnson caught our eye in the local comic book store, Mike ‘Hellboy’ Mignola’s name stamped across it in black; with its pulp noir cover and aura of supernatural menace we just couldn’t seem to help ourselves. The butterfly’s were back in swarms and our hands kinda shook with anticipation as we handed some of our hard earned queen’s pounds across the counter.
And after all, how could things go wrong with all that visual goodness we thought? How could we not get excited given its author’s pedigree and its claims of offering up a shadowy kind of pastiche on classic authors like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler?
Well dear readers, we’re afraid to say that somehow, someway they managed it. They did the impossible…
So yeah, sad face emoji.
To be fair, there were parts to the GN that we liked; this wasn’t an absolute shit-parade. The idea of beginning each chapter with almost identical panels and using these to set the scene (with a few subtle differences thrown in for the eagle eyed) is a small but smart idea employed by the author and artist. It actually lent the story (convoluted though it turned out to be) a much needed sense of continuity and grounded the multiple storylines whenever they threatened to throw the whole thing into entropy.
The storyboard artist Jason Armstrong’s use of light and shade in the work (that’s chiaroscuro for the pantaloon wearers among you) also gave the narrative a gravitas it might not have had otherwise; the novel’s muted colour scheme doing the same. In fact, the grimy steampunkish artwork was probably the best part about the whole affair, containing a vibrant sense of motion in its thin lines and a sinister set of subdued visuals that fit perfectly with the rundown setting and noiresque plot.
However, that’s pretty much where the compliments end unfortunately.
The plot itself, a mishmash of scientific/religious horror quickly became way too convoluted to be admired, the inclusion of multiple foes (the Devil, Nazi’s, policemen on the take) confusing us every time we tried to get a handle on what was happening. It didn’t help that that the similarity in look of the different monsters was bewildering either. More than once we even found ourselves having to flip back a few pages to work out who our heroes were fighting this time, which is really not something that endears you to a novel, you know. It’s great for the author we guess, as it forces their reader to spend more time with their work, delving deeper into it but in terms of pace and sustained threat it’s an absolute killer.
Hell, even the characterisation was lacking (unusual for a Mignola production) and you know that you’ve hit a problem when you find yourself much more intrigued by a side-character (Mr Sacks) than the protagonist himself (Lobster J.) We actually feel kind of mean saying all this given the fact that the authors took the time to include their original sketches and comments at the back of the book. This was a generous gesture incidentally, as it allows you to see the evolution of the concept, and the levels of collaboration and commitment offered up by everyone involved. The problem is that the overarching story they drew up together after months of discussion and revision just wasn’t engaging enough to hold the interest, at least for us. As much as we’re fans of ambiguity and leaving narratives unexplained, Lobster Johnson seemed to take this idea way too far- leaving a messy, chaotic conclusion behind in its wake. And for all it’s street smarts (the true history sections will undoubtedly raise a smile especially the running gag about Guillermo Del Toro making a Lobster Johnson movie), any sense of good old fashioned fun or enjoyment just isn’t sustained throughout. It drops away after a few pages only to re-emerge again later for a few minutes. It’s a natural consequence of valuing set piece over character motivation we suppose (are you listening, Michael Bay?) You get all the spectacle you could want but not the heart and even worse, you risk severing any emotional connection that you might have forged with your reader. Which to us is just a big old bag of nope unfortunately.
In terms of reworking this for the big screen, it does have potential of course. Del Toro would indeed bring some beautiful clockwork/steampunk visuals to the affair and his rich vein of inner darkness would bring the American cityscape to life in a new and compelling way. Script duties could go to a number of talented people in Hollywood- Jonathon Nolan perhaps (who gave Batman back his pain) or indie-god Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter/Midnight Special) ; writers who could inject some emotional peril back into proceedings. Casting wise, someone who gives good stony-face would also be required: we were thinking maybe Fassbender or Elba but given that old Lobs rarely takes his headgear off, the floor’s wide open on this one. Maybe you even have your own ideas on this? If so, we’d love to hear them.
In fact we’d love to hear your thoughts on Lob John as a whole. Did you love it? Hate it? Get bored and use it as a small uncomfortable kind of pillow? Either way let us know. Because we need some distraction from our own sense of disappointment on this one and some hate mail/agreement would do nicely.