Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for July 2, 2006


The Long Haul

cover2005 - available in soft cover

Written by Antony Johnston. Illustrated by Eduardo Barreto.
Black & White. Letters: Marshall Dillon (?)

176 pages

Mildly for mature readers

Published by Oni Press

Cover price: $14.95 USA

Though the Western was once a dominant genre in American pop culture, accounting for hundreds of movies, TV shows, novels, radio series and comics, it's become just a novelty in the last few decades. While comics themselves are dominated by super heroes (from the mainstream publishers) or slice-of-life and horror (from the smaller publishers). So the arrival of the black and white Western graphic novel, The Long Haul, was heralded by many as a breath of fresh air.

Hyped as a kind of Wild West version of caper movies like Ocean's Eleven, the story has semi-reformed bank robber, Cody Plummer, gathering together his old gang for one final caper -- robbing a supposedly unrobbable train hauling a couple of million dollars across country.

Though I'm not a Western fanatic, per se, I have a certain affection for the milieu (check out contributor Jason Chirevas' recent, audacious serial Serenity -- plug plug). And I have a certain fond memory of old Western comics, particularly DC's deliberately gritty and nihilistic Jonah Hex (who is currently enjoying a revival). And the Long Haul has enjoyed great reviews. And artist Eduardo Barreto is an artist I've long appreciated, with a spartan but semi-realist style of well proportioned figures where people move like real people move. So I was looking forward to reading this for some time.

Unfortunately, the result is somewhat disappointing. Putting some biases up front, although I enjoy a good caper movie, I wasn't a big fan of the remake of Ocean's Eleven -- and a lot of reviewers compared this graphic novel favourably to Ocean's Eleven. Johnston sets out to write a light adventure...and maybe succeeds too well. Light? It's positively insubstantial.

There's no overriding motivation for Cody -- other than greed. That is, there's no moral justification that might allow us to empathize with him. His main impetous is a chance at revenge when he learns a Pinkerton detective who once arrested him will be in charge of security. But since the detective only arrested him previously because he was, in fact, commiting a crime, Cody is hardly a wronged party seeking redress.

Then Cody sets about recruiting his gang...in a series of sequences that take up half the book. But like Cody, the characters aren't sufficiently defined or interesting, and the scenes where he hooks up with them are, by and large, dull and prosaic. There's a sequence where he finds one in a poker game (it's a Western, so I guess there has to be a poker game at one point), but it's a kind of dull and pointless scene. I half thought Johnston might throw in a twist by having the character Cody's there to recruit turn out not to be who we assume it will be...but it is. And I'm not really sure of the point of the scene, and since the character is nicknamed "the genius" I wasn't sure how this sequence showed us he was a genius (other than being good at cards, I wasn't aware of him doing anything clever, per se). Worse...it drags on for more than twenty pages!

The most engaging of Cody's gang is a good natured Spaniard...but even he isn't developed much.

At times, the title The Long Haul proves unfortunately apropos.

In fact, the book suffers a bit from what in comics circles has come to be called, I believe, "decompression", where modern stories are stretched out more than they need to be by writers and artists more interested in padding out a page quota than the needs of the plot. In the Long Haul, scenes that could easily have been told in a couple of panels are spread over a page.

Still, just when things begin to drag, there's a scene where Cody goes to recruit a Shosone Indian confederate and though the sequence itself isn't particulary exciting, it suddenly adds a slightly gritty edge to the previously breezy story, touching on the persecution Indians suffered, and by extension, it puts some meat on Cody's character, making him a human being, not just a comic book cipher. It might have been better to have shifted that scene to earlier in the book. Though even it is problematic, as it ends with the Indian refusing to join the group...yet later he shows up, with no explanation for how or when he changed his mind!

But before I wallow too much in negativity, the story eventually gets to the main plot -- the caper. And finally, it picks up -- a lot.

Reading the back cover, about the characters planning a train robbery, doesn't sound like much of a nifty premise -- I mean, train robberies are as old as the genre. But here, it is treated as a true caper, more about the con and subterfuge and misdirection than it is about hold ups. As the case is laid out for the characters, the obstacles out-lined, you do find yourself getting interested, eager to see how our merry band intend to pull this off.

Even here, though enjoyable, there's a certain lack of dramatic tension. In fact, when I flipped to the final page...I was surprised, not really having realized the climax had been reached! I knew the job had been pulled...but I was still waiting for the emotional climax...but there is none. And that remains the problem. For all that Johnston spends half the book just introducing the characters before we are fully plunged into the caper, the characters never really become characters we care about, or with whom we empathize. Nor do their relationships gel into true relationships, despite a nominal stab at a romance.

In a movie, where choice character actors can be hired to fill out undeveloped rolls, or in a novel, where space can be given to providing insight into the personalities, maybe these characters would be fine. But in a comic, the writer and artist need to work a little harder to make the characters come alive.

The end result seems a bit like a long ride for a short trip.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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