Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


for April 22, 2006


Runners: Bad Goods

Released: 2005

Written and drawn by Sean Wang.
black & white

168 pages

Reprinting: Runners #1-5, plus extras

Published by Serve Man Press

Website Sean Wang

Softcover price: $14.95 USA

Sean Wang's Runners is a lot of fun. Wang, previously known for contributing to the Tick mythos (specifically with a Tick spin-off comic called The Tick and Arthur) warps into Star Wars-type territory with this rollicking adventure series about some roguish smugglers ("runners") operating on the fringes of an intergalactic alliance. Wang describes the series as a "comedy-adventure" -- which it is. Frequently light-hearted, with plenty of witty quips and quirky turns. But that description undersells the fact that, fundamentally, the series is still a drama, where characters, motivations, and consequences are all meant to be taken seriously.

It's the best of both: light and funny enough to be a lot of fun, but serious enough to invite reader involvement. Think of a less-gritty version of the TV series Firefly.

The story has our motley crew of runners -- most alien-looking, with one human guy, Bocce (with an electronic arm that has Mr. Fantastic like abilities) -- going out on a pick up...only to find the other crew murdered and rival runners scavenging the ship. They manage to retrieve the "goods", without any idea what it is or why it's valuable (their leader pursues a "don't ask/don't tell" philosophy) and also an extra in the form an amnesiac woman -- human-looking, but not of a species they can identify. The rest of the story arc has the characters getting in and out of trouble, trying to repair their ship, before rendez-vousing with their employer. Additionally, there's a short story, originally published as a promo for the series, and some behind-the-scenes sketches that give you a sense of how Wang evolved his ideas.

Wang has an open, slightly cartoony visual style (appropriate for a guy who drew the tongue-in-cheek Tick) that works well for the eclectic aliens. And though the humans are a little too square-lined and wide-eyed innocent, it still works well, with Wang doing a nice job with expressions, and with a solid clarity when it comes to the larger-than-life action scenes. The ships and corridors and the like are well realized. Despite the ostensibly grungy "low life's and smugglers" idiom, Wang chooses a clean, appealing, hi-tech look for his reality that evokes Star Trek or The Legion of Super-Heroes -- it's a future it's fun to hang out in. And though black and white, Wang employs grey tones to give greater texture to the images. The visuals reminded me -- favourably -- a little of Wake, a European sci-fi graphic novel series I recently came upon.

Wang also seems to have studied his Star Wars movies, analysing how to capture in paper what they do on the screen -- and capture it he does, creating a real sense of excitement and dynamism during the battles; when a ship rockets off, you can practically feel your hair rustle with the back-blast.

In the story and concepts, it's obvious Wang's a SF fan, well-versed in the genre. Heck, his publishing company, Serve Man Press, takes its name from an old Damon Knight story, popularized in the original Twilight Zone TV series.

The plot, like the art, is a deceptive mix of simplicity and complexity. The early questions -- who is the girl and what is the cargo? -- remain the questions for the rest of the saga, so that we don't really feel like the story is progressing that much. Yet the plotting is quite clever as Wang weaves various threads about each other, so that a forgotten action in one issue will turn out to be crucial to a sequence a couple of issues on, and you realize Wang clearly has blocked this all out, even when it seems the characters are just rocketing from one situation to another. And when the characters plot an escape from a space station, you realize Wang really has tried to envision a plausible reality, with set technology, and then worked out how the characters could circumvent it.

There's a nice mix of action-adventure, with quieter, talky, character bits. Even if the overall story arc doesn't progress much, a lot seems to occur within any given issue. Perhaps most applaudable, there's an avoidance of repetition in his action scenes -- there are plenty of ship-to-ship battles, but there always seems to be a new spin, a new complication, a different strategy the heroes have to employ to escape by the skin of their teeth.

As mentioned, only one of the runners is human-looking, and though that clearly means we are supposed to identify with him somewhat (and the relationship between him and the equally human-looking amnesiac is, of course, central) this is an equal-time ensemble. The alien-looking runners are just as important, their emotions and dilemmas given just as much significance. This is particularly true of the group's leader, Roka, who has some demons in his past with which he must struggle. Wang subtly develops personalities for the characters, so that by the end you feel you have a sense for who these characters are.

And there are more than a few hearts of gold under their gruff exteriors, so that these aren't cynical anti-heroes, but a fairely likeable bunch you can empathize with, who grapple with moral dilemmas the way ordinary folk would.

What's also appealing is that Wang goes for a fairly family friendly approach. I enjoy a gritty, mature readers comic as much as the next guy, but there's something refreshing about a modern comic where when people get blasted with a lazer, their entrails DON'T come popping out. In fact, there's something charming about a series about smugglers who might zap a police officer and, as they're flying away, explain he's only stunned. Even Superman doesn't seem as concerned about human life these days!

Not that it's entirely "all in fun". People do get killed, and enemy ships are blown up with impunity. But the lingering impression is a comic with an old-fashioned streak...and I like that!

The main qualm with this first story arc, Bad Goods, is that by the end, many questions still linger. The arc does resolve, in so far as it doesn't end on a cliffhanger, and they finally deliver their cargo. But it's obvious this is just the opening act to a bigger story. If a writer wants to write an epic saga, good for him, but in this day and age of TPB collections, of "graphic novels", a little more closure when you, y'know, close the book, would be nice. Particularly when self-published series are notoriously uncertain. If Wang is promising a longer saga...can we be sure he'll stick around long enough to deliver on it? (After all, it's been a number of months since this collection came out -- and though it's still an active concern, and Wang's website is still running and promoting it...there's yet to be an issue #6, 7, etc.)

But that's just quibbles and philosophical ruminating on the nature of comics. As it is, Runners: Bad Goods is thoroughly enjoyable, casting you back to when something like the Star Wars movies were actually meant to be fun, swashbuckling adventures.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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