I was a huge fan of last year’s Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T (One Man War On Terror), so I jumped at the opportunity to read American Blood, a collection of shorter stories released in single issue format between 2009 and 2013 by cartoonist Benjamin Marra. Is it good?
American Blood (Fantagraphics)
In my review of Terror Assaulter, I described Marra’s distinct style as such:
Terror Assaulter reads like it was ripped directly from the notebook of a twelve-year-old boy in the early 00s, shortly after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, back when we still believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding Weapons of Mass Destruction. This boy lacks the knowledge or maturity to understand these attacks, as his worldview is informed by the 80’s and early 90’s comics that he got from an older cousin, the R-rated action movies from the same era that his parents think are okay for him to watch, and a whole lot of internet porn.
Throughout most of the stories in American Blood, that sensibility remains more-or-less intact, albeit perhaps without the specificity of Terror Assaulter. It’s important to remember that each of the stories in this collection were published before the release of O.M.W.O.T. Perhaps that’s why O.M.W.O.T is such a superior volume. All of the elements that made that book so damn near perfect—the hilariously over-the-top sex and violence, the satirical elements, the preadolescent-style artwork—is all here, but never distilled into its ideal form as Marra would later do with O.M.W.O.T.
I don’t want to compare American Blood to Terror Assaulter throughout the entire review, but it’s an important comparison to make because what we see with American Blood is the evolution of a cartoonist, and in order to best appreciate that evolution, one should be aware that seeds of talent planted from Gangsta Rap Posse to Blades & Lazers eventually grows into Terror Assaulter, which so far (I’m sure he still has plenty of career left in him) is Marra’s magnum opus.
Plus, I want to be clear that even though American Blood, as a whole, is a disappointment, I still love O.M.W.O.T enough to consider myself a fan of Marra’s.
Anyway, this being an anthology, let’s take this review one story at a time.
The collection starts off strong with Gangsta Rap Posse which seems to be a suburban white boy’s vision of early 90’s hip-hop culture. The colloquial, casual use of the “N-word” may make some readers bristle if the gratuitous sex and violence doesn’t, but it fits with the theme, and Marra is confident enough in his art and his readers to assume that we’re all in on the joke. And what a joke it is, as Marra plays right into that era’s fears–fears that persist to this day, of course–of the effect that hip hop culture has on youth culture and, indeed, society in general.
Gangsta Rap Posse, “the most notorious hip hop group in the world” hailing from South Central, L.A., is basically what a 12-year-old white boy from the suburbs would think of N.W.A during their heyday if he only heard a handful of singles and his parents’ complaints about the rappers. They spend more time doing drugs, having sex, and killing people than writing, recording, or performing music, and generally are completely void of any sense of ethics or honor. It’s absolutely hilarious, but as with Terror Assaulter, you’ll probably know right away if it agrees with your own sense of humor. It could have been an extremely problematic story, and perhaps it still is but tempered by Marra’s self-awareness, it’s easily the strongest portion of the anthology, and certainly the funniest.
Unfortunately, the rest of the volume doesn’t come close to matching Gangsta Rap Posse’s humor or anarchic energy.
If Gangsta Rap Posse makes you uncomfortable, you’re only going to feel more uneasy about Lincoln Washington. The titular freed slave with a brilliantly on-the-nose name fights racists during “the age of Reconstruction,” and it’s here that I may agree with readers who come to find it tasteless. I won’t say that there’s never, ever fun to be had with sensitive topics like racism, at least when it’s at the expense of people who were on the wrong side of history, but there are scenes here that are too horrifying to be funny.
I suppose there is an argument to be made that Marra’s tongue is not quite as firmly in cheek as I think it is, but I highly doubt that. I get that this must be viewed through the lens of a certain kind of person, and I get that a certain kind of person at a certain age wouldn’t see how problematic it is to explicitly portray torture, including a graphic rape scene. It’s deeply unfunny, to say the least, and as much as I generally appreciate Marra’s willingness to take risks, this one wasn’t worth it. I know what he was going for, and it doesn’t work.
That’s undoubtedly a blemish upon the entire collection, but The Incredibly Fantastic Adventures of Maureen Dowd (“a work of satire and fiction”) is a bit of a palette cleanser, even if it’s not quite enough to get the bad taste out of readers’ mouths. I’ll admit to not knowing a whole lot about the titular columnist, but the vision of the controversial writer as a sexy woman of action during the George W. Bush administration is still weird and entertaining enough to work.
Next we have Ripper and Friends, which is the one story that is the most stylistically distinct from the rest of the collection both visually and textually. It’s basically parody of “funny animal” comics and children’s cartoons, and as such, feels the most like it was actually done by a 12-year-old. This time, that is not a good thing. It’s provocative for the sake of being provocative, and the joke, which was never funny in the first place, gets old quickly.
Zorion the Swordlord is a return to form for Marra, depicting a fantasy world so violent that the title character easily gains two sidekicks by killing their former leader in front of them. It’s more fantastical than the stories previously featured in this collection, and less tongue in cheek, but it still feels distinctly adolescent enough to feel distinctly Marra. Nonetheless, it felt like something was missing, and as I read this I began to suspect that Marra may be at his best when he has a satirical edge. Zorion has its moments, but it doesn’t seem to have much to say.
The Naked Heroes, perhaps more than any other story in this volume, feels like Marra was trying to do nothing more than indulge his own interests–including Americana, rock and roll, monsters, and at least one sexy lady. It’s much less funny than I expected and hoped for, but you still have to respect Marra for giving so few fucks. I’m sure he had fun with this story, and I’m glad that he did.
Nowhere, though, does Marra embrace his inner 12-year-old quite like he does with the final story in this collection, Blades & Lasers, which follows two adventurers: one with blades, and the other with lasers. I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. If that title excites you, you’ll probably have a good time with it.
Marra’s cartooning will not appeal to everyone. It captures a certain energetic, adolescent vibe, but it will almost certainly be too crude for many readers’ tastes. The layouts are quite simple, as well. I imagine that Marra doesn’t like to experiment much with page construction for the same reasons that Johnny Ramone didn’t do guitar solos. The lettering is pretty solid, too, and I have to wonder if it was handwritten.
Is It Good?
American Blood is far too rough around the edges for me to recommend with the fervor that I did with Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. The collection may be of interest if you already know that you enjoy Marra’s work, but if you already read Terror Assaulter and want more comics in that vein, you’re probably better off just tracking down Gangsta Rap Posse (both the first and second issues) while they’re still available as single issues.