From The Usual Suspects and Boardwalk Empire to The Godfather and The Untouchables (and So. Much. More.), pop culture is obsessed with gangsters. Is it simple wish fulfillment? Sure; ain’t no power like double-fisting Tommy guns. Perhaps it’s a desire to better understand our baser halves? Fuhgettaboutit!
Still, I tend to think this is all related to the concept of moral relativism. We see mobsters as a way to judge our own moral decay or growth. How people react to power, greed, and a burning desire for respect and acceptance, and when (if at all) violence is permissible. To grasp what must occur to go from a well-meaning, slightly tragic Michael Corleone to Scarface whacked out of his ever-loving gourd.
A new series from writer Declan Shalvey (Hero Killers) and artist Philip Barrett (Matter), Savage Town is a welcomed addition to the gangster canon for what it reveals about humanity both morally and emotionally.
The graphic novel follows Jimmy Savage, a would-be mob boss in Limerick, Ireland circa 2000. Mr. Savage has the guts and determination needed to control his lil’ village – if he can deal with local crime families the Hogans and Dawsons his family, and his own past. In an interview with our own David Brooke, Shalvey noted that he drew inspiration from Goodfellas and The Wire, spinning his own homegrown version of those “crime epics.”
In the same interview, Shalvey explained that much of the 100-page tome deals with frustration “boiling into anger.” And how! Jimmy lives in a crappy town with little to no opportunities, he fears exposure of his Traveller heritage, and he’s treated as a right spud by basically the entire town. So when he decides to make a power play, the narrative does what any great mobster franchise can and should do – question the validity of his journey.
Specifically, is reacting to years of torment and anger a reasonable excuse to turn to crime? Is Jimmy inherently a bad egg, or would we all experience the same visceral reaction? It’s about holding up a mirror to our collective sensibilities, with some gunfights and whack-jobs thrown in for good measure. The way Jimbo attempts to become King of Limerick – indirectly pitting his foes against one another – only raises more questions about the steps we all take to change our fate and the larger impact of these actions.
Barrett’s artwork expertly expands on those very same ideas and the book’s larger arc. Barrett, alongside colorist Jordie Bellaire, creates a gritty world to match the story’s tone and momentum. There’s a certain ugliness that exists in spades, and we’re forced to look at Limerick and all its ugly possibilities with unflinching detail and depth bordering on the uncomfortable.
Yet that intensity fades during several flashbacks, depicting a young Jimmy in a softer, more cartoonish sense. It’s a great shorthand for growing up, and the barrage of filth we have to cope with along the way. But you can’t ignore the clean, almost stylish air that’s gained in adult Jimmy’s world, hinting at what drives these characters to make certain decisions and compromise ideals (and aesthetics) for what they want most.
This is more than just the origins of a character, but the genesis of a profound emotional change, making the reader consider our own feelings of inadequacy and how we choose to live with them (or not). In the case of Jimmy, he chooses a darker path, but it’s hard to not see that it may have been the only move he could’ve made for himself and his wee little family.
Speaking of family, Jimmy is hardly alone in his journey of self-discovery. His closest companion, Blackie, has to deal with similar angst as a person of African descent, echoing a lot of the same outsider anger Jimmy faces and informing his decisions, both in terms of loyalty and, umm, questionable romantic choices. Same goes for Jimmy’s wife, Saoria, who finds herself an accomplice-by-proxy to Jimmy while figuring out her own role (she also delivers one of the best threats in the book, another linchpin of the genre).
There’s also a couple of dumb kids trying to make it into Jimmy’s “gang,” which only gives us another link in the whole development idea chain. It seems everyone in Limerick is trying to sort through the world around them, finding ways to change what is awful and hold on to something quintessentially their own. That cohesiveness makes the story feel special, something more than just a tale of gangbangers mucking around.
Not that there isn’t at least some of that goofing off – it wouldn’t be an Irish/British crime drama without a little absurdity mixed in. Problem is, Savage Town can feel a little too close to Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in a few basic choices. Some of that is just a shared sense of humor and the way characters fumble through criminality. It’s also an overt reliance on the essential formula of the genre, and while that’s key in exploring Jimmy’s immersion to gangster-dom, it does mean the story feels too linear, hurting what’s meant to be a big ending (or beginning, actually).
Luckily, Savage Town feels like a grand tale in the making, with plenty of paths to drive the story, thanks in part to how it balances the humor and violence with an insightful arc about the human experience (albeit related to that sweet thug life). By facilitating just such a journey in a way that feels organic and without overpowering the narrative or characters, the creators build on a genre with nuance and layers of texture.
All hail the new lord of Savage Town.