There’s this truly amazing Gary Oldman bit he did on Jimmy Kimmel Live! a few years back. And while dunking on athletes-turn-terrible-actors is a blast, it’s not entirely a joke. There are far too many who excel in one realm that think they can just transfer that skill and momentum. That’s doubly true in the arts, and this cross-pollination of talents has as many ups (Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born) as downs (Bob Dylan’s “prose” collection, Tarantula).
A more recent such crossover act is actor/director Macon Blair, best known for Small Crimes and the excellent I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore. Blair’s re-teamed up with artist Joe Flood (with whom he last collaborated on 2010’s Hellcity: The Whole Damn Thing) for a new graphic novel, Long Road to Liquor City. While a book about hobos seems a touch outdated, it makes a strong case for Blair’s continued immersion into greater comic-dom.
Described as a “Great Depression-era adventure comedy about friendship, the open road, and the pursuit of happiness,” Liquor City follows Thanny and Jed on a wacky adventure to the titular city (which “sits beside a lake o’ lemonade bourbon”). Along the way, the pair draw the ire of a small-town cop, who chases them through the region, wherein they meet snake-handling Pentecostals, take part in a hobo rumpus, make friends with a band of oddities (including a well-read wolf-boy and a strong woman), and generally cause all sorts of lighthearted mayhem and destruction. Oh, and they drink a ton.
The whole thing plays off like a Disney-fied version of The Cannonball Run, with this perfect mix of overt silliness and genuine violence, heartfelt demonstrations and toilet humor. In some instances, I found myself chuckling at the silly puns, or the tee-ball-like delivery of the visual gags. At other times, especially toward the end, I wound up smiling like a goober. This isn’t a story that insists or even elicits true engagement; it just sort of bops down the road, singing its own happy tune. Yet that’s wildly endearing, an affair that makes the reader feel as if they’re part of something true and earnest, as if Blair had your ear and spun an old tale over a campfire pot roast.
A huge part of that success is that Blair expertly applies his skills as actor and director. Comics are already a powerful visual medium, but it’s clear Blair knows not only how to pace a story, but rely on the format’s core strengths. It’s in the aforementioned visual gags; the use of stage direction, especially when it came to providing awesome musical cues that build action and emotion; how scenes are generally laid out; the excellent use of angles and perspectives; and even how characters’ faces and gestures provide ample story and subtext. As much as I enjoyed the book, and it warmed the cockles of my heart, it was as much a treat to dissect the creative approach. It’s a title that excels because of the brains behind it, and it plays like a great movie while still respecting the subtleties of the actual comic format.
Flood’s art perpetuates much of these same ideas and values. He understands the balance Blair achieved in his writing and plotting, and did damn fine work to facilitate really lush visuals that leave room for tiny details and gestures while providing a grander scope brimming with life and multi-layered sentiments. The character design, especially, is what makes this book shine. Fantasy and reality clash head-on, and the result is this cast of charming characters who live in a special part of the brain. That place where the most elemental stories and interactions exist, including all that accompanying joy and heartache. If Blair provided the large strokes, then Flood drove things home with a world that is both utterly real and totally unreachable.
That may well be the larger point of this book. Without spoiling the ending, it’s sort of moot as to whether Jed and Thanny ever reach Liquor City. And, no, it’s not just that only the journey matters, because the two creators achieve real stakes that make you cheer the two hobos onward to paradise. What really matters is they’re together on this long, winding path, and while they may or may not make it, there’s magic in this pairing. The way they teach each other lessons, like Thanny getting Jed to help others, or Jed providing a sense of wonder as Thanny is bogged down by the minutiae of reality. I’d go so far as saying Liquor City is, ugh, inside them all along.
Sure, it’s a story of friendship (and more….), but it’s also a story about why these relationships matter. The meaning and value we pull from having someone next to us, and the things that can be achieved when we’re with someone we love. I’d like to think that’s perhaps true of Blair and Flood, a kind of metaphor for the wonders of collaboration from two people who’ve made something special via teamwork. And the fact that I’m not talking more about all the piss jokes and double entendre is a miracle — this book truly provides something uplifting without foregoing depravity that feels so essential. A tale that doesn’t preach a powerful message but whispers it to you between filthy limericks. This book is your friend, and it wants to show you something swell (maybe a dead body, too).
Ultimately, it’s up to you, dear reader, to jump in headlong into this entry. Some of you may purr with emotion, or feel like an older sibling showed you a secret R-rated Disney flick. You may even feel like becoming a hobo yourself (bring gloves and a hooch jar!). More than anything, you should take away the notion that great stories are about the people who create them and the ideas they present and what all of that means individually.
In the case of this lively tome, it’s likely enough pure sentimentality to make even grumpy Gary Oldman smile brightly.