“Climb back in the cab, cross your fingers for luck, we gotta keep moving if we’re going to make a buck”
The Fillbach brothers (Matt and Shawn) have been making comics for 20 years, but they’ve never really had a lot of mainstream success. It’s too bad, because their irreverent comics and cool art style should be able to find a place in the hearts of comics fans, but they just keep doing their thing, and they do it well. Their latest is Illuminati Transport, which is from Devil’s Due/First and costs $19.99. It’s lettered by Larry Young, of all people, and is edited by Ken F. Levin.
Illuminati Transport is fairly indicative of the brothers’ output – it’s not going to change the world, but it’s very fun to read. Their hero, Jim Kowalski, is a truck driver working for Illuminati Trucking, which means he drives around the country picking up weird phenomena that various shadowy government agencies have battled (there are at least two in this book, which is a subtle and funny joke). The brothers have apparently done another comic with Jim that came out a decade ago, but this one shows his “origin,” I guess, as events in his childhood link up with the events in the present. Still, he’s very much an “everyman” character, not unlike another great truck driver character – Jack Burton – so his insouciant presence in this story keeps it light, even with all the killing. The Fillbachs set up the story by showing Jim coming in and cleaning up after the “heroes” of one shadowy government agency have beaten a genie, which gives them a chance to poke fun at the heroes, introduce Jim, his sentient crystal skull, and his talking dog. He’s given some new jobs, one of which is picking up a chupacabra, another of which is picking up a reanimated Templar, and the third of which is getting a man called Bluegrass Johnson. Jim and Bluegrass have some history, and Jim is not happy about getting him, because apparently he keeps escaping from the trucking company’s facility. While he’s on the road, he gets a call to pick up an “alien,” but it turns out to be a demon that escapes. Jim recognizes the demon, and things go downhill from there.
The book never gets too dark, as I noted, and the Fillbachs strike a pretty good balance. They show horrific things happening, like when two foster kids are basically being abused by their foster parents, but the parents get their comeuppance pretty quickly. The two kids become crucial to stopping the demon, too, as they help Jim however they can and connect him to his own traumatic childhood, so the Fillbachs do a nice job linking those two threads. The demon kills people in horrible fashion, but because the Fillbachs’ art is more cartoony than not, the impact isn’t as horrifying as it might be. The Fillbachs do a good job of characterization on the fly, so we slowly learn about Jim’s past and why this particular case is so important to him, what his connection to Bluegrass is, why the demon might be so successful at seducing some people, and the bond between the two children, Dana and Toby. But we also get a chupacabra attacking a demon goat, and a Templar who just loves chopping heads off, so there’s some nice levity in the book, too. Like I noted, it’s not going to change the world, but the Fillbachs know that you need characters to care about even if you’re going to throw them into insane situations. Wackiness is fine, but there needs to be a bit more to it, too. The Fillbachs give us just enough.
The nice thing about the Fillbachs’ art is that it’s hard-edged and angular, but they drop a lot of holding lines when they complete it, so it gives the illusion of being a bit softer than it would look otherwise. This keeps the cartoony aspects of it but add a nice amount of humanity to it, and the blend is nice to see. Jim is kind of a cartoon, but the way the Fillbachs use spot blacks and the lack of holding lines gives his clothing, for instance, a good lived-in look, so he looks … schlumpier? … than the government agents, which sets him apart and makes him more of a character rather than a caricature. When the action is outside, the Fillbachs use a lot more black chunks to make the desert (a lot of the book takes place in the desert) a more mysterious place, which works well. They’re not adverse to being a bit more delicate with lines, as well – they draw fur on the demon goat and the chupacabra, for instance, and the brush work is very precise, making the hair stand out and “feel” scratchier. Their style helps make the gore in the book – and there’s a little gore, mainly because of the Templar – a bit less horrifying, as the stark, bold lines turn it just the right amount of goofy. Even with their style, they are quite good at facial expressions and body language, so while everyone is a bit exaggerated, the Fillbachs do a good job showing how Dana and Jim worry about Toby without them having to say anything. The book is very detailed, too, so we get a really nice sense of this world and the strange things in it and how they move around in it. In a lot of comics, the places become generic, but the Fillbachs do a nice job making the diner where Dana and Toby are forced to work and the town of Bava real places, so the stakes feel a bit higher when the shit hits the fan.
If you’ve never seen the Fillbachs’ art, this is a fine place to start, and the story is entertaining, slightly tense, exciting, and funny, so there’s that. Illuminati Transport isn’t the last comic you’ll ever need to read because the art form has been perfected, but it’s a hoot. It would be nice to see more stories about Jim Kowalski, because he’s a neat dude. And I’ll always look forward to what the Fillbachs are doing next!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆