Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Pistolfist: Revolutionary Warrior’

“Last night I had a dream that the world had turned around, and all our hopes had come to be, and the people gathered ’round”

Back in the mid-2000s, I picked up the first issue of Pistolfist because it sounded fun – a masked man in the American Revolution fighting for freedom! And it was fun, but I couldn’t find the rest of it for whatever reason. Now, after over 15 years later and a successful Kickstarter campaign, we can read the entire epic in a nice collected edition! This is written by J.S. Earls and David Allen, drawn by Andrés Guinaldo, colored by Jason Embury, Victor Short, and Janice Ung, lettered by Kel Nuttall, and edited by Dwight MacPherson and Julie Earls. Let’s take a look at it!

One of the unique joys of comics is that they can take something fairly ridiculous and make it work. If this book had been a movie, it probably would have been either far too goofy and therefore wouldn’t work or it would be far too dark and therefore wouldn’t work. The presence of actual actors can be a huge boon to some things, but in the case of this book, I think it would have been a detriment. Similarly, if this were an animated show or movie, it feels like it would shift too far to the silly (maybe not) or it would be a bit too bright and shiny. I could be wrong, but for a somewhat ridiculous story like this, especially one set 250 years ago, it feels like a comic is the perfect medium. We get figures that look like the historical figures, we get some goofiness with the special effects, but because they don’t move (as they would, naturally, in a movie or animation), it feels like something we can accept a bit more, and there’s a grittiness to it that animation might not capture, but it’s not too dark, so it never becomes too dour. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t read comics, but you know what I’m talking about, right?

Because Pistolfist, if you haven’t figured out by the name, is somewhat ridiculous. That’s not to say it’s bad or good, just that premise takes our suspension of disbelief out behind the barn and beats it up for a while. As comics fans, we’re used to this, so the fact that this is a bit ridiculous isn’t a dealbreaker. Earls and Allen have a good time telling the story of Salem Attucks, brother of Crispus (Crispus, of course, was a real person, but Salem is not), who fights the Redcoats at Lexington to get revenge for his brother, but is captured and taken to Fort Ticonderoga. Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin returns home from Europe, upset that he has failed to solve the problems between England and the American colonies peacefully. So far, so good. I mean, it’s a bit silly that Salem wears a makeshift American flag mask, but it’s because he’s black (well, half-black, half-Native) and he doesn’t want to be recognized as such. Earls doesn’t say whether it’s because the British or the Yankees would care, but it’s an intriguing thought that the rebels would like him less fighting on their side than the British would fighting against him. Anyway, this is all fine – a solid beginning. Then, on page 10, it begins to turn “comic-book-ey,” in the best possible way. Fort Ticonderoga, we are told in a caption, is the “secret HQ of Crimson Division, a rogue British squadron with a penchant for fringe science.” Ohhhhhhh, hells yeah! Inject that shit right in my veins! This is what I’m talking about – in a movie, this would be a gloomy, probably rainy scene, and the British would be nasty madmen. In this book, the colors stay light, and the British are evil but also a touch weird. Into the mix comes Ben Franklin’s son, William, who in real life was the governor of New Jersey at this time (and a character calls him “Governor,” so that’s true in the book as well), but he’s also at Fort Ticonderoga running fringe science experiments? Sure, why not? (Needless to say perhaps, but Fort Ticonderoga is nowhere near New Jersey.) William has stolen his father’s journal, which has notes on electricity, and he uses it to … saw off Salem’s hand and attach a pistol to his arm that shoots electricity powered by Salem’s own heart. I mean, of course! Salem sees the ghost of his brother, who helps him escape, but William was just using him as a test, and his big idea is hooking up a bunch of prisoners to a giant cannon which shoots energy beams and can blow shit up really good. Salem, Franklin, and the Native woman who helps rescue Salem after his escape must team up with the Green Mountain Boys (led by both Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, pre-treason) to stop him!!!!!

It is, to coin a phrase, batshit insane. This is basically a superhero story set in 1775, and by using a black man during a time when even the most enlightened people (and Franklin was probably one of the most enlightened people around) could be casually racist sets Earls and Allen up for some dicey stuff, which they mostly avoid. Salem talks to the ghost of his brother of the white man who educated him, Franklin does not care in the least that his teammates are a black man and an Indian woman, and even William Franklin sees Salem more as a science experiment than a lesser human, although he does admit that being a runaway slave means no one will care too much what happens to him. In that way, this is a nice comic – the characters judge each other on their merits or their utility, and Earls and Allen do a nice job showing why Salem, driven by revenge, might be good at killing Redcoats but perhaps shouldn’t need to be and why the Yankees might have allied with the Natives a bit more than they did. Earls and Allen keep the focus on the fight for freedom, whatever that might look like, and so they add commentary about the state of the slaves in the colonies and the Natives without overdoing it.

It’s a fun adventure, too, and while we can guess how it’s going to turn out, there’s something comforting about a solid, pulpy adventure with high stakes but which we know will turn out all right. There are some bumps along the way, as William’s big cannon (not a euphemism, remember!) does some damage, but this is just a story about how evil the British are and how freedom-loving the colonists were, and the weird science along the way is just a wacky cherry on top. There’s a whole heck of potential for more stories (and more drama, as I remind you that Salem’s gun is powered by his heart), but considering it took Earls this long to get this book out, my hopes are not high.

The art is pretty good, but not great. Guinaldo has a thin, precise line, and his style reminds me vaguely of a cross between Geof Darrow and Guy Davis (it’s not as good as those gentlemen, but it’s an interesting style nevertheless). He does very nice work with the characters – Salem is in decent shape, but he’s not a ripped hunk, and Ben Franklin is past his prime, of course, but still spry. The Native woman, Dyani, is a bit too attractive for the 18th century, but such is life. The other characters have a rough, world-weary look to them, as if life has beaten them up a bit, which, I mean, it has, and it makes the book feel a bit more authentic. Guinaldo and the colorists do a nice work with Crispus’s ghost, as the lines that define him a bit lighter than the rest of the book and his blue glow makes him stand apart from the “real” world. A few pages here and there are a bit blurry, which has to do with reproduction of the original art, I guess, and I’m not sure why it’s only a few pages, but it’s a minor issue, if a frustrating one. For the most part, the art is good – Guinaldo does well with the 18th-century-ness of it all, and his storytelling is clear. He tries to keep the ridiculous science within the framework of the 1770s, and he succeeds for the most part. It’s still ridiculous, but it doesn’t look as goofy as it could, which is win!

Pistolfist is a solid, adventurous comic. Earls and Allen don’t try to re-invent the wheel, but they do have a wild idea extrapolated from Ben Franklin’s experiments, and they do a good job turning it into “reality,” as wacky as it is. I was happy to see it completed, and it would be nice to see more adventures of Salem Attucks, Dyani the Natick Indian, and Old Ben Franklin, kicking Redcoat ass and taking names. Who knows? Maybe it will happen! It does not appear that the collected edition is on Amazon, but I imagine if you contact Earls himself, he might be able to help you out, plus you can find the old issues on Amazon, so maybe that’s where you choose to go. Check it out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

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