Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Stringer’

“Put the suitcase in your hand, here’s a little money now, do it just the way we planned — you be cool for twenty hours and I’ll pay you twenty grand”

I bought Stringer because it sounded neat, but a tiny part of the reason was because Wallace Ryan lettered it, and while I don’t know Ryan personally, I’m Facebook friends with him, and he seems like a good dude (plus he just won an award, so good for him!). Patrick Kindlon, who’s been doing a lot of work recently, wrote it, and Paul Tucker drew it. Image published it, and I read it. Everybody wins!

I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Stringer, even though it sounded keen. I’ve read a decent amount by Kindlon, and he always seems to trip up somewhere – he has good ideas and he does a decent job conveying them, but something just keeps his work from being top-notch, at least to a schmuck like me (you may disagree). I do like his comics, for the most part, and I like Tucker’s art, so the idea of this book – a stringer for a tennis pro in the 1980s who deals some drugs on the side becomes a reluctant smuggler – sounded pretty nifty. But I was still wary.

The story takes place in 1983, and our protagonist is Tim, who strings rackets for a middling tennis pro who’s playing in Europe for most of the book. Tim augments his income by dealing drugs, but he makes sure to stay small-time to stay off anyone’s radar. Unfortunately for him, he attracts the attention of a gangster who calls himself “Alejandro Magno de la Cocaina” – “Alexander the Great of Cocaine” – who wants him to smuggle a gym bag full of cocaine bricks into Las Vegas … and you can’t say “no” to Alejandro Magno de la Cocaina. Tim, naturally, is screwed – he has to keep the coke on him for weeks before his boss returns to the States, and of course, carrying that much cocaine around is a magnet for trouble. His boss wants him to sabotage a fellow pro by making sure he has access to drugs, which will weaken his game; there’s a nasty-looking tattooed thug hanging around doing some mean things to people; there’s a Greek gentleman in a white suit who appears to be following Tim, but it’s unclear why. Of course, things get worse and worse for Tim as trouble keeps finding him, and he has to come up a scheme just to get out from under Alejandro’s thumb. But how will he do it?!?!?

This is a good, tense thriller, and it’s a lot funnier than you might expect. Mainly, this is due to Tim, who’s kind of a jerk but not a bad dude, so we can root for him even as we recognize he’s a screw-up. He’s the kind of guy we recognize in fiction, someone who lives on the fringes a bit and desperately wants a better life – Kindlon implies why he does, but it’s not really germane to the story – but does not have the skills to level up and if he finds himself in a situation where he could make some serious bank, he’s just hapless. This kind of character is a trope, of course, but if a writer can do something fun with it, it works, and Kindlon does, generally. Tim comes up with ridiculous schemes to get away with his smuggling, and somehow they both work out in his favor and get him in deeper trouble, which adds to the humor. The Greek dude is great comic relief, too – he’s obviously dangerous, but he’s also extremely cranky about everything, so his narration is a joy to read as he complains about literally everything he comes across. There’s also a good serious side to the book – Billy, Tim’s employer, is probably better than 99% of the tennis players on the planet, but he’s not a star, so he struggles along in small tournaments, thinking he’s a bigger celebrity than he actually is. Due to this, Tim feels the pressure to make more money, even though he’s apparently very good at his job. The weirdness of the tour – with its closed circle of people – and the peripatetic nature of Tim’s life makes the world he inhabits seem sad and claustrophobic even though he’s able to see the great cities of Europe. Kindlon does a good job balancing this feeling of desperation with the more humorous aspects of the book. There are a few issues with the story – the tattooed thug is never really adequately explained, and I was a bit confused by the ending, even though I get what Tim’s plan is – but overall, this is a gripping and even humanistic crime story. I dig crime stories, but I do like it when the writer makes the characters less like criminals and more like people who are caught up in crime. Kindlon does that well here. (I should mention Ryan’s lettering, because I mentioned him above. The lettering is actually quite nice – Ryan alters the size of the letters at good times, and even makes them incrementally bigger occasionally when someone is raising their voice. He also uses block letters at times for impact and even colors some of them, which works well. I also really like his question marks. They’re quite distinctive.)

Tucker does a really good job with the art, too. He uses thick lines that add grit to the art, which fits the kind of seedy underbelly vibe Kindlon is going for. He captures the Eighties look quite well – lots of porn ‘staches in this book, quasi-mullets, and severe hair buns in this book – and his characters are distinctive, so we’re never confused about who’s who. The scenery is terrific, too, as it very much feels like Europe and even different places in Europe. Tucker does an interesting thing with the actual tennis: there’s not a lot of on-court action, because that’s not really the point, but when he does show it, it’s almost abstract – the players are loosely sketched and the court almost looks like it’s in a different dimension, and it brings home how unreal the top-level sports life can look to an outsider. Tim’s world is as grungy as anyone else’s, but when the players take the court, all that floats away for a little while. What really makes the art neat is the way Tucker designs the pages. Sure, a lot are just broken down into panels, but a lot are also done in a clever fashion – one page is designed like a roulette wheel, another like a zoetrope, and several use tennis motifs – strings as border panels, for instance. In one bizarre sequence, Tucker shows Tim and Liat, his friend on the tour who’s trying to help him, discuss what to do about Tim’s problem. They’re at the court during a match, and in three consecutive double-page spreads, we get a standard view of the court, a Bosch-like nightmare world in which they’re still talking, and then a view of the court with almost everything around it erased. The second sequence seems like just something so Tucker can have some fun, but the sequence does have a purpose, I promise, and it’s pretty nifty. Tucker does a lot of interesting things to highlight certain parts of the story, and the art works very well in tandem with the writing.

Despite some wonkiness with the ending, I really like Stringer. It’s a fun, thrilling crime saga, starring people who are out of their depth and don’t know how to fix things who fix things seemingly by random. It also has a good, serious undertone to it, and the art is very cool. It’s a pretty darned good book!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

(I find it fascinating that at the link below – and remember, if you use it, we get a small piece of what you spend, even if you don’t buy this particular book – all the reviews are for an entirely different book that came out years ago. Odd.)

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