Vatican Hustle (NBM)

Greg Houston combines his love of B movies with highly stylized art in this sort of "blaxploitation movie on paper."

138 pgs., B&W; $11.95
(W / A: Greg Houston)
Greg Houston is an experienced illustrator (his bio tells us that he’s been at it since his 1988 graduation from Pratt Institute) with a fondness for genre movies, particularly of the exploitation variety. Let’s put it this way: not many people would use “great” and “Russ Meyer” contiguously in a sentence, but Houston not only would but does. He’s combined those interests in Vatican Hustle, a sort of a blaxploitation movie on paper which is as thick with popular cultural references as a Quentin Tarantino flick and draws on a number of B movie conventions including everyone’s low-budget favorite: voice-over narration.
As the book opens, we meet Boss Karate Black Guy Jones in his “stylish pad” at the end of “a long night of thigh numbing carnality” and are informed that he’s “an 8 cylinder sex ride to all the ladies.” Those little excerpts should clue you in to the fact that subtlety is not a leading characteristic of this volume. But never mind, there’s no time to dwell further on pleasures of the flesh because Jones is summoned by crime boss Lumpy Fargo whose daughter has fallen into bad company and before you know it, our hero is off to Rome (on “Air-a Italy”) to try to get her back. In sunny Italy, Jones meets a pope (apparently the real one, mitre and all) whose behavior could hardly be less bounded by his vows, a pornography ring, and some other characters I will let you discover for yourself.
This is not a novel for the easily offended since Houston takes shots at nearly everyone who plays any role in the story, including Catholics, African-Americans, Italians, women, lepers, mimes and admirers of donkey porn. The art matches the tone of the story: Houston draws everyone and everything in an exaggeratedly ugly style reminiscent of Ralph Steadman and Chester Gould among others. He’s an excellent draftsman who knows how to pack a lot into his frames, although his ability to tell a story graphically is more open to question and the voiceovers frequently feel like a copout, i.e. an easy way to communicate information and attitudes to the reader instead of finding a way to communicate them through the art.
I have mixed feelings about Vatican Hustle: while I admire the detailed art and the exuberantly weird turns of the author’s imagination, his insistence at underlining every joke and cultural reference soon becomes tiresome. It’s rather like being cornered by the fellow from that Monty Python skit who wants to pretend he’s quite the man of the world (“Nudge nudge. Know what I mean? Say no more…”) but ultimately reveals it’s all a bluff. There’s also a lack of nuance in both the story and the art: the volume is stuck on high and the steady stream of cultural references and clichés, some lampshaded, quickly becomes a deluge. Add to that the meta-meta-meta-ness of Vatican Hustle—it’s not so much a blaxploitation movie in graphic novel form as a comment on a comment on blaxploitation movies—and the end results is something which lacks its own authenticity and often feels empty and cheap.
On the other hand, there’s no accounting for taste and I have a feeling this book does have an audience: if all those references to Moxie and Slip’N’Slide and frozen pizza treats tickle your funny bone and/or pluck your nostalgia strings then you will probably feel less critical about the story’s weak points than I did. So this is one of those books which is certainly not for everyone but may be just the thing for people whose interests and sense of humor overlap generously with the author’s.  You can find out more about Vatican Hustle in this series of blog posts by the author, including previews of some pages from the book, or in the ten-page excerpt in the related links below. | Sarah Boslaugh

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