Meta-Retro: Vatican Hustle

Posted by on January 30th, 2010 at 5:49 AM

Rob reviews Greg Houston’s blaxploitation love letter, VATICAN HUSTLE (NBM).

Greg Houston’s VATICAN HUSTLE is less a blaxploitation tribute or even a parody as much as it is a tribute to such tributes.  There’s a level of meta-awareness of blaxploitation tropes and how they’ve been parodied that pervades every aspect of this comic, and allows Houston to go far, far afield when the mood strikes him.  Indeed, it didn’t take long for Houston to take a wide left turn when he introduces the Pope as a sort of ultimate decadent badass.  The book really turns from being an account of a difficult case of private dick Boss Karate Black Guy Jones to all of the bizarre things the Pope happens to do during his typical day.

What makes this book more than an extended goof is Houston’s facility as a cartoonist.  While the ad copy lists Ralph Steadman & Basil Wolverton as influences, and there is a bit from both artists in here, I saw other sources.  Rather than the bleeding line of Steadman, I saw the looping grotesque line of Bill Plympton in the faces and the ramshackle, droopy line of Ralph Bakshi.  In the shapes of faces, the chins and the eyes, I saw another MAD cartoonist: Mort Drucker.   It was as though Houston was doing caricatures of real-life Dick Tracy villains.

There’s a high level of cartooning skill on display in every panel, to the point where Houston fairly demands that the reader stop and linger on the images.  This strategy works well with the fierce commitment Houston has to his extended gag tangents.  That’s especially true when Jones starts talking about donkey porn with a potential client whose daughter may be mixed up in it, or “theme hobos” who adapt specific looks into their hobo lifestyle (like Civil War re-enactor or Renaissance Fair enthusiast), or the seedy & desperate lives of clowns.  That was the part of the book that drifted the most from what resembled its plot, as the Pope and his degenerate best friend go out to a clown trailer park to get into a game of craps.  Houston actually manages to generate real tension in a one-die roll-off between the Pontiff and the clown leader, where the Pope wins by somehow rolling a seven on a six-sided die.

The sense that this book was more about an exploration of different scenes rather than going through the motions of what one might fully expect from genre parody was confirmed by the climax.  Jones wound up in the Vatican, waiting for the Pope to return from his evening of debauchery.  Instead of a huge climactic battle, the two simply talked through their differences and went their separate ways.  Jones was a cypher of a character, but Houston seemed to understand that and not only played him strictly for laughs, but took him off the table for long stretches of the book.  The real star of the book was the Pope, a lovingly realized degenerate (and certainly not a villain, despite his actions) in a world where his behavior was not the least bit questioned.  Houston was careful not to pad the book too much (though he could have made it a bit sharper if he had cut some pages) while allowing himself to expand on his most ridiculous flights of fancy.  The result was a book that moved from mere self-indulgence to a uniquely comedic explosion of tightly-constructed gags and funny drawings.

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One Response to “Meta-Retro: Vatican Hustle

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