Smuggling Spirits hardcover graphic novel
Writer: Ben Fisher
Artist/Cover artist: Mike Henderson
Letters: Adam Markiewicz
Publisher: Studio 407
Price: $20.99 US
The whole premise for this book is to be found in the title and the double-meaning of “spirits.” It refers to both liquor and the supernatural, and from there, Fisher’s story flows naturally. He sets his story in a Prohibition-era United States beset upon by hordes of monsters. To be honest, it’s the historical elements that are more interesting than the supernatural ones, but Fisher and Henderson blend those disparate elements together nicely. Smuggling Spirits is entertaining, well-crafted, small-press effort. The book is like a cross between Sin City and Road to Perdition, heavily garnished with a melange of monsters. The biggest problem facing this project is how much it’s clearly inspired by and borrows from Frank Miller’s noir crime comics, but that’s not to suggest the plotting and storytelling are wanting.
A tough, grizzled and well-armed rumrunner named Al, with an orphaned boy he rescued some time ago in tow, makes his way into the countryside to retrieve gallons of moonshine for delivery to a city bar. It’s dangerous work, and not just because it’s illegal thanks to Prohibition. No, the countryside is where one can find the dark, monstrous creatures known as the Darklings. And if that weren’t challenge enough, Al has a problem: due to a past trauma, he sees the monsters as other people or regular animals. An unfortunate encounter at a seemingly abandoned farm ends up making Al a target for the Darklings after he unknowingly takes something truly precious and important from them.
Henderson’s art looks like a mix of the styles of Frank Miller and Jim (Batgirl) Calafiore, but Henderson is clearly taking cues for panel and figure layouts from Sin City. The similarities in tone and appearance are unmistakable. Making it even easier to compare the two are the similarities between Al and one of Miller’s Sin City heroes: the mentally unstable Marv. Henderson does manage to make some elements here his own, notably the various designs for the Darklings. Some are truly gruesome and deranged, while others are in keeping with more classic monster archetypes. And while the Sin City mode is a bit obvious, Henderson definitely handles the shadows well, using the negative space of the blacks to say as much as the linework itself.
The historical setting is enough to keep the reader’s attention throughout the earlier half of the book. Later on, harsher elements and ideas arise, disturbing ones that might alienate some readers. I rather enjoyed the darker, edgier aspects in the middle of the book. The climax is unfortunately predictable. Even in the buildup in the bar, as the various characters try to decide the fate of another, seems to run by the numbers.
Truth be told, the similarities in tone and appearance to Frank Miller’s Sin City is quite distracting; one almost gets the impression that artist Mark Henderson is mimicking Miller’s style. The visuals are strong, but their derivative quality takes one out of the story… at first. Fortunately, the strength of the story and of Henderson’s designs for the Darklings eventually won me over. I finally became immersed in the story and forgot about the Sin City riff at play. The growing role of supernatural elements in the story eventually eclipses the influences, making for an entertaining experience overall. 7/10