by Derek Royal
Crime drama is more than just a niche genre, found in the publications from Soho Press or rebroadcast (ad infinitum) in the syndication of the Law and Order franchise. It can get rather grandiose, as in the case of The Sopranos, which some have likened to a great American novel, or even overtly literary in the hands of such practitioners such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and of course Edgar Allan Poe. Eric Hobbs and Noel Tuazon’s Family Ties: An Alaskan Crime Drama (NBM/ComicsLit) aspires to such goals. It melds crime family narrative, à la The Godfather, with the tragedy of King Lear to create a psychological study of ambition, power, and betrayal.
The story begins with Shannon, one of the daughters of crime boss Jackie Giovanni, as she takes care of a problem that has arisen in the organization. What starts as a relatively minor irritant quickly flares into a violent encounter, one that will help propel the story into its dramatic trajectory. This initial scene also clues the reader into the character of Shannon, as well as that of her sister, Kim, and the volatile styles that mark their relationships. Their younger brother, Cain, is the heir apparent of the family, but he harbors no interest in continuing his father’s business, instead choosing to pursue his career as a male nurse. He would much rather help people than use them for profit, and being the good caregiver that he is, he seems to be the only member of the family looking out for his father’s best interests. And we’re introduced to all of these key players before seeing the family patriarch, Jackie, an appropriate strategy given his treatment as an increasingly disempowered figure. The parallels to King Lear are established from the very beginning — a feeble and aging father, power-hungry ruthless daughters, and a younger favorite child who would sacrifice for the father — and then Hobbs uses this classic scenario as his narrative springboard.
Much of the appeal of Family Ties lies in Tuazon’s black-and-white art. His use of heavy shading underscores the story’s dark turns, as well as the uncertain perspectives of Jackie as he edges closer to dementia. The characters are roughly drawn and visually erratic, all of which contributes to the violence and unpredictability that permeates their kind of life. It’s similar to the edgy tone Tuazon struck in another crime comic, Tumor, about a private investigator with an inoperable brain tumor (and which we reviewed on a previous episode of the podcast). There are occasions in this recent graphic novel when Tuazon’s sketchiness borders on obfuscation, where characters or their actions aren’t quite clear (e.g., at times it’s difficult to tell who is being represented). But overall, his rough and minimal style is just the right vehicle for Hobbs’s brand of noir.
The two have worked together previously on another NBM book, The Broadcast, which takes place in 1938 on the night of Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio drama. Its characters are thrown together because of the resulting panic, and the book becomes a revealing study of how individuals handle psychological pressure differently. There is an abundance of psychological investigation that goes into Family Ties, as well. Not only do we see diverse reactions from the various members of the Giovanni family — each according to his or her ambitions — but there is also a supporting cast that greatly adds to the unsteady mixture: Jackie’s dedicated right-hand-men, the daughters’ ineffectual husbands, younger usurpers within the organization, and a grieving brother seeking revenge for his sibling’s death. In fact, one of the subplots of the graphic novel is another family drama that complements that of the Giovannis. One of Jackie’s lieutenants, Francis, has a “black sheep” bastard son with an apparent sadistic bent, and who spends much of the narrative undermining a half-brother he’s jealous of and a father who has largely ignored him. Ultimately, Francis ends up having his eyes gouged out, making him the Gloucester of the story.
The book is subtitled “An Alaskan Crime Drama,” although there’s no obvious significance behind the story’s geographical setting. Everything does take place in Alaska, and as some of the characters make clear more than once in the book, Jackie and his friends had it relatively easy setting up criminal shop far from competition in Chicago. But that is where the Alaskan emphasis ends. There are no moose, there is no frozen tundra, there are no Northern Exposure-inspired moments, and the closest we get to Sarah Palin is questionable character behavior. This is a criminal drama that could have taken place almost anywhere. It’s not the physical location that drives this narrative, but the psychological terrain of a dysfunctional (and violent) family.
And in great tragic fashion, there is no neat and satisfying conclusion to this story. The narrative threads are roughly cut, similar to Tuazon’s renderings, and we’re left with a drama without any “real” ending. The ambiguity, though, is all part of the narrative’s unsettling tone and feeds into its dark realism. What we have in Family Ties is a story that leaves you feeling raw and uncomfortable, wondering if perhaps your own relationships are similarly problematic or unresolved. In other words, we can empathize with what goes down with Jackie and his clan. We may not have grown up in a malfunctioning crime family, but we have all had our shares of brokenness.
Be sure to get your copy of Family Ties, as well as other works from Hobbs and Tuazon: