The term “grindhouse” gets thrown around far too often nowadays, and as such I’m always a bit wary whenever the term gets attached to any piece of media. The term has its roots in the 1970s when a whole sub-industry of cinema centered on making flicks through the lens of exploitation: Blaxploitation, Women in Prison, Kung Fu Revenge, and grimy slasher flicks being the most prominent subgenres, but hardly the only ones. Nowadays “grindhouse” is used as a catchall term for anything that has any element of exploitation as a selling point, and weirdly enough these things have become almost revered to entire generations of creative types. I’ll admit to loving a lot of those films and their penchant for over-the-top violence and general insanity, but when someone actively tries to recapture the aesthetic it runs the risk of ringing false, as it gets so caught up with trying to be crazy for the sake of crazy that it becomes an incoherent mess.
This has all just been a bit too long of a preamble for me to say that, in the case of AKA, I think we have a story that properly uses the aesthetic of classic grindhouse cinema and all the bloody action that entails, while still keeping its feet planted firmly in coherent storytelling.
When The Black Terror, a.k.a. Adrian Truelove, knocks up a New York mob bosses daughter, a million dollar bounty is put on his head and the mob boss whom he’s offended commands that the newborn baby boy be killed. Luckily, though, one of the guys he orders to kill the child is experienced Irish hit man Guy Doyle, who defies orders and, in an attempt to save the child, hides him away and offers to take out Truelove for free. Alright, so it starts out as one of those stories that may not be ultimately original, but writer Steven Sanders does a good job at keeping it interesting and planted firmly in its colorful 1970′s aesthetic. So, tracking down Truelove turns out to be an easy task, but as usual with these kinds of tasks everything goes pear-shaped when Guy discovers what Trueloves’ ultimate ambitions are, along with his unforeseen connection to his ex-girlfriend, and an army of bloodthirsty bounty hunters descending on them from all sides.
The characters and how they interact with each other are the real hook in terms of writing for this book. They’re all generally fleshed out at least in terms of motivation, and even if they’re not, they at the very least are enjoyable to spend time reading about. Most of the book hinges on the relationship between Guy and Truelove, and although you’ll never mistake them for being best friends or anything, you do get the sense that they have a mutual respect for one another.
Interestingly, despite being heavily influenced by Blaxploitation flicks, the subject of race isn’t as internal to the plot as you would expect. It definitely comes up with racial slurs thrown from both sides of the race aisle, but it doesn’t really come into play with the relationship between Guy and Truelove. Truelove doesn’t see Guy as part of the problem that the other all-white crime families pose; instead, he recognizes Guys’ skills and respects his sense of professionalism which saved his son, and for that Truelove owes Guy big. Meanwhile Guy is someone for whom race is never an issue, portrayed (perhaps too on the nose) by the fact that his ex, Susan, is black, but I think it goes somewhat further in that Guy has seen enough bloodshed and brutality from the various crime families to justify sympathy what Truelove and his small army of radicals are ultimately trying to do. So once the action ramps up you’ve learned enough about these characters that you sort of come to care for them both in equal measure and when the bullets start flying every act of violence feels earned even even if it is depicted with a sort of cartoonish glee.
Which brings us to artist Rob Reilly, who I believe if for nothing else you should read this book for his incredibly expressive artwork which is pitch perfect for this kind of story. His style feels like it has a foundation in traditional animation because it has fluidity and his facial expressions really help the narrative in there depictions of rage, empathy, befuddlement and amusement. Characters motivations and outlook are made crystal clear when Reilly gives them a little smirk or a look in their eyes, they look all to real just before the action unleashes when it practically becomes an R-rated cartoon. He has a great flow of action and when the carnage hits its peak its a thing of beauty, in particular I was impressed by a scene in the third chapter where a guy shoots a guy with his last bullet only to grab that guys shotgun as its flying through the air and begin blasting away again. A little video-gamey in its construction but Reilly is clearly having so much fun with the pages that your just left appreciating his craftsmanship and his visual storytelling which is just so fluid, albeit with the occasional stumble, that it adds to the feel of animation and just adds to the overall ethos of a grind house movie in comic book form.
The ultimate asset of a lot of the grind house films of the seventies was that you were seeing something that you would never see anywhere else, they were some of the earliest forms of creating art and stores just for your sensibilities and hoping that they meshed up with others. Sure, the whole grind house aesthetic resulted in “art” that was often time incredibly flawed and decisive in terms of sensibilities. They did their jobs though and gave the people what they wanted at that point of time. Hell, sometimes they even did they’re jobs well and those are those are the ones that AKA has the most in common. Flawed to be sure but it gives you what you want from this kind of story and it does its job and the creative team told the story they wanted to tell. The Grind House auteurs of old would be proud.
TL;DR: AKA is a slightly flawed yet incredibly solid book that has its strengths in matching an aesthetic of an entire medium with solid character work and expressive action packed art work.