Reading comics by Benjamin Marra is an experience quite unique to anything else I’ve read up to this point, and for the last two weeks I’ve been trying to figure out if that experience was a positive or a negative one. The reason I’ve been indecisive is that when reading Marra's comics it's best to leave any ideas about things like good taste at the door, which in turn is both a strength and a weakness for the books as a whole. It’s a strength is because Marra makes comics that are about as close to a direct link to an artist's id as your likely going to get--in fact while reading I half expected that the next time I turned the page the next thing I would see is Marra's own grinning face looking back at me and asking “Aren't comics awesome?” And these are the kind of comics where your only real answer can be “Heck yeah they are!” I managed to grab a good sampling of Marra's work at SPX including issues two through four of Night Business, issues one and two of Gangsta Rap Posse, and the first issue of Lincoln Washington: Free Man, and all of them are examples of an artist just running wild and in the process making the sort of bombastic kinds of genre comics I wish we had more of. The negative side of things comes into play when you take into account some of the unintentional consequences of Marra's subject matter into account. Marra's work draws heavily on the genre films of the eighties and nineties, specifically exploitation flicks (with these you can basically take your pick with what sub-genre) which are films that obviously only work because they are EXPLOITING something.
If you take Marra's Gangsta Rap Posse which is ostensibly Marra's sendup/deconstruction/blaxploitation of late eighties, early nineties hip hop centering on the titular crew of MC’s who seem to be less interested in laying down tracks as they are getting into over-the-top mayhem. Of all the books Gangsta Rap Posse is probably the best representation of what Marra can do with action, as every sequence in this book is bloody and over-the-top and generally stylized and posed in such a way that it would make Kirby proud. The book begins to be problematic when you realize that the de-facto protagonists are nothing more than stereotypes, and borderline racist ones at that. I understand that these books are clearly trying to sell themselves as satire but Marra's humor is so tongue-in-cheek that I don’t think it sells the fact that it's satire all that well. It’s a problem I’ve seen with this sort of humor before, where something tries to make fun of something truly awful and ugly, but in the process becomes what it's trying to mock.
That notion comes to a head with Marra's second book dealing with black culture: Lincoln Washington: Free Man, which is a book that follows a free slave in the days after the American Civil War as he attempts to build a life for himself while dealing with the racial prejudice of the times. There’s a lot to like about this book. It's way more tightly structured than Gangsta Rap Posse and the action choreography in particular is just awe inspiring, but again it’s a case of someone trying to satirize something horrible and just missing the mark. Fact is, any take on slavery is going to be problematic because no matter how you depict it, it’s never going to come close to the horrifying reality, so trying to shoehorn that setting and the people affected by it into a basic Blaxploitation story is just going to feel disingenuous and kind of callous.
At this point I think I should point out that I don’t think Marra's comics aren’t worth reading, nor would I ever want an artist to censor or concern themselves with how their work might offend someone else's sensibilities, but the fact of the matter is that I can't help but be a little sensitive to this kind of stuff, if only for the fact I have spent years trying to zero in on this aspect of modern exploitation because on many levels I think it's bullshit and isn’t deserving to be mocked quite yet. Maybe that’s why, of all the books I picked up from him I enjoyed Night Business the most, which shows how Marra would approach a more structured narrative while at the same time not losing any of its absurdist edge. I was only able to get issues two through four, so I am missing some context for how it began, but to be honest I thought it was easy enough to pick up on what kind of story it was with those three issues. It became clear Night Business was Marra's take on the aesthetic of something like Miami Vice combined with the elements of Giallo film taken to its most extreme, plus it really highlights how he goes for character design. A lot of his characters look like they went through plastic surgery, and not in the “to-perfect-plastic” kind of way, more like the “Skin-stretched-taut-across-their-skull” kind of way. Despite my misgivings, I’ll admit that Marra is most definitely an artist worth watching even if I didn’t necessarily agree with his approaches to his subject matter, because like I said at the beginning, Marra is the kind of creator that uses the medium for all it's worth and at the very least the love he shows for that medium is completely and absolutely sincere.
TL;DR: Benjamin Marras comics are without a doubt excellent artistic exercises of letting your id run wild, but depending on your sensibilites the subject matter could leave you feeling cold.
Gangsta Rap Posse, Lincoln Washington: Free Man, and Night Business are created by Benjamin Marra and published by Traditional Comics.