Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
The Couriers was a three-volume graphic novel series by writer Brian Wood and artist Rob G. published by AiT/Planet Lar between 2003 and 2005. It was an independent continuation of Wood and Brett Weldele’s Couscous Express from 2001, telling three stories about the characters Special and Moustafa, who were first introduced in that volume.
Special and Moustafa are “couriers” for the New York underworld, which entails everything from moving contraband to, as we are both told and shown over the course of the series, (forcibly) procuring sought-after semen from eligible bachelors. In the first volume, titled simply “The Couriers,” the pair protects a Nepalese girl who has been forced to flee her country after seeing a Triad boss’ most prized and secret possession, for which he is trying to find and hurt her. The second volume, “Dirtbike Manifesto,” takes the duo into upstate New York in search of the people responsible for one of their friend’s death and into conflict with a group of locals. The third and final volume, “The Ballad of Johnny Funwrecker,” shows how Special and Moustafa met in their early teens and served under the eponymous Chinatown crime lord.
Whether read separately or together, the Couriers volumes underwhelm. Momentum outshines depth at almost every turn. The artwork is cartoony but uninspiring, the characters poorly delineated. The plots are thin. The setting almost completely lacks definition; we are told it’s New York, but if it weren’t for a few insistent captions (“Chinatown. Right fucking now”), the series could just as easily be set in a nondescript action nowhereland. Instead, the emphasis is undeniably on action – from the dominance of shootouts and chase scenes to the comparatively lavish detail in representation of firearms to the reduction of the setting to speed lines and kinetic blur-effects.
I usually like Wood’s work. Along with Brian K. Vaughan and Warren Ellis, I think he is one of the most exciting voices published in American comics right now and, indeed, over the past decade or so. His Channel Zero and DMZ have a pathos, sometimes fury, and a sense of social awareness and purpose that is hard to beat. The New York Four and New York Five have an emotional and nostalgic resonance. And don’t get me started on The Local.* That is perhaps why, when compared to most of Wood’s other work, Couriers is something of a disappointment. The impression I get is that at heart, it is a product and not a story. When one adds to this the fact that the release of a Couriers volume was a lynchpin in the annual promotional event known as “Brian Wood Month,” this feeling becomes even harder to ignore.
But lest we forget, Wood is pretty candid about what the Couriers was to him, in his foreword to the collected edition:
I knew what I wanted it to look like, which was very NYC-heavy, absurd action, and lots of speed lines. I was pretty heavy into Hong Kong and Luc Besson action films and that’s all I wanted. I wanted to make a comic that existed for no other reason than I wanted to have a blast making it with some friends.
It’s difficult to grant the “NYC-heavy” bit, since the city almost completely lacks identity or recognizability,** but the speed lines and absurd action are certainly there. And reading the volumes, it undeniably seems like Wood and his friends had fun in making them. The problem is, its a kind of fun that really doesn’t translate too well from the in-group involved to a wider audience.
* Reviews of all these titles are forthcoming.
** I couldn’t help myself here. How closely have you read Channel Zero?