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Moonshine Volume One (Review)

Moonshine Volume Now
Written by Brian Azzarello
Publisher: Image Comics
Trade Paperback, May 2017

We here at World Comic Book Review covered  issue 5 of  Brian Azzarello’s series Moonshine from American publisher Image Comics , but the trade paperback, which collected the first six issues, is worth a look on its own.  As good as a single issue can be, a solid trade paperback can show the progression of a story over time. Some further reflection is  due to Moonshine.

Moonshine, as related in the previous review, is an ongoing series that combines the elements of a 1920s-set noir story, under the backdrop of the American attempt to outlaw alcoholic beverages called Prohibition, with the horror concept of the werewolf.  The title as a result contains a double-meaning.  “Moonshine” was a name given to a certain type of illegal alcoholic home-brew.  And, many werewolf stories feature the light of the full moon as the catalyst by which some doomed individual finds himself transformed into a nearly mindless half-man, half-wolf creature.

The concept of the full moon causing a werewolf transformation is actually as American as the Prohibition setting.  Werewolf legends typically  tell the story  of a person, either through a curse or some other means,  transforming into a wolf with  the  physical abilities of a wolf.  It was the 1941 American motion picture The Wolf-Man (Universal Studios, 1941) that introduced the idea that werewolves changed only under the light of the full moon, took a partially human form, and could only be killed by silver.

Whether or not silver has any effect on the werewolves of Moonshine has yet to be revealed, but much of the rest of the 1941 iteration of the legend appears to be  incorporated into this title.

Moonshine is primarily the story of one “Handsome” Lou Pirlo, a mid-level mobster typically sent to soften up a potential client for his boss before someone else could complete the deal.  This time, though, Lou has been entrusted to complete the deal on his own with one Hiram Holt, a rural bootlegger who apparently has produced the finest moonshine either Lou or his boss has ever tasted.  Lou’s boss Joe wants this moonshine for distribution in New York City and will not accept “no” for an answer. Hiram, on the other hand, appears to be completely uninterested in Lou’s offers and in fact seems more intent to scare Lou and his gangster friends away.

Hiram has an advantage here.  While both the mob and the hillbillies that make up Hiram’s extended family are both capable of violence, Hiram also has a werewolf on his side.  How many of these werewolves are assisting Hiram is as-yet unclear.  For most of the trade, there appears to be only one:  Hiram’s adopted son Enos.  By the volume’s end, there is another one:  Lou himself.  It would be inaccurate to say Lou is now working for Hiram.  Werewolves, as depicted in stories like these, are often little more than bestial killing machines, creatures that leave horribly-mangled bodies in their wake.  The final reprinted issue shows the newly transformed Lou ripping the surviving gangsters apart before transforming back by book’s end.  Who or what if anyone has control over the wolf-Lou is unclear as of yet.

However, Mr. Azzarello has worked some interesting twists into the narrative.  As noted in our previous review, Mr. Azzarello and his artistic collaborator Eduardo Risso have worked together before on stories of tough-talking men and women in a noir setting. But even as Lou slips further and further into the alcohol-fueled stupor, symbolic of the same loss of control that his  lycanthropy will cause, the reader can see that his life has a tragedy at its core in the form of a younger sister who drowned on a boat Lou constructed during their childhood.  That the girl’s ghost may be appearing to Lou is noteworthy.

Furthermore, Mr. Azzarello does manage one twist to the classic noir story.  Many noir tales will feature a pair of competing women for the morally-flawed protagonist to choose from.  The first is the exciting temptress called the femme fatale, a “bad girl” whose sole story purpose is to tempt the hero down a dark path.  That role is filled quite capably by Enos’ sister Tempest.  A classic blonde who seduces Lou, she appears to be the one responsible for Lou’s ultimate transformation.  Considering that the story hints Hiram may be responsible for the deaths of Enos and Tempest’s biological parents, she  has some other motive, even beyond wanting a piece of the New York moonshine market for herself.

On the flip side is the “good girl,” usually depicted as less attractive but the moral refuge who can guide the hero back to a more morally-upright position. Here the role filled by a black woman named Delia who may be some kind of voodoo priestess.  This sort of situation would not have appeared in classic noir, but allows Mr. Azzarello to include commentary on race in America. The 1920s Prohibition era in the United States  featured a highly-segregated society.  This is a woman who, if she goes to see Lou at his hotel/boarding room, needs to come in from a back door and wait in the kitchen, unlike  white visitors.  During a confrontation with Tempest, both women state they have power the other should be wary of.  The last pages of the volume end with Lou, human again, naked and collapsed into Delia’s lap.This symbolizes that Delia, if anyone, is the one who can truly help Lou out now that he is a monster, and one that will only attract more violence to an already violent small town in West Virginia.

In a recent interview on the website, this question was posed to the author: “The supernatural elements are obviously a big part of the pitch, but for a lot of the book the reader is in with the cast: we don’t see much but the aftermath. Was there a reason you wanted to go with that over a lot of in-your-face “monster” material?

Mr Azzarello’s response? “Yeah, it’s a similar approach we took on 100 Bullets. I know that book (and this one now) has been described as hyper violent but visually most of the real violence takes place between the panels– and in the reader’s mind. It works best there, I think. You’re all sicker than we are.

It is accurate to say that most of the violence is left to the imagination. The final chapter/reprinted issue, where Lou spends most of the issue as a werewolf, is a noteworthy exception, as it does show some rather extreme violence.  It is interesting that Mr Azzarello adopted this approach without intending to give another nod to classic American horror films like the aforementioned The Wolf-Man. Extreme violence could not be shown in motion pictures due to censorship and lack of special effects technology, but having characters react to an off-camera sight of a mangled body, asking the audience to fill in the blanks with their imagination, would have been a highly appropriate evocation of the noir film theme.

In the same interview, Mr Azzarello makes an observation on the 1920s as it has appeared in comic books, disagreeing with the interviewer’s proposition that popular culture is awash with stories about Prohibition:  “I really don’t think this era has been explored much in pop culture; at least not from the rural perspective we’re coming from.”  Recently, there has been Mark Waid’s “Strange Fruit” which we have previously reviewed, which is set in 1927. Perhaps the era may have increasingly less historic relevance as changes occur  in what people look for in entertainment. The hard bitten 1930s detective archetype has over time become a passé anti-hero. Gangsters are not anti-heroes – they are, generally, villains – but the same sense of the period concept now being dated is not sufficiently remedied by television successes like “Broadwalk Empire” and “The Untouchables”.

Where Mr. Azzarello and Mr. Risso are taking this story looks to be quite interesting.  Mr Azarrello’s magnum opus, “100 Bullets” (Vertigo Comics, 1999-2009)  was in essence a very drawn out chess game. As of now, the board has been set as the players move around looking for leverage.  Lou’s boss is sure to send even stronger, more capable muscle to take what he wants, and one survivor looks to be more than capable of perhaps felling a werewolf.  Hiram himself has been captured by other gangsters, but the remaining members of his family may be willing to move on without him, particularly the untrustworthy Tempest.  If Volume One is anything to go by, then Moonshine is sure to be an exciting, pulpy story of violence and horror that should satisfy fans of noir and werewolves equally.