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Brian Wood's graphic novels starring a duo of urban mercenaries. . .

The Couriers

The protagonists of Brian Wood & Rob G’s graphic novels The Couriers and The Couriers: Dirtbike Manifesto (AIT/Planet Lar) are two twenty-ish urban mercenaries named Moustafa and Special. The duo work as free-lancers for an unseen job broker named Hot Sauce: when we meet them in New York City (“Right Fucking Now,” the caption clarifies), they’re in the midst of a shoot-out in Chinatown, taking on a Russian mobster who’s tried to stiff ’em big time.
Our trigger-happy lad and lady work in a murky legal realm, although Wood establishes early that they have their own code of ethics. When HS pulls them in to do a “biologic,” the delivery of a living person, Moustafa initially balks: “It’s always child prostitutes or prisoners or some shit that’s against their will. It’s wrong and we don’t do it!” But they wind up taking the assignment, which involves transporting a helpless young Nepalese girl from the airport to an undescribed safety area, anyway. Said girl, who communicates to Special via personal sign language, is being pursued by a former Red Army General for reasons we don’t learn until the end of the book. We know the General is a psycho s.o.b., however, since his first act in the story is to grab a cat out of the young girl’s arms, then toss the feline out a window to its death.
Though the General has been exiled to Nepal by “soft” elements of the Chinese government, he has contacts with a Chinese gang called the Triad and with his former comrades in the Red Army. He utilizes the former to intercept the girl at the airport – which results in a violent gunfight and a car chase – then the army to interrogate and shoot every courier they can find. So far so good, but once the General’s army shows up in the middle of NYC with attack helicopters, I could feel my willing credulity snap in twain. (Proof that what you can readily get away with in a movie – Whoa! Look at them bad-ass whirlybirds! – is harder to pull of in a gritty action comic book.) Moustafa rallies his fellow urbanites to strike back against the invading Red Army. And, like Ewoks defending their forest from the Empire, they do so. More ultra-violence ensues, though we never once see a representative of civil authority intervene even though events are occurring “right fucking now” in the aftermath of 9/11. You know how it is: the Man doesn’t give a rat’s ass for grown-up, punked-out street urchins in the city.
The Couriers, then, is set in a hyped-up metropolis that’s designed to be the writer & artist’s violent playground. It’s about as close to the real thing as the title setting of Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx, though both creators of this “Wood/G Joint” keep steady hands on the eccentric pulses of each character. (We learn, for instance, that Moustafa loves chow fun noodle soup with fish balls and that scarred and street-tuff Special decorates her bedroom with unicorn and big-eyed kitten posters.) Rob Goodridge’s black-and-white art borrows from all over the place (in one panel, he even turns two characters into cartoon manga kids), which is apt considering the tale’s multi-cultural urban jungle setting.
I enjoyed The Couriers, even as I recognized its implausibilities in a way I wouldn’t even notice with a book featuring super-powered protagonists. At one point, Wood shows Special ramming a gun into one bad guy’s mouth, shooting him through the head and nailing a second baddie right through his motorcycle helmet. “I’m not sure sure if you could shoot through two heads like that or not,” the artist admits in one of the book’s “Production Notes.” But it sure looks neat.

Wasn’t until I got twenty-plus pages into The Couriers that I realized the characters were part of a larger continuity that began with Couscous Express. But I didn’t go back to that earlier 2001 outing until I’d read through both Couriers volumes, in part because the first book wasn’t as visually welcoming. Express is told through Olive Yassin, daughter to the owners of the book’s eponymous restaurant and girlfriend of courier Moustafa. Spoiled (we’re told she’s that way by the courier, who talks to the reader from a park bench) and resentful of her parents’ mild demands on her, 16-year-old Olive gets put to the test when her parents are threatened by a Turkish mobster who was once her mother’s lover. Played at a more realistic level than Couriers (even if Olive’s sudden facility with firearms is a stretch), Express is a layered and intriguing story. But the art by previously-unknown-to-me Brett Weldele is much less assured than Rob G’s. Weldele uses mechanical shading like a sumbitch, but all it does is draw attention to his more dubiously rendered human figures.
Olive has a small speaking role in Couriers and a more prominent, though largely silent, one in the second Couriers book, Dirtbike Manifesto. This latest entry takes our two urban mercenaries out of the city in search of the gun source responsible for the death of a fellow courier. There they run into their redneck doppelgangers, a thuggish couple aligned with a local militia. Wood’s big idea here is to place these two refugees from the New York melting pot in racist small-town U.S.A. – where Moustafa’s Egyptian heritage spurs suspicion and casually bigoted epithets – but he spends more pages focusing on bike chases and showdowns than he does the clash of American subcultures. The results are diverting (Rob G clearly has a great time rendering blurry speed and motion) but slighter than either of the other two volumes.
Reportedly, Wood & G have three more books planned featuring Moustafa and Special. On the basis of their three GN appearances, I find these engagingly foul-mouthed mercs appealing enough to follow ’em in subsequent volumes. Hopefully, Wood’ll give these scruffy action kids more plot than he doled out in Manifesto.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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