This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 23, 2014.
The Goon is one of my favorite modern comics. Eric Powell has used the series to tell stories filled with humor and pathos. The characters are distinctive and fun to read about, while the settings and adventures are wild and over-the-top in a way that only comics can manage. I would go so far as to say that in fifteen years of publication, there has never been a bad issue of The Goon.
That doesn’t mean every issue musters the groundbreaking quality or the transcendent highs of a story like “Chinatown” (collected in The Goon Volume 6: The Mystery of Mr. Wicker). “One for the Road” lacks the pathos and excessive weirdness of The Goon at its absolute best, but there is still a lot to love in this issue.
“One for the Road” is a damn funny story. It follows a sailor on leave in The Goon’s hometown. He needs to find his friend before they get into trouble for going AWOL and receives “help” from The Goon and Frankie. They traverse the town’s many bars searching for the absent sailor, but also grabbing a beer at each location. What follows is a series of encounters that can only be described as shenanigans.
An interesting thing about The Goon is that it defies genre classi fication. It pulls from a wide variety of influences, but never relies on any particular set of tropes or standards to tell its stories. It takes elements from Westerns, horror, war, monster, crime, and even romance comics. All of these is present in “One for the Road”. Each encounter shown reflects something different about the multi-faceted world of The Goon. There is a grizzled marine reflecting upon the horrors of war which reads as a callback to the war comics of Harvey Kurtzman. This section is told primarily through the wide variety of emotions reflected in the face of The Sarge and his brothers-in-arms. They do not attempt to glorify war, but instead focus on its human impact. It may be excessive and funny, but it also relates to many of Kurtzman’s themes and his ability to say a great deal with the human face.
Three witches encouraging a child to pursue mischief are a clear reference to The Haunt of Fear, an EC Comic created by William Gaines and Al Feldstein. The Crypt-Keeper, The Vault-Keeper, and The Old Witch made up the trifecta of storytellers in that classic comic and helped frame tales that hold up very well today. In addition to the antics they encourage between the child and Frankie, they also create a meta-joke that fans of comics history will appreciate. By encouraging a child to smoke, drink, and commit violent acts, they are actively fulfilling the worst fears of Fredric Wertham, writer of Seduction of the Innocent. It was his witch hunt that led to the congressional hearings that would form the Comics Code Authority, the group that would eventually put EC Comics out of business and end The Haunt of Fear. Although funny in the context of The Goon, there is an anger present in this scene that reveals Powell’s feelings toward both EC Comics and their fate. His love of classic horror comics is writ large across the page, but is combined with an anger towards their fate. The child’s anger towards Frankie taking away his fun is not an accident, but an indictment of Wertham and the CCA shaded in hues of red.
So much of The Goon is influenced by these genres and the master storytellers associated with them, yet it rarely falls into the category of homage. There is one notable exception in “One for the Road” however. Powell starts the comic by dedicating it to Jack Davis, an American cartoonist and founding member of MAD. His style is well-known for its use of celebrity caricatures with over-sized heads. On pages 14 and 15 a parade of celebrities march into a bar, all of them depicted in Jack Davis’ style. They are pulled from the prime of Davis’ career as well, with takes on Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, and others who rose to stardom in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s. The exaggerated features and twisted names (Bob Hope becomes Bob Dope) make it an amusing page in addition to being a love letter. Powell isn’t scared to wear his heart on his sleeve, which allows “One for the Road” to simultaneously praise others while being a truly auteur comic book.
“One for the Road” makes for a very fitting title. It’s a comic you read because you’re already in love with theThe Goon. You know what to expect from Eric Powell’s absurd epic and need another shot before you return to your Goon-less life. Wrapped in a simple one-and-done story is all of the humor and craftsmanship that has come to be associated with the series. It may not be a high point for the series, but that does not mean it doesn’t contain depth worth exploring beyond a single reading. It’s a good comic to snag before heading home.