By Jared Cornelius
I remember a time when licensed comics were absolutely terrible. Hot garbage like Alf, Mr. T, and WCW comic books helped put a black eye on potentially fun licensed series. Often poorly written, with little thought or effort seemingly put into them, licensed books were often a sure sign of a stinker to be steered clear of. That's not to say that all licensed comics are bad, in fact the last decade has been something of a renascence for licensed titles. Comic companies like IDW, Dark Horse, and Boom! have heralded in a new age of licensed books that show exquisite care and genuine interest in the source material. Big name franchises with billion dollar films behind them like Transformers have not only been giving fans great stories about serious issues like post war society and gender roles, but also has found a way to fit in fun complex time travel stories worthy of Doc Brown. As great as the Transformers titles have been, I'd actually like to sing the praises of another title, a book I didn't have high expectation of either.
Boom! Studios Big Trouble In Little China has been a series that's given me a certain bit of revelatory glee over the last seven months. Written by roller derby enthusiast Eric Powell with input from John Carpenter, and art by Brian Churilla, Big Trouble has been a highlight of my comic shop visit every month. Based on the 1987 film of the same name, Big Trouble In Little China starred the mullet topped Kurt Russell as, Jack Burton, big rig trucker extraordinaire. When Burton pulls into San Francisco and runs into an old pal, Wang Chi, he gets wrapped up in a battle with a Chinese Wizard seeking immortality.
Big Trouble wasn't just my favorite licensed title of last year, it was my favorite title last year. I want to underscore that by expounding on what a great year 2014 was for comics. Books that really hit their stride like Superior Foes of Spider-Man, All New X-Factor, Black Science, Nailbitter, and Lumberjanes, I love them all, but Big Trouble In Little China really hit all the right notes for me. Well drawn, funny, and authentic, Carpenter and Powell did this book right. Overall the books the kind of underdog story that people love, it's Rudy in comic book form. Big Trouble is comic based on a cult movie from almost 20 years ago that no one in their right mind would've thought could've succeed. But succeed it has with the recently released issue 6 at the number 5 spot in the Diamond Comics Top 50 Non-Premier Comics, beating other licensed books like Sonic The Hedgehog, Army of Darkness, and Red Sonja.
I'd attribute a lot of Big Trouble's following to the collaboration between series creator John Carpenter and writer Eric Powell. Powell's unique weirdness has made his creator owned series The Goon one of Dark Horse Comics most beloved comics. The tale of a depression era gangster protecting Lonely Street has put the titular Goon in conflict with hordes of zombies, robots, fish men a chupacabra and so much more. His supporting cast of an ill-tempered doe eyed sidekick, grifting street urchins, and an idiot named Peaches underscore the strange and humorous world his characters live in. Powell's satire is often accompanied by small moments of authentic heart ache and tragedy but never strays far from the silly and weird that give the title an extra touch of care. Powell takes that same care and authentically weird attitude and transports it from the Goon's 1930's setting and brings it fifty years in the future to the neon lit 1980's. In seven issues Powell's managed to include the following things, a fight to the death in a hog pit, pickled egg theft, a cowboy-alien-ghost, and a special hell for people killed by idiots.
Powell's also done a great job of expanding on the world these characters inhabit. For a silly action movie, Carpenter was able to build a surprisingly well realized world with plenty of personality and backstory. Full of Chinese mysticism and lore, Powell's expanded universe has introduced strange characters like the Seven Faced Widow and places like the Midnight Road, and has consistently delighted me with the telling of Jack Burton's ridiculous life. Powell has taken to crafting a wild and sometimes supernatural backstory for Burton, often delving into his many loves and classic adventures while on the road. Hearing Jack regale the audience with tales of his second or third wife never cease to be enjoyable.
Powell and Carpenter's spectacular tag team takes the book a long way, but goes the extra distance with Brian Churilla's art. The series has a veneer that screams 1980's with art that drips of fun cheesiness, from the hairstyles to the décor Big Trouble lives in its particular time and place. Cars, fashion, and comically large sunglasses punctate the era's particular look, while Churilla's characters share tone with a classic Saturday morning cartoon. Like the mad lovechild of Scooby Doo and Stunt Dawgs, Churilla's style has an immediate connection with Carpenter and Powell's interpretation of the material without being overly exaggerated. His depiction of Russell's huge chin, fu-manchu tank top, and luxurious mullet go hand in hand with the over the top spirit of the film. Issue 7 hits a particularly nice artistic groove with a wonderful fight sequence between Burton, Wang, and the Lords of Death, including a spectacular series of panels with the pea slinging waiter Bert.
When I first heard about the series I have to admit I felt a bit jaded. I thought that Boom! was really scraping the bottom of the barrel for material and that while fun and kitschy there was no way this book would succeed. However I couldn't be happier to announce how wrong I was, Big Trouble In Little China deserves all this praise and more. The talented of Powell, Carpenter, and Churilla have made me a believer and you should be too. It goes to show that right now almost anything is possible in comics, if a movie like Big Trouble In Little China can become one of the best books on the shelf I can only imagine what a talented team could do with things other cult properties. Big Trouble In Little China should be available at finer comic retailers everywhere and is also available digitally on Comixology.
Jared Cornelius is some guy from the Jersey coast who prefers things from the bottom of the barrel. Tell him your preferred barrel placement on Twitter @John_Laryngitis.