I’ve been meaning to check out Doug TenNapel’s work for years. I’ve seen his name many times, generally connected to art full of very appealing energy and humor. Now that I’ve read Ratfist (once through at the breakneck speed the work encourages and then a second time to try to get a better handle on it), I’m mostly glad I did so.
It’s hard to boil Ratfist down into a neat plot summary, but the attempt reveals a lot about its sensibilities. At the start of the book our protagonist, Ricky, has decided he’s going to give up his secret life as a rat-themed vigilante so he can marry his rat-hating girlfriend. But first he needs to go on one more mission to attempt to unravel the secrets behind the Simian Icthus Corporation. When Ricky breaks into Simian Icthus he doesn’t learn much, but he does find a weird tiki key, fight a dog-man, and touch a magical rat that gets absorbed into his hand. Ultimately, this leads to Ricky turning into some sort of ratman. When he chops off his new tail it comes to life, ties itself around him, and starts speaking out of the severed end, voicing Ricky’s subconscious thoughts. If that all sounds weird, just wait until you get to the time travel, dimension hopping, giant monkey-trout, and magical space tiki.
Most of this book is full of free-wheeling absurdist adventure. The careening plot keeps one flipping pages, eager to see what sort of weirdness will crop up next. On the rare occasions when the plot eases off the throttle, it’s generally for a good gag (or a cameo from a well-known earthworm). There’s a big chunk of exposition when the space tiki shows up and explains his mystical powers, but TenNapel doesn’t get sidetracked trying to make them serious or realistic. Appropriately, he tosses his goofy ideas onto the page, caps them with a fart joke, and gets back to the story.
The art plays a huge role in establishing the book’s vibrancy. TenNapel uses a lot of messy and irregular black lines, giving everything a feeling of rough urgency. Even something as simple as the hastily painted panel borders contribute to the sense that the story is hurtling along so quickly that TenNapel can barely keep up. He also does a great job of using strong splashes of background color to enhance the mood of a panel (often bright reds and yellows to throw energy behind a bit of violence or action).
My only complaint is connected to a late plot twist and is therefore hard to discuss without spoiling a surprise. To be as vague as possible, the plot hinges on a strong display of governmental over-regulation and wasteful spending. Obviously, my reaction to such a thing is colored by the fact that I’m a public librarian and would like to believe that my profession is not inherently wasteful and foolish. But my real concern is not that I disagree with the political views expressed, but that the forceful expression of any political view at all is at odds with the book’s general tone. The story’s propulsive energy is derailed by a few pages of unexpected ideology and just manages to get back on track by the end of the book. I’ll certainly still recommend Ratfist for its energy, imagination, and sense of fun, but with some slight reservation.