This gritty urban tale with a hint of sci-fi centers on partners Worick Arcangelo and Nicolas Brown, owner-operators of the Handymen, an odd-jobs business in the troubled city of Ergastulum. With its sun-drenched stucco facades, narrow alleys, and idle traffic, the vaguely Italianate city seems quaint and quiet on the surface. But stick around and you’ll see why its overburdened cops and a trio of powerful crime families have a tenuous mutual understanding, and why they—and everyone else—keep the Handymen on speed dial.
One-eyed, pistol-packing, weekend gigolo Worick and deaf, sword-swinging, ex-mercenary Nic do a little bit of everything—from hand-delivering guns and prescription meds to taking out upstart gangs who harass local businesses or venture too far into their neighbors’ territories. And they do it very well, thanks in part to Nic’s double-edged inheritance: he is a Twilight, the genetic result of an ill-advised and discontinued super-soldier program. But the Handymen’s neutral status, deadly skills, and sly humor may not be enough to protect them when one of the families starts to get restless and breaks the rules. As growing tensions and a rising body count threaten to dredge up the unresolved sins of the city’s past and destroy the delicate balance of power, normally easygoing Worick dreams of things he’d rather forget and worries about his volatile partner’s increasingly fatalist attitude and reckless, self-destructive behavior.
As city names go, Ergastulum is pretty awkward and unappealing, but it also happens to be surprisingly appropriate. In ancient Rome, an ergastulum was an on-site prison for farm slave laborers. Given the prevalence of deplorable conditions and outright abuse, ergastula were eventually outlawed by Emperor Hadrian. The fictional Ergastulum’s authorities apparently came to the same conclusion after taking the system for a test-drive with the aforementioned designer soldiers. Decades after the abolishment of Twilight slavery and the establishment of rules ostensibly enacted to protect them, the side effects of the experiment are still present in the unstable genes and cultural intolerance of subsequent generations. That lingering post-slavery racism adds an interesting layer to the world-building and the psychology of the characters.
Manga-ka Kohske’s art leans toward higher-contrast black and white, but she uses just enough simple grey screentone for shadow or color-suggestion to give her panels a sense of being bathed in bright Mediterranean sunlight or swallowed in the shadows it creates. Occasional silent sequences encourage slower, closer inspection of subtle details, while dynamically-varied perspectives keep the layouts fresh and help the reader get a feel for minimally-described settings. A few craggy-faced, middle-aged males with light hair and snazzy suits have a tendency to look alike, but otherwise, her characters are well differentiated. In particular, Worick and Nic prove an engaging twist on the odd-couple buddy dynamic, kinder-hearted than their snarky words would imply. Kohske employs some satisfyingly clever misdirection as their shared history is revealed in carefully edited pieces.
Gangsta.‘s bloody violence, strong language, mild nudity, and depictions of prescription drug dependence and adult pursuits—remember Worick’s weekend gig? He’s not the only prostitute, either—earn the series its mature rating, but it all contributes to the intriguing whole. Kohske notes that she originally created these characters for her own amusement and was thrown into a panic when their story was picked up for serialization and she had to figure out what to do with them along the way. Perhaps for this reason, the complicated relationships and large cast can be a little confusing at first, but that’s a small price to pay for what is shaping up to be an entertaining, involving read.
Gangsta., vols. 1-2
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781421560779
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781421564531
Publisher Age Rating: M (18+)