Classic Fantastic is our series of features on the classics of the format—please check out our other picks for the most important titles, in terms of appeal, innovation, and storytelling, that every library should own.
What’s it about?
The Goon is a classic anti-hero, the local enforcer of a rundown, miserable part of town where the cops don’t bother to show their faces, but zombies, hags, and other inhuman creatures are at just about every turn. When we first meet Goon and his trusted right-hand man Franky, he is keeping every two-bit con artist, thief and moonshiner in check, and manages to keep a horde of zombies and their leader, the Priest, at bay on Lonely Street. While Goon will put everything into keeping the streets in order, if you owe him money, you can be sure he will collect, likely breaking a few bones if you try to weasel your way out of paying him back.
Goon wasn’t always meant for the miserable life he ended up with. Raised by his Aunt Kizzie, a carnival strongwoman, Goon was supposed to be different from his no-good criminal of a father. Kizzie intended to make sure Goon would turn out to be an honorable man. But as with many men who to try to be honorable, Goon’s fate is deep-seated in a sorrow and darkness he can’t escape. After Kizzie is killed by crossfire meant for Labrazio, a territory boss who took to hiding at the carnival, a young Goon killed Labrazio. He took Labrazio’s things and headed to Labrazio’s territory where he convinced everyone that he was Labrazio’s new enforcer. By the time it comes out that Labrazio was already dead when Goon arrived in town, he has already proved himself to be the man in charge and a force to be reckoned with.
The Goon protects his part of town and the people who live in it, first from the Priest and his zombies, and later with more and more formidable foes. As the years pass, the more it comes to light the the town itself may itself be rooted by a curse. Try as they might, Goon and Franky may never be able to go straight and escape the darkness that surrounds them.
If you put together film noir, Universal monsters, early comic strips, pin-ups, and a Svengoolie/Elvira crossover episode, you would get The Goon. With this series Eric Powell created an incredibly immersive world that is simultaneously set in the past while still taking influences from the present. Readers get to see many sides of Eric Powell’s storytelling in the series. Powell incorporates elements of horror in a manner that makes it feel like folklore that’s been passed down from generation to generation in Appalachian country. In earlier issues, Powell is writing a funny book with darker elements woven in. Issues are more standalone, with smaller, local trouble as the story’s main focus. But it’s soon clear that Powell has bigger plans for his series. He plants seeds for storylines that grow in a reader’s mind as they are laughing at one-liners about Franky doing degenerate things with an inflatable chicken. Powell lures you in with jokes about overly romanticized vampires with frilly shirts, and then next thing you know you’re left heartbroken by the misery Goon carries with him. There’s a moment in the series where it became clear Powell would take the book in a darker direction, leaning in on Goon’s past and the curse that holds the town hostage. By the end of the series, the tone has shifted completely to embrace the melancholy of the setting and its main character, but it is still feels like The Goon you started with.
A similar progression is evident in Powell’s art style and the colors accompanying it. Early in the series, the artwork is a take on a classic Eisner style. It paired well with the more humorous tone of the series. Likewise, the colors in those early issues match, with a varied, albeit muted, color palette that made The Goon feel like a classic book while evoking the shady side of town it’s set in. Powell’s covers, however, are paintings more akin to sci-fi pulp novels. The Frank Frazetta influence is clearly there, but it is also easy to compare to artists outside of pulp work, particularly post-impressionists. When I look at later The Goon covers, I get a similar feeling as when I look at a Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painting. As the story progressed, Powell’s style evolved into something unique all his own. In the end, even Franky’s Little Orphan Annie eyes effortlessly switch back and forth from humor to heartache. The more the tone shifts in the story, the more Powell’s covers steer away from attempts at naturalistic color, instead working with more restricted and muted tones which better reflect the underlying sickness in Goon’s world. The interior colors also progress this way, and in time they become more similar to Powell’s covers, coming together as a beautifully cohesive book.
Reading The Goon is a journey where we see a good comic book writer/artist become a great master of the art form. For most fans, the Chinatown storyline is the the clear turn. References to Chinatown are made early in the series, and we quickly learn that whatever happened there seemed to seal Goon’s fate. Similarly, it sealed Powell’s. When Powell finally decided it was time to tackle putting Chinatown to paper, he took a break from regular single issues in order to dedicate his time to the story. It was a risky move, but he knew it was a risk he had to take.
Chinatown was the story that really cemented the humanity of the characters we come to enjoy. In addition to Goon’s personal hardships and heartbreaks, readers get to see how strong the bond between Goon and Franky is. If anyone foolishly questioned whether Franky would be by Goon’s side to the bitter end, the Chinatown book dispelled any doubts. As important as the Chinatown story was in the series’ direction, it is far from being the peak. With every issue, Powell continued to grow as a writer and artist, up until the last arc.
The Goon’s influence has also spread outside of its own world. Goon has had crossovers with Hellboy and animated metal band Dethklok. Among the mini-stories are a few written by Rebecca Sugar, Sugar’s earliest work for a major publisher. (Powell would later publish Sugar’s first comic, Pug David, under his own Albatross Funny Books.) The series has captured the attention of David Fincher, Tom Lennon, and Joe Hill, perfectly reflecting how the series appeals to the weird, funny, and spooky. It’s even been optioned for an animated film by Blur Studios (known for their FX work in several Marvel films and a slew of video games) who created a proof of concept video which has had fans on the edge of their seats for a full movie to be funded.
The Goon is a modern classic; a series in which Eric Powell was able to hone his craft and lift the medium. All while throwing in his fair share of poop jokes. That’s no small feat.
The Goon sits comfortably in that cross-section of funny, spooky, creepy, and melancholy, making it a series that can appeal to different genre interests. This is absolutely a book for older readers. Essentially, if someone shouldn’t see an R-rated movie on their own, then they probably shouldn’t read The Goon (yet). The series is filled with violence, and while earlier issues use that violence for humor, as the series goes on, the violence is more visceral and not meant to make you laugh. There is also quite a bit of suggested nudity, and adult language and humor, both of which are self-censored to a degree by Powell.
Why should you own this?
The Goon is a series that showcases what is great about the comic book format, and has certainly set itself as one of the great series of the medium. In it, we see Powell build upon the foundations that those before him created, and molding it into something all his own. When it’s funny, it makes you burst out in laughter with no regard of who may be around you. When it’s heartbreaking, you’ll find yourself crying over what Goon himself would call “one of them funny books”. The perfect mix of low-brow and high-brow, just what a great comic should be. Originally collected into 17 smaller volumes, Dark Horse re-released the entire series in 5 library editions, so the complete set can find a home on the shelf.
by Eric Powell
The Goon Library, vol. 1: 9781616558420
The Goon Library, vol. 2: 9781616558437
The Goon Library, vol. 3: 9781616559861
The Goon Library, vol. 4: 9781506700182
The Goon Library, vol. 5: 9781506704012
Dark Horse, 2003
Publisher Age Rating: 16+