A couple of months ago, the Outhouse Review Group covered Twelve Reasons to Die #1, the first issue of a new book from Black Mask Studios that serves as a companion to the latest album by Wu-Tang Clan rapper Ghostface Killah. Or, perhaps, the album is a concept album based on the comic. Despite a lot of us being fans of Wu-Tang and, of course, fans of comic books, I don't think anyone really expected the book to be great. We were surprised to learn, however, that this wasn't an afterthought tacked on to an album as supplemental material. It's a bold slap in the face for both rap and comics fans who, if they're anything like me, have been feeling bored and disappointed by the over-commercialization of both mediums for some time.
The book brings longtime Ghostface alias Tony Starks to life in a tale of revenge, drawing on the same elements of gangsta rap culture, organized crime, and samurai flicks that fans of Wu-Tang's music find explored on their albums. Each issue features two stories, one centered around Tony Starks rising through the ranks of a mobster organization called the Twelve DeLucas (and killing them), and the other a horror tale about a series of cursed vinyl records. Presumably, the stories will tie together at some point. While the whole thing is masterminded by writer Matthew Rosenberg, who is joined by writer Patrick Kindlon and lead illustrators Breno Tamura and Gus Storms, the list of collaborators involved in various aspects of the production is mind-boggling: Tim Seeley, Ben Templesmith, Tyler Crook, Toby Cypress, Jim Mahfood, Nate Powell, Adrian Younge, and of course Rza, just to name a few.
Though I enjoyed the first issue, I've had a hard time finding subsequent issues and had almost forgotten about it until getting caught up last night. In fact, when we covered this book in the Review Group, a lot of us were surprised by its existence. We simply didn't know it was being created, because it's not getting the attention it deserves. It's not easy to find in stores, but you can head over the Black Mask Studios website and buy the series in both digital and analog format. And you should. The book is brutal and honest in its violence, just like the music of Wu-Tang, but, what sets it apart from other music and comics with similar themes is the unabashed joy and love of the medium that goes into making it. Comic book fans listening to Wu-Tang are often delighted by the references to comics in the lyrics, and here is an opportunity to experience the same thing in reverse ("Torture, motherfucker!"). Comic book readers who are fans of Wu-Tang will love this book, but fans of (good) rap or comics may find a whole new genre to fall in love with as well.
The art in the book, despite the contributions of so many artists bolstering the solid work by the main illustrators, is cohesive; there's a raw essence that binds the work of all these artists together. This isn't a polished, sanitary superhero comic. The art captures the unrefined spirit of Wu-Tang's early batch of records like a rotation of hungry rappers strutting their stuff over a hypnotic Rza beat. At times, it can feel messy, and some of the action (or brutal slaying) can be difficult to follow. I have to admit, I'm not really sure what the hell happened in the second story in issue #2, and I'm gonna have to read it over a few times to figure it out. That being said, you don't always hear everything going on in a song on first listen either. In the realm of music/comic book collaborations, think of this more like Alice Cooper and Neil Gaiman's Last Temptation than the Marvel Comics KISS Super Special. It's the perfect marriage of music and comics and an obvious labor of love from all involved, and I'm surprised it took the guys from Wu-Tang so long to make a comic book.
I'm not a great comic reviewer, and I'm an even worse music critic, so the above is the best I can do to describe this book. In a week when the Big Two put out THREE super-mega-crossover event comics, Twelve Reasons to Die is a sorely needed respite for fans who just want to immerse themselves in a great comic book and forget about 3D variant covers and marketing departments for a little while. Issue #3 is in stores today, but if you haven't read the first two (and you probably haven't - the lack of attention this book is getting is criminal), you can head over to the website and pick up the first two as well.
This book has my highest recommendation, and I'm excited to see what else the newly formed Black Mask has to offer (check out Occupy Comics, the original raison d'être for Black Mask, while you're on the site).