Written by Charles Meier
I hate Portlandia. I really do. I’ll admit when it does make me laugh, I laugh hard, but that happens maybe every third episode, which averages out to maybe five laughs for the entire series. This is, I will admit, a higher success rate than According To Jim, but it still feels like a waste of time. Also, fair warning, the next person who says “put a bird on it” to me gets challenged to a knife fight. And whoever told Carrie Brownstein she could act is in dire need of a rabbit-punching. Speaking as someone who actually lives in Portland, I can tell you I’ve never been to the city on this show (it never even freaking rains). All the people I think of when I think of this city, the ones I see all around me on the street and on Tri-Met? Nary a one of them to be found in Portlandia. While I’m on a roll, nice of Armisen and Brownstein to carry on the proud tradition of ignoring the city’s homeless population (which I’ll admit isn’t particularly funny, but since when has that stopped them?) Of the people you do see on the show, none rise above the level of stereotype; when you get down to it, this is basically a minstrel show, albeit with slightly less blackface. Sure, there are plenty of stupid, lazy, obnoxious people in this city, but most of them are at least halfway functional. And they’re more than balanced out by smart, talented, driven people who care about what they do and genuinely want to make the world a bit brighter by putting out quality stuff.
This is especially true of our comics industry. I’m not altogether certain when, how, or why it happened (though I’m glad it did), but Portland has become something of a sequential-art Mecca. In addition to being the home base of Dark Horse (well, okay, technically Milwaukie, but close enough, damn it) and Oni Press, dozens if not hundreds of writers/artists both indie and mainstream call the city home.
Into this category fall Jeff Parker (Mysterius The Unfathomable) and Erika Moen (DAR!) of Periscope Studio. Their first collaborative work, the acclaimed webcomic Bucko: A Dick and Fart Joke Murder Mystery, receives a dead-tree release from Dark Horse this week.
The series has a somewhat misleading title. While dick and fart jokes abound in Bucko (especially in the form of Fartmonger, a veritable Green Lantern of flatulence), the “murder mystery” part is a red herring, the investigation launched and resolved (not that the characters know it) in the space of a single page. While a murder does figure into the story, it’s mainly a Macguffin, a way of drawing the cast together and nudging the plot along, rather than the plot itself.
Not that there’s much plot to be found in Bucko. I say this as a statement of fact, not of criticism. Apart from the quickly-solved murder, and a late-stage subplot involving a ghost-bike smuggling ring (which, thankfully, ends up being nowhere near as stupid as it first appears), the onus of progression is on the characters’ shoulders.
And character is where Bucko really shines. Far from Portlandia’s ooh-aren’t-we-all-eccentric-and-wacky caricatures, people in Bucko are just that: people (with the possible exception of Boilerplate). While I’ve never met anyone like the idiots in Portlandia, I’ve met plenty of people like those in Bucko–eccentric without being overbearing, and genuinely passionate about what they do. Kudos to Parker for recognizing that “eccentric” doesn’t automatically mean “asshole”. Not that there aren’t jerks in this book–while nowhere near so bad has Portlandia, Bucko’s city (there are some inexplicable attempts to hide its identity, with references to “TRAX” and “Doyle’s Square”, but come on) does indeed have its share of the pretentious and self-satisfied. As we all know, all roommates are automatically awful, and therefore Chad and (to a much lesser extent) Dell are at least somewhat so. The cops by and large uphold the finest tradition of public service displayed by the Portland PD in recent years, though they do at least manage to not shoot anyone. The juggalos once again prove their real-world reputation for being idiots and assholes to be well-deserved, though that said, the Juggalo Queen goes on to become a legitimately awesome and hilarious character. That she became a regular cast member (apparently on a whim) and disaster was still averted speaks very well of this series.
And this book is funny. I mean, really funny. For me, the laughs start in with Rich presenting himself like a mandrill to his cellmates, gamely accepting what he believes to be his imminent catamitism, continue through “MAKE A WISH ON THIS SHIT!” and just keep right on rolling through autocorrect follies and beyond. (Were I Dylan Meconis, I probably would have seriously reconsidered approving that Family Man reference, as I am now utterly incapable of reading that otherwise fine series without thinking it’s about raping willowy young men.) It’s not that I hold rape to be funny–unless, of course, the participants happen to be Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd–but Bucko’s humor derives from embarrassment, rather than rape itself. Parker displays an uncommonly deft hand at this variety of humor, knowing to pull back right at the point where things would lapse into the sad and uncomfortable. Unlike many who truck in cringe comedy, Parker knows that while embarrassment may be funny, humiliation is very much not–especially when the butt (heh heh) of the joke is likeable.
Moen’s artwork suits all this crazy nonsense quite well, being cartoony enough to suit the comedy while expressive enough to convey emotional impact. There’s dynamism to spare for the odd fight-scene, too. I also dig the color scheme; as it turns out, throwing blue into the mix adds a certain friendly warmth to plain ol’ black-and-white. Her wanton use of the Symbol of Infinite Rage troubles me, however. Such things are always dangerous, particularly in the hands of random shitheads on the Internet. Is it not whispered that 4chan gaining knowledge of the dread sigil some years back led directly to the collapse of Geocities? Such rumors contain more truth than many suspect.
For all there is to like about Bucko, it’s not without flaws. It was originally printed as a webcomic, which results in some odd pacing when converted to book form. In addition, there are some continuity errors, such as the never-identified owner of the hand on page 25, and the gang’s magical disappearing and reappearing bicycles in Act Three. For the book version, the creators are content to point out the mistakes, rather than fix them outright. Which I’ll admit annoys me somewhat, but whatever the hey.
This collected volume is full of extras, justifying its purchase to those who read the comic on the Internet for free. Chief among these is a running Pop-Up Video-style page commentary by Parker and Moen, pointing out and explaining several of the more obscure sources and references, as well as such helpful tips to aspiring cartoonists as the best time to cut to a robot. While helpful to those lacking personal familiarity with the parties involved (Bucko turns out to be something of a love letter to Portland’s indie-comics scene), these can be troubling at times; it’s Parker who reveals the murder-bathroom to be Periscope’s ladies’ restroom. How does he know? The people have a right to know, Jeff! We want assurances the men’s room was out of order one day and that you’re not some sort of sex-pest! And for the record, a Hot Charlie is when you *passage deleted by editor*. The tricky part is getting ahold of that much Oreo dye. I recommend eBay. Also, we finally get to see the Juggalo Queen’s backstory, which I wouldn’t dream of spoiling, except to say that I’m totally gonna see Toddlers & Tiaras in a whole different light now.
Even without the extras, Bucko is worth paying to read, just as much as it was worth reading for free. These are creators very much deserving of your dollar, which is more than I can say for Brownstein and Armisen. This comic proves that Portland can be a perfectly serviceable humor-trough without falling back on lazy stereotype.
Bucko comes out September 12.