Brian Canini is one of those cartoonists who isn’t afraid to dabble his hand (and pencil, and ink pot, and — you get the idea) into any number of different genres to see what he comes up with — in fact, at this very moment he’s got a sci-fi mini (Plastic People), a diary comics series (Glimpses Of Life), and an indescribably weird-but-fun gag strip thing (Blirps), going on. That’s about as wide a variety as one can imagine, and while nay-sayers may charge that this means he has yet to find a “consistent voice” or somesuch, “glass-half-full”-types such as myself (no, really!) look at this as proof positive that he’s unafraid to experiment, to cast a wide net as he continues to hone is skills. To date, though, his longest sustained serialized story has been the recently-concluded Ruffians, a comic that actually mashes up a few different tried-and-true narrative tropes into one somewhat mixed, but always interesting, whole.
Part “funny animal” yarn, part hard-boiled crime thriller, and part life-behind-bars drama, Ruffians tells the story of Scar, a vicious, hard-ass, jaded assassin — who just so happens to be a three-foot-tall (or thereabouts) blue bear. He’s an interesting choice of protagonist, to say the least, and in all honestly it does take a few issues to just “get over it” and go with the flow, but the contradictions inherent in this character are definitely as stark as Canini probably intends them to be, and the mix of “regular” people, other intelligent animals (like a killer gorilla named Malt), and even a frigging ghost (Scar’s deceased best friend, Black Jack) makes for a supporting cast as consistently intriguing, and hard to predict, as the protagonist is himself. If you’re willing to suspend your sense of disbelief just a little more than usual, you’ll find a lot to love — or love to hate — in this bunch, never fear.
You’ve gotta be cool with some wildly varying art styles and publication formats, as well. All 13 issues are standard comic size, but some have full-color glossy covers, others glossy B&W covers, and others still flat newsprint covers. Issues bob and weave in terms of page count and cover prices, as well, and I assume that all these inconsistencies in terms of production values owe entirely to vagaries in the economics of the marketplace at the time (the series ran for over a decade, after all), while the fluctuations in how Canini illustrates particular characters and situations (Scar generally appears far more “cartoony” than the people and/or animals he interacts with, for instance, many of whom are rendered with almost painstaking detail) are a matter of creative choice — and most of those choices are successful.
Note that I say “most,” not “all.” Canini moves Scar into the “real” world in issue six, for example, and has him meet his creator, and while it’s noble enough in and of itself for cartoonists to experiment with photo/illustration montage, it really does bring the story to a screeching halt at more or less exactly the halfway point, and sort of reeks of an artist looking to make himself the “star” of his own book for no reason other than, well, he can.
That (admittedly semi-significant) gripe aside, though, for a long-form series Ruffians manages to maintain the overall pace of its narrative quite nicely. The first few issues are breakneck affairs that plunge us into Scar’s world at the deep end, things necessarily slow down as he attempts to get as accustomed as one can to prison life in issues four and five (although he picks a fight right off the bat in order to attempt to establish his place in the joynt’s “pecking order”), and after the just-mentioned issue six “hiccup,” things kick into a high gear that doesn’t let up until the conclusion in number 13. Along the way, Canini show that his particular “onion” has plenty of layers to it, and he peels them away at just the right points for maximum “hey, holy shit!” factor. The story is reasonably complex without being overly-complicated, and at no point does it become either intentionally or unintentionally confusing, so “props” to him for keeping the focus pretty damn tight for the most part — not the easiest thing to do over a span of, literally, years.
If bloody brawling is your thing, rest easy, there’s a more than generous amount of it on offer in these pages, and Scar’s sheer ruthlessness never fails to be shocking — although he’s got plenty of competition for the “most brutal bastard in the comic” crown both within, and outside, prison walls. The threats to the safety and security of our ostensible “hero” are very real, very pressing, and very nasty — as nasty as they need to be in order to make every fight feel like a fair one. A lot of conflict-centered narratives suffer from uneven match-ups between antagonists when it comes to either brains, brawn, or both, but no such problem exists here. “The shit” gets real quickly, and stays that way from word “go” to word “stop.”
Now, as you may (or may not) have noticed, I’m trying my level best to avoid divulging anything too much like explicit “spoilers” here, but I’d be remiss in my duties as a critic not to mention that the series’ decidedly Sopranos-esque ending could very well leave a number of readers feeling cheated for having made it all the way to the finish line only to find questions lingering, but strangely enough, I don’t think that necessarily means there’s no “payoff” to be found here. You just have to maybe strain a bit to find it, but these types of conclusions — where everything isn’t spelled out too terribly specifically and readers are put in the position of needing to do some of the “work” themselves — are, for my money, often the best, or at least the most appropriate, and make for a satisfying, if admittedly ambiguous, note to leave things on. If you’re the type of person that gets pissed off when story elements are left blowing in the breeze, when things can’t necessarily even be packaged up, much less wrapped with a bow, then fair enough — but if you don’t mind having some things to ponder even after all is said and done, I think you’ll like what Canini does with the last pages of his last issue here.
In the final analysis, then, Ruffians may not quite achieve anything like “masterpiece” status, but it is ambitious, intriguing, smart, and features impressive art, crisp dialogue, solid characterization, and (for the most part) expert story construction. It hasn’t been collected into a single volume — at least not yet — but getting it in singles issues is a wise investment of your time and money, and all of them are still available from Canini’s own Drunken Cat Comics imprint at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/