Lucky in Love: A Poor Man's History by George Chieffet & Stephen DeStefano
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lucky in Love is an oddly charming book. It takes the tradition of immigrant fiction and wartime stories and channels them through archetypal cartooning styles, crafting a book that looks lighthearted but is actually darker in tone and theme than it might appear on the face of it.
The first of two books, A Poor Man's History introduces us to Lucky Testatuda, an Italian American growing up in Hoboken, NJ. This portion of Lucky's life is broken into three chapters: his teen years, his time spent in Hawaii during WWII, and the aimless period of readjusting to civilian life. Writer George Chieffet has a great ear for dialogue and an acutely tuned nose for sniffing out the important events in an episodic narrative. Lucky is short, scrappy, horny, and none too bright--facts all driven home by the things that are said to him and the odd moments where the author pulls back and lets us in on what other characters think of his protagonist. I am not sure those breaks in point of view work entirely. They make me feel a little too sorry for Lucky. Yeah, I know he's kind of a loser, but that's for me to say. It sort of puts the guy on the wrong side of the joke.
Then again, that's where Lucky is discovering he is throughout this volume. It's not just that things don't work out for Lucky, but slowly, as the story progresses, he is starting to figure out that it's less his fault and more a fault of the way society is set up. The things we are promised in this life, the images they sell us, they aren't real. Sure, the army may take over whorehouses in Honolulu and try to make them look pretty and legitimate, but the truth is that deal is only different than the $2 toothless whore out in the boonies in how much you're bilked out of your cash. The consequences of war are not as patriotic as the movies tell us, the heroes of the silver screen are bad drunks, and what comes after the bombs stop falling isn't much better. Lucky lies about his service history to try to get what he wants, only to feel bad later when a veteran who really took a bullet for his country gets legitimately screwed over.
Chieffet found his perfect collaborator in Stephen DeStefano. A long undervalued cartoonist, DeStefano brings a legitimate period look to Lucky in Love. His thick, expressive lines invoke memories of both classic animation (the Fleischer Studios, "Private Snafu" propaganda) and cartooning of various flavors (E.C. Segar, Katzenjammer Kids, Harvey Kurtzman, Joost Swarte). More than the sum of his influences, however, DeStefano has a strong sense of page layout, fitting lots of information into compact spaces, and knowing instinctively where to let the story breathe. The closing scenes of a festival in Little Italy are amazing, the sense of scale taking on larger than life proportions, showing how out of whack things are when compared to the more cramped and desolate images of air combat and soldiers being stranded at sea from earlier in the book.
Vol. 1 opens with a glimpse of Lucky's future, and so we have an idea of where he will end up. I assume the second book, Lucky for Life, will give us the story of how he got there. It looks like it could be a dark path, and yet, the sci-fi dream sequence that starts the whole thing is the most spectacular of all, so we can have some faith that our man will never quite give in. Too bad we're going to have to wait a while to find out if we're right.
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