Anchorage, Alaska: a hotbed of organized crime. Sound odd? It’s supposed to. But this odd premise of Family Ties: An Alaskan Crime Drama actually plays to the strength of artist Noel Tuazon.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Family Ties is based on the storyline of Shakespeare’s King Lear—NBM is using it as their main selling point. So if you know your Shakespeare, you kind of already know what’s going to happen, though I would argue that you’re better off not knowing your Shakespeare to appreciate writer Eric Hobbs’s version, so don’t go doing any googling at this point. But, in the interest of giving potential readers a general idea: the old head of a crime family is starting to suffer from dementia, and his three children, plus his henchmen, have to figure out if and whether they want to assume control, and how.
And if that plot sounds familiar, it’s because King Lear has already been adapted many times, like for example in 20th century movies such as On Golden Pond (yawn) and my favorite: Kurosawa’s medieval Japanese epic Ran.
The elder patriarch of this family is Jackie, and at one point in the story he declares, “We aren’t the Mafia.” Which is odd, because he’s the head a family-slash-syndicate with the very Italian name of Giovanni (making him, in effect, Don Giovanni, though there don’t seem to be references to Mozart’s opera here). And, the back-cover blurb of the book states that Family Ties is “The Godfather meets Shakespearean tragedy.” Also, his organization does very Mafia-like things, like sell drugs and run a protection racket. But, suffering from dementia, Jackie is an unreliable, and therefore interesting, character—Sometimes he’s thinking clearly, other times he’s just lost, and doesn’t even recognize his family.
The twist here is that the two ambitious and selfish children are female, while the one child that actually cares about the patriarch, Cain, is male. He’s our sympathetic character, wanting nothing to do with his father’s crime business, and wanting everything to do with his father’s love.
I actually really like the idea of making the selfish/manipulative children women, and that they’re very much involved in all of the family business, from money, to doing the (violent) dirty work. And yet, their characters seem the least believable—not, I hope, because I’m being sexist and can’t believe that women can be mean-ass gangsters, but more because their voices—the words they say—sound unrealistic.
This happens with other (male) characters too, but for example, when Shannon and Kim are presenting their takeover plan to their father’s cronies, as part of a longer speech, Kim tells them this, about their father: “….Shannon and I are going to slowly being stripping him of the power he has left.” This may be a good description of what they’re actually doing, but no one, male or female, would actually say that to a room full of pseudo-Mafia loyal to their father. Not to mention that we readers already know this—this dialogue isn’t serving any purpose. Hobbs doesn’t seem to trust us enough, and is using this speech for exposition.
The best part about Family Ties, and the reason I’d recommend it, is the art, by Noel Tuazon, all black and white. And gray. Lots of gray. His figures and objects are mostly minimalist sketches, and the “coloring” is various shades of gray watercolor, which I, in my non-art history background, associate with traditional Chinese and Japanese nature paintings. Meaning that the story is just automatically moody and exotic-looking. But also, the black and white and gray formatting serves as a metaphor for the story morality: it’s not a world of black/white bad/good, but a whole bunch of people operating somewhere in the middle, though Shannon and Kim come off as mostly bad.
The artwork also fits perfectly with the setting of Anchorage, Alaska. At first I wondered whether setting the story there was even necessary, or even believable, since many of the earlier scenes are inside but, as some of the action moves out into the woods, Tuazon’s artwork just becomes vital: that gray watercolor effect makes for perfect fog and clouds and snow, and there are some really lovely, surprisingly soft-feeling, panels of forest in snowstorms—a great contrast to the human violence that invades it.
If I have a quibble with the art it’s that sometimes the characters, and especially their faces, are a little too scribbly and vague, to the point sometimes where I wasn’t sure which characters were which, especially in interactions between two minor half-brother characters.
Most refreshing of all is that this is a story and book that is one big unit: there were no 22 page section single issues that have been squashed together. I just wish the dialogue would have been tighter and less explicative and that the two daughter characters’ motivations, while still bad, and their dialogue (which is also kinda bad) were a little more believable. But, one could argue that that’s the problem with those two characters in the original King Lear. But the thing about Shakespeare is that we don’t care too much about the plot—it’s the language that he uses, the way it ‘sounds’ (either read or recited). It’s just a pleasure to hear/see it. Kurosawa’s Ran works in a similar way, in that it’s a visual feast.
Family Ties is mostly a visual feast (or at least a good meal) though doesn’t quite sound as rich. But then nothing sounds as rich as Shakespeare.
For more information on Family Ties, visit NBM’s website.