When I first heard the premise of The Unprofessionals: A Sociopathic Bromance (written by Colin Rankine and co-created by Rankine and Alexis Cruz, whose acting work you might know from Stargate or Drag Me to Hell), I was ready to yawn. The synopsis begins: “Everyone says you should live your dream. But when your dream is to be an awesome ninja assassin, you can get into a lot of trouble.” I thought the comic would be nothing more than paint-by-numbers, Tarantino-inspired Everyonesploitation of the type that we’ve all seen before. What I got instead, was a pretty amazing story about the intricacies of a friendship that just happened to have some violence in it.
The Unprofessionals: A Sociopathic Bromance is a graphic novel that’s being rolled out in six chapters, and the first chapter, “The Son-In-Law,” is available now. It tells the story of Jake and Leo, best friends and college students who may or may not be sociopaths. Jake is the down-to-Earth “normal” one (if you can call either of them that when they’re both considering careers as ninja assassins), and Leo is the crazy, neurotic dreamer who drives much of the action forward by prodding his friend along, convincing him to do all manner of crazy stuff. Like swiping an assassin job from the professionals in order to make a name for themselves, for instance.
What becomes clear, however, is that while Leo does all of the initial prodding, his ideas speak to Jake. He doesn’t ever have to prod Jake all that hard to get him to do some pretty unspeakable things. What is it about these guys, guys who look like any other college-aged guys in New York City, that drives them to choose “ninja assassin” as a profession? There is an undercurrent of rage simmering inside both of them, and the interplay between them as they navigate that, each with their own defense mechanisms (Jake with his over-cautiousness, Leo with his relentless risk-taking), makes this story relevant. What makes the story enjoyable is the fact that these guys are genuinely good friends, and we see how intimately they know each other and how much they care about each other without it being the butt of a joke or brushed off covered in irony. They’re sarcastic and ironic about a lot of things, but their friendship is never one of them. There have been a lot of “bromances” in recent years – most of them films directed by Judd Apatow – but this one has killing in it!
This is Colin Rankine’s first graphic novel, and he does an admirable job adapting his skills to the medium. He and Cruz have developed an intriguing story, and he deftly executes it; knowing when to take the time and panel space needed to allow for an in-depth conversation, and knowing when to ramp up the action. His dialogue is true-to-life while feeling heightened at the same time, and he’s surrounded the central duo with an intriguing (and often funny) cast of characters that accurately represents the diversity of New York City. “The Son-In-Law” is well-paced, and ends in a way that makes you want to see what happens next.
Chris Moreno’s art is a perfect fit for this story. The facial expressions he draws kill me, and they capture the nuances of each character beautifully. He draws great action, too, and whenever there’s movement in a panel it’s graceful and feels like it’s coming off the page. Troy Peteri does some wonderfully diverse work with his lettering, seamlessly moving from dialogue, to letterboxes that use graffiti, to pages from the main duo’s Special Ops handbook. For me, however, the real standout of The Unprofessionals art team is colorist Kate Glasheen, whose beautiful, hand-painted watercolors bring to the surface underlying themes in the story that a lesser colorist might have glossed over in the face of a standard “gritty” look. Glasheen excels at making the pretty look slightly scary. For example, she gives Jake these piercingly bright pastel blue eyes. Now, pastel blue doesn’t seem particularly threatening, but the way Glasheen uses it, choosing her moments carefully, they pop almost aggressively, showing us that there’s more to Jake than his non-threatening baby face. There are moments of coloring brilliance like that throughout the book, and her colors elevate Moreno’s already amazing work. Erik Reeves’ cover is fun and eye-catching and captures the spirit of the book in a way that is both specific and accessible.
This isn’t a perfect book. The device of showing an mp3 player with a song and lyrics that are thematically appropriate is one I fear will be used throughout, and I’m not a huge fan of that. Check out my review of David Lapham’s Young Liars if you don’t believe me. In my opinion, comics don’t need a “killer soundtrack.” It’s like, I get it, you’re trying to be like a movie. But be a graphic novel first, since that’s what you actually are. Also, there are a couple of pages toward the end where visual elements compete too much on the page, muddling their effect by having one element too many. My feeling is that a lot of it was done to mimic the intense pacing of an action film by using movement in the panels, boxes with dialogue as a sort of “voice-over narration,” and pages out of the Special Ops book, which would have been great had this been a film, but makes reading certain pages of this graphic novel difficult.
You can purchase a digital download of “The Son-In-Law” at SociopathicBromance.com for $1.99, but I’d highly recommend purchasing the limited edition trade paperback for $19.99. Not only can the art and layouts be better appreciated in this format (the colors especially, which pop even more on the printed page), but the print edition includes preview pages from Chapters 2-4. So, if you get to the end of Chapter 1 and want an idea of where the story’s going, it’s all there. The best part? Each chapter is done by a different artist, so you’ll get to see these characters brought to life in pencils by Kate Glasheen (whose pencils are as lovely as her colors), Michael Montenat, and Christian Dibari.
Alexis Cruz, Chris Moreno, Colin Rankine, Drag Me to Hell, Erik Reeves, Kate Glasheen, Stargate, The Unprofessionals, Tony Peteri, comics, indie