Members of Alcoholics Anonymous tend to have their share of secrets, but few have one like the strapping young man who goes by the assumed name of “Ruben.” When we first meet him, he’s telling his story to his group, going into detail about his first drink and how his habit spiraled out of control. What he’s not telling them is that he’s a vigilante do-gooder with superpowers that come from drinking alcohol and using drugs. And that he wants to be sober.
Produced by co-writers Donny Cates (Dark Horse’s Hunter Quaid) and Toadies drummer Mark Reznicek, along with penciler Geoff Shaw and colorist Lauren Affe, Buzzkill manages to do something superhuman: create a fresh superhero story. But more than that, it presents a unique take on the hard road to getting clean, by marrying superheroics and sobriety in a tale that’s funny, exciting, touching, and somber. And the creators make it look easy.
The comic’s best hook is its hero. Or antihero. The endearingly flawed Ruben’s struggle with his disease and his attempts to right his life are admirable. Cursed/blessed with a double-edged gift, he’s also frustrated as hell and can be a self-righteous asshole who thinks he’s better than everyone. All of these foibles and his realistic personality bring his super-powered problems down to earth. It’s all fantastic yet relatable. Throughout the four-issue miniseries, his internal and external battles are always engaging.
The supporting cast fares well for the most part. The comic’s main villain, if there could be said to be one (and whose identity I won’t spoil), is as well-written and nuanced as Ruben, and his condescending cruelty makes him recognizably human. When he uses his powers then, he’s even more terrifying. Then there’s Doctor Blaqk, a hilariously out-of-his-gourd magician who serves as Ruben’s sponsor and adds plenty of levity.
On the flip side, though, the characterizations of Ruben’s ex-girlfriend and his night-prowling-vigilante best friend are pretty thin. They have little personality beyond “put-upon, caring ex” and “put-upon, caring best friend.” Were they a little more fleshed out, a little less one-dimensional, we’d have an even larger stake in Ruben’s efforts to keep his feet on the ground. Still, the writers and artists have fun decorating the background with dozens of other creative characters, including super-villain Brutal Juice and superhero Panteradactyl. (Local music fans will love those little shout outs.)
But the lack of dimension accorded Ruben’s civilian life brings attention to another gap in the story: his time as a drunk superhero. We get only glimpses of him in action before he tries to sober up and snippets of his old superhero comrades reacting to him, but we never get a feel for how he functioned, or failed to function, while in costume. It’s not a fatal flaw, but even a few scenes –– maybe one of him drunkenly stopping a bank robbery or something –– would have added a little more depth to his story.
If there are gaps in the writing, there’s none in the art. The book is just a damn pleasure to look at. Shaw’s penciling, with its energetic linework and distinct-looking characters, can make simple conversations almost as exciting as fight scenes. His rendering moves with ease between frenzied hatching and moody shading, and his use of perspective, panel layout, and even panel borders is skillful. Bolstered by Affe’s coloring, which keeps the book on the moodier side without being too muted, the art of Buzzkill is as entertaining visually as it is narratively.
Even with killer writing, a fresh take on superheroes, and fantastic art, the book still comes down to its handling of the subject matter, and Cates and Reznicek bring a lot of detail and compassion to the tale. Little touches such as Ruben going through the 12 steps and his efforts to hide his liquor seem lifted from actual AA meetings, and the writers’ empathy for the tormented Ruben seems genuine. Buzzkill doesn’t just deserve applause for having the guts to tackle serious subject matter and following it to some dark places but for doing so entertainingly and compassionately.
Co-written by Donny Cates and Mark Reznicek, art by Geoff Shaw, colors by Lauren Affe
Dark Horse Comics