This Is How It Starts: In past writings scattered across the Web, I’ve talked about the biggest issue with modern comic books. (No, it isn’t endless reboots or lackluster summer events, but I understand your venom). No, it’s this idea I call “The Minor Thread Delusion”: Some artist/writer comes up with some quaint idea, like a story where a girl can only speak in riddles, and then writes an entire TPB or series about said idea. As you might guess, there’s never enough substance to support a meaningful narrative. Lots of books have this issue, and there’s a real focus on uniqueness or absurdity over genuine and organic stories. Bad Luck Chuck is one such book.
Oh, Chuck: Written by Lela Gwenn, and with art from Matthew Dow Smith, the story follows Charlene “Chuck” Manchester, the world’s unluckiest woman. Like, literally, everywhere she goes bad things happen (fires, drownings, sinkholes, etc.), and she uses this “curse” to eke out a living as a kind of “disaster consultant.” But then Chuck gets involved with a crime lord and an evangelical cult, and her life as a bad mojo machine is suddenly thrust into peril. It’s a solid idea for sure, and there’s something so simple about the premise that it feels like it can go a million directions. But once the book actually starts moving, then the real problems arise.
One-Track Mind: There’s some stuff that Gwenn does right with the story. Chuck is joined by Fayola, whose mother — a noted crime lord — has hired Ms. Unlucky to get rid of her daughter to secure a nice fat inheritance. There’s also a great sub-plot involved with Ean, an insurance investigator hot on Chuck’s tale, and some friendly Tibetan nuns from Chuck’s early days. Together, all these elements spin together to make what could be a promising, multi-faceted crime thriller, a Rat Race meets Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels sort of happening. The only problem is that the beating heart of this story — Chuck’s bad luck vibes — “infect” the rest of the story. What we’re left with feels as thought out as the rules of her hex, flimsy and poorly plotted mostly, a wacky tale done just to generate the most attention and inherent buzz. If all of these strands link back to Chuck, then her “ability” just isn’t sustainable enough to support all of this resulting weirdness. The book feels like it had one good idea and it tried to build on top of that, and the resulting, otherwise solid story is sagging as a result of its poor foundation. It’s as if all the great elements are there — a strong narrative frame, proper character motivations, etc. — but there’s nothing to spark real magic between these pillars. It’s not just that the emphasis is solely on Chuck’s “power” (it is to a degree), but that anything else presented lacks interest or value as this “gimmick.”
More Bad Luck: It’s not all a problem of building a story around Chuck’s bad luck superpower; there’s just so many other dang potholes and dents in the story itself. Gwenn tries to create a backstory for Chuck, but it feels half inflated and poorly planned. Similarly, there’s no real tension between Fayola and her murderous mommy, and that should be dripping with drama and tension. And don’t get me started about the insurance investigator, who seems to flip-flop several times in this book, which comes off as lazy and not a transformative experience. There’s one unifying thread with these issues: it’s hard to care about the characters. They have decent enough backgrounds and motivations, but when things are actually executed, everything just feels flat and deeply muted. If there’s anything to be felt — tragedy, anger, humor, etc. — it never lives long enough on these pages to make an impact. It could be a matter of bad pacing or just too much packed into one story, but nothing really lands. The narrative sort of fumbles along, and you watch with bated breath for something that finally clicks. At times, it feels mostly harmless, and maybe you’ll squeeze some entertainment from that awkwardness. But then there’s moments you see the real potential, and it’s almost depressing at how this all back-fired.
A Glimmer of Hope: I wouldn’t say that I was in love with Smith’s artwork; it’s generally good, but it does feel a little minimalist or direct to have deeper value in this book. That said, it more than does its fair share in helping land a lot of the subtext. There’s a few moments in the book — like a cop getting punched, the look on the cult leader’s face, Chuck’s body language, etc. — that demonstrate a wit and awareness that are sometimes lacking in the actual story. A good comic will always have that balance between the visual and the narrative, but sometimes the only meaningful hits of joy come when the art delivered some nod of recognition or flash of personality that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It’s not really enough to help in the long-term, but it does go to show some of the larger issues with the story itself, and just how close it all could have been to coming together in a meaningful way. As it stands, though, the art is a distraction, a solid tease for a story that couldn’t quite assemble its pieces in a way to make a sturdier body.
Ouch-Wouchie: I try to avoid spoilers, but this is worth mentioning. Without sharing the how and why, the book basically ends with Chuck and Co. becoming a kind of bad luck A-Team. That’s it — they run from the cops, helping the little guy everywhere, and perhaps there’s more to this tale (wink, wink, hint, hint). And that to me isn’t the worst crime (but still pretty darn close), but it is the most informative. This is a story that wanted to be one thing, and when it didn’t land that, tried to go out with one big finale to make up for its many shortcomings. It’s offensive, sure, but it’s mostly just aggravating that this somewhat inspired book ended so stupidly.
Final Thoughts: Grab some lucky horseshoes and just hope you never cross paths with this comic book black cat.