Blaxploitation, like film noir before it, was very much a product of its time. The effects of bitterness about Vietnam and the way the Civil Rights movement turned from great success to tragedy can all be seen in the best blaxploitation films. As time goes on, though, audiences get more sophisticated, absorb the lessons of the genre, and then we collectively move on to the next one.
Doing straight blaxploitation doesn’t work these days. There were a couple attempts in the ’90s, the most memorable being Original Gangstas, but it doesn’t really work out as it should. It feels kitsch or like a relic from the past. You need a hook, whether it’s Black Dynamite slyly winking at the audience or World of Hurt‘s painstaking attention to what made blaxploitation work back in the day.
Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s Afrodisiac, presented in a fancy hardcover from AdHouse, has a hook, but I don’t know that I can do it justice. It’s kind of a love letter to blaxploitation, but filtered through the style, feel, and design of ’70s Marvel comics. It’s also really, really good. If it had come out in 2009, Parker: The Hunter, Asterios Polyp, and Pluto would’ve suddenly been part of a Top 4, instead of a Top 3.
Alan Diesler, sometimes Afrodisiac, often Mack Midnight, other times The Afrodisiac, still other times Dr. Rufus Blackguy, and even more often simply “Daddy,” is the hero of the book. He runs girls out of Afroca, his headquarters in Wilkesborough. When he’s not pimping, he can be found saving the hood, the world, or some new skirt from predators. He’s distilled John Shaft, smarty, sexy, and able to talk the pants off a clothes store mannequin. There’s not a problem he can’t fix with his charms or his fists.
Afrodisiac is a peek into an alternate history, one where Afrodisiac was a long-running comics franchise, racking up 144 issues, spawning cartoons, manga adaptations, multiple ongoing series, romance comics, and even a magazine, judging by the art on a cover in the book. It reads like an abridged omnibus, spanning the 12-year history (longer if it ran bimonthly, like Luke Cage did off and on) of the character but only showing glimpses into that past.
It’s an interesting approach for a standalone book, but it lets Rugg and Maruca cover a lot of ground and build a fascinating world while telling varied stories. There are only so many times that you can fight the man, of course, so Afrodisiac takes on aliens, Dracula, demi-gods, Tricky Dick Nixon, Death, corrupt religion, and computers.
What’s crazy is how well it all manages to come together. Afrodisiac punches Dracula’s whole brain out, teams up with Richard Nixon as tag team partners, and fights a sentient (and evil) computer, but it never feels forced. It feels like Marvel’s ’70s exploitation books, where a hard-hittin’ black hero teams up with a white kung fu master and it’s all to the good.
The thick vein of humor running through Afrodisiac helps quite a bit with that cohesiveness. Afrodisiac is raunchy, clever, and more than willing to poke fun at itself. It revels in its own gimmick, pushing the blaxploitation humor as far as it’ll go. Afrodisiac fights a giant cockroach (“even by ghetto standards” proclaims a caption box) to save #72, one of his working girls. What follows is a series of cheap cockroach jokes and, incredibly, a boxing match involving a car, and a giant cockroach.
From weird to mundane, Afrodisiac stays clever. The dialogue is pitch perfect for the tone of the book, just the right mix of self-conscious cool and slick slang. Dizzy, Afrodisiac’s numbers girl, loses her temper when Tricky Dick threatens to sic the IRS dogs on Afroca. She gets right in his face, telling him to “settle this like you got some class or we can get into some gangster shit.” The dialogue works. It’s not so stilted or stylized that it sounds awkward. There’s flow and rhythm to it, and most of all, style. The slang is never out of place or awkward. And the slang no one uses any more (bloods, turkey) fits the time period perfectly. Rugg and Maruca avoid having their book sound dated or unreal, managing to always land on the side of “cool.”
The capstone on the whole work, though, is Jim Rugg’s art and design. It looks like a collection of old comics, even down to wrinkled pages and names scrawled across covers in pencil. Some pages look like they were scanned in, complete with the scanning bed or the background showing through the edges, while still others have dog-eared corners or worse. This sort of thing could easily go overboard, but Rugg and Maruca strike a really nice balance between properly printed art and faux flawed repro. It never gets in the way of the story, but it does help to build the myth.
Rugg’s characters are great actors, too, with everything from body language (Afrodisiac wondering if he “finally checked out?”) to the face of Vixena’s mom or Nixon selling emotions without dialogue. Sometimes it goes straight cartoony, as Nixon does when he gets angry. Other times, Rugg goes in close, kicks up the detail, and check that out, Afrodisiac is visibly determined.
Afrodisiac is incredibly enjoyable. It feels like the work of people who not only enjoy blaxploitation and comics, but get why the two work. There’s never anyone delivering a ton of exposition, explaining what Rugg and Maruca were trying to do. All of it is there on the page, just waiting for you to take a second look.
The easiest point of comparison for Afrodisiac is Street Angel, but even that isn’t quite on this level. They share a similar tone and sensibility, but Afrodisiac is composed of shorter stories, allowing it to get across more content, and completed years after Street Angel. The creators have grown in skill since, and it shows in this.
It’s a book that works on a number of levels. AdHouse has its genres defined as hip-hop, superhero, comedy, and art, and all of those are true. It’s funny, beautiful, and it’s got a toe in that ’70s Marvel aesthetic. It wears a lot of hats, but never seems cluttered or unfocused. It just sets out to do something and succeeds admirably.
Afrodisiac is dope. That’s really the only way to put it. Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca get it. Afrodisiac is a lot of cool in a small package, and my early front-runner for book of the year. It hits retail 01/14/10, so keep your eyes peeled.
Grab an extended preview of the book from the official site and check out these six images to see how the book looks in real life. See if you can spot the silhouetted woman: