BUZZKILL by Donny Cates, Mark Reznicek, and Geoff Shaw
While certain plot details feel a bit rushed, BUZZKILL is a grand success for the comic book medium. With a plot centered on the alcoholism and recovery of a former superhero, this story hits the reader hard and makes them focus on the harsh reality.
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Through use of heavily exaggerated set-pieces and characters, superhero comics have great potential to tackle potent themes. Some of my personal favorite stories don’t simply tackle grand physical brawls in the streets of major cities. They dig deep into the heart of what it means to be a human being. As a visual medium, comics have a major purpose in sharing messages with their readers. DC’s ALL STAR SUPERMAN deals with themes of mortality. Marvel’s CIVIL WAR questions the ethics of governmental control. Image, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of this theme-oriented approach to storytelling with titles like SON OF SHAOLIN, REBORN, and INVINCIBLE. Now, Image has done it again, delving into the murky waters of alcoholism and recovery with Donny Cates and Mark Reznicek’s BUZZKILL.

Hitting the 12 Steps

Courtesy of Image Comics

Francis was once one of the world’s most powerful superheroes. With powers ranging from super strength and invulnerability to heightened senses and rapid healing, one would think he had it made. His powers, though, came with a catch. Unless Francis was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he had no superpowers. In fact, the more he abused those substances, the stronger he became. During a particularly brutal battle with a deadly villain, Francis drank himself into a blackout rage to gain the strength to win. When he woke up, though, San Francisco was nearly destroyed, hundreds of innocents were hurt (or worse), and his villain was beaten into a coma. And he had no memory of what happened.

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We first meet Francis at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. After only 48 hours of sobriety, Francis’ greatest villains band together to enact their revenge. Nearly killing him on the streets, Francis visits a nearby church to down as much blessed wine as he can to defeat these gathered foes. From here, readers follow BUZZKILL’s protagonist as he repeatedly struggles to stay on the wagon and attempts to reconstruct his life. But as the world falls further apart without this hero, can Francis stay true to his recovery?

Who Can Remember?

BUZZKILL is a brilliant tour de force by this creative team. The potency of this story immediately gripped me as a reader, and there are plenty of interesting cards that Cates and Reznicek play in this narrative. At this story’s heart lie the many interwoven themes of alcoholism and recovery. While these themes have been explored time and again in literature, a fact supported by the many epigraphs Cates uses between chapters, things feel different here. The reader understands Francis’ struggle. By the end of the book, we learn that Francis dreamed of being a hero, of saving people. As an adult, he made a real difference as a superhero, but this difference was also superseded by a history of destruction. His recovery would put an end to his life dream, but it may just save lives.

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More importantly, Cates and Reznicek approach this theme with its due reverence. While they poke a lot of fun at superhero archetypes, Cates and Reznicek always delve into alcoholism and addiction with a serious tone. We see Francis’ life dissolve around him, and even though he makes a concerted effort, he keeps coming out behind. His girlfriend left him, and he has lost all respect from his former heroic allies — all because he gained superpowers and decided to help people. While avoiding specifics, this story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending. For most of the plot, there is a great repartee between Francis and his supporting cast, but this is a story that asserts how difficult the recovery is. This isn’t a comedic look at the issue. This is a gritty, bare-bones story that isn’t afraid to shock you. And that is more than a little refreshing.

Blaqk, not Black

Courtesy of Image Comics

The characterization of Francis’ sponsor, Dr. Blaqk, is one of the most brilliant aspects of BUZZKILL. A Dr. Strange knockoff, Blaqk is a current alcoholic with his head constantly in a (figurative) cosmic whirlpool. Not only is Blaqk increasingly stubborn throughout the piece, he also provides a joviality that helps lighten the tone of the more bloody or serious moments. Similarly, Nikki (Francis’ ex) and Eric (a former friend and superhero) have increasingly complex emotions and interesting connections to Francis’ plot.

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Sadly, though, these character moments represent the one failing I find with BUZZKILL. While nearly every cast member subverts superhero tropes in interesting ways, the impact of events never fully comes through. Much of this can be attributed to the succinct nature of this story. BUZZKILL is consigned to four chapters, meaning Cates and Reznicek have to sometimes forego certain plotlines to further the story.

One of the most grievous examples occurs near the end of the story. When Francis goes to make amends with Nikki, he learns that she is living and sleeping with one of his former friends. While the two friends fight, the fallout of this event never fully receives its time on page as the final major villain leaps onto the scene. This happens only a few times throughout the story, but it did leave me wanting.

A Gory, Beautiful Mess

Courtesy of Image Comics

Despite these minor story foibles, BUZZKILL sells itself well in so many different ways. One of these is the brilliant artistry by Geoff Shaw. The entire story has this brutal and messy aesthetic, with line work that is intensely sketchy. This helps the world feel gritty and realistic, a boon to the serious nature of this story. But much like the writers played with jovial moments, Shaw seems to approach the artistry in much the same way. Character designs, especially in the case of Francis’ former villains, were slightly ludicrous, taking inspiration from the strangest villains in superhero history. In the end, I would buy this book for Shaw’s art alone.

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That said, certain fans may not appreciate Shaw’s art. This isn’t necessarily an aesthetic flaw. BUZZKILL is not self-conscious in how it handles gore. One moment (pictured above) depicts Francis’ superhero identity covered in the bloody remains of a drug pushing supervillain. While I found no fault in this, some fans may find the blood and gore to be too much. With that warning, I do have to say that if you can look past this aspect, Shaw’s artistry is a masterpiece of the comic book medium. It constantly feels visceral and exciting, which is all you can ever ask of a superhero story.

Final Thoughts: BUZZKILL

For fans looking for a heavily introspective supers story, BUZZKILL should be next on your reading list. Cates and Reznicek managed to craft a story that displays the pure thematic might of this visual medium. They aren’t afraid to approach these relevant problems on the page, and for that, they should be commended. For fans wanting a faster-paced beat-em-up, George Shaw’s messy art should draw you into this brutal landscape. BUZZKILL succeeds because it manages to balance these disparate facets. The plot feels tight and full of meaningful detail, but it packs in enough explosions and intrigue to keep the reader’s interest. I seriously don’t know what you are waiting for. Go read BUZZKILL!

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