Janet Evanovich’s Troublemaker is a strange graphic novel for a whole bunch of reasons.
The book is the first work in comics by Evanovich, an established and well-loved novelist. The author has collaborated before, but often writes as a sole author – this graphic novel script was her first fiction writing with her daughter Alex. Though it is Evanovich’s first graphic novel, Troublemaker is actually the third book in a series, following the Barnaby and Hooker books Motor Mouth and Metro Girl. Well, that’s not entirely true; it’s the first half of the third story in a series.The art is by Joëlle Jones … kinda. Jones is credited as the artist, but Ben Dewey did what looks like a lot of legwork to earn a credit for “background pencils.”
So, there are a lot of factors in play behind the scenes of Troublemaker. Unfortunately, these pieces ever coalesce, the whole thing is a bit of a mess.
Set in Miami and South Florida, Troublemaker is the third adventure of NASCAR mechanic Alex Barnaby and driver Sam Hooker. At the beginning of the story a mutual friend of theirs named Rosa is kidnapped, the only clue to her whereabouts an explosive Voodoo doll with a cryptic note attached. Fearing that the police won’t find Rosa before it’s too late, Alex, Sam and his dog Beans decide to track her down in Miami. Picking up some clues and taking some absurd logical leaps along the way, the trio tracks Rosa through the swamps of South Florida and the streets of Miami, with fan boat and car chases aplenty.
Sam and Alex are dating, I think, or at least flirt heavily throughout the book. Since this is the third story in the series, there’s a lot of back story that I didn’t have, and an absent recap page is sorely missed. Troublemaker existing as the third part of a serialized story is used by the authors as an excuse for offering no character development at all. Everyone is painted with a ridiculously broad brush; Alex is the sassy, smart cliche of a female lead, Sam is a handsome guy that is clueless about women but can make them melt, Rosa is a drama queen. The ancillary characters are one-note jokes, from Sam’s mom (who is a cougar – gasp!) to the kidnappers, who never rise above being something for the main cast to run away from.
Some of the problems in Troublemaker can probably be blamed on the fact that this is the Evanoviches first stab at scripting a comic, rather than writing prose. The biggest problem that folks new to the medium seem to encounter is telling instead of showing, and loading the pages too heavily with words when the images can tell the story. Janet and Alex weather this better than most, particularly in the boat chase and investigation scenes in the second and third chapters of the book. While you’d expect more exposition in a mystery like Troublemaker than a superhero comic, there is a LOT of text on the pages during the setup and climax pages of this book. Writers like Brian Bendis, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis have all shown that you can find ways to marry lots of text and art, and the Evanoviches don’t have the balance quite down yet.
The highlight of Troublemaker is definitely Joëlle Jones’ art. Jones, probably best known for the recent Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog comic spin-off, has an animated cartooning style that works well with colorist Dan Jackson’s bright palette. Sam and Alex both look like real people, and in the better scenes the art is similar to the cartooning of Georges Jeanty. While the book mostly sticks to a conventional grid for storytelling, each of the four chapters has at least one page that I wouldn’t mind having framed.
That isn’t to say the art is without issues. For one, the book looks a bit rushed, which is strange for an OGN. There are spots where faces and bodies are stretched or squished, or perspective looks a bit off. Frankly, it occasionally looks like a first draft. It never slips enough to muddle the storytelling, however, and the characters are all unique enough that you won’t lose track of who is who. I just wish that Jones had a chance to do some touch-up on a few pages. The other problem is that Jones didn’t really do all the art, and Dewey was stuck with the task of background pencils. I’m not sure what happened between Jones and Dewey’s pages, but there are lots of panels that simply don’t have a background at all. Whether the characters are racing in the Everglades, schmoozing at a bar, in a shop or in a car chase, often the background is just a solid splash of color. With Jones drawing the characters so well, it’s a shame to see them existing in a vacuum.
Now, lest I come off as too harsh, let me remind you that this book is a follow-up to Motor Mouth and Metro Girl, nearly 700 pages of background for these characters that I haven’t read. For fans of the books, problems with lackadaisical plotting and character development might not be an issue. However, I can only review this book as a standalone graphic novel – particularly because I anticipate the authors put it out in this medium to try and grab a new audience. As a standalone work and a jumping-on point, Troublemaker fails. With tired jokes, caricatures of characters and a plot that limps to an unsatisfying cliffhanger ending, it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone but the most rabid fans of Janet Evanovich and the Metro Girl series.