Mixing Media and Reality – Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace

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With Dark Horse’s release of the complete Pistolwhip last week, I figured it was time to jump into this series. Oddly enough, I dived into the Pistolwhip series in a disjointed way…I started with the second volume: Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace.

Cover for Volume Two of Pistolwhip

Cover for Dark Horse’s The Complete Pistolwhip

Even though I began with the second volume, which was the only volume available at my local comic book store, this volume stands as its own solid, self-contained piece; the arc is fully realized and resolved in The Yellow Menace volume that you could even be fooled into believing that this volume was a single graphic novel and not a volume containing only a snippet of stories part of a much bigger series.

Before the days of Kick-Ass and Super, Jason Hall and Matt Kindt explored the idea of blurring lines between superheros, supervillains, and everyday people with Pistolwhip. Jack Peril guards a city reminiscent of a 1940s Los Angeles, but some uncertainty lies around whether he really even exists. A fixture of popular media, Jack has a radio show program, a comic book series, a film series, and a pulp novel series dedicated to his various adventures and battles against evil with a particular focus on his arch nemesis, the Yellow Menace, a grim, cruel, and abominable villain who commits some quite macabre crimes.

When a possible copycat killer who follows the ghastly attacks of the Yellow Menace in each week’s new episode of Jack Peril, be it in the comic book, radio program, pulp novel, or film, brings fear to the city, reality and the fictional world of Jack Peril begin to intertwine. Jack Peril is seen on the streets by some. The Yellow Menace is fatally seen by others too. Caught between the fiction and the reality, Pistolwhip, a down-and-out private investigator begins to work with Jack Peril to figure out the whereabouts and the identity of the Yellow Menace.

Beyond Pistolwhip, Jack Peril, and the Yellow Menace himself, there are the main players of the mystery behind the Yellow Menace killer: Mr. Loom, Isla Rose, Ray Ford, and Charlie Minks.

With this battle between Jack Peril and the Yellow Menace unfolding on radios, on pages, on big screens, and on newspaper front pages, the Jack Peril media dynasty captures the attention of the city, much to the horror (and maybe even a bit of satisfaction) of Roderick Loom, a pseudo-academic philosopher/preacher preparing for a lecture at the Chase Hotel which will cite recent Yellow Menace events to demonstrate how fictional media corrodes our society.

Along with Mr. Loom, we also meet Isla Rose and Ray Ford in the Chase Hotel. Isla is a housekeeper at the hotel carrying a heaviness coming from her past. Ray is a chipper but over-zealous police officer placed on guard after the Hotel’s previous night detectives on duty were murdered. And, in the mix of all of the characters stands Charlie Minks, Jack Peril’s confidant who carries a secret past and operates on a covert mission; she’s most likely our femme fatale, but there’s some humanity to her which may suggest otherwise.

Fundamentally, all of the characters in Pistolwhip represent archetypal mystery and film noir characters. Almost all of them have something burdensome in their past that haunts them and has lead to their downfall. Consequently, they relish in any opportunity to return to any level of grace. Yet, despite the archetypal characters, Jason Hall and Matt Kindt manage to deviate from preconceived notions of each of the characters by blurring the lines between reality and fiction from within the volume, making the reader question who is real and who is not, and making the motivations of each character difficult to guess, and as a result, the series lures you in because of its twists and turns and your own curiosity and desire for a resolution to the mystery behind the Yellow Menace.

However, what really makes Pistolwhip a commendably innovative and imaginative series is its ability to build up and shift character personas in non-sequential pieces weaved into the core narrative. While the mystery of the identity of the Yellow Menace sets the pace of the story, each character adds rich texture and harmonies to the narrative. As a result, over the course of the volume, your interest in the final answer to the mystery will begin shift because you will not only wonder, “Who did it?” but also “How will [insert character name here] be affected by the reveal of the Yellow Menace?”

One of the most exciting reads I’ve encountered, Pistolwhip brilliantly mixes in mystery, film noir, and superhero motifs to create a self-contained world where parts of a story can emerge from any source of realistic or fictional media, all from within a fictional media form itself. With its various layers of reality and fiction, it brings up fundamental questions around goodness and evil in each person’s individual actions as a regular human and/or as a hyperbole of a human. All together, Pistolwhip places us in a morally ambiguous world, where some semblance of hope still exists, and ultimately, we still long for a good guy to triumph, even if that good guy may not be who we expect.

Pistolwhip: The Yellow Menace by Jason Hall and Matt Kindt is available via Top Shelf Productions. The Complete Pistolwhip is available via Dark Horse Comics. 

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