By Greg Houston
Leafing through piles of comics, it’s become clear that, over the past couple of years, countless writers have begun to view sequential art as a gateway to other, more profitable mediums. Hollywood studios, after all, have long been trolling the Internet in search of the next major propriety—and really, who can blame them? The well of television remakes has largely dried up, while superhero books and graphic novels have proven a seemingly endless source of revenue.
Ultimately what we, the comics readers, are left with are a illustrated screenplays, extended storyboards, proofs of concepts bound and sold through the direct market. The vast majorities of these books don’t deserve a second look. Poor movie pitches make for even poorer graphic novels—particularly when penned by writers who have no devotion to the form beyond its recognized potential as a springboard to bigger and better things.
And then there are comics like Vatican Hustle. Greg Houston’s book isn’t so much a movie pitch, so much as a warped adolescent fantasy of what genre film might be in some forgotten era when Civil War re-enactors attacked leperous clown servants and no one though twice when you kicked the shit out the evil pop in the midst of one of his signature orgies.
Vatican Hustle is a love letter to the blacksploitation genre penned in the only manner such a note can successfully be executed: way the hell over the top. There are melting mobsters, flying holy men—even Charles Manson makes a brief, drug-induced appearance—and in the middle of it all a giant afroed, platform-shoed badass battling corruption in the epicenter of Catholicism.
Houston plays the whole thing fast and loose, both in terms of storyline and a grotesque cartooning style, which brings to mind the urban culture obsessed Ralph Bakshi of the mid-70s, who churned out titles like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin.
Vatican Hustle doesn’t always succeed its perpetual storytelling hyperbole. Sometimes the book feels too clever for its own good, and often times stabs at comedy fall flat. But Houston executes the story with such quickness that the book has already moved on to the next thing before you’ve been given the proper time to furrow your brow.
Houston clearly had a blast writing and drawing Vatican Hustle, and his joy is infectious. In some warped alternative timeline, this would be stuff of box office gold. And you know what? Given the manner of failed movie scripts I’ve currently got piling up on my coffee table, I’d take Vatican Hustle in a second.