In 2010, Hobbs and Tuazon published The Broadcast, a sharp and compelling drama set against the backdrop of the Mercury Theater’s 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Reviewing the book at the time, I described it as a remarkably effective and efficient novella “that takes advantage of the unique affordances of the comics medium to tell a complex tale interweaving several sets of characters and individual dramas with minimal dialogue and remarkably little explication.” With their newest collaboration, Family Ties, they bring similar talents to a complex story, adapting Shakespeare’s King Lear to a modern-day crime syndicate in Alaska.
King Lear has not always translated well into other media and settings (think Godfather III), but for the most part it works well in Family Ties. Here, an Alaskan crime boss has come to the end of his career, his retirement made somewhat urgent by the onset of dementia. Here the role of Cordelia is played by the crimelord's son and very unwilling heir, a male nurse recently returned from his studies. And along the way eyes are gouged out, guts are perforated, and backs are stabbed with furious abandon, as is of course entirely appropriate for one of the Bard’s bloodiest tales.
Hobbs does a terrific job in translating a fairly talky play into a predominantly visual medium, although in truth he at times depends for the effectiveness of his distillation on the reader’s familiarity with out least the broad outlines of the plot of Lear. The real star of this production is Tuazon, whose fragile linework competes bold swaths of inky grays to create just the right atmosphere for this murky tale of hubris and denial. He never makes us exactly care about any of the characters, but Lear is not a play where I much like any of them, including Cordelia. But Tuazon does make us believe in them and even forget, for a time, that they are acting out an old and familiar drama whose ending we already know.
In the end, Family Ties, while a successful endeavor, doesn’t quite rise to the level the two achieved in The Broadcast. Until late in the book, the setting of Alaska seemed largely irrelevant: it could have just as easily and convincingly been Chicago, or Miami, or Fargo. And even after the setting is used to some narrative and visual effect, it still feels more a gimmick than a necessity. And ultimately the turn to Lear for the story felt a bit like an undergraduate assignment, a step back for a writer who has already shown himself capable of crafting complex stories of betrayal and self-delusion without leaning on the shoulders of giants. But as a fan of crime comics, this volume most definitely convinced me that these two would make a great ongoing crime series. As much as I admire their efficiency and economy, I would really like to see what they could do together with more room to breathe.