Life's a riot for the GRRL SCOUTS on the mean streets of Freak City as their drug dealing brings them into conflict with corporate America and the sinister Brotherhood of the Cracker. Join Jim Mahfood's hip-hop anti-heroines as they fight for their right to party.
29 March 2002

Writer/Artist: Jim Mahfood
Letterer: Sean Konot
Collecting GRRL SCOUTS #1-4
Price: US $ 11.95
Publisher: Oni Press
ISBN: 1-9667127-9-X

The GRRL SCOUTS are Rita, Gwen and Daphne, three urban kids who have grown up together in Freak City. They're a multi-ethnic six-legged party machine, with an energetic clublife and a voracious appetite for music and comics. All this hedonism is funded by their 'dayjob' as suppliers of choice for the recreational herbal and pharmaceutical needs of most of Freak City.

The Grrls are a varied bunch. Daphne is the heart and soul of the group, though a bit scatterbrained. In contrast, Rita is much quieter and more thoughtful. She's also discovering that she's quite the graffiti artist, being as adept with a spray can is she is inept with a firearm. Gwen is the most level-headed Grrl, and thus the de facto leader, given the lack of common-sense or self-confidence - respectively - shown by Daphne and Rita.

But a challenge for even Rita's skills is just over the horizon, in the shape of the Nykee Sportswear Corporation and - by extension - the sinister Brotherhood of the Cracker. Takings are down for their Narcotics Division, and it's time for Corporate America to deal with the threat to its profit margin. The Grrls aren't ones to be pushed around, however, and thus it's only a matter of time before assassination attempts lead to big guns and even bigger explosions.

Jim Mahfood's probably best known for his artwork with Kevin Smith on the comic book spinoff from Smith's CLERKS film, though he's recently been showing off his comic timing by providing the pretty pictures in a very funny issue of ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP with Brian Michael Bendis. But it's his prior GRRL SCOUTS miniseries - his first major solo work - which offers a prime hit of uncut Mahfood.

I'm hesitant to make the comparison, as it's often a lazy one thrown at any work with no-nonsense female protagonists wielding large weapons, but GRRL SCOUTS does remind me of Hewlett and Martin's TANK GIRL, partly in storytelling style and much more strongly from a visual perspective. Figures and expressions are exaggerated for comic or dramatic effect, and there are a lot of heavy black outlines. Often backgrounds are minimal or obscured by speedlines so as to focus the reader on the character and/or action, but this also makes the infrequent inclusion of a character-packed nightclub or a graffiti-covered cityscape all the more striking.

There's also a whole slew of namechecks for various collaborators, from an explicit reference to Kevin Smith ("This book's almost as offensive as that Jay & Silent Bob stuff") to a VOLCANIC REVOLVER sticker on Gwen's gun as a nod to Mahfood's VOODOOM cohort Scott Morse.

The dialogue is sharp and snappy, and I'm going to have to assume that it's authentic. Speaking as a mid-thirties suburban white male who hasn't been a bulk consumer of hip-hop since Boogie Down Productions were at the height of their powers, I haven't a clue as to whether cute Mexican drug dealers actually say things like, "Get out here and shake your ass with me! They're spinning some funky-ass shit tonight!" But it all sounds terribly exciting.

Musical references litter the work, from posters, t-shirts and Rita's tirade against the evils of Will Smith, to the "unofficial soundtrack" recommendations at the start of each episode. There're lots of hip-hop acts namechecked, from the laid-back Tribe Called Quest to the harder sounds of Mos Def. The inside cover of the trade even looks suspiciously like a Run DMC homage. The thrash/skatepunk/hardcore element is also represented by such luminaries as Bad Brains and Fishbone. Probably best to overlook Van Halen though.

Mahfood is to be praised for having characters from a broad mix of ethnic groups, though it's not always obvious from the way that some of them are drawn. Portraying the 'enemy' as uniformly white (as emphasised by the 'Brotherhood of the Cracker' name) and then having practically all of the positively portrayed 'Good Guys' as being members of various oppressed groups does seem to be somewhat clumsy positive discrimination. It's almost as if Mahfood has a list of grounds on which the characters could be oppressed and has tried to include them all. When one of the brotherhood describes the Grrls as "filthy minorities" (either in terms of ethnicity or Gwen being a Lesbian Jew) it could come across as hammering the point home a little.

But to give Mahfood his due, most of these elements do end up feeling organic, and they aren't used as vehicles to make Big Points about those issues to the detriment of the story. Gwen's lesbianism is only explicitly referred to in one scene, where it's used to facilitate a nice joke about her ineptitude at chatting up women while clubbing. Similarly, Daphne's Mexican heritage is explicitly referred to on only one occasion, as a means to contrast her inner-city life with that of an older relative, an aunt who's migrated out of town and married outside her cultural background as "there aren't too many Latino men in the suburbs".

Much as Mahfood tries to be as inclusive as possible with the ethnicity of his cast, the story itself suffers at times from trying to be all things to everyone. From a solid opening as a gritty urban drama it veers through Tarantino-does-TANK GIRL comical uberviolence to its MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE style climax.

Along the way there's an hallucinogenic drug sequence, a nightclub scene reminiscent of an eighties Brat Pack film (until a gunfight breaks out), the L'il Grrl Scouts flashbacks and some fairly superfluous supernatural undercurrents that are never quite expanded into a fully fledged plot. By and large they all have potential, but there's an awful lot of them, and one or two should really have been cut to improve the focus and give a more consistent tone.

Whatever small shortcomings the story exhibits, though, the art is fresh, edgy and innovative. One nice technique used to open each chapter is the aforementioned one-page flashbacks to the young grrls, which then segues into the opening scene of that chapter. The transition from young Rita defacing the walls of her parental home with crayons into a two page shot of her current self completing a major piece of graffiti is particularly striking.

Mahfood's also quite fond of using double-page spreads to mix up the storytelling style and throw in panels that span two pages. When it works then it's very effective, giving some of the more kinetic action sequences a real 'widescreen' feel. But for each slam-bang blockbuster shot, there's another where a panel-break falls too close to the centre and it's not immediately obvious how to read the page.

The problem is particularly exacerbated by the squarebound spine of the tradepaperback format, where some panel breaks (and occasionally even dialogue) are noticeably harder to pick up than they would be in a stapled "pamphlet" that could be laid flat. Knowing that it was to be published by Oni Press - and thus almost guaranteed to reappear as a trade paperback - a little more forethought as to how the issues would look when collected could've paid dividends on the readability front.

On the upside, though, the collected edition does include black and white copies of the covers from the miniseries, inserted between the chapters and backed with some small gallery pieces by the likes of Andi Watson and Chynna Clugston-Major. The collection also includes a selection of Mahfood's development sketches and some full-page pinups. A couple of these larger pinups are especially interesting as they show the Grrls with the cast of Judd Winick's BARRY WEEN, and in their own team-up with Kevin Smith (in the guise of Silent Bob anyway).

All in all, GRRL SCOUTS tries to cover a lot of bases and - while it doesn't quite deliver on all of them - there is much to admire in both art and story. The whole thing works as a high-octane thrill ride through the dark underbelly of Freak City with a definite subversive streak running throughout. The Grrls themselves are distinct and likeable characters, with dialogue that crackles with energy and humour. Even if their transformation from sassy street-level drug-dealers-who-can-look-after-themselves into Ninja assault troops for the gun-crazy finale is a bit implausible!

GRRL SCOUTS is recommended for anyone who remembers the manic scattershot cartoon energy of the early brash and brattish Beastie Boys; maybe Mahfood's equivalent of PAUL'S BOUTIQUE is still to come...

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