Review: Bullet Gal and Black Sails, Disco Inferno
By Ben Kooyman
I like to imagine myself a moderately prolific writer and a reasonably productive member of the community. Then I look at the output of Andrez Bergen and figure I should just go back to bed. Last year Bergen adapted his Roy and Suzie short comics and various over comic book vignettes into the novel Small Change (read our review here) and this year he’s done the same with two of his sprawling comic book series, Bullet Gal and Trista & Holt.
Bullet Gal centres on the vigilante Mitzi, the titular bullet gal. Mitzi is recruited by an enigmatic figure, the not-enigmatically-named Lee, to join the Crime Crusaders Crew, a crime-fighting organisation based in the city of Heropa. Gradually it is revealed that Heropa is a fictional universe, and Mitzi is plunged down a metaphorical, meta-fictional rabbit hole. Read out takes on the source material here and here. Meanwhile, Black Sails, Disco Inferno, Bergen’s adaptation of his Trista & Holt comics, updates the Tristan and Iseult legend to a 1970s crime thriller milieu and gender switches the protagonists, with Tristan now tough gal Trista and Iseult now the mildly dissolute Holt. Read our takes on the source material here and here.
Like Small Change, there’s a lot to like about the novelizations of Bullet Gal and Black Sails, Disco Inferno. Bergen’s prose style, whilst occasionally lumpy, is mostly breezy and accessible, with some endearing colloquial turns of phrase. Moreover, like their source comics, the novels are a heady mix of dog-eared genre tropes, pop culture intertextuality, and sly narrative subversion.
However, there’s a medium specificity to the comic book originals that doesn’t necessarily translate to prose fiction and doesn’t quite find an equivalence. Bergen’s comic work generally falls into two categories: short vignettes riffing on genres and pop culture tropes illustrated (by others mostly) in a traditional comic book style; and longer works with art by Bergen utilizing photographic collage and appropriating and manipulating existing images into sequential visual storytelling. Bullet Gal and Trista & Holt in comic form belong to the latter category, and are long-form, innately experimental works that get much of their charge from the arrangement and sometimes counter-intuitive juxtaposition of images, which doesn’t transfer to prose. In addition, Bergen’s signature intertextuality works differently in prose form. For example, in the comics, images of actors like Angela Lansbury and Max von Sydow are used to represent characters, hence in a sense those actors “play” these characters; in the novels, those characters are merely described as looking like Lansbury and von Sydow, which doesn’t carry quite the same intertextual oomph (nor, in the case of Bullet Gal, generate the same meta-fictional frisson when it’s revealed that Heropa is a fictional construct).
Ultimately, reading the novelizations of Bullet Gal and Black Sails, Disco Inferno is somewhat akin to reading Dennis O’Neil’s Knightfall tie-in novel or Alan Dean Foster’s Alien novelizations: a solid translation into one medium of a story already expertly told in another medium. For readers already familiar with Bullet Gal and Trista & Holt in comic book form, these novels are a nice but inessential addendum. However, for those who haven’t drunk the Andrez Bergen Kool-Aid, or those who find his comic art style too cryptic or impenetrable, these are entertaining reads that package those stories into a somewhat more accessible form.
Bullet Gal is published by Roundfire Books, while Black Sails, Disco Inferno is published by Open Books. Both books are available now. While Australian Comics Journal is not typically in the novel reviewing business, we’ll make exceptions for novels based on comics and/or novels by comic book creators.