Twelve Reasons to Die acts as the source material for the 2013 concept album of the same title by Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah, and the record’s producer/composer Adrian Younge and executive producer RZA even get story and writer credits respectively on this comic, which is finally being released as a collected edition.A pre-4 Kids Walk Into A Bank/Marvel Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon handle the brunt of the scripting though. The comic is a multi-generational crime saga in the mold of such classics like The Godfather Part II, Goodfellas, and Once Upon A Time in America with a horror spin. With the exception of the final one, each issue tells two parallel stories. The first is about the rise of African-American gangster Tony Starks (One of Ghostface Killah’s aliases.) from muscle for the DeLuca family to a kingpin in his own right, and it is drawn predominantly by artist Breno Tamura. Gus Storms handles the other story which features “crate digger” Michael Migdal looking for 9 rare records for Lucraze, the don of the DeLuca crime family, because he feels like they’re cursed and wants to destroy them.
The parallel structure of Twelve Reasons to Die allows Rosenberg, Kindlon, RZA, Tamura, Storm, colorist Jean-Paul Csuka, and the various guest artists to play with different genres, art styles, and palettes like Younge and Ghostface Killah play with different beats, instrumentation, samples, and deliveries on the album. Starks’ story is a crime saga while Migdal’s story is more horror, and both use elements from the blaxploitation genre. This really shows up in the artwork with Tamura’s work being looser with scratchy inks and Bronze Age era Ben-Day Dots while Storms’ art is softer and more grotesque with the mysterious “Ghostface Killer” lurking around the edges like something out of a bad dream waiting for the needle to drop and to bring vengeance.
The different guest artists, like Nate Powell, Joelle Jones, Edwin Huang, and Riley Rossmo, meld well with Storms and Tamura while bringing extra flair to key scenes like Starks torturing a racist DeLuca made man and framing him for having an affair with the boss’ wife, Logan (Who Starks is actually sleeping with.) or several night club and murder sequences. Csuka’s colors really tie everything together and control the mood of each sequence whether that’s the sleazy red and blue of the strip club where Starks gets his first assignment from the DeLuca (and later runs) to the pop art pink of a “masqua-rave” that Migdal goes to get one of the records from a DJ, who decides to play the record and gets devoured by ravers turned into insects. It’s a Kafka-esque acid trip that shows the decadence of the DeLuca “social club” (They’ve filed off the serial numbers of their criminal enterprises.), and of course, there’s a panel where Migdal vomits.
Twelve Reasons to Die doesn’t shy away from showing the racism that Tony Starks faces from his employers, the Delucas, who bar him from becoming a made man because of the color of his skin and hurl slurs and stereotypes at him throughout the entire comic. Starks gets passed over for the mob equivalent of a promotion even though he has killed, tortured, and general gone above and beyond the call of duty because of the color of his skin. Eventually, this causes him to band together with his colleagues from the Black community to take over the DeLucas’ turf and even have some DeLuca foot soldiers work for him. There’s a dark, cathartic glee to watching him topple an empire in twelve months that had been established 30+ years ago. (See the prologue featuring Mussolini, mainland Italy vs. Sicily, and double page map spreads.) Starks’ ruthlessness is magnetic, yet frightening as he goes from possibly negotiating with one of the DeLuca’s made men to pistol whipping him in an alley and then tying his neck to the back of a car and having him dragged. This comic definitely uses torture creatively a la “Method Man” from Wu-Tang Clan’s classic album, 36 Chambers.
However, Rosenberg, Kindlon, and RZA also take time to develop Tony Starks’ softer and more vulnerable side through his relationship with Logan, who he genuinely cares about and basically uses as a spy for the DeLucas (Although she betrays him because femme fatale trope.) and especially for his love of records. There’s a touching scene where Starks says that his only dream is to get his hands on the most “hype” records, and he uses his organized crime money to build a factory where he can press his own wax. This is why his demise in that same factory is so tragic, and his vengeance via the drop of a needle is so satisfying as the Ghostface Killer slays the men who betrayed him in new and fucked up ways, or just a single page beheading. (I guess that’s pretty messed up though.) The exception is the noble fencer Batiato, who gets an epic sword fight complete with Ghostface in samurai armor and some fun, blocky cartooning from Edwin Huang.
I haven’t really touched much about Migdal in this review, and initially he seems quite distant from sex, violence, and racism-tinged world of Tony Starks and the DeLucas. He’s just a guy with a sarcastic sense of humor, who you’d see digging through the crates at your local record store, probably every day. However, as he continues to be treated like shit by the aging DeLuca crime bosses and see more horrific things, Migdal seems more attuned to this grindhouse movie of a world even though he doesn’t lose his innocence making the high energy Chris Hunt-drawn finale have a tinge of sadness. He really just wants to get paid so he can buy more records.
Even though it has an entire restaurant of chefs in its proverbial kitchen, Twelve Reasons to Die is a damn good fusion of the crime and horror genre with a charismatic protagonist and a social conscience in the midst of all the schlock. However, it never gets preachy. For three decades, Ghostface Killah has been one of hip hop’s best storytellers, and his vision translates really well to the comic book page thanks to Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon, RZA, Breno Tamura, Gus Storms, Chris Hunt, Jean-Paul Csuka, and the guest artists that are the visual equivalent of that perfect drum sound or soul sample that raises a track from skippable to total earworm. Finally, and it goes without saying, but this comic pairs really well with the 12 Reasons to Die album.
Story: Ghostface Killah, Adrian Younge, C.E. Garcia
Story/Script: Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon with RZA
Art: Breno Tamura, Gus Storms, Chris Hunt
Guest Art: Kyle Strahm, Joe Infurnari, Tim Seeley, Nate Powell,
Tyler Crook, Toby Cypress, Joelle Jones, Edwin Huang, Russell Roehling,
Ryan Kelly, Riley Rossmo Colors: Jean-Paul Csuka
Letters: Jim Campbell and Nic J. Shaw
Story: 8.0 Art: 8.7 Overall: 8.4 Recommendation: Buy
Black Mask Studios provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review