Ricky Rouse? Oh, I know the guy. Hair-trigger temper and a penchant for finding trouble. In fact, I have known about the aimless, ex-soldier Mr. Rouse and his strangely-familiar alter-ego since he was naught but a glint in his creator Jorg Tittel’s eye, the subject of many an excitable phone conversation. But look at Ricky now. All fancied up – and suitably tooled-up – in what is a remarkably assured and incredibly enjoyable Comics debut.
A dynamic and engrossing example of the graphic novel format – with, I make no bones about it, the added sheer personal satisfaction of seeing a good and talented friend’s Comics ambitions be realised in such a vivid manner – RICKY ROUSE HAS A GUN is an impressively multi-faceted work. It’s a rattling tale of action, opening in the arid, war-torn landscape of Afghanistan, as US Marine Lt. Richard Rouse deserts his duty after leaning that his wife and daughter back home have left, aimlessly wandering until reaching Shanghai. A series of menial jobs leads him to the overtly Disneyland-like Fengxian Amusement Park where Rouse is offered the chance to be the park’s pointedly Mickey Mouse-alike mascot, dubbed “Ricky Rouse” (“A Chinese original”, enthuses Rouse’s new boss). Rouse’s newfound stability and an opportunity to reconnect with his beloved daughter is threatened when the park is attacked by a group of terrorists dressed like iconic American characters – led by a malevolent “Donald Duck” and supported by the likes of “Ratman” and the odd Star Wars Stormtrooper – protesting China’s economic strength leads the newly-christened Ricky Rouse to take up arms and deliver a suitably American response.
With a dry-humoured, disaffected and flawed protagonist who, in the midst of extraordinary circumstances, displays a nice line in ultra-violence, RICKY ROUSE HAS A GUN ostensibly plays like “Die Hard In An Amusement Park” - engagingly and amusingly so – but that is to vigorously undersell it. The more crucial and vital aspect of the book is that it genuinely has something to say. The subjects of Intellectual Property, Copyright Infringement and the inexorable, virus-like dominance of Western (ie American) culture on a global scale are of intense interest to Tittel and RICKY ROUSE showcases an interesting and compelling perspective on China’s apparent “rip-off” culture and the West’s inflexible attitude regarding it.
In his informative and enlightening foreword to the book, Professor Chris Sprigman of New York University School of Law identifies the Chinese practice of “Shanzhai” – the imitation and indigenization of foreign cultural icons – which, he notes, “represents a refusal of some Chinese to simply be assimilated by Western culture. But, the refusal doesn’t come as a rejection of Western culture. Rather, it comes as an embrace, one so tight that it insists not just beholding the icon, but on the power to absorb, transform and own it.”
In RICKY ROUSE HAS A GUN, Rouse’s costumed alter-ego allows Tittel to make effective commentary about Disney’s homogenised corporate mascot being adopted and refracted through a considerably different culture. Of course, it is not doing so with permission, yet, it can be argued that Disney never asked permission to control a part of our culture, its global success has just facilitated it and it has largely been enthusiastically embraced - to deny it is to risk, as Sprigman puts it, “cultural illiteracy”.
With this in mind, the urge to localise cultural icons can be understood. In RICKY ROUSE, Tittel makes his view of the West’s indignation at such legally-elastic appropriation explicit, when the manager of Fengxian Park exclaims: “I tell you what is rip-off! For Hollywood to make and remake the same movie ten times every year. Remake here. Sequel there. Like the public has amnesia. That is a rip-off. That is Piracy. That is a crime.”
This tension, between a Western culture that harbours an outright expectation of being accepted globally enthusiastically and with gratitude, and China, who have very different ideas about the ownership of culture, provides RICKY ROUSE HAS A GUN with a very strong thematic undercurrent and successfully makes you reconsider the grey areas of intellectual property and the merciless thrusting of branded values upon foreign cultures by American corporations. For Hucheng, the Western pop-culture obsessed “General Fucking Manager” of Fengxien, the creation of “Ricky Rouse” is a proud act of outright affection rather than blunt, artless theft.
Such strengths are amply consolidated by John Agg’s wonderfully-vibrant, Manga-influenced artwork, providing RICKY ROUSE HAS A GUN with a suitably cinematic tone and a fizzing visual energy that ideally complement’s Tittel’s pacey storytelling. With clean line work and impressive composition skills, Aggs habitually generates pages that showcase an engrossing dynamism and scope which is at its best during the action sequences (notably one set on a roller-coaster). Aggs’ design of Ricky Rouse is also highly effective, creating a easily recognisable but pleasingly subtle subversion of Disney’s beloved icon. As part of the promotional campaign for the book, a full size Ricky Rouse costume was created and was showcased in a music video (see below), bringing Ricky to glorious life and London-bound misadventures.
As someone who’s been a close observer and an enthusiastic supporter of this project, I am perhaps biased, but the final product – particularly handsome in its limited edition hardcover version with a vivid front cover illustration by William Chua – is undoubtedly a real comics treat and, for Tittel, a markedly strong debut. Filled with wry humour, RICKY ROUSE HAS A GUN is a tale that excites and provokes, gleefully challenging established notions of culture and giving us a new reluctant hero to watch kick ass and take names. This is a comics original – and don’t let anyone tell you different.
RICKY ROUSE HAS A GUN by Jorg Tittel and John Aggs is published by SelfMadeHero in a limited edition hardcover on June 12th (priced £24.99) and a trade edition in September 2014. The book’s website can be found at RickyLeaks.org.