Writer: Gary Phillips
Artist: Sergio Carrera
This book is promoted as a blend of American Gangster and HBO’s The Wire, which is really unfair, as it sets the bar of expectations so high that even Brad Walker wouldn’t be able to clear it. Just because a book takes place on the streets and involves drugs and gangs does not automatically make it Wire-like, and if that is the hook that brings the reader to crack the cover, they will be sorely disappointed.
Novelist Gary Phillips aims to paint a picture of the underbelly of the Los Angeles underworld, “showing us The Dark Side of the American Dream”. Unfortunately, what gets depicted is more like The Dark Side of Beverly Hills; perhaps 90211. Everything is pretty and clean. The gang leader, Trey, drives a Mercedes convertible and preaches his “bid’ness” to his desegregated officers over a lunch of wine and fine food. And the muscle-car driving protagonist, Cameron (or CQ, as he goes by on those impeccably-swept streets), has a sister, Rita, who lives the high-life with her gambling-addicted husband. If anything, the characters are culled from an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and if this is what the “underbelly” of Los Angeles is like, then I’m on the first flight out.
The plot is pretty standard and unoriginal: CQ is Trey’s enforcer-with-a-heart, the latter’s go-to man for dirty deeds like kidnapping a lawyer’s daughter. Rita’s upperclass husband is in hock to a thug known as Machete, who happens to be book-cooker for a rival gang of Trey and CQ’s, so naturally Rita comes to her little brother for help. Trey, meanwhile, has been partaking of his product a little too much, and the obligatory distrust amongst brothers occurs, with predictable results.
The book reads too fast, rushing from scene to scene, without allowing for the gravity of certain situations to settle in for effect, like the laughable part where a dishonest Beanbag is interrupted in flagrante delicto and given a choice of a round in the head or drinking a liter of drain cleaner. Decision and consequence is over in four panels and is Mel Brooksian in its effect. Even the ending is forced, with a rival gang member giving up information way too easily and normally cool-as-ice CQ breaking into an insta-tear at the pain of betrayal. Mr. Phillips seems to be trying to adapt his book, Bangers, for the comic medium, but something’s been lost in the translation, especially when a line of dialogue in the comic goes “Say, knee-grow, I’m talkin’ to you”. It is a poor demonstration of this decent novelist’s writing chops.
I am normally a BOOM! Studios cheerleader, but paired with flat and inconsistent artwork, High Rollers is a dull derivative, a book that fans of Criminal or Cross Bronx will find unimpressive.