Image: Cover detail Moonshine #3

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Moonshine #3. Written by Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, Spaceman), with art by Eduardo Risso (100 Bullets, Spaceman), this issue is a stunning showcase of Risso’s talent from cover to cover. (This review reveals major plot points.)

Never underestimate the value of a great comic-book cover. Whether it’s on the rack of a comic shop or a digital thumbnail, a riveting cover commands attention, and Eduardo Risso’s cover for Moonshine #3 is one of the year’s best. Standing in front of a black background holding a white cleaver, a woman is drenched in blood that saturates her hair, drips down her face, and onto her chest and shoulders. With the exception of her eyes and lips, the blood is the only thing separating her from the background, and the combination of the severe color contrast, penetrating gaze, and glowing cleaver makes for an intense image.

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Dave Johnson has done most of the covers for Risso and writer Brian Azzarello’s past collaborations, and while those have been some incredibly powerful images, Moonshine’s covers make me wish Risso had the opportunity to do covers for more of those books. Most readers will know if Moonshine is for them from this issue’s cover, and while that specific image doesn’t appear in the issue, it’s an evocative representation of the book.

Jared K. Fletcher’s production design provides valuable contextual information on the cover in the presentation of the title, credits, and issue number. The overall design looks like the logo for an old bottle of whiskey, with the title in particular suggesting a gritty, dangerous atmosphere with its grainy letters slashed by claws. This is a book about booze and violence and how the former leads to the latter for main character Lou Pirlo, a gangster trying to score primo Appalachian moonshine for his New York City boss.

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The back cover for each Moonshine issue shows a panel of interior art paired with a line of dialogue, which has an unexpectedly profound effect in this week’s issue. In the first two chapters, the black background of the back cover is used to emphasize the darkness of night in the panel images, but in Moonshine #3, the background becomes the pool of blood Lou is wading through, a pool dramatically larger than what is shown in the interior panel. And because the front and back cover share the same black background, the two images merge into one wraparound image, creating the impression that the bloody Delia is emerging from the same pool pulling Lou down.

That wraparound image may not be intentional, but it’s very effective in reflecting Lou’s increasingly unstable mental state. Delia isn’t an especially violent character—she was introduced in the first issue joyously dancing—but the moment that she decapitates a chicken and drains its blood at the start of this third chapter becomes something much more horrific in Lou’s mind, which is fixated on getting his hands bloody.

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The nightmarish quality of the cover dominates the scenes that bookend this issue: The opening shows Lou running through the woods from a werewolf that wears his face, and the ending revives the childhood trauma of his young sister’s drowning that he was helpless to stop. Risso has the opportunity to be less literal in these sequences, and he pairs aggressive colors with minimalist imagery to create visuals that are powerful but also elusive. Moonshine is the first Azzarello/Risso collaboration that has Risso coloring his own art, and the meticulous care he puts into his linework is carried over to the colors. The rendering is subdued, but the palettes are bold. Flat colors keep the focus on his linework while heightening contrast, particularly in those opening and closing scenes, which increase tension with blue and teal cutting through deep red.

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Risso has an incredible talent for creating a sense of place, and each environment in Moonshine #3 has its own distinct look and feel, from the treacherous woods hiding untold dangers to the worn-down flophouse Lou stays in and the makeshift shantytown Delia calls home. The shantytown features some particularly sharp details in the shack Lou wakes up in (the mirror on the wall reflecting the young boy who discovers Lou is a small touch that adds a lot of depth to the panel) and the surrounding area. Risso often adds action to the setting that isn’t specified in the script, which creates a livelier, more engaging scene. Toward the end of Lou and Delia’s conversation, Risso pulls back to show a woman bathing a small child in the foreground, while the silhouetted main characters speak in the background, giving a better understanding of the location.

Clever, surprising composition is one of Risso’s greatest strengths, and he does brilliant work tying the framing of his images to the larger themes of the script. When Lou gets back to the flophouse and discovers that his boss has sent three goons to keep him in line, his first interaction with the men is framed under an arch of urine streaming into a toilet. The stream in the foreground lines up perfectly with Lou’s back so it looks like he’s being pissed on, highlighting Lou’s demeaned emotional state in this moment.

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The presence of Fat Tony, Other Tony, and Ducky means that Lou’s boss doesn’t think he can handle the job he’s been given, which cuts deep, because Lou knows it’s merited. When the three men leave, there’s a shot of him looking totally defeated before he runs out the door and tells the trio that he doesn’t think he can go back up the mountain. It’s clear from Lou’s expression that he’s ashamed to say this, but needs to anyway.

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As Lou leaves the flophouse, foolishly hoping to make his escape from his current situation, he passes the blond girl who is constantly planted at the bottom of the stairs. The reason she lingers becomes clear when Lou hallucinates his dead sister at the end of the issue; the girl in the flophouse can be seen as a stand-in for the deceased Annabelle, whose memory haunts her brother.

The final nightmare has Lou drowning in blood as he fails to save Annabelle, but that’s not the first example of Lou being pulled down in this issue. Lou’s escape is interrupted, and he’s taken to the funeral for the man he saw killed in the last chapter, the son-in-law of the hard-as-nails moonshine distiller Hiram Holt, and Lou ends up in the hole dug for Tucker’s casket. The funeral scene ends with a striking shot of Hiram offering his hand to pull Lou out of the ground, framed from a low angle that emphasizes the darkness surrounding Lou. Hiram and Lou are in the lower right corner, but the black surrounding the latter bleeds across the entire bottom half of the page. Risso uses all that available negative space to reinforce the increasing pressure being put on Lou from all sides. Each new twist in the plot sends Lou one step closer to a permanent resting place in the ground.

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Lou’s relationship to the werewolf terrorizing this book is still a mystery, but this issue heavily suggests that Lou is the beast, which appears to take over when he gets blackout drunk. That doesn’t explain how Lou witnessed the werewolf murder of his accomplice in the last issue, but Azzarello has crafted a story where Lou’s perception of reality isn’t to be trusted. Like the best 100 Bullets stories, Moonshine is a more personal, smaller-scale narrative exploring the central character’s tragic flaws, and this issue starts to form ties between Lou’s sister’s death, his drinking, and the brutal violence that follows him. Azzarello has crafted a compelling plot, but Risso is the main attraction of Moonshine, his mastery of comic-book storytelling pulling the reader deep into this world and the protagonist’s tortured psyche.