Oink: Heaven's Butcher is too serious to be considered satire, but too scatter-brained to be a successful allegory. Every panel is beautifully rendered, but outside of any one panel Oink leaves the reader wanting more. Go and Google, Yahoo, or Bing (do people really use Bing?) this story and you will get a reliable crowd-sourced reaction: the art is beautiful and the story is disappointing. Somewhere in your travels, you will find a few people saying that it is the best thing they have ever read, and at least one review--and this is pretty Birdman-esque--includes a comment condemning the review for spending only a few hundred words tearing down something which must have taken hundreds of hours to create.
Questions that raises about art criticism aside, this review does not exist tell you, as people have known for years, that Oink is a disappointing story; I want to dive into why it has this effect on so many readers.
The most obvious reason is that Mueller's art is stunning. Every sequence is detailed, from his rendering of the brutal, slaughterhouse-like violence that makes up the bulk of his story, to softer watercolor renderings of a world which hardly deserves to appear so beautiful. The charm of violent moments where arrows pierce skulls or shots of the night sky bringing peace to a chaotic, dystopic future serve as sign posts for the reader's expectations. But rather than moving Oink forward, or unifying a thrilling story, these moments are narrative oases: sad reminders that Mueller is great at telling a story with a single panel, but not with a sequence of them.
And that's where we start to get to the real source of disappointment. It's not just that the art is great and the story's content is mediocre. The problem is that Mueller is a really choppy sequential artist. One of the things that is often intangible for many comic readers--one of the things which keeps them coming back to a comic but that they often can't really put their finger on--is an artist's ability to lend a particular visual narrative structure to an event or series of events. For instance, imagine the event of Kal-El getting sent to earth. Now consider the bajillion different ways that the event has been given a narrative structure, with some aspects of the event being rendered more pertinent than others in each iteration.
What often makes a good comic is, first, clever deployment of narrative structure and, second, juxtaposing that narrative on the page in an interesting way. After all, if you're going to make a memorable comic, you should probably take advantage of the space on the page, since it's something unique to comics as a storytelling medium. Oink doesn't do this, and Mueller's layouts are constantly cookie-cutter layouts. His exposition is mostly cinematic in style: he limits his panels and just focuses on big, payoff moments. But because of this, there's no suspense. The story is a constant barrage of Oink fighting, with nothing to make the fighting particularly interesting beyond its immediate aesthetic appeal.
Then, of course, there is the most obvious problem with Oink, and the one I think that will leave the most people disappointed: the story just isn't that good. Complaints about form aside, everyone has their style, and Mueller could totally get by with his meticulously brutal, fast-paced style--if he had a more compelling story. The problem with Oink is not just that the veil is far too thin on any attempt at allegory, but that the attempt itself is a failure. Comparisons to Animal Farm pop up the minute you start reading: the titular character is a talking pig, from a community of talking pigs, who are subjugated by humans. What Oink adds to the formula is that these are genetically engineered pig-people who work as slaves slaughtering other pigs, and the oppressors are explicitly some dystopic form of the Catholic Church.
But what the hell is the message here? Religion seems to be the main target of whatever Oink might have to say, but sifting through the hyperbolic charges against the Catholic Church (or religion in general) does not help us map the story onto any real life issues. A race of pig people, created by the religious in a dystopian future, lead normal pigs to slaughter, all the while being manipulated with promises of heaven. It's not an allegory about the dangers of religion: if it is, what is the danger? That we will feed our brothers to the machine? What analogous house of slaughtering our own kind are we running for religious demagogues?
Maybe Oink could be seen as integrating religion into an exploration of how we will sell out our own kind for promises of personal gain. That sounds like a pretty deep real-life question to explore with fiction, and would be in the same Orwellian vein as its main swiney theme. But this is a five-mile-high assessment of the plot in abstract and completely tosses aside how profuse the religious imagery is within this story. The city is called "Heaven," murdered pig-people are "saved," and the assassins that hunt down enemies of the state are called "Angels." Further, this story has nothing to do with the pig-people selling out their non-bipedal brethren: the story is about Oink burning the city to the ground. The story unfolds in spite of what Oink is, which is perfectly fine, but acts as yet another defeater of executing a successful, internally consistent commentary on life.
Oink is evidence that Mueller is a gifted artist and a poor storyteller. Though the reader will constantly want the story of the titular revolutionary pig-person to be compelling, and though some characters are likable enough to elicit a few satisfying emotional turns in the story, the world itself is cobbled together from several half-baked ideas, all of which would have needed to be fully baked to make this story satisfying.
Oink: Heaven's Butcher Writer/Artist: John Mueller Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $17.99 Release Date: 3/18/15 Format: Trade Paperback; Print/Digital