Joe Kelly and Adrian Sibar give the crime comic a genuine 21st century sensibility by addressing the theme of gender identity in Bang!Tango, collected in trade paperback for the first time. SPOILER WARNING: This review contains major plot spoilers.
- Story: Joe Kelly
- Art: Adrian Sibar
- Additional inks: Rodney Ramos
- Cover: Adrian Sibar
- Bang!Tango created by: Joe Kelly and Adrian Sibar
- Format: 139 pages, partial color, trade paperback; collects Bang!Tango #1–6, originally published by DC/Vertigo in single magazine format.
- List price: $14.99
- Sale date: 11 February 2015
- Publisher’s description: Vinnie has a new life. New York, the mob and all its horrors are a distant memory… until Autumn blows into San Francisco. Autumn, the one who broke his heart, the one he left behind… begging Vinnie to pull one last job: Rob the sadistic mob boss who wants him dead… so she can afford the gender reassignment surgery that will make her the woman Vinnie always wanted. Remastering the provocative Vertigo series, this new volume presents Bang!Tango as it was always meant to be!
- SPOILER WARNING: This review contains major plot spoilers.
Originally published as a six-issue miniseries in 2009 by DC Comics (under its Vertigo Comics imprint), Joe Kelly and Adrian Sibar’s Bang!Tango turns the hypermasculine world of pulp-styled crime fiction on its head by placing the issues of gender identity and homophobia front and center in a character-driven narrative that will challenge readers not just with its twist-filled plot, but also with its portrayal and dismantling of certain stereotypes and genre conventions.
Bang!Tango‘s putative protagonist is Vincente “Vinnie” Ponticello, a former small-time criminal hiding out in San Francisco after failing to do his part in a botched job in New York City, a failure that led to the death of a ranking mafioso and his being on the mob’s shit-list. It’s been five years since Vinnie fled for the west coast and he’s built a new life as a professional dance instructor, with the ultimate goal of raising enough money with his dance partner and girlfriend Melanie to move to Argentina to start their own dance school. A spanner gets thrown in the works, however, when his former New York flame Autumn shows up with three thousand dollars and a job offer: She is being blackmailed by someone in possession of her naked pictures, and she needs Vinnie to retrieve the pictures and teach the blackmailers a lesson.
The twist here (only one of many in the book) is that Autumn is a transgender woman who has yet to undergo gender-reassignment surgery and she is set to marry the scion of one of New York’s biggest mob families.
Vinnie and Autumn’s past relationship is complicated: Autumn did not tell Vinnie about her transgender status until after they had been dating for several weeks, and Vinnie being distraught over the revelation of this fact was the main reason why he cocked-up his job for the mob and had to flee for California. Indeed, he is still angry at her for what he feels is outright and willful deception on her part. Making matters worse, her engagement to the son of a mobster means that she might inadvertently lead them to Vinnie. Nevertheless, Vinnie takes the job on, desperate as he is to leave the country and his criminal past (and his aborted romance with Autumn) behind. What follows is one plot twist after another—Vinnie falls into a scheme to rob Autumn’s fiancé, with the ill-gotten proceeds going to his and his girlfriend’s Argentina fund and the payment for Autumn’s gender-reassignment operation—with the events ultimately culminating in a bloody, fatal showdown with the New York mob.
The crime-themed “A” plot is engaging enough on its own, but it is the creative team’s attempts to address gender issues—always done within context—that makes the work stand out among its contemporary crime comics peers. Kelly makes it a point to emphasize in the dialogue that Vinnie is an unrepentant homophobe (and a bit of a prick, in general), and there are hints littered throughout that his aggressive homophobia may be born of his desire to repress what the character perceives as homosexual urges stirred by Autumn—one scene has Vinnie engaging in a spirited bout of rooftop lovemaking with his girlfriend after Autumn’s reappearance in his life, apparently to reassure himself of his heterosexuality.
The root of the conflict between Vinnie and Autumn is their differing definitions of gender. In Vinnie’s eyes, Autumn is a man, a gay man, but a man all the same (for most of the story, he uses male pronouns to refer to Autumn, and even uses “it” to refer to her on at least one occasion). Autumn, however, knows that she is a woman, albeit one born in a male body. Where Vinnie sees himself being hoodwinked into a homosexual pairing with Autumn, Autumn sees their failed relationship as a heterosexual one, derailed by an accident of anatomy that can be corrected with surgery. Whether or not Vinnie will come around to Autumn’s way of thinking and his vacillation between her and Melanie are a major source of narrative tension for Bang!Tango, and the resolution on those fronts is handled well, overall.
Kelly finds a way to tie everything together in the book’s explosive, violent third act—the heist, Autumn’s nuptials, Vinnie and Autumn’s disparate views on the latter’s gender, the mob catching up to Vinnie, whether or not Vinnie gets to move to Argentina with his girlfriend—offering up one final twist in the end that puts everything that has gone before in a new light. Gripping on multiple levels, with inspired, dynamic visuals by Sibar (the dance scenes are a real treat!), fans of crime comics looking for something genuinely different from the standard fare would do well to seek this book out.