The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit is a collection archiving the first 13 stories of Ian McDonald’s Bruno the Bandit webcomic. The series is a fantasy parody, following the exploits of feckless crook Bruno and his mini-dragon sidekick Fiona – along with a recurring ensemble of oddball supporting characters – on various misadventures. How does the episodic webcomic translate into a more substantial collected edition?
Both written and drawn by Ian McDonald, it has a visual style reminiscent of Hagar the Horrible (who is indeed referenced a few times in the stories), with simplistic, cartoonish, yet wonderfully expressive figures that one might expect to find in a newspaper strip. The newspaper cartoon strip format is definitely what sprang to mind reading The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit, as from what I gather, originally these stories were published in 1-line, 4-panel segments, with each one built around its own little punchline, making it work as a self-contained read in addition to being part of a larger story. This (largely unvarying) layout translates into most pages of the book reading as a dense 16-panel grid, which feels cluttered at first. In the early stories, the constant cycle of set-up/gag combined with a very simple story that best allows each line to stand on its own creates a feeling that what works in small doses as a webcomic may be less effective when all put together in one mammoth read.
However, as the collection progresses, and McDonald finds his narrative footing a bit more, the stories become a bit more ambitious and satirical. The most common theme is the idea of celebrity and fickle fame, with several stories revolving around Bruno stumbling into fame or notoriety, basking in it briefly, before suddenly losing it and finding himself back where he started. But McDonald also uses Bruno to take swipes at topics as diverse as home shopping, referendums, political correctness, the fashion industry and – perhaps best of all, in “Assault” – JFK conspiracy theorists. This is where Bruno the Bandit really shines, using the fantasy backdrop to lampoon more contemporary social and political issues.
But while I really enjoyed this satirical content, the downside was that the actual character of Bruno almost becomes interchangeable, with McDonald coming perilously close to losing sight of the supposed central conceit of the series. In “Elfquestion” the character barely appears. “The Whistle of Time” almost comes as a shock to the system, because we get back to Bruno actually being a bandit. The stories where McDonald gets the balance right between making a satirical point, while also having Bruno getting in some kind of trouble and going on a morally questionable crusade with Fiona, are the ones that tend to be the most successful.
As a comedy, it’s more likely to encourage smirks than induce full-on belly laughs, and the fantasy aspect isn’t always evident. But Ian McDonald does good work on both the scripting and art, and if you’re a fan of humour strips, you might want to check The Brutal Blade of Bruno the Bandit out for yourself.