All Talk tells the story of three young friends on the cusp of adulthood teetering on the edge of a violent world; in this case, the world of an East African gang in Berlin. If you’re familiar with gangster fiction you’ll recognize some familiar character dynamics and plot points, but All Talk is an addictive read full of subtlety and misdirection thanks to the skilled collaboration of writer Bartosz Stzybor and artist Akeussel.
The book opens on the stoop outside of the Afro Shop, All Talk’s version of Satriale’s Pork Store, as gang boss Wood and his lieutenants hold court and are attended to by their young lackey, Rahim. The men drink and bullshit with one another about a mythic gangster, Immortal Al, and his legendary run-in with a group of Turks, the details to which are in constant dispute. Right away we have an example of how words, myth, talk impacts the reality of this underworld clique regardless of merit. It is perception rather than truth that’s valued most in the hearts and minds of these characters.
Indeed, concern over perception looms large over everything for Rahim, who, as a gangly teen fairly swimming in his oversized hoodie, is desperate to be noticed by his betters. Rahim is also struggling to get out from under the reputation of his deceased father, who was rumored to be gay. This backstory hinders Rahim’s ability to build cred, and is an easy go-to attack that anyone can apply to him whenever they want to put him down. Rahim is easily goaded by these verbal assaults about a father he never knew, whose life readers only experience as memory. Rahim's tendency to overreact in these moments puts him in greater danger than he realizes.
If this were all that All Talk had to offer, it would risk dipping into the irrelevance of just another gangster yarn. Thankfully, the creators have made something that goes beyond that by using the medium in unexpected ways. For one thing, the art in All Talk is - well, funny. It avoids a pulp noir aesthetic a la Sean Phillips or David Lapham that you might expect for this kind of crime story. The illustrations and premise in All Talk have something in common with the expressive designs in Gipi’s Notes On A War Story, though Akeussel draws his characters in even cartoonier ways, and makes use of a wider digital palette to render harmonious color transitions in his illustrated Berlin.
Huge teeth, exaggerated expressions, literal starry eyes. Perhaps it is Akeussel’s background in animation shining through that inspires him to evoke these explosions of emotion and comical imagery. The effect is a stark juxtaposition with the grim reality of the story. In perhaps another nod to animation, or just a riff off of a cartoon great’s foray into comics, throughout the book you’ll find block lettering reminiscent of the font used in Genndy Tartakovsky’s Marvel miniseries Cage!
The visual bombast is especially useful in conveying the childish daydreams of Rahim and his friend Focus, a burgeoning drug dealer, whose baby fat face, apple cheeks and blonde crew cut make him seem especially harmless. There is a ton of emanata pouring off of these young characters, underlining the emotional intensity coursing through them even in moments of relative mundanity. The frenetic emotionality of the drawings heightens the sense that these are baby gangsters and wannabe toughs. There’s even a La Haine visual reference tucked away in one panel to underscore this point.
Faces are often noseless, eyes simple dots or curved lines. These stylistic choices can disarm, making it easy not only to form a sympathetic connection with these characters, but to forget the real danger they’re all in. Danger they don’t quite grasp, either.
There is one character who, unlike her peers, is unconcerned with rumors in All Talk, even though there is a nasty one about her going around. Wiz may be friends with Rahim and Focus, but she remains firmly on the sidelines when it comes to gang involvement. Her indifference to what others say or think of her is stoic almost to the point of monklike discipline. Her nonreaction to others teasing her draws out Rahim’s ire at whoever is insulting Wiz. In one scene, after she’s taunted, Rahim asks how Wiz can stand having random people shout falsehoods at her. Her answer is simple: I don’t care what they think. I know the truth.
The pacing is timed out impeccably through the highly regimented panel structure, sometimes slowing down to a second-by-second cadence. There are pages in All Talk when the bottom right panel is missing, an effective way to transition out of a scene early, leaving room to wonder.
All Talk is a meditation on tragedy that unfolds without pretension, paving the way for a quiet, resonant ending. It shows us how easy it is for things to go wrong. At its conclusion, we understand how this story echoes untold others of people we’ll never know, who had thoughts and dreams as complex as anyone’s that are lost to obscurity and a societal tendency to reduce, vilify, and forget people in their position.