The Punisher #12, Kitchen Irish, Part 6 (of 6)

This issue, the last in the arc, starts without a title page or credits, which makes it almost suspenseful to see if we’re ever going to find out what happened with the art. Because the art at the beginning of the issue, with the Napper French resolution, is a lot better than the art’s been for a while. And Dean White’s colors aren’t doing the weird bleached out but still too neon yellow thing. It’s a great opening, even if it seems like someone decided MAX didn’t mean in-panel amputations and did some cropping so things don’t immediately make sense. Or maybe Fernandez really did leave the “shot” out, which would also make sense, but someone would’ve had to send the page back to him then… right?

Anyway. The improved art holds up for a while, but starts to slip once Fernandez has to do the big meeting of the gangs. They finally team-up this issue to go get their fortune (completely forgetting the Punisher has been after them, which seems like a mistake but whatever). For the action showdown, even with White’s color scheme being better… Fernandez loses control of the art again. Maybe even gradually, like it gets worse as it goes along. By the end of the sequence, he’s back to those terrible panel compositions so the action barely makes sense and all Ennis’s preparations are for naught.

It’s particularly upsetting because it seems—during that first scene—like the book is going to right the ship in time.

By the end, it’s back to overlooking Fernandez’s poor panel composition and lousy expressions and trying to concentrate on Ennis’s dialogue. The comic does pull off a solid Punisher moment (while Ennis identifying MAX Punisher as “Old Frank”—vs. “Big Frank,” which is what Ennis called him back during the early Marvel Knights days), but Fernandez chokes on anything involving the British agents. Ennis has already turned the gang leaders into caricatures so it doesn’t really matter given Fernandez and White (the coloring on the showdown is where he starts going wrong this issue).

Kitchen Irish isn’t able to deliver on any of its potential. It’s not like Ennis layered his “Old Frank moment” through the issues; he just gets away with this great, impromptu Frank observation because the book’s still got a bunch of goodwill. Ennis’s writing is just sensational enough to separate itself from the art.

It’s not all good from Ennis, however; there are three word boxes of narration from Frank and they’re solely to remind the reader. Way too functional. If Kitchen Irish is any indication, Ennis doesn’t yet have a handle on how to comfortable make Frank the protagonist for an entire arc. He gets an issue, some pages here and there, but the leads of Kitchen Irish are the bad guys, then the British, then Frank. And then Napper French; he’s ancillary but not to ancillary. Frank being subject is fine, just so long as he never becomes caricature.

He gets way too close to it in Kitchen Irish. Partially because of Fernandez, but mostly because of Ennis.

The Punisher #11, Kitchen Irish, Part 5 (of 6)

Fernandez’s art goes from where it was on the lacking scale last issue to much worse this issue. And someone else noticed, because Dean White’s color work now includes giving the walls textures in addition to doing all the perspective on Fernandez’s faces. It’s a bad turn.

And most of it comes after the already bad turn when Fernandez utterly chokes on the big action sequence. He can’t keep track of the characters, he can’t keep track of the setting, he can’t keep track of the action. Worse, the issue opens with it. It ought to be a great sequence and instead it’s impossible to imagine it even being successful, much less superior. Frank’s got a little bit of narration for it, then Ennis drops it and Frank from most of the rest of the issue. Instead when it’s on Frank and sidekicks, Yorkie—the ‘Nam buddy turned MI6 assassin—gets the big scene. It’s great scene, with Ennis getting to show off how well he can write expository dialogue about the Troubles and the British soldier take on it. Shame Fernandez does such a bad job with the art.

While Yorkie’s having his combination history lesson and sociology riff, the bad guys are recovering from the opening firefight. Finn—whose terrible rendition (Fernandez somehow has a harder time with bandages on the face than a translucent mask the first couple issues) forecasts the art depths—teams up with widow Brenda while the River Rat brother and sister find themselves on their own (and the sister becomes an even stronger character, despite how bad Fernandez is at her arc in particular), and Maginty gets into a bit of trouble.

It’d be nice if Frank played a bigger part in the story, but it’s also very much not his story. He’s a guest star in his own comic, which is fine—Ennis does well enough with the additional cast—but the art. It’s not fine with the art. Fernandez is just too slim and whatever the compensation thing with White’s colors? Doesn’t work. Really doesn’t work.

Only Ennis’s writing is holding the book up now and he’s got his slips and slides too. Though it’s hard to know if they’re on him or because Fernandez’s composed the panel so poorly.

The Punisher #10, Kitchen Irish, Part 4 (of 6)

Well, the Fernandez art problems escalated quickly. Reading this issue, I had this foreboding feeling, like it was going to be bad… only it’s perfectly well-written, beautifully organized, only the art is always off. Fernandez is still rushing and relying on the colors. And Dean White’s colors don’t match Fernandez’s lines. Though there’s really nothing to do with the now poor composition of these panels. Bad composition, bad detail, then weird colors.

Then again maybe the panel composition was Ennis’s idea, which certainly makes sense for the talking heads portions of the issue, when Fernandez can’t get an expression out of the characters (reading the issue I just kept thinking, oh, yeah, it’s one of those Ennis issues without someone who knows how to do that thing he does with talking heads). So the close-ups are ineffective. Some of the long shots are just bad. Like the angles. And in those panels you can tell it’s not White’s fault, it’s Fernandez.

There’s still some great character stuff on the River Rat leader, Polly, and a little bit more on Brenda. The difference between Polly and Brenda is Polly’s not as awful of a person and Ennis is able to use Brenda for some shock value. Then there’s some more on Maginty. The issue opens with the Punisher—notice I’m in the third paragraph and haven’t mentioned Frank yet? It’s because Fernandez avoids showing him in panels, which works in the last scene because it opens with Frank’s narration. In the rest of the comic it makes him third or fourth tier in his own book. It’s very weird.

And not entirely on Fernandez. Ennis clearly wants to do Frank a particular way and Fernandez isn’t on the same page. The script and art never exactly seem out of sync either, which is almost to the issue’s detriment. The art’s just a bad take on the events it portrays.

The opening scene is Frank and his sidekicks (but he’s actually just their sidekick) interrogating their prisoner. He goes into a big exposition dump about the old neighborhood and all the gangs searching for a ten million payday.

The flashback doesn’t work. The old Irish mobster who died looks like a wizard, which—again—could be Ennis’s fault too. But they only don’t work because Fernandez hasn’t laid the groundwork for it to be effective. This issue’s exposition dump ought to be amazing. Instead it’s… poorly composed talking heads exposition dump.

The writing this issue is great. So good it lets Ennis get away with a cheesy cliffhanger.

The Punisher #9, Kitchen Irish, Part 3 (of 6)

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Fernandez’s art is so underwhelming the entire issue feels like it’s incomplete. Like it’s storyboards for the actual comic. After the opening shoot out, which Fernandez entirely flubs, it’s a talking heads issue and instead of expressions, Fernandez uses a lot of shadows. Static faces and shadows. Sometimes the faces look so static you think they’re just copied and pasted from another panel. Even stranger is when colorist Dean White tries to pick up the slack for the lack of dimension, doing it in the coloring (particularly on faces), only then his shadows don’t match Fernandez’s shadows.

Other than the art problems, it’s a solid issue. Lots of exposition (from everyone but Frank) and the introduction of Brenda Toner, wife of Tommy, who is being cut up by Napper French for Magnify. Brenda proves to be a lot tougher than her husband’s goons, which is nice. She’s a loathsome character, but not as cruel as Finn or Maginty. And not as dumb as the bro in charge of the River Rats. So she’s at least interesting. Unfortunately she’s only it in for a few, poorly illustrated pages.

After the opening shootout involving Frank, the Brits, Finn, and the River Rats, Ennis splits the issue between Frank and the Brits interrogating Finn’s nephew, Finn and his pal regrouping, the River Rats recovering, Maginty getting Napper to cut up Tommy Toner, Brenda Toner getting pieces of her husband. In the interrogation scenes, Frank barely talks. It’s mostly monologuing from head Brit, Yorkie, which is fine… Ennis writes it well. Fernandez doesn’t render it well, but the dialogue’s good. It is redundant because Ennis is going through information the reader already has about what’s going on. It’s like the reader is getting a refresh, only it was just last issue the reader got the information (maybe some of it in the first issue) but it’s more than they need. If the art were better, it probably would just pass, but with the particularly wonky talking heads art? It drags. The most boring stuff in the Punisher comic is the Punisher, because mostly he’s just standing around and letting some other guy do the talking.

There’s some good character work for the younger Brit, the one seeking revenge. Ennis is almost too serious this issue. It’s like he doesn’t know how to balance macabre absurd with the non-absurd. It’s not a misstep, it’s just… incomplete. Maybe better art would’ve fixed it all. Someone really needed to talk to Fernandez about his thumbnails, if he made them, because it’s not just the detail he’s not doing, he’s also not hitting the right action emphases.

And to keep a bridging, talking heads exposition dump of a comic going? Got to have all the right art emphases.

Blast From The Past: American Flagg #1

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Recently I spread the word on Howard Chaykin’s recent series on the history of comics from the inside, Hey Kids! Comics!, being a success for the seasoned comics creator. Within that review, I mentioned his earlier effort, American Flagg, which I believe to be his most successful creation. So lo and behold, here I am at one of the local comics shows, and what leaps into my hand but a copy of AF #1. Didn’t look like it had been read, was in a clean bag and a board, and was for sale for the bargain price of one dollar. Obviously an omen, I had to relive this older favorite of mine.

Chaykin, who’s made his rep depicting high adventure, lusty, cynical, violent hero types, perhaps like many creators, uses his leads as a portrayal of themselves as center actors, living through their characters. Howie is certainly guilty of this, but while his leading males are certainly bigger than life, they are also infused with an everyman sense of how outrageous their situations are, and a sense of indignation for being put there. Rueben Flagg, our protagonist, is an out of work soap opera actor replaced by a holographic projection, and finds himself working a crap job as a law enforcement officer at the local Plexmall, a microcosm of what future society holds for us, excesses and all. It’s midwest based, with the Plexmall inspired by suburban Chicago malls, with numerous local inflections sprinkled along the way.

To Chaykin’s luck and First publisher Rick Obdiah’s credit, Chaykin gets LOTS of leeway on mature content for a comic I could of sworn was on the newsstands. Flagg jumps right into the action, the basic plot and numerous characters introduced at breakneck speed to keep action in the forefront. While they may display a stereotypical slant to them, Chaykin’s self sense of interest leaves a fresh, spicy imprint on all, giving his actors a personal distinctiveness rare among comics, especially right off the bat here. The boundaries of good taste are also pushed a bit, with suggested sex, drugs, and continuous gang violence just the beginning of this ride.

While Chaykin is always on the forefront of narrative graphic panel composition, American Flagg displays an assurance of talent, a mature mastery of eye movement, composition, and the full integration of literal word messaging within the panels contents. Rare indeed are the experimental approach and the common sense of storytelling disciplines working in perfect tandem as they do here.

Yet another strength in Chaykin’s bag of tricks is is an ability to constantly invent costumes and clothing. The thought and detail here should be a visual lesson to any creator of what it takes to produce a multi layered, textural reading environment. This makes the comic repeatedly accessible, each new read revealing previously missed visual cues. I really didn’t notice the “ben day dot” effect till my second read, that gives the figures another easy to achieve level of depth, allowing Chaykin to focus elsewhere within the panel on other inventions.

Big kudos to “new” letterer Ken Bruzenak here, who’s skill at typography and design take Chaykin’s birthings to a new level. There are literally dozens of fonts on display here, encyclopedic in their numbers, yet fully clear with their intent and narrative focus. Flagg incorporates figure drawing, graphic design, and typography to a high level here, and it works just fine. Lynn Varley’s limited palette with its 64 standard printing colors is also a demonstration of what pros can do with skill and limited means. What both accomplish here without computers certainly paves the the way for later practitioners.

While one can quibble with Chaykins manish approach and overtly sexy derring do, it’s obviously what inspires him to do comics at this level in the first place. What he does with 28 pages here is a visual testimony of his skills, and a “restrained” approach for a wider audience. All of the actors here are likable, stylish, and leave a great impression with the reader, despite their role in the drama.

Like the fine arts, comics sometimes are so far ahead of their time, their true value not recognized until much later. This books mainstream accessibility along with its continuous sophisticated display of invention, form a perfect balance of commerce and creativity, easily placing it into my pantheon of favorite comic books.

American Flagg, now over 35 years old, still remains as fresh and different as the day it was published, a superior effort from one of comics modern masters. Quite the bargain at a buck, which was also its original cover price, by the way.

The Punisher #8, Kitchen Irish, Part 2 (of 6)

This issue introduces two more groups involved in Kitchen Irish, starting with the British guys. One of them is a Vietnam vet who knows Frank from the war, the other is the son of the last British foot soldier killed in Northern Ireland. The older guy, Yorkie, is bringing the younger guy, Andy, along because the guy who killed his dad is villain Finn Cooley’s nephew. They meet up with Frank and Yorkie goes over Finn’s history with the IRA, fleshing out some backstory for that character (Finn). It’s a nice talking heads scene—spread throughout the issue—particularly because it forces Frank to be sociable. Or his version of sociable. There’s no Frank narration this issue.

Then there are the River Rats, a gang of modern-day pirates who target yachts headed for the Hamptons to rob. Lots of action with them, then lots of character setup after the job’s finished and they’re on their way to the bar. The yacht robbery feels like an entirely different comic book but it works out fine; Fernandez’s action art on it is strong, Ennis keeps it moving. The characters are kind of bland though, at least compared to the rest of the bad guys. Ennis throws out a bunch of character names, which seem disposable at this point, and it’s just texture.

Speaking of the other bad guys, there’s more of Maginty getting the old guy to cut up a rival gang leader while the grandson is handcuffed to a radiator in the other room. There’s not a lot of violence in the issue, most of it’s implied, but the psychological aspect is there. The grandson clearly shouldn’t be involved in what’s going on in the comic, but then should anyone else.

Ennis still hasn’t revealed what all the bad guys are talking about—money but no context for it—and the issue ends with Frank getting ready to take on Finn, who makes the mistake of going out in public after the bombing last issue. Not sure how Frank finds him. Maybe the British intelligence guy knows something?

It’s a concise issue, even when it feels like Ennis and Fernandez are taking their time on action. It’s perfectly paced, perfectly balanced between the various factions. Very thoughtfully executed; very nice Fernandez is able to keep up here too.

The Punisher #7, Kitchen Irish, Part 1 (of 6)

Ennis does three things with the first issue of Kitchen Irish, he sets up Frank’s involvement, introduces two bad guys. The bad guy introductions are separate because only one set of bad guys—led by a disfigured, former IRA bomber—have anything to do with the issue’s inciting incident (an explosion). The other bad guy has his own separate, kind of horrifying thing going. Frank does introduce a third set of bad guys—while everyone talks about four total sets—but the emphasis is on Frank’s narration, which is a history lesson.

Kitchen refers to Hell’s Kitchen, which is going through gentrification and only hoods and the Punisher are longing for the old days. It’s never really clear what Frank’s doing before the explosion changes the course of his day. It also doesn’t matter. Ennis uses Frank’s narration to set up his mindset and perspective, then it’s for exposition on the ground situation with the hoods, but the comic quickly becomes all about the villains. And some of the action, though Leandro Fernandez concentrates on the composition a lot more than the detail of the action. More on Fernandez in a bit.

The issue’s two villain introductions are strong. Finn, the IRA bomber, and his somewhat dopey, blusterous Irish-American sidekicks, and Maginty, an apparently vicious Black Irish hood (Finn and company are at least weary, if not scared, of him). Finn and company get a far less dramatic reveal than Maginty, who gets the last scene in the comic, where he kidnaps a kid. Maginty’s trying to get the grandfather to cut up a body for him; not out of the blue, the grandfather used to cut up bodies for the Irish mob. Frank running around rooftops to watch some guy through his sniper rifle doesn’t start to compare.

Partially because of Fernandez, partially becomes Ennis’s intentionally focused on the villain introductions. Frank’s already gotten a great sequence as he recovers from the explosions and finds himself in shock, physical and mental. But Fernandez… the more he does, the less well he does it. The art is occasionally lazy (Finn’s sidekicks have the same face in a few panels, just different hair, only then their haircuts change too) while the writing is disciplined and thorough. It’s hard not to imagine how the comic might read with a more effective artist. Even when Fernandez doesn’t do anything wrong, he also never does it right enough.

Nowak’s Girl Town

Girl Town is haunted. Far more than it is haunting. Creator Casey Nowak often cuts right before it gets haunting, instead its cast is haunted. Town collects five different stories. At least two of them deal with heartache. Two of them deal with nonspecific ache. One of them is potential literature but in the modern podcast, fandom era.

Nowak has some similar themes and visuals. She’s got this “roofs off” shot she does into houses. Sometimes it’s for establishing shots, sometimes it’s for scene. Usually it’s establishing shots. Theme-wise, things are often in a near future of some sort. The first story has space being colonized and attractive women left behind on Earth instead of getting to go into space. The third story—by far the longest one (sort of the “feature”)—is about a woman getting a sex robot who proves, just like the T-800, to be the only one who measures up (no, not that way). Those two stories, the futuristic realism ones, are the two heartache stories. The first one—the first story in the collection—ends with this really awesome, really weird move from Nowak where she changes things up at the last minute, staying truer to the character than reader expectation.

It helps set the tone for the rest of the book. Like the second story, which has an unexpected finish as well. It’s a little bit more magical realism than futuristic; there are some mundane fantastics in it, but no specific sci-fi tech. The second story is really good too. Town just keeps getting better until the sex robot feature; after it, the intensity of the read changes. The fourth story is that aforementioned potential literature one. It’s all about these two podcasters who get their hands on a copy of a rare vampire TV movie from the early nineties. It’s got a cult following, even though no one has seen it since it first aired. It works out to be a really nice, really assured story. Different from everything else, but a nice show of range.

Then the finale is an encore of the quiet devastation Nowak does earlier. The last story has no futurism, no magic. It’s just about sadness and memory. The characters are so layered—Nowak’s got these aching leads opposite powerful, confident love interests and friends—and the finish to the story just makes the whole book ache. Just like the first story’s ending reverberates through the rest of the read, the last reveal shoots it back to the front. Girl Town is a literal mood.

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