The Books of Magic (1993-2019)

Books of Magic v1

Books of Magic

Original series and recent “Moveable Type” trade paperback

Back in 1991, DC decided to let one of their successful new writers, Neil Gaiman, fresh from his success with The Sandman, an opportunity to play in the sandbox with a bevy of their silver age B list characters, weaving them into the origin of what they hoped would be a new success, The Books of Magic.

It concerned the big four of these lot, and their concern and involvement on what the universe handed them was a new disciple of the mystic arts, and whether he was up to standards and was either to be allowed or eliminated, depending on this trial phase.

Books of Magic introduced Timothy Hunter, a young English lad thrust into a world of magic and mysticism, that would later perhaps influence another English writer into “inventing” a similar character, with similar attributes, with an owl familiar with whom most of you know of already. That DC’s parent company, Warner Bros., would have huge success producing a series of movies based on the best selling books of the later incarnation, would give us the pathway of what turns the money world and how it forms decisions at a corporate level. If Tim Hunter were privately owned by Gaiman and not work for hire, Harry Potter’s place in history might have turned out to be a very different story.

Warner Bros.’s handling of the situation is illuminated well by the almost thirty years that have passed since his first published tale.

Books of Magic, a four issue, prestige formatted book given four different and highly talented artists, was indeed a good vehicle for keeping Gaiman busy and happy at DC, an exercise in giving him reign over some of the mystical “heroes” and incorporating them into Timothys story, allowing him access to, and eventual “certification” to belong and influence events in this portion of DC’s universe.

The books themselves took young Tim on a journey throughout each book, with the b list characters leading the way, showing him bits and pieces of what came before him in the DC supernatural mythos, and whether he wanted to or even could assume his place among them.

Here is Gaiman’s strong suit as a writer of comics, his love of English fictional lore, and his ability to take previously invented characters and weave them successfully into the tapestry of the DC Universe, yet still giving him some freedom to pick and pull at the characters, reinventing them for a new modern feel, giving them relevance they really didn’t have before as B listers of the past.

And weave them he did, much like the Sandman before him, Books of Magic, while not reinventing the wheel, provides a decent respite from the previous ham fisted depictions of magical lands and environment that had escaped DC before. Each of the four comics more or less completes a chunk of Tim’s introduction, along with the weight of deeper roles Gaiman obviously enjoyed depicting.

By the series end, Gaiman brings it all around, and with the help of the artists, completes a grand tale that pretty much satisfies the hunger of readers of such things, and more importantly, brings forth and refreshes another portion of the DC portfolio to explore and publish stories about.

While I must confess, fairies and mythical monsters aren’t my sort of thing, but I got the set of them cheap at a comics fair during my hunts, and wanted to see what the fuss was about in a manner that allowed me to sample them inexpensively. All in all, I thought it was a successful series, imbued with solid visual storytelling skills from the artists (the Charles Vess issue is outstanding), and Gaiman’s writing, while not my cup of tea, kept me interested, and by its finish, I felt none the worse for having read it. My time invested didn’t exactly enhance my experience with comics, but I didn’t feel there was a couple of hours of my time wasted either.

Many years later, DC Comics would move its offices from New York where it had been since the invention of comic books themselves, to the west coast, incorporating itself fully both in it’s physical and etherial presence within the sconces of the Warner Bros facilities proper.

In the meantime, Books of Magic had gone on to an aesthetically successful run of seventy five issues and numerous appearances in the DC comics canon. I noticed while attempting to acquire a collection of this run through my local library that a collected book of the most recent series published after their move was available, so I reserved it and read it.

Now according to the cover blurb, Tim is published under them banner along the top as part of the “Sandman Universe” with the Vertigo imprint still used as a differential label to distinguish itself from the rest of their mainstream properties. Gaiman’s name is listed as a co creator, but really none of his presence other than utilizing his regurgitated universe seem to show evidence of his presence here.

The six issue mini series that is collected here pretty much goes through the tropes of once again revisiting and reintroducing the characters, perhaps to make it more accessible to a new audience, which is a solid goal for these things. The problem is, after reading it, I’m no closer to actually reading an actual story than I was when I started. We seem to be going through the chore of not just reintroducing characters, but one of plot as well. You can checklist this book entirely through its more or less stereotyped events that comics of this sort have already demonstrated; sadly this comes off as if you’re watching an old rerun of a television show you’ve already seen many times. Worse yet, after six issues and almost identical page count to the earlier saga, we are woefully short of an actual story and no closer to one by the series end. It has served merely as a prologue to a larger event that continues on in what I imagine will be the next volume.

Now this is where some modern published comic books seem to have hit a wall, both in terms of garnering a new audience, and giving value in the time spent reading it. The creators here, I imagine through no fault of their own, shall remain nameless because a creative person needs to work. They have turned in what looks entirely like an editorially mandated exercise, checking off the points it needs to hit, along the way to offering a product that lives off its own previous success. It doesn’t provide any new creativity or invention, and is produced to seek out the most common denominator in finding a customer, giving them the impression something is actually going on here, hooking them into investing themselves in the next volume to continue or perhaps complete the story.

At short of twenty dollars with tax included, readers would be better served by studying and referencing other comic stories and creators, an easy task these days with as much access to information as we have, and searching out material that has been vetted and written about to give inspiration to find such things.

This current volume of Books of Magic isn’t about introducing the reader to a new fascinating character and mythology, but more about the numbing of creativity, franchising a copyrighted product and fooling its consumer into buying something that looks like the real McCoy, but sure doesn’t taste like it, akin to eating a fast food burger and wishing it were made with real ingredients by someone that puts creativity, invention, and love into it. Sadly, the hour it took to experience this book gives neither satisfied taste buds, and the impression my time could have been better spent elsewhere. The dearth of invention displayed here makes it look like an undernourished imitation of the version that came before it. How sad.

Sorry Harry, oops, I meant Tim.

Better luck next time.

Mr. Boop – Volume 1: My Wife is Betty Boop (2020)

Mr Boop Volume 1  2020

Mr. Boop is about being married to Betty Boop. The protagonist is Boop creator Alec Robbins, who is presumably not actually married to Betty Boop in real life because otherwise it’d be a series of photos not comics.

Robbins, the comic protagonist, is very happy to be married to Betty Boop, who’s the hottest woman ever, which might be where I (first) fail in the Boop demographic. There’s literally nothing else to Betty Boop. Is there nothing more to Betty Boop, the character? I haven’t seen any of the cartoons since childhood and the last Betty Boop appearance I would’ve seen was in a Roger Rabbit rewatch. A decade or so ago.

So not the target audience. If there is such a thing, because Robbins isn’t doing Boop for the classic Hollywood cartoon crowd. There’s an “18+” on the cover for a reason, as protagonist Alec gets over his performance anxiety and soon learns he and Betty are going to have to have a lot of threesomes if he’s going to want to stay alive. This volume—of fifty-two strips—has four major “plot gestures,” first involving protagonist Alec’s performance anxiety, then Bugs Bunny wanting to kill Alec and take his place in Betty Boop’s bed—Alec and Bugs work together at Subway but it’s unclear how Betty Boop knows Bugs—needless to say, the Boops come up with a solution to Bugs’s murderous machinations and it all works out.

At least until they don’t invite Sonic the Hedgehog—who bartends locally—to one of their soon infamous threesomes and it slowly drives him into a violent rage.

I mean… it’s all right. It probably shouldn’t open with a fake Jim Davis intro to the book because Mr. Boop then just reminds you of when Garfield isn’t quite funny enough either and it’s in a similar way to Boop. It probably reads better as a strip (Robbins published it daily). When part of the gag is there only being the one gag….

Well, it might just read better in single doses (or even limited ones) than a full dump. Though good cliffhanger.

And there are some funny strips in the backups from the guest cartoonists. Not the “Steven Universe” one, unless the point is never to want to watch “Steven Universe.”

Teknophage (1995) #1-6

Neil Gaiman s Teknophage  6

Let’s see how long it takes me to describe Teknophage. Our reality is just one of an infinite (I think) number of realities, a multiverse woven together through the will of one single creature—the Teknophage, or Mister Henry Phage. He’s a giant dinosaur. On his planet, through mutation, he became hyper-intelligent and then discovered how to access the quantum realm and create a multiverse (or so Phage says during an interview). Sixty-five million years later, Earth is experiencing its 20th century and Phage is kidnapping humans to work in his giant mobile skyscraper hell building as it roams the planet Kalighoul. I think it can jump through the dimensions and go anywhere, they just happen to be hanging out on planet Kalinghoul.

Phage’s empire runs as a commercial enterprise, where his vice presidents scramble up the corporate ladder, hoping to someday be worthing of becoming… Phage’s dinner. Phage doesn’t eat very often because he’s got this special nap he takes as he digests his subordinates and seems to absorb them in some way. It’s unclear. Phage doesn’t like doctors so it’s entirely possible he’s never been fully diagnosed. Sometimes when Phage doesn’t like things he zaps them with his heat vision. By things I mean his “employees”—it’s unclear if middle management makes any actual money. They clearly live better than the many enslaved people who man the proverbial oars, but the upper management at least seems to enjoy their position having reached it. Though we don’t see what they do for leisure. Probably something awful.

The “hero” of the story is real estate developer Rob, who’s out at a farm he’s swindled from an old lady when he gets zapped to planet Kalinghoul. We’ve already seen Kalinghoul, with writer Rick Veitch and artist Bryan Talbot introducing it in the framing device, with this Oldish English narration cryptically describing the situation with Phage and so on.

It’s like “Monty Python” and, I don’t know, Dickens or something. I’m not English enough to know the specifics. Teknophage is extremely British; it’s about some dystopian steampunk revolt against a giant dinosaur ruler; it’s like a 2000 AD story but unqualified in its success. Talbot and Teknophage creator Neil Gaiman are English, Veitch is not. Neither’s Rob. In fact, Rob being an American figures into his behavior.

See, once Rob gets to planet Kalinghoul, he tries bartering his Earthly possessions for local money and gets ripped off. He also gets married to the woman ripping him off, which is sort of just desserts because it turns out she’s the alien abducted daughter of the old lady whose farm he just swindled. Her name is Clarissa and she’s a revolutionary in addition to being a con artist. She runs with Boog, a rough old British guy trope, who’s her surrogate father. When Clarissa goes on mission, Rob decides he’s got to save her—he’s suffering intense guilt over swindling her mom–even if it screws up her mission, which involves getting taken in for conversion, where they boil down your soul and turn you into a robot.

The writing on all the fantastical steampunk stuff is great. When the comic gets to an expository section, it’s a delight thanks to Veitch’s enthusiastic prose. It’s always entertaining.

Will Boog get Rob to realize being a capitalist maybe isn’t the greatest idea on Kalinghoul (or anywhere else)? Can Clarissa survive her undercover assignment as Phage’s new secretary (tasked with recording his life story)? Will Phage ever digest his meal? The meal who yells at him for quite a while and provides Veitch with some great comic relief.

Though there’s a lot of great comic relief amid the great comic.

Outstanding art from Talbot. His figures aren’t the greatest, unless he’s doing a little more caricature, but the settings are amazing and Teknophage himself is just as delightful visually as narratively. He’s an amazing antagonist. He’s kind of an anti-hero but also not.

Despite being from a comic book company I hadn’t heard of–Tekno Comix—until reading this title, Teknophage is actually in print (collected) as well as digitally so it’s readily available and well-worth the read.

Enough for me to continue on into the non-Veitch issues… not sure yet.

Pulp (2020)

Pulp  2020

Pulp is good. I would’ve liked it a lot more with a different ending, instead of the same ending writer Ed Brubaker has used at least once before—but it’s such a distinctive, painfully obvious a reveal it sticks with me a decade after I first read it in Criminal. Though maybe he’s just trying to make the twist work, doing it over and over until it does the work it needs to do.

Real quick, the reason it doesn’t work is because it requires the narrator to be unreliable for the entirety of the piece. The narrator’s reveal is just another ruse, another manipulation and it keeps Pulp locked in its genre, a mix of a Western (though barely, just some flashbacks) and a pre-WWII crime thriller.

The narrator’s name is Max Winter; it’s so much from his perspective, I didn’t even realize he had a name until I got to the back cover. I guess people are always yelling out, “Max,” when he has heart attacks. Max has multiple heart attacks in the comic because Max is an old, breaking man. Hard-living is finally catching up, only in 1939 New York City when Max has got a wife at home in his tenement apartment and he wants to at least get her out of there before he dies. Hard-living didn’t catch up with him, for example, when he was an outlaw some forty years earlier.

Brubaker does have some nice narrative tricks, like how he introduces some of the story between Max and his brother (they led a gang or something) with Max talking about his Western stories and his plans for them—the Pulp in the title refers to Max writing for a story magazine in the Golden Age of story magazines—before actually introducing the brother, before explaining Max’s first-hand knowledge of the Western stories.

It’s nicely done, with Brubaker keeping just the right balance with the present and the flashback. Max narrates in a mix of past and present tense, just enough so you don’t know how it turns out. I don’t think Brubaker’s ever done a Sunset Boulevard but there’s a first time for everything. But whatever Brubaker does with the narration—and he does a good job of it, old man in 1939 experiencing that era—gets derailed with the twist at the end. Even with Brubaker muting it, putting it off as long as possible, trying to get to a… Pulp ending.

A lot of the plot concerns the American Nazi movement in 1939. The biggest action set piece involves them, they’re in the background to all the action, they even have to do with one of the twists. Because so many twists. Some of it is how Brubaker structures the narration, which gets to be personable while still writerly thanks to the narrator being an experienced writer.

The writer stuff doesn’t figure into Pulp much. There’s this initial impetus with Max having to write more stories to make up for getting mugged and losing the previous book’s pay. But he just effortlessly cranks them out, even though his wife mentions his all-nighters. Brubaker wants him to be a writer but isn’t really interested in him being a writer. Outside some interludes with the editor, which turn into a C plot by the end.

The wife’s extant but not present. Again, Brubaker makes it work by just making it about fitting in the genre.

Pulp would’ve worked better as a longer limited series. It’s rushed.

But good enough. High highs, not too low lows. Fantastic art throughout from Sean Phillips. Making it a series would’ve meant more Phillips 1939 New York art, which is gorgeous. Great colors from Jacob Phillips too.

Maybe twenty pages into Pulp, I started getting more invested in it because I thought it was going to be really good, like maybe Brubaker had really figured it out this time. So I was an extended disappointed… not to mention that familiar final “twist.” But it’s good. Like, real good. It’s beautifully paced, looks great, and has a strong first person protagonist.

It’s just not singular and it seems like it should be.

Nailbiter Returns (2020) #1

Nailbiter Returns  2020  1

I jumped shift halfway through the original Nailbiter series, so I think I missed the part about the serial killer antihero (the Nailbiter) having a daughter with the hero of the series. It’s been so long I can’t remember if the first series felt like a pitch for McFarlane Toys, but Nailbiter Returns feels it. Complete with play sets.

All of a sudden I’m reminded of that “Mentalist” quote, “If you don't get horny reading Fangoria, I'm Britney Spears.”

But Nailbiter Returns tries so hard not to just be an exploitation comic. And suffers for not just embracing it.

If it were just exploitation, writer Joshua Williamson could get away with the new lead—the Nailbiter’s teenage normal girl daughter—not being able to shut up about Argento movies and Goblin scores. After some serial killer torture violence—which is only disquieting because of how blandly the comic executes it—Williamson does some exposition to catch us up, but with a whole bunch of horror movie talk thrown in.

Scream has been old enough to drink for three years and we’re still at the Scream level of pop culture references.

Not to get into a whole thing about how pop culture references do and do not add to a narrative work but it’d almost be more interesting than talking about the comic.

Nailbiter Returns is almost middling. Williamson’s does a thorough job, albeit without any nuance. Mike Henderson’s art either feels rushed—lots of empty backgrounds, ill-defined character physiologies—or forced.

The double-sized first issue, which barely has any story and I think I’m remembering what helped me jump on the first series, doesn’t do anything to make me think jumping was the wrong choice.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #3

Ginseng Roots  2019  3

Okay, this issue is even better than last issue and not just because creator Craig Thompson has Black Jesus, White Yahweh, and a Chinese Holy Spirit, which is an amazing panel. Lots of amazing illustrative panels this issue, in fact, because the main plot isn’t about Thompson working on his comic or anything with his family—it’s about the history of ginseng.

Thompson starts with a creation myth straight out of The Phantom Menace and those other virgin birth stories. Except instead of doing the Jesus thing, this guy spends his life figuring out how best for folks to live off nature and to be healthy. Thompson has this absolutely glorious transition where the guy, Shennong, has to find the missing cute ginseng root, which has gotten successfully hunted because the hunter is worthy. Shennong is 28th Century BCE, so pre-Jesus, post-Anakin. Shennong then has to try to find his ginseng friend, which brings him to the twenty-first century and Thompson at a ginseng rally in Wisconsin. It’s beautifully executed. Just stunningly good work.

But then Shennong discovers the ginseng isn’t his old friend, it’s American Ginseng or whatever and how did it get there and we don’t get to find out because it’s the cliffhanger. The educational element of Ginseng Roots is the cliffhanger. It’s stunningly good. Like, if issue two was better than it seemed issue one could ever get, three’s just as much an improvement over two. It’s an exemplar comic.

There’s some great American political commentary, with Thompson managing never to come off sarcastic when he’s doing something sarcastic. A lot of it comes from Thompson’s understanding of comic book and comic strip mechanics; even the beginning treats the origin of Shennong like a sensational seventies Marvel book. Thompson’s got a lot of chops and is showing them off here.

I’m loving this book.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #2

Ginseng Roots  2019  2

Confession time—I never read Blankets, creator Craig Thompson’s first big work. And it now turns out Ginseng Roots is a somewhat direct sequel.

This issue opens with Thompson going back to Wisconsin—he’d been living in Portland, OR (of course), which makes the questionable L.A. cartography last issue more permissible—and meeting up with his younger brother, Phil, to drive to the family farm house. Not farm, but farm house amid other people’s fields.

On the way, Thompson introduces a second sibling, sister Sarah, who was left out from Blankets; there’s a bit about the fallout from Blankets, both in terms of the parents and the sister. The parents didn’t like it because it’s about Thompson’s fall from Evangelical faith and Sarah because she wasn’t in Blankets. She even wonders if it won’t be too confusing to include her in the ginseng comic, which Thompson is talking over with his family.

How’d it turn out? She’s on the cover of this issue.

And the parents have at least accepted Thompson’s previous work to the point there’s a copy of Blankets on the bookshelf, which is bare of books other than Thompson’s creative output. Presumably there’s a Bible around somewhere.

Creating a comic lionizing Red State farmers in 2019 is going to be something, but Thompson seems to be aware he’s going to have to address some things. It’s not like Portland is the bastion of social justice one would’ve assumed in the aughts.

The parents aren’t enthused about the ginseng project simply because they were laborers, so Thompson and his brother (who loves the idea of the comic) go to visit some farmers and former employers.

They’re a cute old couple who bitch about Americans not wanting to work anymore and how the environmentalists are ruining things. Turns out at the end ginseng can only be grown on a plot so I’m not sure an economist would agree with their take. But it’s a very nice, very informative sequence.

There’s a lot about how excluded Sarah felt from growing up with the brothers, which is awesome, unpleasant if genial work.

The first issue was good comics but this issue is outstanding comics. Hopefully Thompson can keep it going.

Ginseng Roots (2019) #1

Ginseng Root  2019  1

Creator Craig Thompson has a hell of a hook for the first issue of Ginseng Roots—he gets to be interesting. Thompson grew up in Wisconsin in the seventies and eighties when the state was the number one grower of ginseng in the world. According to Thompson; I’m not going to check it because you’ve got to trust your creators.

So Thompson and his brother helped their mother weed ginseng fields as kids. They got paid a dollar an hour, which eventually bought comic books. And Thompson goes into how they weeded the fields and why they weeded the fields and it’s all very interestingly done. Even though the ginseng market crashed in the nineties and ruined some lives, Wisconsin still makes it; they should’ve hired Thompson to do them a pamphlet talking about it. Just great educational comics right here.

Alongside Thompson’s story of growing up in a working class Wisconsin farming community and the associated troubles. In the present—he’s got a very quick and effective way of jumping the narrative ahead forty years—he still suffers class anxiety as he finds himself with all the artsy types.

A chance walk through Los Angeles’s Koreatown and Chinatown—okay, this one I checked and it’s not geographically accurate (hrm)—but on this chance walk narrator Thompson sees ginseng shops and communes with a particular barrel of roots and it tells him to “go home.”

It’s the adorable ginseng creator Thompson has had as gentle comedy relief throughout the comic, offering asides on multiple pages and so on.

The comic’s gorgeous; Thompson’s on not white paper, which gives the mostly black and white art a lot of personality. There are occasional colors, mostly reds. There’s even a letter page, where creator Thompson talks about the plans for the comic—twelve issues—so either the whole thing’s about his journey back home or some of it will be. His brother, who’s a character in the comic, also draws a couple pager about how he picked too much ginseng when rooting.

It’s a very nice comic; very nice reading experience.

Friday (2020)

Friday  2020

Friday is actually Friday #1. Or “Chapter One.” I went into it cold, only aware it was Ed Brubaker writing and Marcos Martin on art. I figured it was a done-in-one, but it’s actually the start of a new serial.

The titular Friday is one Friday Fitzhugh, who’s just come home from college to her New England town and found herself immediately in pursuit of some kid who’s run off with a sacred knife from an archeological dig.

The comic’s set in an indeterminate past, pre-cellphone, looks to be pre-laptop too. There’s not a lot of time to reflect on the seventies or eighties as quaint because it’s mostly action as Friday and her partner but he’s really the Batman to her Robin, Lancelot Jones, are in this pursuit. With the sheriff driving them. Sheriff answers to Lancelot.

There are lots of allusions to Friday and Lancelot’s “partnership” before college, though not as many as references to some cataclysmic rift in their relationship the night before she left for college. Did one of them get amorous and get shot down? Don’t know. Friday wants to talk about it, Lancelot instead ignores her and ditches her after picking her up—in the sheriff’s car—from her train to go on their mission.

There’s a lot of precedent for teen and tween boy detectives having tomboy female sidekicks (Encyclopedia Brown did, didn't he) and Brubaker seems to think there’s gristle in examining them after they’re able to buy cigarettes but….

Friday #1 ends with a postscript from Brubaker explaining its origins in the proto-YA novels of his childhood (mentioning Edward Gorey just makes you wonder how it’d read if Martin’s art were eerie in any way), which kind of constrains the whole thing and gives it some padding.

It may turn out to be worthwhile.

But a comic called Friday about a literal girl Friday (the reference just seems to target a forty-something, middle-class White male audience) and so far disinterested in examining its gender tropes by going all-on traditional? Eh.

Justice League: The New Frontier Special (2008) #1

Justice League The New Frontier Special  2008  1

It would be wrong to describe Justice League: The New Frontier Special as hack work. Darywn Cooke’s art on the feature, even his plotting of it, is not hacky. Neither is the Robin and Kid Flash story’s art, courtesy Dave Bullock and Michael Cho. Even the Wonder Woman and Black Canary go to a Playboy Club art by J. Bone isn’t… hack work. Bone’s cartoonish style does what it’s supposed to do.

Now, the writing on that last story might be hack work. Cooke opens with a gentle jab at political correctness, confirms Bruce Wayne is a pig in his off time, and then has Wonder Woman slut shame. It’s not quite cringe because it’s six pages, but it’s definitely eye-roll.

And the Robin and Kid Flash story is more just annoying. Between Robin’s hep cat narration and the proto-groovy dialogue (and the “commie” villains?), it’s tiresome. But gorgeous art. Arguably better looking than Cooke’s feature, which is… something.

The feature tells the untold tale from the original New Frontier (this not at all special Special tied into the release of the lousy New Frontier animated movie)—Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Greater Good. Besides getting some insight into how Cooke would write Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman if he’d written them more in the original comic (good thing he didn’t), it also has more of dickhead Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sends Supes after Bats. I remember reading something about (Canadian) Cooke thinking we needed Eisenhower back—when asked about his politics during Iraq War II, where there was only one right answer—which adds a layer to the comic.

If Cooke liked Ike… it’s hard to imagine how he’d have written him if he didn’t like him. Killing a puppy maybe?

The feature’s twenty-four interminable pages, with Cooke clearly not spending a lot of time on the art. The Batman and Superman fight itself is pretty good, rather drawn out, but with a goony resolution. It’s also one hell of a retcon of the original series.

Overall the most successful thing in the comic is the one page prologue with Rip Hunter telling everyone not to take it seriously.

All of a sudden, I’m real glad I don’t have one of the New Frontier collected editions with the Special included. If I’d read it on publication, I forgot about it. I hope I can forget about it again.

DC: The New Frontier (2004)

DC The New Frontier  2004

Darwin Cooke’s most impressive achievement with The New Frontier isn’t the art, which is a mix of sublime, grandiose, muted, and bombastic, or keeping track of all the characters (there have to be hundreds), but the voice he finds for characters. He starts big, with Losers member Johnny Cloud narrating the team’s adventures on Dinosaur Island. New Frontier is heavier with the science heroes and war heroes than with the superheroes. The Losers, Task Force X (the Suicide Squad), the Blackhawks show up, there’s a bunch with the Challengers of the Unknown—all of the mask-free, government sanctioned hero types, they play the biggest part in the New Frontier’s main plot, figuring into both Hal Jordan and John Jones’s plot lines and then consuming them. Though everyone’s plot is consumed by the finale.

Cloud’s memoir sets up the comic both in terms of Cooke’s approach—it’s going to be fantastical comic book action, but with a lot of heart in its heroes (New Frontier doesn’t have much in the way of human villains, as it turns out, just heroes who aren’t being heroic yet and then the politicians… they’re all bad), so awesome art and simple, sincere narration—as well as the main plot. Dinosaur Island’s going to figure in a lot.

After Cloud, Cooke cycles through the same main “leads”—Green Lantern-to-be Jordan and not yet Martian Manhunter Jones. There are tangents, but it’s their story for most of the comic. The big three—Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman—figure in a little. Wonder Woman and Superman more because they become government stooges and head off to Southeast Asia when tasked, which has long lasting ramifications and figures into their (scant) character development arcs. Cooke’s not telling a Wonder Woman or Superman story—despite showing up every issue, Superman’s basic ground situation still comes as a bit of a surprise at the end. Batman’s just there to support other characters, whether Superman or Martian Manhunter (without knowing he’s a Martian).

There’s also a possible plot hole with Wonder Woman knowing Eisenhower from the war but it’s unclear in what capacity because the superheroes weren’t involved in World War II (because “Spear of Destiny,” which means B.J. Blazkowicz failed his mission in New Frontier-verse). Cooke is cagey with the ground situation, which is fine when it works and he’s able to have a surprise reveal or little plot twist, but he’s intentionally manipulating. So when it doesn’t work, it’s real obvious.

As present as Wonder Woman and Superman is Lois Lane. She comes in early and stays to the end, often getting onto a soapbox to rant about the government wanting to control all the superheroes. See, the Red Scare goes to them too, not for being communists but for wearing the masks. Cooke does a fantastic job with the science heroes and how they exist in the world, but there’s nothing about how the regular folk regard the superheroes anymore. Tying them into McCarthyism when they would’ve been fresh in the public’s mind for do-gooding (presumably). It’s weird.

Of course, there’s not a lot of opportunity for Cooke to expound recent history because—outside the various narrations—the only expository device he’s got is the occasional article from some in-world reporter, Lois, Vicki Vale, Iris West, and they wouldn’t be appropriate for too much historical exposition.

The big fight at the end—will the United States’s earnest heroes be able to get over their fears and band together to stop an unimaginable threat, leveraging their individual abilities and the latest in Silver Age technology? Of course, it’s a superhero. It’s rather well executed, even if some of the details—Cooke’s design of the final boss seems like the physiology-free sketches of a child (in the Fifties, natch) and, well, something out of Max Shea’s imagination (obligatory Watchmen mention)… because New Frontier very much feels like Watchmen only with the DC Universe heroes. The Wonder Woman and Superman stuff… it does not exist in a vacuum. Cooke is showing off the potential for the regular stock of DC characters but does it too well.

The Flash, who gets less than stars Hal Jordan and John Jones but definitely more than Superman or Wonder Woman, fits really well in the 1960s context. Ditto Hal Jordan. In proving the characters relevance to their original historical context, Cooke makes everything else seem, well, second best. Again, with the caveat he’s very much gearing their characterizations—as expressed in their narrations—to fit his story. But you don’t get done with New Frontier and want to hunt down the latest Flash or Green Lantern issue. It’s interesting see these guys—and the comic definitely leans almost all male (it passes Bechdel because Wonder Woman chastises another Amazon’s fighting ability and a woman compliments another on her blouse)—as they struggle with their internalized jingoism and so forth. Cooke’s subplots often are just texture to promote this internal turmoil, like Hooded Justice—sorry, sorry, John Henry—who fights to KKK in Tennessee to national acclaim but is a local criminal. Cooke talks around the vigilantism stuff; he doesn’t have a character who can really get into it. John Jones does a little because he’s a cop in Gotham City, but supervillains aren’t really a thing yet.

Cooke takes huge bites and thoughtful chews.

The epilogue, set to John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” speech (get it, get it), is clearly a labor of love for Cooke but also unnecessary if not wholly unsuccessful. Kennedy and speechwriter Ted Sorensen were not writing for DC Comics and Cooke’s juxtaposition of text about social injustices with the corresponding comic book images… it comes off a combination of callous, opportunistic, and forced. New Frontier reaches, which is just right, it ought to reach, but Cooke reaches a little too far in the end. He ends up derivative instead of innovatory, which is exactly what the comic shouldn’t do.

But it’s still a masterpiece of superhero comics, setting an insurmountable bar because—even with plot holes and pitfalls and rushed subplots and epilogue problems—Cooke’s four or five hundred pages of art aren’t ever going to be surpassed. It’s a gorgeous, affecting tribute, homage, and eulogy to the Silver Age of DC Comics.

Sleeper: Season One (2003-04)

Sleeper Season One  2009

Some of Sleeper doesn’t age well. There’s a whole plot line about the secret society running the world and, in 2020, it seems like a very dated trope. To be fair, it was dated in 2003 when Sleeper came out, but writer Ed Brubaker was at least utilizing the trope to sabotage it. There’s also the lack of Internet-backed technology in the futuristic setting, which was apparently where what all futurism somehow missed. And when they try to mainstream the book in the last few issues, brightening up Sean Phillips’s blacks, slimming his lines, it’s a mistake. Ditto going from the handwriting font for the protagonist’s narration to a really slick italicized font. Doesn’t read well in the context of a collection; there ought to be a footnote about how they were desperate to save the book from cancellation.

I’d also forgotten the book takes place in the Wildstorm universe, featuring TV news cameos from The Authority; Brubaker does a great job of not making those connections matter much, outside providing an established universe with super-powered good guys and bad guys. The crossover character is Machiavellian crime boss Tao (created by the Original Writer himself!), which doesn’t come up much throughout and even when Tao’s giving his origin story it’s barely a footnote.

Origin stories are a big deal in Sleeper, something the protagonist, Holden Carver—good guy spy turned double agent, posing as a bad guy super-powered spy for Tao’s organization—and his colleagues do when they’re bored. The villains sit around and tell their stories. Except it’s only for the newbs and Holden hangs out with the seasoned veterans so it takes a while to coax their origins out of them, whether it’s Holden’s best bud, Genocide Jones, or his lady friend, Miss Misery.

Where Sleeper doesn’t age—can’t age—is in Brubaker’s plotting of the series, which spends the first nine or so issues with a two steps forward, one step back approach to revealing Holden’s story. We don’t find out how exactly he got roped into the super secret mission—and we still don’t know how his handler, Lynch, got put into a coma right before the series started. Issues take place weeks apart, sometimes following up on the previous issues’ cliffhangers and finales, sometimes not. Brubaker and Phillips end each issue for effect, sometimes dramatic, sometimes tragic. So it really burns when the narration lettering gets cheesy at the end, just as Holden’s having some big moments of revelation. You want the personality of the character in those passages, not feeling like you’re being handled so DC can try to sell the book to its stupider readers.

Sorry, it’s been sixteen years but I’m still not okay with how badly they bungled this series.

The first issue does a fine job establishing Holden and some of the world, enough about his mission, enough about Tao’s villainous organization, but focuses on Holden’s friendship with Genocide. Genocide’s an indestructible big lug thug. After Holden starts sleeping with Miss Misery—a chainsmoker who needs to inflict pain or damage in order to live, literally—Genocide’s the only one he can tell about it because Holden shouldn’t be sleeping with his coworkers. Especially not when she’s an occasional squeeze to Tao and Tao’s right hand man, Peter Grimm, mad crushes on her and already hates Holden.

Holden’s basically indestructible, thanks to an interdimensional artifact. His body heals, but builds up a charge of pain energy (he doesn’t feel physical sensations anymore, unless there’s some kind of pleasure and pain mix, which makes him perfect for Miss Misery). He zaps people with the pain energy; it can be lethal. Otherwise he shoots people a lot. There’s a lot of shooting in Sleeper. It’s not the most exciting visual (at some point you wonder how Phillips is still ginning up the enthusiasm for the action sequences, given none of the main characters is actually capable of being hurt).

The book starts getting really good in the last third, after the illuminati subplot, as it becomes clear just how much Holden is breaking down undercover and what’s going to happen when a lifeline appears. He’s got to question whether the lifeline’s real, but then the further question becomes… is it better or worse if the lifeline’s real. Has Holden crossed the line in his undercover operation. Sure, Genocide Jones and Miss Misery are far from the worst compatriots in a hive of scum and villainy—Genocide’s likable and even sympathetic, while Miss Misery gets the very odd combination of female tragedy and male gaze (even if it’s arty Phillips male gaze… there’s a lot of it in the comic)—but what does it say about Holden.

Brubaker’s character development work on Holden is somewhat ramshackle, thanks to the fractured timeline and narration, but once he reveals himself to be something of a softy, it’s not at all unexpected. Or unwelcome. A little sincerity goes a long way in Sleeper, which is effective, engaging, excellently executed (enough Es), but definitely feels like commercial product. Brubaker’s scripts reward the reader’s attention without ever dragging things out too long. Holden’s narration cushions the plot twists and reveals, with Phillips art capturing what usually ends up being sadness in the moment. He’s really good at tragedy and desperation. Less so the super-powered gun fights or the occasional superhero fights. They’re not bad in any sense, but they’re not where Phillips excels in the book. You can tell he’s not interested in them. The supervillain outfits, for example, get a good setup panel and then otherwise seem like a chore.

But there’s a lot for Phillips to draw in this book and it’s impressive how well he gets through it all. Like, he’s got to be doing supervillains and superheroes one panel and then Disneyland two panels later. It’s seriously globe-trotting, which isn’t always great as far as the character development goes but… delayed gratification on that front. Brubaker and Phillips don’t work to make Holden a sympathetic protagonist even after things start falling apart. He’s presented matter-of-factly, which probably hurt the book’s commercial potential to some degree. Though who knows. If the last sixteen years of DC Comics has revealed anything, it’s they actually didn’t have a chance with their dedicated reader base.

Sleeper was also one of the first comics to do the “Season One” thing, even though it wasn’t intentional… they had to try for a new number one to get the series some interest because trying to force good comics to become hits is difficult. The “season” ends on an interesting narrative note for what’s to come for sure, even if the thinner Phillips line work and the gaudy lettering leaves it in a visually far less interesting spot than it started.

Did it read better month-to-month back in 2003 and 2004? Probably. But it holds up rather well, especially given the many aforementioned caveats….

Like, I think there’s at least a boob every issue, which makes you wonder if it was an editorial mandate… did DC have data on how many copies they sold based on bare boobs? And while they’re sometimes arty boobs—Phillips is classically trained, after all—sometimes they’re just boobs for boobs sake, maybe three lines. It gets to be an eye-roll after a while.

Though… it’s not like there’s much characterization to the (two) female characters in the comic, which maybe you can get away with because it’s Holden’s perspective and all, but them both being exhibitionists is a little weird. No fetish shaming just… what are the odds. Are there odds? Do female espionage agents prefer exhibitionism? It, like an apology for that second lettering font, needs a footnote at least.

Chad Agamemnon (2017) #1

Chad Agamemnon  2017  1

This first issue is, sadly, the only issue of Chad Agamemnon. Creator Nowak wrote and drew the book for the Ann Arbor Public Library and, whatever the arrangement, it wasn’t feasible for the book to continue.

A bummer, because it’s charming as all heck.

The titular Chad is a young wizard in exile, cast to the mortal realm, where people either don’t believe in magic or are completely indifferent to it (well, there’s the single dude who’s indifferent to it, everyone else is unaware). Chad’s got some binding bracelets to keep his powers down, which means he has to do things for himself.

He goes to live at a co-op with a bunch of other teenagers slash adult young adults and has to do things like help cook and weed the garden and be pleasant to his new roommates. He comically fails at all of it, sometimes because he can’t utilize his magic, sometimes—the times with the roommates—because he’s just a dick.

We get some insight in what’s brought him to Earth, with him composing a letter to his father in his head during a walk around—natch—Ann Arbor. Turns out Chad was just as big of a dick back in magic world but he’s trying to make friends. It helps someone offers him a bratwurst because they don’t have bratwurst in magic land.

The issue ends on the morning of Chad’s second day in the house, with a profoundly lovely scene between Chad, one of the roommates, and her guinea pig. See, Chad still can still communicate with familiars so he’s able to get the guinea pig’s real take on things. What makes the scene ever more interesting—and why it’s too bad there isn’t a follow-up—is the roommate can’t know Chad’s using the magic communications, so she’s going to think its his message, albeit with some cushioning.

There’s not a lot of detail to Nowak’s art—she’s got a heavy brush and the art has a great flow.

Like I said… real bummer this one didn’t get to continue.

To Be Seen (2014)

To Be Seen  2014

To Be Seen is this lyrical piece about an unnamed female tween narrator and her life at a particular time. There are six vignettes in the comic, with most of them echoing throughout others.

The strips are gentle, sometimes funny, sometimes scary—Nowak captures that period where in childhood where you’re figuring out the world isn’t what you thought but you also aren’t able to describe these new observations because you don’t have the vocabulary. There’s this great part about how the world is only ever two things—here and there—and its simultaneously giant and tiny. It’s just great. Especially with the expressions on the narrator’s face as she thinks through the big ideas.

But it also feels a little like a Peanuts homage—there’s a mysterious hole in the ground and it seems very much like a kite-eating tree and something about the lettering; there might even be a mention of it. I mean, there’s definitely a mention of “peanuts” but it’s unclear if it’s Peanuts or not. The narrator goes home to keep the kids who are in the TV company and someone on screen can’t eat peanuts. Nowak phrases it much better, profoundly better. Most of the comic just flows, but there are occasional great lines.

The narrator also has some bad dreams and, similarly to how she’s learning to comprehend the universe, she’s also learning to understand her dreams and why nightmares can utterly lack logic. But she can’t describe it, not even to herself. She doesn’t have the words.

There are some great other details, like the stuffed animals the narrator brings around with her. They serve different functions, the cat and the bunny, and Nowak does a great job implying what one’s presence or absence means for the narrator’s state of mind.

It’s a lovely little book, kind of haunting, but also not really. Haunting is a heavy term in a way To Be Seen isn’t heavy. To Be Seen is learning the world isn’t really magic but it’s kind of better for not being. Or something.

Great art too. The expressions on the protagonist are phenomenal.

Nimona (2015)

Nimona  2015

Nimona started as a webcomic, which explains some of how creator Noelle Stevenson paces it and sets the narrative distance. It often feels very much like a traditional newspaper strip, showing the (admittedly peculiar) domestic lives of its cast. The first book opens with teen Nimona sneaking into supervillain Balister Blackheart’s secret lair, telling him the agency has sent him a sidekick to help his image with the youths. Turns out it’s not true and Nimona just wants to be a protege to the world’s greatest supervillain.

Balister’s not having it… until Nimona shows her shapeshifting powers; then she’s hired.

The first portion of the book introduces Balister and Nimona and a little bit of the world. Stevenson’s mix of medieval designs, futuristic science, and a pinch of magic is fantastic. There’s TV, but jousting. Jousting is presumably covered on TV. There just aren’t cars. There are refrigerators. There’s pizza delivery. Stevenson’s art style is comic strip simple so there’s never any clash with the objects; Nimona whining about Balister’s empty fridge doesn’t take the outdoor food markets into account, there’s just a fridge.

The clashes also lead to some good jokes and excellent moments throughout. Nimona takes place in a world without religion, just science on one side and magic on the other. There’s a monarch, but there’s law enforcement is all through an ostensibly transparent “Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics.” The Institution figures into Balister’s villain origin story, which he recounts to Nimona, and haunts him a decade later. Balister and possibly unrequited but definitely on the way to it lover Ambrosius were the two best knights. When it came time for them to compete (to graduate), Balister won and Ambrosius shot Balister’s arm off to be petty.

Can’t be a single-armed knight for the Institution.

So Balister becomes a villain and works to destroy the Institution while Ambrosius the Insitute’s enforcer and pawn, blindly following orders. But—as we learn once Balister starts taking Nimona into scraps with the Institution and Ambrosius, the two arch-enemies have a code of conduct. Ambrosius isn’t going to kill Balister and Balister isn’t going to kill civilians, a concept it takes Nimona a while to grok. She’s ready to burn the whole place down—literally—assuming Balister wants to rule as the new king.

The philosophical discussions of villainy are where Stevenson does some of the best work—as far as dialogue goes, the second half of the book is a rollercoaster of action—because there’s the disconnect with the sweet girl being a more vicious plotter than the bad guy. Balister’s character development is one of the most intense things in Nimona because you’re not necessarily on his side for his choices. He’s the protagonist of the last quarter of the book, but he’s not really the hero. You wish he was doing other things. He’s got his prejudices and faults. It creates a very complex book, especially given where everything goes as far as the Institution. There are enigmas wrapped in riddles inside mysteries and whatnot. Even when Stevenson makes it clear to the reader the Institution is dangerous, it’s never clear how dangerous. Especially to the… heroes.

As for Nimona’s origin, it’s even more tragic. She saved a witch in a well, the witch giving her the power to save her village from bandits, except the witch turned her into a dragon to do it, which scared the villagers. Running away, Nimona discovered she could shapeshift at will; but once she got back to herself, the village was already destroyed. Great moment in the comic when she tells that story. It rends Balister, which is particularly impressive since Stevenson does it all in the visual pacing. That comic strip pacing she establishes right off and keeps going until the final act.

And even though Nimona is a collection of strips—strips of varying length—it does have a nice epical flow to it. The second act has Nimona discovering it’s better to be Robin Hood than the Joker and Balister realizing his a lot more capable of positive feelings toward other human beings than he thought. Nimona helps him recover from old wounds, physical and emotional, but having her around puts her in increasing danger. The Institution is willing to let Balister do his villainy because it gives them a public enemy; the shapeshifting sidekick is changing the balance of power and she’s got to go, putting Balister and Ambrosius on an all new collision course.

Stevenson maintains a great balance of humor and drama—with a little bit of angst (Ambrosius’s boss at the Institution berates him for his relationship with Balister, which is nowhere near the worst thing she does, but is definitely the cruelest)—and then brings on the action. Sometimes Stevenson follows the biggest action, sometimes she avoids it to track the smaller actions. The biggest action isn’t great art-wise. Stevenson’s style scales up to a certain point but beyond it, some of the details are good but the action itself is cluttered. It’s a little nit to pick because Nimona’s all about the characters and the characters are great.

Even Ambrosius, who’s a complete tool. It’s just how well Stevenson writes this complete tool.

There’s also a great wacky scientist who Balister teams up with on a project; she’s a lot of fun. Even though it’s all deadly serious, there’s always a layer of fun. Except maybe in the climax, which is part of the problem with it. The book changes gears quickly—with a too short transition—and Stevenson has a reveal she doesn’t have time to properly explore.

Third act rushes and action set piece comic strip styling issues aside, Nimona’s excellent, ambitious work from Stevenson.

Flimsy’s Mewsings (2020)

Flimsy s Mewsings  2020

Flimsy’s Mewsings is approximately thirty-seven single page comic strips—there’s one two-pager, a recipe—of adorable kitten Flimsy offering life advance. Gentle stuff like be kind to yourself, remember the lesson and forget the mistake, be genuinely interested in other people, email the friends you haven’t in a while, drink wine, try to remember “guys” is a gender-exclusive term (as in “hey guys”), drink some more wine, take twenty-five minute naps, and be happy for your friends when they succeed and you aren’t currently succeeding.

Artistically, the book is accessible for all—creator Rachael Smith doesn’t do a lot of detail in the strips, but when she’s doing splash pages she’s got some excellent detail. Where she’s really got it down is the coloring. Well, lettering too, but the way the colors give a page emotional weight is fantastic. Mewsings art is of the deceptively simple variety.

But content-wise—and not just because, for a kitten, Flimsy can get her wine on—it’s aimed at a somewhat older readership. At least out of high school. Flimsy’s problems aren’t the problems of someone in constant social situations; in fact, Flimsy’s Mewsings has some great unintentional tips for spring 2020 as it turns out. The kinds of things you forget and need to remember to tell yourself… well, Flimsy’s there to help.

Smith and Flimsy never come across as, well, flimsy. Even the simplest observations are sincerely expressed with a great sense of humor. Flimsy’s recounting of her father’s obvious inspiring one-liners and Flimsy’s obvious reactions come across perfectly thanks to Smith’s sense of timing, as the panel compositions and the color choices convey.

Mewsings gets a smile fast and keeps it going until the end.

The Punisher Presents Barracuda (2007)

The Punisher Presents Barracuda  2007

Barracuda is one of Garth Ennis’s… what shall we call them… NC-17 action comedy limited series. He’s got a bunch of them at Vertigo, a few a handful of other places. The difference with Barracuda is it’s for Marvel (it’s the only Punisher MAX spin-off, which is something since Ennis loved spin-offs for Preacher and The Boys) and it’s maybe a little more… edgy as a pejorative for that thing White guys do edgy. Bad Tarantino and Tarantino knock-offs. Every twentieth word or so from series hero Barracuda is starts with ni- and ends in -ga. I wonder if you counted them you could figure out how many the editors at Marvel let Ennis have each issue….

Then there’s the main villain, Big Chris (as in Christopher Walken—Barracuda works best when you read Chris’s lines in Walken’s voice, which the lettering actually works towards, and Barracuda in JB Smoove’s, though you’d never really want to see Smoove play Barracuda as Barracuda’s a vicious sociopathic cannibal and Smoove’s really likable). Starting with Big Chris’s return to the story—he hires Barracuda in the first part, then Barracuda betrays him in the second, and Big Chris is back in the third issue and calling Barracuda a different racial epithet at the end of every sentence. Because Barracuda buys into brothers in arms—Airborne, crime, etc—over racism. Because it’s funny to have a racist sheriff hang out with Barracuda and call him slurs. It’s the kind of post-racist thing you’d expect to see after Obama was president but Ennis is a trailblazer so it’s a couple years early.

It also doesn’t add up to anything so it’s kind of pointless to look at it so hard.

Ennis fills the five issue series with eclectic, funny but unlikable characters. There’s Barracuda, obviously, who—at least in this series—only sexually assaults men; the women are all willing. He puts together various plans throughout, which keep changing based on his inability to successfully predict how his machinations will play out. We don’t get a lot of the plans. Occasionally Ennis showcases them with a monologue or two, but more often we hear the adjustments when Barracuda’s telling other people about them.

The biggest subplot in the series are these two FBI agents, one old, one young, who are trying to use Barracuda’s plotting to arrest Big Chris. It all takes place in a fictional South American Reagan Republic, where Barracuda and his team of military advisors slaughtered the existing socialist government to put drug-runner Leopoldo in charge. Lots of great real American history stuff here, though it’s just garnish. Oddly, Goran Parlov’s art is best on the FBI guys, just for their expressions. The older one’s in sunglasses but the curve of his lips, you can see what he’s thinking. Great work from Parlov.

So Leopoldo’s the drug-running dictator, Wanda is his ex-porn star wife who’s sleeping with Barracuda, there’s the child molesting priest hiding out with them—I forgot for how long “adult” humor just meant directly targeting Howard Stern listeners. Barracuda’s there because Big Chris has entrusted him with Oswald, his only son. Oswald’s supposed to kill Leopoldo. Barracuda double-crosses Big Chris for Leopoldo, then will try to double-cross Leopoldo to take both him and Big Chris out. Plans within plans.

Oswald’s a hemophiliac and, therefore, can’t be touched or in any way injured.

Fifty is Barracuda’s fellow military advisor from the eighties who went to work at the Pentagon but is a closeted trans woman, which Barracuda somehow knows abut but maybe has never seen Fifty dressed for her gender. It’s unclear. Ennis’s take on it seems to be so transphobic it’s no longer transphobic? He also throws in some homophobia but… again, is it through the looking glass and circular? Doesn’t matter, because there’s no reason to read Barracuda. Not even for Punisher MAX completists. It’s not great or even good really, but it’s not incompetent or bad. Ennis just doesn’t have a story and tries to mug his way through it. Parlov’s art is good but it’s not particularly interesting stuff. It starts in Florida, which is basically just as tropical as the South American city-state; actually, Barracuda’s adventures in Florida seem more interesting than his attempted coup with an eclectic supporting cast.

Can’t wait to see what Disney does with the property.

Weird Melvin (1995) #6

Weird Melvin  1995  6

Weird Melvin #6 gives the series a conclusion, but definitely not the one I’d been hoping for. The story title is something like part five, so—for whatever publishing reason—last issue’s fill-ins were really fill-ins. This issue opens with Melvin and the Kid headed back to base with some stolen diapers. Melvin’s going all in on taking care of the incoming monster infants, which the Kid can’t figure out—isn’t Melvin’s job to crush monsters into goo? Why would he want to care for their babies?

Turns out Melvin does have a plan or two to resolve the world’s monster problems and the Kid is just going to have to get with it.

Back at base, Melvin’s reformed monster sidekick Shag is playing doula to the pregnant lady monsters. This portion of the issue is probably the best, just because it engages with the gross factor. I wasn’t the only one queasy at the idea of two monster babies being born, Shag isn’t really into it either.

As he steels himself for the eventual birthings… Hansen starts zigging and zagging from the forecasted zags and zigs. It’s always quick—the issue feels a little rushed and often seems to be decelerating, whether with the pregnancy resolve or with Melvin not duking it out with the inbred grotesque cop who comes after him for the stolen diapers. It all makes sense in the end, when Hansen works his way to a nicely tied up finish, but just because it makes sense doesn’t make it entertaining or engaging or the right move. Leaving Weird Melvin on a never resolved cliffhanger seems a much better choice than giving him a lackluster finish.

And the issue’s grand finale is most definitely lackluster. I was hoping for more, expecting more, but it’s also competently enough executed it’s not a severe disappointment. It’s a well-executed comic, a solid series, just one without a successful finish, which puts Weird Melvin in very sturdy company.

A clean ending would’ve been nice though, just for recommending the comic.

Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight for Their Rights (2019)

Amazons Abolitions and Activists  2019

There are a sea of faces in Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists. Sea of faces, sea of names, which is the point. The book is a history of women ignored in history books, though not always. Writer Mikki Kendall doesn’t avoid the awkward subjects, like Susan B. Anthony’s White supremacy or the significant racism of her contemporaries. Other problematic figures get their asterisks too, with Kendall never giving the impression she’s avoiding tough subjects. They just get asides. Other topics get asides too. The “plotting” of the book is excellent, especially since it’s 194 very dense pages.

More or less chronologically, the book looks at women in history. The ones whose names and faces aren’t familiar but should be, though—again—Kendall does a great job balancing it out so there are also the folks whose names you might now but not their stories. I’ve been aware of Josephine Baker as a historical figure since I was twelve, but I didn’t learn until Amazons she was a spy during World War II for the Free French. And I did World World II history in undergrad. Like, either I really forgot it or I really missed it. Amazons is probably best kept around and read casually, not so much a summary history text but a sourcebook. Also maybe because the framing device is a necessary chore. I get the need for it, I get why it makes sense given the book’s target audience, but it’s a bit of a drag.

The frame is a future class of girls and their hologram AI teacher going back through historical events, allowing artist A D'Amico some very fun panels amid the very powerful ones. The AI’s expository history lesson is well-written and rather affecting. Kendall’s found a great voice for the history, it just gets interrupted and the narrative makes it feel less like you can pick it up and put it down. Because there’s a lot in the book. It can be read with a search engine nearby to look up women, it can be read with a cat on the lap.

The most important part is it should be read. Kendall does a fantastic job covering the hundreds of subjects, D’Amico does good work visualizing them all. It’s a big success. It just feels like, with the future frame, it’s a very special episode of an animated series where you don’t care about the characters.

Also D’Amico’s panel of a Black woman trying to fight the monster of White racism while the White woman hugs on to it is awesome. Makes you want a whole book of panels like that one. The too political stuff. The stuff Random House gave the thumbs down.

For its target audience, Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists is great. For everyone else, it’s still great. Actually, when you think about how ignorant the average person and even the more informed person is about women’s history… it’s more essential for its non-target audience.

Shadow of the Batgirl (2020)

Shadow of the Batgirl  2020

Shadow of the Batgirl is a bit of a bummer, though I’m not exactly sure why. It’d be nice if it were good. It’s not bad… not if you’re getting it from the library versus spending the sticker price. And there’s a big library subplot in the book so it’s appropriate. It just feels stretched out. The chapters are very contained and the break between them messes up the pacing. There’s also a lack of immediate danger in the middle chapters, which is kind of… a lot to accept given the protagonist is a teenage girl experiencing homelessness living in a crime ridden city’s public library while her father the international assassin sends agents out to find her.

The tone writer Sarah Kuhn and artist Nicole Goux is fine but… only if you forget how dang traumatizing being in that situation would be. It wouldn’t be cute and Shadow of the Batgirl is often pretty cute. Cassandra’s a likable protagonist, even if her character development arc is sort of spotty. It never seems like the character is going to realize around other people—because she’s such a loner—but Kuhn and Goux always make it happen. The book’s got its successes and they can be impressive.

They can also be Cassandra’s sidekicks, Barbara Gordon, librarian, and Jackie, tea shop owner, who aren’t particularly impressive. They’re fun. They’re sometimes really fun. But they’re not particularly complex characters. Even if you ignore the nagging questions about how Barbara got in the wheelchair and what happened to the previous, retired Batgirl. The book even has some thoughtful exploration of heroism in the superhero world. It’s just for a bit and it’s not too deep, but you can tell Kuhn’s thought about a lot of it.

But also about how to make it aspirational, which shouldn’t be such a concern. It makes Shadow feel methodical. And, after a certain point, something’s always going wrong with Cassandra to move the plot forward. Just anything to get her to run away, spy on Barbara and Jackie, come back and be forgiven, everyone understands she’s a confused teen assassin. It would actually be a great structure if the comic were at all psychological but… it’s not.

Kuhn’s dialogue is good and she can get to heartfelt scenes, but the plotting always seems forced. Goux’s art is solid. Nice changes in style depending on the distance. No real fighting stuff—it’s not a kung fu comic—but it’s professionally executed.

It just never feels like it isn’t product. It’s competent and inventive, but it’s brand product.

Weird Melvin (1995) #5

Weird Melvin  1995  5

Weird Melvin #5 is a flashback issue. Only, not really.

There’s clearly some publication history trivia to the series; the cover says this issue has the first two Weird Melvin comics in it, previously unpublished. They present a new origin story for both Melvin and the Kid, who have much different histories in the first issue of this series. But we do finally get to see what an in-world Weird Melvin comic book looks like… generic fifties superheroes.

The issue opens with a framing device as Melvin is teaching the Kid to be a monster hunter, so no resolution to the previous issue’s cliffhangers, hard or soft. Just the Kid doing well learning how and why to crush monster heads. He’s even got to write a theme on it; Melvin requires written assignments in addition to the on-the-job training. It’s funny… even if the comic isn’t really what Hansen promised last time.

Then comes the origin story. The Kid goes to a comic shop and finds an old issue of Weird Melvin #1, which the shop owner doesn’t know anything about and just wants the Kid out of his store. Again, funny. Not as funny as the series usually gets, but funny.

See, the Kid has a monster under his bed and his dad doesn’t want to hear about it. Good thing he got the comic because it’s all about a kid in the fifties who’s got a monster under his bed and how Weird Melvin comes along and saves the day. Turns out Weird Melvin—in this original origin story—comes out of in-world Weird Melvin comics to help kids in need. As long as they’re in need of saving from various monsters.

The second part of the origin story has the Kid discovering a haunted house and the cursed creator of the original Weird Melvin comics. Complications ensue.

It’s an okay issue, with some good, creative art, just none of that wonderfully nimble Hansen plotting. Again, no doubt there is some publication trivia to explain it, but it’s still feels like filler.

Weird Melvin (1995) #4

Weird Melvin  1995  4

There is a very good chance Weird Melvin might gross me out next issue. Hansen gets pretty close in the cliffhanger, which features two lady monsters (a mother and daughter) pregnant with half-mutated giant insects, half-monsters. What’s most surprising is the grossness isn’t in Hansen’s detail but in the action and implications of the action. So gross.

The issue has some of that great, unpredictable Hansen plotting. The imminent dangers of the previous cliffhangers get delayed or dispelled as the Swamp Witch, magically masquerading as a buxom bombshell (alliterations unintentional), can’t seal the deal on killing the Kid with her poison comic book because three Trekkies mistake her for a “TOS” bit player and stalk her. Hansen gets to make fun of both comics fandom and “Trek” fandom, going a little harder on the latter. The Kid is just obsessed with his collecting; the Trekkies are all in on terrorizing their autograph targets (or worse). It’s real funny.

Meanwhile, Melvin and his (unknown to Melvin) treacherous sidekick Shag are trying to get Melvin’s power levels back up with a moonbeam ray. But Shag’s got it out for Melvin and tries to zap him wrong; unfortunately—and leading up to the eventual potential gross-out—Shag zaps a couple bugs, who turn out to be horny male bugs. They grow to fifty feet tall or something and break out looking for love. They find it with the monster ladies. Thank goodness Hansen doesn’t show the copulation, just the aftermath.

So Hansen manages to resolve both his cliffhangers, get his characters out of the most immediate danger—while putting them in new, unexpected danger (Melvin feels bad about growing giant bugs who impregnate lady monsters and then drop dead instead of taking care of them so he’s going to take care of the monster ladies in their pregnancy)—and turn in a really funny issue full of great new supporting characters.

I get why Hansen’s not better known but it’s damned unfortunate.

Queen of the Sea (2019)

Queen of the Sea  2019

I spent the first ten minutes of Queen of the Sea underwhelmed. The book’s set in the mid-1500s—maybe—it’s unclear because creator Dylan Meconis isn’t doing a straight historical fiction thing. Meconis is sort of doing Elizabeth versus Mary but not exactly. The world is a lot like fourteenth century England, but it’s not exact. Everything’s got different names and for a while it seems like there’s some point to it, the fake history lesson. There’s not. There are other real history lessons, which are great and interesting, but the fake history exposition at the beginning… big yawn.

And Queen of the Sea is geared fairly young. It ends up getting really complicated but the first fifth of the book seems like Meconis can’t get the engine started.

The opening scene is a problem. It’s the Elizabeth stand-in, Eleanor, only we don’t know her name yet because it’s just her and some dude talking about how she’s got to go because the enemy has arrived. They make plans. The dialogue’s iffy. The art’s… okay. It’s not a catchy opening at all. Then Meconis introduces protagonist Margaret, a tween living on an island in the something something itsh-Bray Channel in a convent. The convent’s the only thing on the island. Margaret’s an orphan.

Then comes the exposition dump, where Margaret explains everything to know about the convent and the island. The supporting cast, the geography. It’s a bunch and, while it often looks great, it’s a slog to read through. Because besides the main nun, none of the rest have much of an impact on Margaret’s character development or the story in general. And Queen’s got a big story. One day two new residents arrive on the island—a fellow kid, albeit a boy, named William and his very serious mom. They’re political prisoners, exiled to the island for safe keeping (of sorts).

Margaret and William become friends and make all sorts of discoveries about their lives, including how it just so happens all the nuns in the convent are nuns because they’re political exiles too. Margaret’s there for a similar reason, even if she doesn’t find out what exactly. The arc with William and his mother and how they change Margaret’s life is fantastic. It’s where I stopped wondering if I was wasting my time with Queen. Meconis has very pretty art with a great style, but the art’s not challenging. It’s welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with how often Queen interrupts the comic to insert a prose block, which doesn’t negate the book being incredibly successful with that device. And once Meconis gets more comfortable about Margaret’s narration and we’re done with all the fake place names, the pauses in the comic narrative get to be a bonus. When Meconis and Margaret explain how the nuns’ day works—eight hours and what’s done during those hours—it’s this fantastic double-page perfectly executed infographic. It’s awesome.

It just took the book a while to get there through some rough waters.

But then it turns out the William stuff is just prologue. He’s how Margaret learns to be around people who aren’t nuns or the convent servants; she’ll need to learn to apply those lessons once the Queen from the first scene shows up on the island. It doesn’t take long before Margaret is ex-Queen Eleanor’s bestest friend, even if Eleanor doesn’t want one; a big part of Margaret’s character development is how she internalizes the teachings of the convent order and how to help those in need. Eleanor is in need, Margaret is bound to help her. It’s fascinating character stuff.

Especially once the secrets, adventures, and romances start playing out.

Meconis is always able to ratchet up the stakes, without ever losing sight of how to best make it work for Margaret’s character development. Queen’s got a very strong lead character and Meconis is very deliberate with her. Great work.

Queen of the Sea isn’t short. Approximately 400 pages. The first 85 or so are maybe tough, the next 150 are great, the final 165 are even better. The weird not historical fiction but also not exactly ahistorical fiction takes some time to work itself out. Also very weird is how Meconis handles religion. It’s too cute, especially given the convent angle.

But it’s a good graphic novel. Very impressive work from Meconis.

There’s a sequel tease at the very end, which seemed a little too forced but I’m also very interested in reading said sequel.

Weird Melvin (1995) #3

Weird Melvin  1995  3

Hansen introduces a whole new character—or two, actually—but one with history with Weird Melvin; his sidekick, reformed monster Shag. Shag hangs out in Weird Melvin’s abandoned headquarters. Seems like he’s been there a while… but he’s finally ready to walk out. But Shag doesn’t come into the comic until the third-ish act. I’m not sure if Weird Melvin has acts. Kind of but it’s hard to tell given the sequential narrative.

The issue opens with Melvin, in his Wimpy Melvin, de-powered state, still a prisoner of his new girlfriend, Vampuh. He meets her father—a monster with a runny nose—who decides not to eat Melvin after Melvin gives him a hanky, which will come up again later for Hansen’s grossest sequence in the comic. But the action then shifts to the kid, who’s decided—having lost his entire comic collection—to give up comics collecting and go out and be a regular kid.

Of course, being a regular kid who has a past of comics collecting… the neighborhood bullies beat the crap out of him.

Little does the forever(?) nameless kid realize he’s got some more trouble in store as the swamp witch has a plan to overtake him as the world’s biggest Weird Melvin fan, which involves making herself irresistible to the tween comics fan. The plan has her transforming herself into a supermodel… a supermodel with a complete run of Weird Melvin comics.

Again, it’s another full issue, with the plotting just as imaginative as the grody visuals. At one point there’s the Mucus Monster, preying on an unsuspecting Weird Melvin, and it’s amazing how Hansen’s able to do dripping repulsion palatably. It’s a very strong mix of art and story. The art’s obvious—you can seen Hansen’s technical chops during with the swamp witch supermodel, when Weird Melvin all of a sudden has panels out of a Gothic horror comic—and the story’s subtle. The plotting’s so precise. So well done.

Weird Melvin (1995) #2

Weird Melvin  1995  2

Leave it to Hansen to make it weirder.

The issue starts with a bookend—Melvin’s still unnamed comic fan sidekick is berating Weird Melvin for not stopped Monster Fanboy (who owns every comic every published and hordes them in an underground lair and is, actually, a monster when it comes to collecting)—and then goes into flashback. It’s a little confusing at the start since last issue ended with Melvin needing to hibernate for thirty years. Seemed like the kid should’ve aged.

But what actually happened was the worms went after Melvin and dug a hole down to Monster Fanboy’s lair; Monster Fanboy, knowing Weird Melvin from the comics, natch, then chained Melvin up—see, Melvin’s in his Wimpy Melvin persona since last issue, when he lost his power.

The flashback gives an origin on Monster Fanboy, who ends up being the kid’s nemesis this issue as Melvin never gets his power back. Worse, he gets a girlfriend. So it’s all up to the kid to stop Monster Fanboy’s plan to drive up the speculative market on comic books (by exploiting the other fanboys). Hansen’s got some funny stuff in the issue. He doesn’t do much in the way of building to a laugh, he just gets the joke out of the way in a panel or three. Lovely pace, especially when he moves the action over to the kid’s perspective.

Meanwhile, Melvin picked the wrong girlfriend. Vampuh used to date Sy Cyclops, who attacked Melvin last issue and is responsible for his de-powering; Melvin took care of Sy, leaving Vampuh without a dude to push around. Turns out she likes her men wimpy and Wimpy Melvin is just what she needs. So she throws him into the cellar with her father, who’s been imprisoned there a hundred years and has apparently gone cannibal….

Presumably that cliffhanger will resolve next issue. Though the finale introduces yet another bad guy, who also wants to be Weird Melvin’s biggest fan, and she might be a more immediate danger (to the kid, who’s apparently still Melvin’s biggest fan even though Melvin failed to stop Monster Fanboy)

Weird Melvin is a peculiar comic. In all the right ways. Great gross art, thorough, engaging plotting. It’s amazing how sympathetic Hansen’s able to make the characters when he’s just playing them for icks or laughs.

Weird Melvin (1995) #1

Weird Melvin  1995  1

Weird Melvin is a gloriously weird comic. Creator Marc Hansen brings the weird to the art—not just the muscle-bound grotesques (Melvin and, later, a regular human) but also Melvin’s cyclops nemesis, Sy Cyclops. The comic starts from Sy’s perspective, as he nitrous ups his car and hits Weird Melvin full speed. Good thing Melvin’s almost indestructible. While Melvin crash lands in a kid’s bedroom, Sy goes about trying to figure out a weakness.

Luckily for everyone—though not really—there’s the in-world Weird Melvin comic, which retells his monster-hunting adventures. It’s how the kid knows about Weird Melvin but it’s also how Sy is able to figure out one of Melvin’s weaknesses.

Hansen plots it out gradually, revealing in the scenes between Melvin and the kid why the moon dust Sy is going after in the other story thread is so important. See, Weird Melvin used to be a monster, not a monster hunter. And he ate kids. Lots and lots of kids. So many kids it was hard for humans to have enough kids to keep Melvin fed, much less the other monsters.

So they teamed up and took Monster Melvin out, but then the souls of the kids he ate went to Heaven—or the Moon—and then moon rays brought Melvin back to life as a good guy monster hunter. What makes Melvin’s retelling even more engaging is his reassurances to his listener he no longer eats kids, though the kid (and the reader) can’t be sure….

Then there’s a big action finale.

Hansen sets it up like a done-in-one or a special, getting to a good conclusion, with a lot of funny moments. Not just the monster stuff either. Weird Melvin’s got a lot of jokes about comics collecting.

Like I said… it’s a weird comic; a weird, good comic. Hansen’s plotting—he does a bunch this issue in twenty pages—is excellent and his art is intricate, deliberate madness.

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (2019)

Harley Quinn Breaking Glass  2019

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a Young Adult graphic novel reimagining of Harley Quinn, set in high school, with Harley making friends and enemies while living with a delightfully supportive group of drag queens, fighting gentrification and 1% incels. It’s also almost two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It’s the new Mariko Tamaki too, bring real YA graphic novel cred to the project, but it’s two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It doesn’t get cancelled halfway through. We don’t have to wait three years for a third issue, it’s just… lots of Steve Pugh art. All at once.

It’s glorious.

And Pugh’s even able to keep a straight face in the denouement, which introduces all the possibilities of the future. See, Breaking Glass is realistic (enough). Ivy is a Black girl in a “progressive” White school, trying to force them to drop the quotation marks. Their nemesis, John Kane, is the rich White kid who runs the film club. He’s basically Ferris Bueller if Ferris got a car instead of a computer. He only shows White men—Tamaki gets in some great digs about film noir but I feel seen with the Kubrick—anyway, the first act of the book is the high school stuff. It’s overly dramatic but not soapy; Tamaki and Pugh both have this focusing style and it plays well in the high school environment. The scenes focus on conversations, Pugh focuses on the speakers. Tamaki and Pugh are most in sync when Harley’s with other normal people—Ivy, the drag queens—not when she’s with the Joker.

I forgot the denouement. Okay, so after pushing for some kind of realism throughout, the denouement turns it into a CW teen show. But checking in on the possible familiar face of Breaking Glass’s Gotham City. So kind of like a teen drama version of “Gotham,” next year on HBO Max. Though, in all seriousness, the comic companies ought to launch a monthly subscription reading club and center them around a single release (but with old stuff too). I got Breaking Glass from the library, read it on a whim, but definitely would’ve paid five to seven bucks to read it on my iPad. Getting to zoom in on the Pugh art? Homer Simpson drool. There’s not a lot of action–or it’s rushed action—but the level of mastery Pugh’s working at in Breaking Glass is stunning.

And it’s a good read. Tamaki’s narration is just the right amount of too cute without ever being cloying. It’s occasionally a little wordy, which has a fun resolution in the third act.

Not a fan of Ivy and Harley’s friendship getting shortchanged as far as page count—once Ivy brings up race, the comic runs away. Knowingly and responsibly, but it runs away. Into the Joker, who’s problematic. It’s fine. But pretending the Joker is the best mainstream comics can do has gotten exhausting. Tamaki also cops out on really showing Harley’s infatuation because the comic’s not willing to go that subjective. The Joker’s objectively a shit-heel, even viewed through a fifteen year-old’s lens, which also becomes a bit of a plot point.

Thankfully it’s not a Joker comic, it’s Harley’s and it’s good. She doesn’t get too annoying until just before the end, which is more about Tamaki’s hammering of the foreshadowing finale events. Or racing to get them.

But Breaking Glass is a good comics read. Finite. Successful without too many qualifications. Hundreds of Pugh panels.

The Punisher (2004) #49, Widowmaker, Part 7 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  49

Bill Reinhold’s back on inks—solo—this issue. It doesn’t have to be Tom Palmer, it could be someone else, but it needs to be someone else because Medina and Reinhold completely botch the finish. Ennis is going for something—something confused, because there have been too many issues in the arc and not enough focused ones, but something and the art screws it up. The final page (to the issue and arc) is a full page spread of hero Punisher in what ought to be a tragic, noir-ish Punisher. It’s an absolute fail and you’ve got to wonder what the editors were thinking okaying that page for the finale.

It looks less like the conclusion of an arc about Frank discovering what’s sown in the blood he’s spilled and more like reference art for a special edition Slurpee cup. It’s a really bad final page. The art’s wanting throughout—Medina’s pacing of the final shootout is deliberate without being interesting; that last page is a disaster. Especially since it’s a sunrise scene. It doesn’t exactly ruin the arc, but it definitely leaves it on some wobbly ground.

Ennis tries to bring everything together while still mostly following vengeance-seeker Jenny. She takes on the other widows before kidnapping her sister and tying her to a chair in front of Frank’s bed. Frank’s still recuperating; he opens the issue, watching TV, narrating about what a bum rap the news is giving the Sam Jackson but not Sam Jackson cop, then imagines how Jenny’s final run on the widows is going.

The cop spends the issue internally debating whether or not he’s going to cross the line into Punisher-like vengeance, but he’s always a few steps behind Jenny so he doesn’t get the chance until the end. Shame Ennis cuts away from the scene between the cop and Frank, which might’ve been really good. Instead, there’s no time for the cop, so quick wrap-up. Frank’s still got some thinking—and narrating—to do about his encounter with Jenny, which has a horrifying conclusion; Ennis starts the final narration like it’s going to go somewhere interesting, somewhere significant. Jenny’s had a lot to say about Frank, both as man and symbol, but it all gets wrapped up with a pretty little bow instead of another albatross for Frank. I mean, it’s possible it’d have worked out if Medina and Reinhold hadn’t so bungled the last page, but it would’ve had to be a great page. The conclusion reads like Ennis knows he has to give some postscript from Frank but doesn’t want to get too deep into anything because, really, we should’ve been getting Frank narration throughout.

Same bad eye closeup reactions too. Medina really did this arc a disservice; he’s way too bland for the story.

The Punisher (2004) #48, Widowmaker, Part 6 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  48

Tom Palmer on inks this issue—he also did some of the previous issue’s inks; he makes Medina’s pencils look a lot more pensive. People are thinking, listening, far better than before. Even if maybe Palmer on inks just show off how Medina isn’t the right fit for the material. It’s mostly a talking heads issue, people standing around talking, sitting around talking. Lots of both. Along with Ennis’s very questionable AAVE with the Black female character, who’s angry this issue and speaking in a lot more contractions than before. She’s also not really thinking. See, it’s crisis time for the widows—the Punisher’s probably out there, Jenny the other widow is out there gunning for them, plus the cop (who no longer looks anything like Sam Jackson besides basic description thanks to Palmer) is questioning them. The issue opens with the questioning. Ennis going through everything a reader might have missed as far as the widows and their plan to take out Big Frank.

The exposition is some padding. It’s a decent scene thanks to Ennis’s sense of humor with the cop, but it’s all padding. Get the arc to seven issues; sure, it probably makes it easier to pick up and read just this issue, which isn’t really a usual concern for six issue arcs. And Ennis isn’t too concerned with it anyway. He’s intentionally padding here. Plus, bringing the cop in for the exposition dump with the widows and being likable makes it all the worse when tragedy befalls the cop—at the widows’ behest—to get him into position as a potential Punisher himself.

Meanwhile, Frank and Jenny spend the issue hanging out while Jenny prepares for her final assault on the widows. Frank’s healing, she’s talking about herself. He’s trying to be… sensitive, which she doesn’t have much time for. She’s got her take on the Punisher, the emotional void of Frank Castle, and she’s not off. She talks, he listens, often with these reaction shots emphasizing his baby blues; Frank’s tragedy and Jenny’s tragedy are completely different but the emotional deadness is the same. They’re similar because of circumstances, coincidences, brokenness; despite her “heroizing” him, she’s able to see him without romance. There ought to be some kind of juxtaposing with O’Brien, Frank’s previous female counterpart, but Ennis doesn’t. He stays out of Frank’s head this issue. It’s all from Jenny’s perspective and then just the observations she’s sharing (with Frank and the reader).

The soft cliffhanger—rather viscerally—sets up the next issue’s finale, while also commenting on Frank the symbol, Frank the man, Frank the not-mentor, Jenny the not-protege, Jenny the widow, and Frank the, no pun, widow maker. There’s a lot of meat to Widowmaker, too much for Ennis to chew but he certainly does gnaw here.

The Punisher (2004) #47, Widowmaker, Part 5 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  47

It’s not a light issue. There’s barely any Frank; he’s just sitting around and listening to sixth widow Jenny tell him her life story. She was a mafia princess. She got married off to a full-on psychopath who, on a good night, just beat and raped her. The other mob widows knew about it, lied to her to get her into the marriage, handled her to keep her at home once she was in. Nothing changed until Frank killed the husband, just another dead crook reaching for his pistol. Then Jenny lost a husband and got diagnosed with breast cancer (what Ennis laid on a little thick in the first issue no longer seems it, not after the recounted horrors of her married life); when she decided, fatalistically, to go to the FBI, her big sister arranged to have her killed. The killers botched it. Fast-forward ten years—which seems like a bit too long but whatever—and Jenny’s back to take them out, Frank having considerably thinned the mob herd since she’d been gone.

Ennis and Medina go all in on the awfulness of Jenny’s life, the intensity and constancy of the abuse being enough to get them past any lingering questions about whether it’s too much, dramatically speaking. Or Ennis’s writing for the Jenny character’s narration being a little too light on specific personality. It’s a heavy comics, with the release valves being the widows trying to figure out what they’re going to do after failing their first shot at the Punisher.

They’re finding out the same things Frank and the reader are finding out from the narrated flashbacks. Everyone’s getting on the same page, including the not Sam Jackson anymore Sam Jackson cop, who’s piecing together the widows’ plan for the attempted hit on Frank. He only gets a page, just to remind readers he’s still around. There are two issues left, after all. Anything could be coming next.

Ennis closes it out without a cliffhanger, just a feeling of profound sadness over its broken “heroes,” Punisher Frank and the widow he made.

It’s an unpleasant read, especially for a mainstream book, even for Punisher MAX, but Ennis pulls it off. He’s able to keep the humanity, no matter how awful the specifics.

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