Archie’s Parables (1973)

Archie's Parables  1973

Archie’s Parables is Christian comics propaganda from the 1970s and is a great example of why it never would’ve occurred to me to read an Archie comic before, what, 2010 or something. But Parables, courtesy Spire Christian Comics and creator Al Hartley. Though using the word “creator” for Hartley is… a lot. Despite both writing and illustrating Parables, Hartley has a lot of disconnects. Like when medieval Archie and Jughead (mind you, they have some major anachronisms) go dragon-hunting… the dragon seems sympathetic (in the art). So Archie and Jughead are just the thug Christians abusing it.

I mean, okay. Especially since the morale of the story is to run non-Christians out of your neighborhood (Hartley seems like he’d be a great neighbor). And by morale, I mean Hartley takes the time to tell you the morale of the story. To run non-Christians out of your neighborhood.

There’s another one about how reading non-Christian books is bad for you so get a Christian book store. Love how Christian book stores are going out of business in 2020, probably because anyone who read this comic in 1973 forgot how to read and so didn’t teach their kids.

None of the stories—there are six—are particularly standout. The one where Archie and Jughead shoot down balloons standing in for whatever 1973 Christians were freaking out about (guess what, it’s all the same shit as today except the gays because no one publicly attested to gays being people in 1973 so they didn’t have to worry)… it’s funny in a historical context. Though also not because, what, ninety-nine percent of the asshats who read Parables in 1973 have done all they can to make the world a worse place since.

The one where Betty prays hard enough to save Archie from the devil is kind of amusing since the comic’s all about how Veronica is a whore who the boys lust after but Betty’s the wholesome one. But when the devil tries to tempt Archie, it’s with slutty Bettys.

There’s a hilariously bad riff on Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Hartley’s an inordinately atrocious writer, though perfectly mediocre enough art-wise for Archie).

Parables is a definite curiosity, just… probably not worth reading unless you want to see if your eyes are going to stay stuck in your head from all the rolling.

Doctor Gorpon (1991) #3

Doctor Gorpon  1991  3

So last issue was a surprise as far as creator Marc Hansen’s plotting for Doctor Gorpon goes and this issue is no different. The issue opens having to resolve three cliffhangers—all of the monsters Gorpon has captured over the years has gelled into sentient ooze bent on destroying him, his former assistant is at the back door also bent on destroying him, and the police chief (not captain, which just makes the cop stupider) is watching the animate chocolate bunny monster eat people while waiting for Gorpon to show up so the chief can… destroy him.

There’s a throwaway line about why Gorpon wears a mask—he’s got his new assistant, a dopey teenage punk—but it turns out to be incredibly important in the mythology building Hansen ends up doing in the issue. He’s got three cliffhangers to resolve (which he spends a bunch of the issue doing), some major reveals, and he still manages to fit in a third act and an epilogue. Doctor Gorpon is a visual delight of gross cartooning and funny dialogue—Hansen also explains why Gorpon’s got such a peculiar vocabulary—but it’s also a great example of good plotting. Hansen covers a whole bunch of narrative without ever forcing it (the mythology-building stuff doesn’t get—or need—any spotlight, Hansen just puts it in organically) and never sacrifices the cartoon gore or humor.

The issue ends with promise of future Gorpon adventures but not of a sequel (Hansen’s been getting more mileage out of the concept since the first issue and exponentially increasing it in the subsequent issues), leaving a wonderful satisfaction to the comic.

Doctor Gorpon’s a win; Hansen and his creations ooze through any genre or medium constraints.

I’m really impressed with Hansen, but also with Eternity for giving him three issues of this madness.

Doctor Gorpon (1991) #2

Doctor Gorpon  1991  2

I was expecting Doctor Gorpon #2 to be gross and funny—and it is both gross and funny—but not have much of a story. Instead, creator Marc Hansen has a bunch of it. In fact, the story even overshadows the gross and some of the funny.

Everyone who survived the first issue is back. Gorpon’s struggling to get through menial tasks since firing (and maiming) his assistant; he can’t do laundry. Meanwhile, some decomposing scientist comes up with a cure but it ends up infecting and animating a chocolate Easter bunny, which starts feeding on human flesh. That sequence—the decomposing scientist interlude—is probably Hansen’s best art in the issue. The level of detail on the decomposition is horrifically wonderful. But the point isn’t the scientist, it’s the animated, human-flesh eating bunny, which ties into the idiot cop from the first issue’s return. Given where the issue cliffhangs, with three dangers in the mix… Hansen’s plotting is far more impressive (and effective) than I was expecting. Even after the successful first issue. There’s a lot of plotting to keep straight here and he does an excellent job.

The stoner teen from the first issue’s back, getting to go for a job interview at Gorpon’s, where Hansen gets to do some exposition on the state of monster hunting in the big city. It also feeds into one of the cliffhangers. Very nicely executed.

Similarly the former assistant trying to get revenge for the firing. And maiming. Probably more the maiming. He’s hired his own muscle bound grotesque to take on Gorpon, which ends up being the issue’s C plot, presumably to get a focus next (and last) issue.

Gorpon’s a good read. It’s assured enough I’m almost not surprised at the quality by the end of the issue, but it’s an Eternity comic and I’d never heard any of them were actually good. Gorpon’s actually good.

Doctor Gorpon (1991) #1

Doctor Gorpon  1991  1

Doctor Gorpon is a nice bit of gross-out gore. Creator Marc Hansen’s cartooning has these thick inks, which perfectly complement the tentacles and intestines the title character is pulling out of monsters throughout the issue. Doctor Gorpon is a monster hunter, one who charges for his services whether they’re requested or not (his first target is a monster masquerading as a harmless suburban husband), and terrorizes everyone around him, monster or not.

As Gorpon deals with having an incompetent assistant (who destroys Gorpon’s Gorpon Mobile through said incompetence), two teenage punks call forth a demon as part of their band practice. The cops—getting reports of the demon eating people—want to respond, but the police captain has it in for Gorpon, who steals his replacement car and thereby becomes public enemy number one.

Everyone in the comic is absurd in one way or another, with Hansen laying it on thick for Gorpon, the used car dealer, the cops, the punks. The demon is almost the most sensible one—he just wants to eat people and get stronger—whereas everyone else moves through the comic with a dangerous amount of dumb. Hansen plays the dumb up for laughs; there are some rather good ones.

And Gorpon himself is something of an exception. He’s not capable of being dumb because he’s too savage. He’s a barbarian loosed on the modern world. A lot of Gorpon’s fun consists of seeing Gorpon’s bull in a china shop routine, though it’s just as entertaining during the big monster fights thanks to those inks of Hansen’s and the humor.

Hansen gets twenty-eight pages of material out of the okay but definitely thin premise thanks to the humor—which includes the exposition—and, especially, the art.

The Weatherman (2019) #1

The Weatherman  2019  1

I read the first Weatherman series because Nathan Fox having a steady gig seemed like it was worth seeing. And the series was fine… I didn’t even remember it ended on a cliffhanger though. This second volume continues the action as mind-wiped former interplanetary terrorist turned weatherman turned fugitive (so he was mind-wiped out of being the terrorist into the weatherman, who got found out and became a fugitive) and his Scooby gang head to Earth to try to unlock the terrorist memories in order to stop the other terrorists.

This issue’s all establishing; writer Jody LeHeup shows how Earth is doing—where people are still stranded with an incredibly lethal virus, which will get them someday soon if the rest of the humans living off planet done kill the survivors off first so they can get the real estate back (Weatherman’s cynicism is on point)—and how things are going on the Weatherman’s mission. He’s pissing off the rest of the gang while still trying and failing to flirt with the secret agent woman who first found him and is basically his love interest. At least fits that role’s spot in the narrative, whether or not they’re actually getting together is besides the point.

There’s a lot of exposition, a lot of hints at future personal conflict (one crew member’s tattoo pisses off another crew member for some reason), all while there’s the time crunch with the terrorists still out there and then political intrigue as the solar system female president doesn’t want to kill off all the Earthlings without trying to save them but the white men don’t care about trying to save them.

It’s… all right. Kind of a lackluster return for the series, which hasn’t got any exposition for anyone starting here—you’ve got to be versed in the previous volume not just for information but also for investment. There’s no reason to read Volume Two if you aren’t invested from before.

Fox’s art is good. A tad restricted. Probably not enough on its own to keep the interest up for the series. Especially not since it seems a little too streamlined here. It’s not interesting on its own.

If Weatherman Volume Two #2 were sitting here, I’d read it. But probably not if I had to reach for it. It’s perfectly fine.

Just… not exciting at all.

Pope Hats (2009) #6

Pope Hats  6

I’ve read Young Frances, which collects Pope Hats, but haven’t actually read any Pope Hats issues. Based on this issue, it’s different to the point I can’t imagine what it’s like to read Young Frances serialized, not if Hartley Lin intersperses it with his one or two page lyrical comic strips. They’re all non-fiction (or at least appear to be non-fiction), often involving either becoming a parent or just plain parenting. One strip is Lin up late trying to get the baby to sleep, another is a flashback of sorts to the hospital room where the intensity of labor starts to fade into memory. Memory also plays a big part, with Lin reflecting on his past, usually as to how it’ll affect his parenting.

For example, will Lin pass his terror of worms—scoleciphobia—on to the next generation or will he be able to handle the slimy cylinders once his son gets old enough to consider them. Lin’s got a great observation or two about how much of his life is going to be just for the son’s experience—i.e. Lin’s only going to learn constellations because he doesn’t want to pass bad information to the kid.

It’s a somewhat tender moment—all of Pope Hats #6 is tender—but implies a murkier depth. Most of the insight in the strips are observations about others or the discernible, much less about Lin himself.

He’s got this obsession with the empty house across the street, where teenagers go to drink beer; when he reminiscences—or the strip reminiscences—about the lost friends of his youth, it’s hard not to juxtapose those histories against the (off-panel) teens. Other than some recurring—numbered, in fact—drives through Vermont, not many of the strips call back or ahead to one another. Instead, there are these gentle echoes.

It’s a strong comic. Lin sometimes relies more on the writing, which isn’t always startlingly insightful (people have been writing parenting anecdotes for thousands of years now?) but he’s always got the accompanying art and the art’s always superb. And Lin always chooses the right accompanying imagery for the anecdote.

After Young Frances, I wanted to read more Lin; I need to read more Pope Hats.

Clue: Candlestick (2019) #1

Clue Candlestick  2019  1

Dash Shaw’s style is perfect for Clue: Candlestick. His cartooning is through, detailed, and loose. His figures seem to expand and contract as needed, when they’re pontificating they seem big, when they’re recoiling they seem small. Works with them being noisy and not as well. The comic opens with Professor Plum getting an encoded letter, which reveals a bunch of backstory about the game pieces—Candlestick is a licensed Clue comic—although Plum’s physically imposing, his calm makes him seem anything but.

He lasts for most of the issue as the protagonist, or the closest thing to one, until the ending when the attention shifts to Miss White and Miss Scarlet. Shaw showcases some of the other characters throughout—especially Colonel Mustard, who does the exaggerated pontificating during the dinner scene. It’s a pretty simple first issue—the invitees go to the mansion for a dinner party, someone ends up dead, they have to solve it, then by the end of the issue someone else ends up dead. Cue cliffhanger.

Shaw plays with the board game rules at one point as he describes the “rules” for the characters investigation (it remains to be seen if they’re actually going to factor into the story or plotting) and he’s always pointing out details. Are the details clues or just details… are all details clues? Something else we’re going to have to wait and see about.

There’s some really good investigating towards the end, but with one character discovering things and, while not making any conclusions about the clues, Shaw definitely knows how set up the intrigue and the implications. It’s an extremely well-designed narrative. Better, obviously, than the board game itself. I love me some Clue but it’s not the best mystery.

And Shaw’s wholly resisting leveraging Clue: The Movie. Clue: Candlestick feels like its own thing, with the board game references just adding meat instead of gristle.

Chasing Echoes (2019)

Chasing Echoes  2019

The most perplexing thing about Chasing Echoes isn’t how it got made—there’s a writer, there’s an artist—but how it got published. Specifically, the market research saying there are people who are going to buy this thing. If it weren’t for the swearing and the women always bonding over the most unrealistic sex talk anyone's gotten published in ten years, maybe it'd be good for YA. Only there aren't any active teen characters. Pseudo-protagonist Malka has a teenage son who goes off to live with his dad because Mom’s a poor at the beginning of the book; she ostensibly spends the rest of the book worried about being homeless but not really because writer Dan Goldman doesn't know how to write worrying. Or really any other emotional state.

It's a problem. One of the many.

Goldman’s characterizations are bland—caricaturization is the word (and a word)—but so’s his dialogue (even with the occasional f bombs) and plotting in general. The book’s about an extended Jewish family going to see an Elton John concert in Poland and hitting up the family history sites, specifically concentration camps and the grandfather’s hometown. Except they need to find the hometown, which no one except Malka’s going to have any idea about because she’s the family historian even if reigning patriarch (and Malka’s uncle) Jack, doesn’t realize it.

But then they discover Poland’s just as racist and Nazi-primed as ever. It doesn’t really figure into the story—the big moment where it does is so managed it has the same resonance as if someone told off a racist in a Facebook thread—but only because there’s not a story. The book’s about the family deciding even though Malka’s a poor, it doesn’t mean she’s a bad person. But no one has any good eureka moments or comeuppance moments; Goldman doesn’t have a take on any of his caricatures or their ideas. He’ll bring up stuff like modern day genocides or whether or not Japanese-Americans get to be upset about internment and then immediately run away. Thank goodness it’s an early eighties extended family without any gays—just lots of divorce, (let’s not go too far now, it’s not Parenthood) interracial coupling, and “class” differences—because it’s unclear how Goldman would handle any actual friction.

He’d do it poorly, obviously, but probably in some really icky way.

You can tell how artist George Schall would handle it because he’s bland in very predictable ways. He’s technically proficient at his art, though never interesting or ambitious. He doesn’t have a caricature-style (he’s got no distinct style) but he manages to incorporate the details well. Like how Malka’s a wine drunk. Ha. It’s funny. Wine on the face. Ha. Funny. Drunk. Poor.

I mean, props to Goldman and Schall getting someone to pay them for this work but it’s concerning to think someone’s out there earnestly reading it. It was pretty clear how blandly bad Chasing Echoes was going to be a quarter of the way in. I only finished it out of morbid curiosity. Was Goldman ever going to do something well? No, he was not.

Eve Stranger (2019) #1

Eve Stranger  2019  1

Eve Stranger feels a little retro. Lead Eve is a woman who only can remember the last week before her memory resets. She’s an assassin or something. Some kind of mercenary. Her mission this issue is shockingly unimportant; the story skips from her getting normalized in her situation and to the mission itself. Nothing about the aftermath of the mission, which is kind of a bummer because everyone likes ice cream and there’s the promise of ice cream.

Anyway. There’s action and mystery—Eve’s got a handler who follows her around and seems to have some kind of romantic history with her (the whole thing feels a little like Memento crossed with Run Lola Run, with what seems to be a Rocket Girl nod)—but there are also the people who want to hire Eve’s services, which is a very secretively and potentially lethal process.

The only thing keeping Eve going, as Eve tells herself in a letter to herself (from one self to the next, which is a convenient device for writer David Barnett, but nowhere near as good as he seems to think), is the hunt for the truth. Her dad is out there somewhere and he knows all. Someday she’ll find him.

Probably around issue three… though it’s a five issue series, not four, so maybe issue four.

It’s a solid read. Philip Bond’s art is good. He doesn’t really get a lot to do (it’s mostly establishing shots, not action) and Barnett seems a lot less interested in his narrative than its setting. Eve going past a women’s march, for example, has a lot of built-in subtext given her situation, whereas the comic itself doesn’t have any. Yet. It’s unclear if the things on the walls (proverbial and not) are Chekhov rifles or just decoration.

But it’s definitely one of those first issues where you get done and have no idea what the rest of the series is going to read like. It’s also a fast read… a tad too fast. Especially given there’s back matter with the protagonist in an alternate life as a reporter in a slightly absurd comic strip—art by Liz Prince, script by Barnett—and it’s got more entertainment potential than the feature. Like, it’s a biting smart and funny, where as the feature’s a safe smart and a tad too efficient.

Lodger (2018) #2

The Lodger  2018  2

I may have already read this issue of Lodger. I thought I’d only read (and mostly forgotten) the first issue, but this one seems very familiar. Going into it without having read the first issue recently and not really remembering the setup—it’s about some white guy named Dante who travels around causing trouble without people realizing it while he does his travel blog and then some white girl who’s chasing him down because he did something to her. Can’t remember if he did it in the first issue or if it’s going to be a reveal later on in the series. It’s not in this issue.

I also don’t know how Lodger would read if you were unfamiliar with David Lapham, co-writer (with Maria Lapham) and artist. There’s no way there’s not some creepy thing going on with the Dante guy even if he weren’t blogging about how he happened onto a serial killer—even though it’s fairly clear he’s the serial killer who’s framing the other guy—and perving on a teenage girl. The Lodger is just a Stray Bullets remix. It could even be a spin-off, though apparently not at IDW and Black Crown (Stray Bullets is at Image, at least as of this issue’s publication based on the house ad). So it’s hard to get too invested in any of the characters. The teenage girl, Ricky, is a victim, whether she knows it or not, the reader knows it. Her mom is a victim. Her dad is a victim. And so on and so on.

The issue starts a little weak on art—Lapham’s very inky style doesn’t work well in extreme closeup but does great with medium shots in small panels—but it’s fine. For what it is, it’s fine. Is there any reason to keep going on it? Did I keep going on it before? I never wrote about it, but there’s a long stretch where comics only went on the Comics Fondle podcast versus blog responses. But I don’t even remember talking about it. I just remember reading it and thinking… oh, Lapham’s doing the teenage girl victim in danger thing. Again.

It’s kind of his genre.

The Stringbags (2020)

The stringbags  2020

When I saw the announcement for The Stringbags, after the obvious glee at a new Garth Ennis comic, the publisher stood out; publisher Dead Reckoning is the graphic novel imprint of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Naval Institute Press. So war comics but for war history enthusiasts, which is about the only way to phrase that demographic without making them sound exceptionally callous. And something about Ennis working with them clicked, potentially; he’d finally have a place—theoretically—with a matching concern for war comics.

And The Stringbags is even better than I’d hoped. It’s not just Ennis getting to do a longer form—a hundred and eighty-ish pages split into three parts, so it’s the equivalent of eight issues? Only without forced twenty-two page chapters. Ennis gets to take his time. Each part of Stringbags has text exposition, giving historical context, sometimes bridging between scenes; it’s great text too. Ennis writes history with a mix of enthusiasm and flair—he takes it seriously, explaining his creative choices with facts in the afterword (because he too seems to recognize the potential of the project)—so even as you wait to find out what’s happening to the heroes, you don’t really want the lecture to end. Ennis is concise and fact-filled, with an intention of making those facts count not fill. The historical context stuff often has very little to do with the eventual story content—with major exceptions, sure—but there’s also a history of the Blitz just to set up a scene occurring during the Blitz but its content unrelated. It affects the initial read pace in the first part, then changes throughout. The second part, which has that Blitz opening, ends up being the shortest as far as the text exposition goes but has the most historical contextualizing in it. You get the feel for the time period, knowing what Ennis has explained, seeing how the characters interact with each other in it, with the setting. It works out beautifully and, really, could be Ennis’s thing going forward with this kind of work. He’s finally comfortable enough telling the history and making a story in it. He’s had war story heights before, some quite high and even more effective than Stringbags, but he’s never done the history amid the historical fiction so well before. It’s fiction with straight non-fiction tangents.

It’s awesome.

Stringbags is the story of these particular planes—the Fairey Swordfish, which was a cheaper, older plane used by the Royal Navy—WWII, at least in so far as it relates to the planes (like where they were used), and then the three fictional leads. In that order of importance, but the fliers don’t make any sense without the planes and the war and vice versa. Like these planes were so slow barrage balloon cables couldn’t cut them fast enough. Enemy ships and planes’ guns weren’t timed for them. So the pilots are experiencing the events around them through this slower paced lens; in the first story, they sit back to watch the British bomb Italian ships and are in almost pure wonderment. Ennis has this fantastic narrative distance to play with; the three leads are in the war, but detached from it, both by the speed of their plane and then of their combined circumstances. Captain Archie is a mediocre pilot with goofy man-slut (but pretty thirties chaste) Ollie for a navigator and then gunner Pops, who’s been in the Royal Navy for ten years without a promotion. Archie gets ambitious, which changes their destiny and gives Ennis some particular points of view to examine the events through. They’re occasionally stereotypes so Ennis can get across the average—besides the three, there’s only one other recurring character; everyone else is purely functional—which contributes to the whole feel of the setting.

So, really good work from Ennis. Like I said, he’s figured out how to do this comic. Because the heroes aren’t just trying to get through their missions, they’re trying to get through the war, through life. The third part—heavy on history text third part—is also the culmination of a distance C plot in the first part and then a still distant B plot in the second. Ennis does it subtly. Or maybe he doesn’t and it just seems subtle because he’s got this inherent distraction of the history text.

I’ve read Stringbags three times and will definitely read it again. But reading it each time, once Ennis and PJ Holden establish the comic’s narrative language, this anticipatory enthusiasm kicks in. Stringbags is always good in the right way and Ennis doesn’t restrain himself in finding ways.

Holden’s just as important. Stringbags has details without being too detailed. There’s a fluidity to the people, particularly when they’re talking or listening, and a different kind of fluidity with the action art. Holden’s very affable with the characterizations too, so it’s fun to see how the leads react to things. Their expressions, occasionally gestures. It’s fun. And the book can get away with the lightness because these guys are removed from their surroundings. Technologically detached, which fits them.

The Stringbags is, one more time, awesome. Even if it doesn’t kick off a new phase of Garth Ennis’s creative career, it provides another supporting pillar in it.


Thanks to Dead Reckoning for providing me with an advance review copy of The Stringbags, which is due out May 20, 2020 and available for preorder from the U.S. Naval Institute as well as the A word.

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen (2019) #1

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen  2019  1

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen has fairly unsurpassable creator pedigree. Steve Lieber’s mainstream superhero outings are always visually delightful since he’s able to infuse a bit of Silver Age glee into his otherwise hyper-realistic (but still very artful) style. There’s this great page where Lieber drops the background at the Daily Planet newsroom for some effect (comedic effect, actually) and it’s all the better since every panel around it has extreme detail on the setting. It’s also a fun scene because you get to see Perry White have to praise Jimmy over Jimmy’s viral popularity. Updating the Daily Planet for new media always seems like an iffy proposition but of course writer Matt Fraction can do it.

Even though Jimmy Olsen doesn’t have a grandiose story yet—in his latest stunt Jimmy destroys a bunch of the city and has to get out of town; they can’t fire him because he’s so popular his YouTube ad revenue is keeping the lights on, so they fake his death and ship him out to Gotham, presumably to reveal the stunt later on for hits. The Gotham stuff gets summed up in three panels out of a three page scene with Jimmy’s new landlord terrifying him. It’s unclear it’s Gotham until the last page, which is fine. On first blush it seems obvious, but then it seems smart. Fraction’s got a simultaneously grounded and outlandish (which Lieber does exceedingly well) reality for the series and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with Gotham. Though it’s not a really satisfying last page reveal. It sets up the series but, depending on if Jimmy’s actually staying in Gotham or going on a DCU road trip… the issue feels like someone left a window open. It’s simultaneously constrained—Fraction does it in little Silver Age-esque chapters, all have their own epical structures (very neat, it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep them going for eleven more issues)—and a little too open. The reveal at the end manages to be narratively solid but thin; it’s good for the series, not the comic. The jump from Perry plotting Jimmy’s working exile (to keep insurance down but views up) to the new location and then the further jump to the fake death? Too many hops. Efficiently done, just… leveraging a lot on shock value and goodwill.

But the book does generate a bunch of goodwill, every page, almost every panel. Fraction knows how to write this comic, Lieber knows how to visualize it. Jimmy Olsen is a can’t miss so it remains to be seen how far Fraction wants to rock the boat. Is he going to try to do anything he knows he can’t get away with… and does it matter either way. It’s still going to be Lieber and Fraction doing a Silver Age Jimmy Olsen homage. That setup is more powerful than a locomotive.

Crisis of Infinite Comics: Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest #1-6

Tempest

Hmmm…where to begin?

Perhaps itʼs better to start at the end.

Alan Moore, perhaps one of the most influential comic book writers of our era, has for some time now announcing heʼs calling it quits. After listing his last few works in comics, he sums it all up in the latest and final LEOG story.

While Moore has certainly had his share of controversy within the comics world, his writing sometimes compared to mere “genre” writers, has transgressed that merely by being perhaps the greatest of all comics genre writers. Whatever direction heʼs taken, you can be rest assured that it will be the most clever, detailed, and at the least, obsessive approach taken to developing fascinating themes for comics. No half assed dips into the pool for Moore, itʼs either full boat involvement in his subject matter, with enough incorporation of concepts to make any other creator of comic tales feel helpless, witnessing an artist taking over completely his chosen subject matter at a level far beyond the capability of most others.

LEOG, which started as an elaborate tribute to stunning fictional characters plucked from various English literary works, spun together in a super team effort made all the more interesting due to their positions in fiction as monsters, failures and oddballs, their anti humanistic paths now working together to prevent cataclysmic disaster. Their ultimate place among humanity and itʼs price are also touched upon as well.

The first two LEOG stories were detailed, shocking tales with world changing outcomes, with the protagonists hardly suited for the lofty goals upon which they were now summoned. Moore then wraps the stories in resolutely English themes, using only characters and most situations with their founding in English literature and fiction.

Over time, his LOEG tales then took on a more distinct route, parlaying formal aspects of comics, bending his characters and the narrative, along with the reader, on a journey that must be really studied to be understood and appreciated, making you work to discover and perhaps understand why he was creating it in the first place. You are bound to Mooreʼs narrative, helpless yet willing to go wherever it takes you, comfortable or not.

This final tale, bringing us up to date chronologically and formally, is an utter distillation of all things metahuman (nee superhero) comics over the last 75 years that have been wrought upon us. Its blending of stylistic nuances, outrageous fictional characters, the inevitable team up of the heroes, all brought up for display, tells us the final fate of these types of venues, using perfectly the tics and tropes of the comics themselves to display his thesis/journey.

The grand motives of superhero comics and their heights and fallacies are all here to behold, to enjoy their miracles, yet at the same time, point to a larger vision, a demonstration of how they work, and the bases they touch upon their way to the most mega fantastic of conclusions. Perfectly linear in its progression, there is perhaps every cliche in the book used here in service of the homage, using as many types of comic approaches seamlessly incorporated into a mass narrative to enjoy and drive you crazy with its scope of ambition as well as the reserve not to take any of this too seriously. An amazing balance is achieved here between contrasting goals.

It’s also a tale not for the simple comics reader weaned on a sugar fed, monthly pulse short attention span of pablum, either. Only the mature and well travelled comics reader will spot most, but probably not all, of the winks and nods shown to its audience. There is a lifetime plus of the superhero genre on view here, and while it’s not necessary to have an encyclopedic knowledge of such things to “get it,” the well-read comics fan will be able to dig deeper and catch on more than the novice.

In this narrative, Moore brings nothing less than the totality of English and American comics history, dozens of literary references, approaches from golden age comics to the Watchmen, and a blazing framework brought together by Shakespeareʼs Tempest, no less. Donʼt be scared to venture here though, as while you may be googling or wiki-ing things you donʼt recognize, you are not penalized for doing so.

And that’s where the point here lies. Moore has taken the lifetime of superhero comics and put them into one final, master, superhero crossover spectacular-stories the big two like to whip out every season, and not only present them in all their absurdity, but in an involving tale with the highest stakes available; the continued existence of the meta human genre, perhaps the greatest threat to our heroes ever imagined.

And succeed he does. While some may not have patience for where it goes, there is no denying this is a well thought out and conceived tale, showing both the polar duality of a great mythical end of times story with a poignant presence, a mature objective point about all these things that are both majestic and more than a little sad. That while we take such things seriously as comic fans, there can be no denying the overstated importance we give them as such, and the passes we give them when they suck and disappoint.

Moore swings from both sides of the pendulum, praising superhero comics goodness, their personal touches of life we experience when reading them, and in its finale, taking its rose colored glasses(or 3D, theyʼre in there too), and confronting the reader about the final realities about such things, while also comforting the reader with a respect for such things and the inevitable conclusion we have when weʼve taken them as far as we logically can.

It is within such parameters Moore demands respect for his chosen idiom as well as demonstrating its shortcomings and their conclusion; superhero comics have gone about as far as they will go. For such a well executed and convincing demonstration I can only make this tale of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (although the members are all women by this point), my swan-song in any kind of involvement with the modern superhero genre at all anymore.

For that Mr Moore, I graciously thank you, and shed a metaphorical tear for my innocence lost and the transformation of my childhood friends.

Before I tie it up, his longest collaborator, Kevin O Neill, delivers a masterful virtuosoʼs worth of cartooning skills, perhaps his best. O’Neill furnishes this endlessly inventive dense pack of info perfectly, with each panel composed to its fullest, with no wasted space and the latest version of Will Elderʼs “chicken fat” art style a feast for the eyes and the brain. Todd Kleinʼs lettering and Ben Digmagmaliwʼs coloring are wonderfully crafted yet almost unnoticeable, contributing more layers to the proceedings to make this a total artistic endeavor of a package. Creative examples of encyclopedic talent at this level are rare, enjoy them.

So this will most likely be the last modern superhero tale I will read because of this. Damn you Moore, for waking me up, but thank you as well, for showing me the sublime beauty of my earliest dreams, and the realization that itʼs definitely time to be moving on.

Foolkiller (1990)

Foolkiller #1 (1990)

The last time I read Foolkiller, almost fifteen years ago, I really liked it. I wish I knew what I’d liked about it because it’s really not good. Even back then I know I thought the art—Joe Brozowski on pencils, Tony DeZuniga then Vince Giarrano on the inks—was bad. And the art’s bad. It appears DeZuniga had been handling the facial features and without him, the people start looking real bad, but then Giarrano adjusts or something. Very rocky, art-wise. Never good, sometimes less bad than other times.

But the art’s not the problem. The problem’s the script, which is from Steve Gerber, who’s not just good, but also not the guy you expect to do a comic all about how the “super predators” are real. At one point they even do a Central Park Five reference. In Foolkiller, it’s a string of Central Park attacks on cyclists where the gang beats the victims to death, enraged the victims can… afford bicycles. Even the killers’ parents are okay with their sons brutally murdering those better off bicycle owners.

Of course, one of the other bad guys is a right-wing TV host. The first few issues of Foolkiller have a different feel than the rest of the comic and not just because the noses go bad at some point. The comic’s about a new Foolkiller, inspired by the original, who’s actually the second one, and is currently in a mental institution in Indiana. The protagonist, Kurt, has just lost his father, his job, his house, his wife, and finds Foolkiller—on the right-wing TV host’s show—aspirational. Pretty soon Kurt’s going around killing bad guys, romancing his shift manager at the burger joint—the only job he could get because savings and loans—and working out in garbage. On one hand, Foolkiller feels like Gerber amping up the absurdity over this kind of character but Gerber’s also grounding it as he goes along. It’s like Gerber’s too dedicated to the actual narrative to subvert it with jabs at the protagonist’s philosophy. Taxi Driver: The Comic.

And outside a mention of The Avengers and Spider-Man swinging through an issue to sell at least one to the Spidey collectors, Foolkiller doesn’t feel very Marvel comic. Outside the art, which—even bad—looks like Marvel and the lettering, which is perfunctory and somehow inappropriate. Foolkiller’s journals are all supposedly written on the computer but they appear in handwriting. It’s also unclear how the journals are supposed to be read—contemporary to events, past tense. It’d be nice if it mattered. Something in Foolkiller should matter.

Yeah, Gerber created Foolkiller, didn’t he. At least the most famous one—and he was in Man-Thing. I just can’t figure out what happened to the joke in Foolkiller. The comic takes a shift when it starts dealing with the Iraq War in the last few issues; that news is pushing Foolkiller’s killing spree out of the headlines. The other headlines are about crack babies and something else kind of iffy, even for the early nineties. The first half of Foolkiller is Randian objectivism with some sprinkles of libertarianism, the second half of it is the lead dispassionately offing examples of those philosophies. Maybe if there were a connection there’d be some impact but Gerber introduces the relevant supporting characters—outside the TV host—when he needs them, not before. And the TV host doesn’t really provide much texture. Foolkiller confuses hyperbolic with effective.

Nothing in the comic stands out. None of the characters, none of the moments Gerber tries out with the supporting cast. He’s got a lack of empathy for everyone involved, which matches the protagonist I suppose but… it’s a little long—ten issues—to go just to prove you can do something. Though Foolkiller is from the old days, back when publishers never would’ve dreamed off cutting issues off a limited series. Or at least it seemed like they wouldn’t. What do I know? I used to be a big Foolkiller (1990) fan. And not when I had any excuse to be.

Maybe the most disappointing aspect—other than Gerber’s exaggerated, almost defensive classism—is the pointlessness of the narrative. It doesn’t add up to anything for anyone involved, not Foolkiller III, not Foolkiller II, not Foolkiller II’s too liberal psychiatrist, not the girl who falls for Foolkiller III, not the stupid villain who can’t seem to die… no one. One of the villains is even a New York City real estate developer who is way too competent to be confused for any real figure.

Either something went very wrong with Foolkiller or it was always a terrible idea.

I’m not sure I wrote about Foolkiller the last time I read it, but if I did, the posts are long gone. I don’t know if I want to know what I thought but I’m frankly embarrassed about it.

Foolkiller (1990) is most decidedly not good. From the start. I kept thinking maybe it turned around in the last few issues and Gerber finally acknowledged the nonsense.

But no.

It’s just bad all the way through.

Planetes, Volume 01 (2003)

Planetes, Volume 1 cover

The first volume of Planetes has five different stories. They’re vignettes. I’ve read this volume before, I remembered the vignettes. Even if the first story doesn’t feel much like a vignette.

The story opens with a spaceship disaster. Actually it opens with a cute married couple and then the disaster, because it’s sad when disaster strikes. Except the husband—Yuri—survives and goes on to become a debris collector in the future. The future being the comic’s present tense.

Yuri’s not the only debris collector on his ship, there’s also serious Fee and joker Hachimaki. Because Yuri’s so quiet and Hachimaki’s so loud, Hachimaki quickly becomes the “lead” of the story. He’ll be the lead of subsequent stories in the volume, but in this one it really feels like he’s usurping the actual lead.

It’s an okay story; it doesn’t pass a reality sniff test but it’s okay. It certainly distinguishes creator Yukimura Makoto and Planetes as a little different. And very willing to tug on the heart strings.

The second story is about Hachimaki meeting a girl on the moon base. He has to go to the moon base because people weren’t meant to live in space and it screws up their bones. Except this girl turns out to have been born on the moon and so can’t go to Earth and there’s a gentle romance until it turns out she’s twelve, which is kind of creepy and Yukimura doesn’t ever deal with it. There’s also some more stuff with Fee in the story, but it’s not until the third one where she gets the focus.

The third story, and where Planetes distinguishes itself as something other than thoughtful, realistic space stuff, is about Fee craving a cigarette and being willing to take down interplanetary terrorists to get one. It’s pretty awesome. Yukimura’s not as good with the fast-paced action as the gradual stuff—Planetes is better when it feels like 2001 versus Star Wars—but the writing makes up for it. Lots of fun. And thoughtful too, with the terrorists.

The fourth story is about Hachimaki taking Yuri home to meet his family. There, Hachimaki contends with his annoying little brother and Yuri possibly flirting with his mom. There’s also some okay-ish character development for Yuri, though it feels like Yukimura is shoehorning it in, and a lot of humor involving the little brother.

The last story is about Hachimaki having space paranoia or something and how he works through it. It’s a fairly serious finally, without much action or payoff, making it a very uneven finish.

Overall, Planetes peaks a little too early. The last couple stories, ostensibly imperative for character development, just aren’t interesting. The one with Hachimaki’s family plays way too much to humor (at Hachimaki’s expense) and then the last story positions him as dangerously vain, with Yukimura again avoiding exploring it fully.

There’s a lot of cool stuff to Planetes, but it ought to be adding up to something by the end of the volume and it doesn’t. Yukimura’s capital A ambitions, at least with the characters, never work out. The little stuff, like Fee’s cigarette obsession or Hachimaki’s flirtation, works out a lot better. Yukimura just hasn’t got it with the character development… even though he focuses on it.

The Punisher #34, Barracuda, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher #34

This issue makes two things very clear. First, Punisher MAX would’ve been an even more successful book if Goran Parlov had been handling the art chores throughout. His expressions—for the talking heads scenes—are phenomenal. There’s one scene where the big boss is monologuing to his flunkies and it’s just these three guys sitting around an outdoor table at a bar in Florida and it’s sublime. Parlov’s so good.

Especially when you take the second thing into account—everyone should have to fight a shark in a comic. Ennis and Parlov make Frank Castle versus great white shark into an absolutely phenomenal sequence, especially when you throw in the past tense narration not to mention the opening frame establishing Frank doesn’t end up a shark’s lunch. Parlov’s able to keep the situation terrifying and tense, even when the outcome is foregone.

The issue is split between Frank, the shark, and Barracuda, and then the Wall Street guys. Stephens cries his way back in the fold, pissing off Dermot because the boss treats it as a teamwork learning opportunity for Stephens. The weirdest thing about Barracuda is how thoughtful Ennis gets with the workplace dynamics, sure the big boss is a reprehensible piece of shit, but he’s good at managing people and encouraging performance from his staff. It’s like Dale Carnegie with mass corporate fraud, which might just be the natural result of Dale Carnegie.

Anyway, while Dermot’s running off to lover and boss’s wife Alice to lick his wounds after getting shut down, Frank’s trying to will himself to stay alive despite the considerable damage he’s taken.

Barracuda moves between the two plots, finally sitting down with the boss—after terrifying Stephens and Dermot—to figure out what’s next. Since they think the Punisher is dead, which is kind of an obvious mistake but Ennis has already started peppering in holes in Barracuda’s armor. He’s not quite as serious as he ought to be, in a very different way than Frank, who knows he’s screwing up. Barracuda is just overconfident. His bluster actually works really well with the Wall Street guys’ bluster. Barracuda is a relatively simple arc, but Ennis is very thoughtful in its execution. It’s extremely well done.

And Parlov’s just wonderful to have on the book.

The Punisher #33, Barracuda, Part 3 (of 6)

Ennis wastes no time getting Frank and Barracuda together this issue. He even goes so far to use coincidence to speed things up—Barracuda’s on his way to New York to take out The Punisher and just happens to see Frank walking off his flight. Dumb luck. And bad luck for Frank, who’s almost completely unprepared for any trouble.

Frank’s narration gets into what he’s done wrong as well as why he’s done it, why he’s let his guard down so much. It’s interesting, engaging stuff, but it’s just priming the reader for the eventual confrontation.

But before Frank and Barracuda can mix it up, Ennis checks in on the Wall Street-half of the story. Number one flunky Dermot is continuing his affair with boss’s wife, Alice, even after she humiliates him—rather amusingly—in public just for a laugh. Even so, it turns out Alice hasn’t just been fooling around with Dermot for his disappointing sexual prowess; she’s looking for a partner. And she’s got him hooked. So they’re busy scheming to throw over the boss.

Their plotting subplot is the most exposition in the comic—until Barracuda gets talking later on—because when Frank wakes up, he and Barracuda just get into a fight. A big, bloody, gloriously illustrated fight. It’s an eight page fight scene, in two parts, with Frank taking out an eye, chopping off some fingers, but unable to even slow Barracuda. And the Goran Parlov art is nothing short of glorious. The way he paces the fight, the panel compositions, it’s superlative. Also very good colors from Giulia Brusco.

The issue ends on a couple cliffhangers, one hard, one soft. While Barracuda is driving his boat out to dump Frank to the sharks—and blathering at him the entire way—Dermot is hanging out with the boss, only to discover the boss has brought Stephens—who Dermot intended to have killed—back into the fold, seemingly cementing Dermot’s decision to plot against the boss.

It’s not a particularly fast read, even though it’s a mix of action (in addition to the eight page fist fight, there are a couple pages of Barracuda running Frank off the road) and abbreviated talking heads. The pacing just works right in both modes. Parlov does a great job with pauses in action or conversation; also time transitions.

It’s thrilling to have such accomplished art on the book.

The Punisher #32, Barracuda, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #32

There’s a lot of action this issue, but it’s all Barracuda doing it. Meanwhile Frank is getting information about why a dirty cop risked it all to take out Wall Street guy Stephens. Frank and Stephens have breakfast in a diner. The diner’s called “Frank’s Favorite Diner.” Not sure if that one is an Ennis touch or a Parlov touch, but it’s sure a welcome bit of humorous detail.

Parlov draws the hell out everything in the issue—Barracuda versus snake, Frank and Stephens’ talking heads, catching up with the Wall Street wolves (particularly number two man Dermot as he lets himself get seduced by the boss’s wife), Barracuda versus bangers, Frank preparing for what’s next. It moves quickly, Ennis again playing with the whole idea of a bridging issue. The scenes with Frank and Stephens fill out the backstory—why Frank Castle is going to care about some energy company and their Wall Street schemes—while Dermot screwing around with boss’s wife Alice is setting the ground situation for what’s going to come. Very few people are more successful at plotting out a six issue arc than Garth Ennis. Especially when he’s got Parlov on the art.

Meanwhile, Barracuda terrorizes the rest of the issue, giving even the most obnoxiously unsympathetic a sliver of humanity (because he’s so utterly lacking in it).

The finale has Frank prepping for the trip—he’s going to Florida to strong-arm the big boss. It’s an easy job (Frank tells us in the narration), so why bother driving and bringing guns with him, he’ll be able to just pick them up in Florida. Easy-peasy. Except it’s past tense narration and Frank knows he’s making mistakes; so we get what is de facto introspection from Frank. Including the gem about what promotes white collar criminals to his sights—deaths. It’s not a soft Frank Castle by any means, just a too cocky one. And a talkative one. Ennis’s character development for Frank in Barracuda comes in the narration more than anywhere else.

The issue ends on a rather ominous note, one panel after Parlov (and Ennis) get in a sight gag about Frank’s reading habits. Because even though we know the story’s not going to go smoothly—we’re in flashback from a shark slaughter, after all—at this point, we’re seeing a relaxed Frank Castle. We know he should be concerned with that approach, even if he doesn’t. And not just because his narration tells us to get worried. Because at this point, Frank doesn’t even know Barracuda exists; the reader’s just spent an entire issue being mortified by the guy.

The Punisher #31, Barracuda, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #31

Punisher #31 starts off with a couple surprises. First is Goran Parlov on the art. Parlov’s excellent. He’s the best artist the book’s had in a long time. Second is Ennis using a flashback device. The issue starts with sharks chowing down on a bunch of fresh bodies and Frank watching from a boat. The narration announces it’s a frame—it’s the end of the story—so Ennis, via Frank’s narration, takes us back to the start of it.

Ennis has done some past tense narration before—last arc, actually—but he didn’t use an actual framing device where he had action set in the present and then flashed back. Not like he’s doing here. It’s interesting; Ennis is far more comfortable with Frank as narrator than ever before, which is a good thing. Presumably.

So the story starts with Frank finding some Wall Street guy tied up naked in a drug den (after Frank’s hit the den). Turns out the dealers had been keeping the guy hostage and raping him. Frank’s not particularly sympathetic and leaves the guy, not thinking much about it. The reader’s going to think about it—because Ennis jumps the action over to his Wall Street pals, including the one who hired the drug dealers to kill him. Unclear this guy knows what they did instead.

There’s a lot of good talking heads—both in Frank and the guy, Stephens, and then Stephens’ pals, big boss Harry and Harry’s number one flunky, Dermot. Ennis and Parlov also make sure we take notice of Harry’s trophy wife, Alice. Well, they make sure we take notice of Alice making sure Dermot takes notice of Alice.

Frank gets brought back into the situation because he notices a dirty cop on the news, heading in to talk to the survivor. Gets Frank thinking he might not want to abandon him. So off he goes for a rescue mission, which is complicated because he’s still ostensibly on the cops’ shit list (from the previous Slavers arc).

Harry the big boss calls in the nuclear option, Barracuda. Now, the issue opens with Frank musing in narration about barracudas without context (other than he’s on a boat named Barracuda), so there’s a very nice wrapping feel. And it’s been a great setup issue as well. Ennis gets a lot done. Parlov’s able to do a bunch of exposition in the art, lots of great tone setup and so on (particularly the “wealth porn” aspect of it).

So very good issue. Even if the setup—Frank coming across someone at a crime scene and helping them against his better judgement—is identical to the Slavers setup. It’s fine… you’d just think Frank would acknowledge it in the narration, especially with everything else he calls out.

Parlov’s such a welcome art change too. He gets how to do the script.

So good.

PTSD (2019)

The best thing about PTSD is creator Guillaume Singlein’s action. He paces it beautifully. The book, when it doesn’t have dialogue but just people doing things… it looks its best. So it makes sense Singlein’s going to be good at the action too. Of course, whether or not PTSD should have action is a whole other thing.

The comic takes place in a post-racial Asian metropolis. There are Asian people, White people, Black people. No difference between them. It's almost post-gender too—the many women living on the street in the comic don’t seem to be under threat of rape, for instance—but when the protagonist flashbacks to her war days, her comrades definitely treat her as a little sister more than an equal.

Even though she’s the only one who can shoot.

Singelin’s male-gaze-free manga style also plays into the postish-genderness.

So the protagonist. She lost an eye in the war; the flashbacks lead up to that event, after focusing on when she learns certain things pertinent to the present action (her medic skills). In the present she’s a loner on the streets, addicted to painkillers (government provided to vets, which Singlein doesn’t explore and is, I suppose, one of the biggest logic holes in his ground situation), not above robbing the occasional fellow junkie or even inept drug dealer.

Her path to redemption comes in the form of a kindly old vet—the war has been going on forever (and is presumably still going on but that one’s not clear either)—who loans her a dog. The dog then gives our hero the will to live.

So she goings to war, Punisher-style, with the drug dealer gang.

Hence the awesome, albeit narratively questionable action. She’s especially dangerous with the dog, who goes along even on rooftops, and her lost eye doesn’t do anything to impair depth perception, which is good.

Besides the dog and the old man, the only people who like the hero are a single mom diner owner and her son. Only our hero doesn’t care about the single mom’s attempts at altruism—Singelin has a really, really hard time writing the dialogue for the single mom and why she’s all of a sudden caring about the starving people on the streets—but he does manage to queer code the hell out of the relationship.

And, spoiler, it’s all a red herring.

Because when our hero does find herself, it’s got nothing to do with the mom, the kid, the old man, or the dog. Singlein got to the end of the avenging vet angel arc and then realized it was actually classist, apparently, and so our hero has to move forward in a different way. Other than just having all the drugs.

The only thing unpredictable about the end is when Singlein does a pointless six month time jump forward.

Good movement, even if manga’s not your thing, but it gets real bumpy during the dialogue. Really, really, really bad dialogue. Not sure if it’s Singelin or the translator.

But the simplistic motivations and anorexic character depth suggests no translator was going to fix the existing problems.

I mean, hey, if you’ve got the shakes from PTSD… try doing charity work. Works better than highly addictive drugs.

Nice art can only compensate for so much.

Batman Versus Predator (1991)

Batman Versus Predator

Batman Versus Predator, in case the title doesn’t give it away, is bad. It’s real bad. It could be worse, sure, but it’s real bad.

It doesn’t open terribly—sure, the Kubert Brothers art is pretty bland from go, but the subject matter is at least sort of interesting (compared to where it goes later). And writer Dave Gibbons (who doesn’t just overwrite the comic, he badly overwrites it) has some style for the opening. He juxtaposes the Predator attacking some old guy and his dog with the Gotham City championship boxing match. The former isn't important (other than it's a little weird the Predator is attacking a junkyard watchman), but the latter turns out to be the whole comic. See, the Predator isn’t initially interested in hunting Batman or even (armed) criminals or (armed) cops. It’s out to take out the championship boxers.

Because they’re champions. Says so on the news. The Predator watches a lot of news in Batman Versus Predator and repeats sound bytes to make dialogue. Because Gibbons is incapable of writing an action sequence without a bunch of stupid recycled sound bytes the Predator has picked up somewhere. At one point, it seems like the comic would be at least somewhat better without their constant addition. But then, once the Kuberts never get any better—they can’t make the Predator versus the criminals interesting, they can’t even make Batman versus the Predator interesting, though it’d probably be hard to do given the big showdown is in the woods surrounding Wayne Manor. But there are times when it doesn’t seem like Batman Versus Predator isn’t going to be a complete waste of time.

Sadly, all of them are in the first issue (of three). And by the end of the first issue, it seems kind of unlikely the book is ever going to turn around.

Most of the comic, overall, is about the crooked businessmen and gangsters who run Gotham (and the boxers) getting wiped out by the Predator. It kills them because… it knows they’re swinging dick criminals and it came to town to hunt some white collar looking criminals. Then it takes on Batman and puts him down for the count—there’s this terribly ineffective device where Gibbons and the Kuberts have a single panel showing Batman getting home all cut up at the bottom of pages while above the main action with the cops or crooks or whatever plays out.

Because Jim Gordon’s got a big part. Not sure why he doesn’t try to take out the Predator himself as the Kuberts draw him just as buff as Batman, which is considerable because they’re Batman is super buff. So big and buff it’s like, obviously you need some meaty muscle guy like Ben Affleck for that part.

But you wouldn’t want to see Batman Versus Predator: The Movie with Batfleck or anyone else, because the only thing the comic succeeds at showing is how bad it would be. Even though it’s about two “characters”—Batman arguably has less personality than the sound byte spouting Predator here—who are known for their wonderful toys, there’s not much competition.

You’d think after fighting aliens since the fifties or whenever they first showed up in a Batman comic, Bats would have some better ideas than he comes up with here. Nope. There are a couple times in action scenes where it’s like… why did that work? The Predator is scared of cars?

The big action finale has Batman in special armor, which looks like the suit from the end of Batman Forever, though I don’t think the Kuberts got a thank you, and then he has a sword at some point. Because armor and swords and whatever.

Batman Versus Predator is pretty dumb, even for a comic called Batman Versus Predator. I’ll bet if you bought this comic back in 1990 thinking it would resemble Watchmen in some way because of Gibbons, you were pissed as all hell. Though, as someone who bought it back in the day—at age twelve—I recall being shameless about it.

I shouldn’t have been shameless. I should’ve acutely felt the shame.

The Punisher #30, The Slavers, Part 6 (of 6)

Ennis keeps it tight for the last issue of The Slavers. Frank’s perspective, lady cop Miller’s perspective, no one else. Other characters get significant moments—the other cop, Parker, gets some material, the dirty cop gets a big part in a scene, the old man has his showdown with Frank, Jen Cooke plays off Miller, and Viorica is back for a check in. The issue starts with Ennis establishing all the characters are their places; everyone’s waiting for Frank to act, but Frank’s being methodical in his planning.

The result of the planning is a straightforward action sequence, then the immediate and long-term fallout. There’s a devastating epilogue, where Ennis writes the hell out of Frank’s narration—he doesn’t push it as much here as he’s done in previous issues, but there’s a lot to read between the lines on. But it’s not Frank’s story to tell and he knows it. He’s not the hero because there can’t be any heroes in the story, not even for people like Cooke and Miller, who both wish there could be. For the wrap-up, little stuff Ennis has done in previous issues comes through; Miller, for instance, gets an entirely different arc than expected, something foreshadowed in the last issue.

Instead of showcasing the action sequence, which does have a fantastic hook, Ennis is more interested in the character development. There’s also Frank’s bandaid solution to the problem of trafficking, which is more about shocking than actually being effective. It’s Frank, the good guys, Ennis, the readers, punching against the impossible brick wall of the human trafficking reality. Ennis also delves, through Cooke and Miller mostly, into the morality of The Punisher and the positives and negatives of a moral vacuum. The positives and negatives of even considering such a thing under these circumstances.

It’s probably Fernandez’s best art in the arc? There are no glaring bad panels. I’m sure there are some iffy ones with Frank, but when Fernandez has to do the epilogue summary panels, he nails them well enough to forgive them. The comic’s so damn good you can’t even remember the iffy panels. You can barely remember the action, as everything else is so much more important. Because Frank doing his thing isn’t the story. It’s not even the gravy. It’s immaterial to the problem at hand. Because not even a superhero can fix this world. By the end of the issue, when the futility and tragedy of everyone involved gets the eyes tearing up, it’s hard to determine exactly what’s contributing to which profound feeling of sadness. It’s outstanding writing from Ennis, effective visual storytelling from Fernandez, and one hell of a comic. The Slavers, more than any other arc so far in Punisher MAX, comes through as a full narrative gesture. It’s devastating, obviously, and brutal, but it’s also brilliantly done. Ennis’s writing is truly awesome here. Especially (but also not especially) Frank’s narration.

The Punisher #29, The Slavers, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #29

This issue has an Ennis Punisher “wow” moment. It ends with it. Two of them actually. One in Frank’s handling of Vera, the woman who handles… the Human Resources department for the trafficking ring. One in Frank’s narration. The moments leave you with a feeling of emptiness and profound sadness. Because while they’re not surprises—and the perfectly inform everything around them—they bring an exceptional level of humanity to Frank. Even with the omnipresent narration this arc, there’s still a significant narrative distance. Not so in this issue’s conclusion. Punisher MAX is, after all, basically all about Ennis finding Frank Castle’s expansive, beautiful, tragic soul.

Anyway. Had to cover that part while still teary. Heart-wrenching stuff.

It’s a fairly quick issue again. Ennis opens after Frank has finished with the son, finding himself in a firefight with the old man, who’s trying to kill his son for the botched hit. Shootouts at big houses on lakes in upstate New York are not Fernandez’s strong suit, but it works. Ennis’s writing on Frank’s narration is great. It’s comfortable, assured, willing to show some personality.

After that scene it’s all about the B and C plots tying together—it’s the penultimate issue in the arc, after all—so the cops team up with Jen Cooke who brings them to Frank, giving Frank a chance to make one really good joke while finding out what’s going on with the NYPD being all up in his business lately. It’s a lengthy talking heads scene with mostly repeat information—the characters are just finding out what the readers have known for issues—but it’s excellent. The personalities of all four characters (Frank, Cooke, the two cops) come through very nicely. Ennis has done a great job establishing the characters.

There’s some more with the bad cop and the old man confronting Vera about the hit before the end. It’s an excellent issue, outside the often wanting artwork. Ennis’s careful construction of it all is paying off.

That ending though… it’s something special. Ennis peppers extra personality for Frank this issue—when he’s got to interact with people instead of just shoot them or torture them; it’s where Ennis has to excel beyond expectation just to get it to work (another basic description of Punisher MAX, it’s able to work because Ennis’s writing is exceptional on the title, past the exceptional it’d need to be just to get it to function). So good.

The Punisher #28, The Slavers, Part 4 (of 6)

This issue moves real fast. Most of the expository scenes take place in a page, sometimes two, sometimes packed pages, sometimes just splash pages. There’s action for both the evil old man and Frank. Evil old man is contending with the assassins his son has sent after him, Frank is deal with the son and his security. Otherwise it’s Frank preparing for his attack, the son preparing for his father’s reaction to the attempt, and the B plot with the cops mixing into the A plot through social worker Jen Cooke (who’s become Frank’s reluctant sidekick).

But, really, it’s all about what Frank’s going to to do the son. We get a hint from the cover and the first page (one of those splash pages). Ennis isn’t racing to it, but he knows it’s the biggest question hanging over the issue, since it’s clear from five pages in what’s going on with everything else—the old man is too tough for the son to take out, the cops aren’t happy about getting beat up by their fellow officers and they want to at least figure out what’s really happening—but what are Frank’s plans for taking out this trafficking outfit? Inquiring minds want to know—well, the readers’ minds, none of the characters have the stomach for it.

Is the big reveal on the last page worth it? Oh, yeah. Abjectly terrible art on the page from Fernandez and Koblish, even on the parts of the page where Fernandez doesn’t usually choke, but it doesn’t matter. Ennis paces it beautifully in the script and Fernandez is at least good at breaking out the panels. He’s crap at realizing them once he’s got them plotted, but the visual pacing does work.

So, it’s a mix between an action issue and a bridging issue; even more of a bridging issue than last time, because Ennis is now setting up the pieces for immediate resolution. The scenes end in hard cliffhangers (though the old man is off-page once his big scene is done). The cops and Jen Cooke have a hard cliffhanger. Frank’s got the hard cliffhanger. Well, more, the son has a hard cliffhanger. It’s not up to Frank how they’re going to resolve their interrogation, after all. He gives the guy a big choice.

Great narration from Ennis. A couple of the expected past tense narration stumbles, but nothing serious, just some awkward sentences. The pulp approach is working. Even if Fernandez is choking on lots of important panels.

The Punisher #27, The Slavers, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #27

It’s a bridging issue but in the best possible way. Since Ennis is now writing so much narration from Frank, the functional bridging feels a lot more organic. Frank’s got a problem—his leads have run dry because of the cluster last issue—and he needs to figure out a way to move forward. Literal bridging. And yet, completely effective chapter in the arc. While Frank’s trying to turn up new leads (the issue opens with him interrogating a pimp at knifepoint), Ennis is also working the B and C plots, though at this point they both seem on the same level.

In the B plot, the two cops—Miller (the White lady) and Parker (the Black guy)—who Frank messed up in the first issue go talk to the guy he messed up last issue so they can compare notes about how the department has used them to further this new anti-Punisher thing the NYPD’s got going on. Of course, it’s all twisted and corrupt so Miller and Parker end up getting beat down by their brothers in blue because… well, White lady and Black guy cops aren’t really really part of the club.

The C plot has the trafficking son deciding his dad has gone too far—he wants to go after Frank, not listening to reason; it’s time for some patricide.

The issue also introduces social worker Jen Cooke, who helped Viorica with her escape and got the baby killed. Frank goes to talk to her after a lecture, giving Ennis two more spots for completely natural exposition. Ennis is very thorough in how he lays out the trafficking information and presents the problem. No one has any solutions, not Frank, not Cooke (who Ennis sets up as a “shallow liberal” only to give her enough depth to hold up opposite Frank)—Frank doesn’t even know how to approach the problem. Terrorizing street pimps for information doesn’t work and, once he’s got the information he needs, he’s left trying to figure out how he’s going to get an amoral, apathetic Eastern European killing machine to talk. It’s new territory for him, more of Ennis’s subtle character development; thank goodness the writing’s there, in the narration, in the talking heads sequences, because once again Fernandez and Koblish render a very wanting Frank Castle. So many shadows too. Like, guys, putting Frank in the shadows for effect is just showcasing you not being able to draw him well.

Ennis ends the comic on a combination of soft cliffhanger and threat. Something’s coming. No one—except maybe Frank—has any inkling, but the future’s there, taunting everyone.

The Punisher #26, The Slavers, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #26

The comic opens with Viorica telling Frank what happened to her back in Moldova. Enslaved sex work. Escape. Family (father) rejecting her. Recapture. Ennis splits it into two doses, both for the reader and the characters. In between he introduces the father. Last issue he introduced the son, along with the son’s female sidekick. This issue we meet the father as he’s executing some rival gang. Ennis also uses it to start up the C plot about the son plotting against the father. Then it’s back to Frank hearing the rest of the story: Ransomed baby, escape with baby, discovery, dead baby. Occasional panels for the flashback but mostly just talking heads. Fernandez does really well with the pacing of it. Not particularly great with the art, but not bad. Not until the end, when he’s got to do enraged Frank. There’s just something reductive about how Fernandez and Koblish visualize Frank here. He’s not imposing enough. But it’s a hell of a start to the issue. And the father is terrifying—Fernandez does better on that scene than anything else in the issue.

Once Frank’s got the story we’re caught up with the end of the previous issue—Ennis doesn’t reference the narration being a year into the future until the end of the comic, but he’s still utilizing the device. Successfully. No more hiccups in the past tense narration.

Then it’s time for the B plot, involving the dirty cop forcing the good cops (the Black gay guy and the White woman) to fake injuries from their run-in with the Punisher so they can spin it as Frank being out of control. The stuff with the cops is really, really good. There’s gravitas to it but also a whole bunch of humor, including a great laugh. It’s clearly the release valve for the comic—obviously, no one’s talking about the human trafficking and endless rape.

The B plot figures in again later when Frank’s trying to get into the bad guys’ house of operations without killing any of the girls. The bloodthirsty cops get in his way, screwing up his plan. But it’s okay, because he’s got another one up his sleeve—maybe Ennis’s editor told him to end issues with a little cushioning or something because it’s back again here, Ennis making sure the reader is primed for the next issue if not fully prepared.

Fernandez’s art gets a little wonky, of course. His quality is inconsistent. At least his panel layouts are good for most of it, making the comic effective at least. How the guy’s been drawing Frank for so long without ever figuring out a consistent look, however… not effective.

But the comic succeeds on the writing alone. Ennis is bringing it.

The Punisher #25, The Slavers, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #25

From the first page, The Slavers is different. And not just because penciller Leandro Fernandez, inker Scott Koblish, and colorist Dan Brown turn in a splash page out of Sin City. No Frank, but a woman with a gun in the rain, screaming as she fires. Frank’s narration—which is going to be near omnipresent in the issue, so everything is very pulpy—accompanies her. She’s shooting at Frank’s target, a drug guy. The narration is past tense, set a year in the future. Again, all very pulpy (down to when writer Garth Ennis stumbles in a first person, past tense pitfall). The narration mixes exposition about the target and Frank’s arsenal. We’re getting the thought process as he goes down from his rooftop perch to save the woman, surprised to find himself sympathetic to her.

All it takes is her mentioning a dead baby for Frank to decide to play “white knight,” which he later remarks on. There are story ties between Ennis’s Punisher MAX arcs—we find out from another character this arc takes place about a month after the previous one, depending on how long after death birds go for eyes—but Ennis doesn’t talk about the character development or how he’s changing up the narrative distance. This Frank is a lot more… human than he was in the first arc of the series.

So it’s a shame Fernandez and Koblish manage to draw everyone fine except Frank. No more fifty-something Frank, just generic unwashed hair, steely-eyed Frank. It’s unclear if Fernandez doesn’t understand the way to draw the comic or if he just can’t do it. Because Koblish’s inks help with a lot. They help with the entire supporting cast here. Even on the woman Frank saves—there are these pages where the art’s fine in half the panel, but then there’s the weird, shadowy handling of Frank. It’s too bad, but thank goodness Ennis is upping the narration to distract from the art.

It’s not all Frank and the woman, Viorica, though. Ennis introduces a fairly big supporting cast (six characters). There are the two bickering (but about serious things) beat cops who happen across Frank’s impromptu rescue; he disarms them, which leads to a dirty cop (beholden to two of the villains we also meet this issue) scheming with the beat cops’ captain to use the incident to declare war on the Punisher.

Frank, meanwhile, is just finding out Viorica’s story. Ennis hints at it on the last page, in Frank’s narration—playing with the one year lead time and the past tense rather effectively—and ends the page on one hell of a dark, affecting mood. Because if it’s enough to affect Frank… it’s got to be something real bad. Especially if it’s bad enough Frank’s going to narrate about it.

It’s a very strong issue. Even with Fernandez screwing it up. One page almost looks like Paul Gulacy came in to do the heads—no M. Hands credit though—and you wish he had done all of it….

The Seeker (2019)

The Seeker

The Seeker is somewhere between somewhat disturbing and very disturbing. Creator Liz Valasco gets somewhere quite profound by the end, then dials it down a notch for the last story beat. It’s too bad, but sort of not surprising. It’s hard to say where Valasco could take for the finish to satisfy. Almost anything would be too heavy in a very different way than the rest of the comic has been heavy.

The comic takes place on Halloween in a “normal” town. It looks like Peanuts, actually; visually, Seeker reminds of Edward Gorey and Peanuts. Valasco’s art is often… pleasant, only for the story developments to make those visuals terrifying. The first part of the comic—the seventy-ish page book is split into five chapters—has “The Seeker” as the protagonist. She’s a tween, too old for Halloween but still loves the holiday. Her dad has abandoned her and her mom; her mom isn’t around in the comic. Everyone ditches the kid. So she’s trying some magic to make a friend of her own. It works, rather matter-of-factly, and by the end of the first part, the kid’s got herself a talking jack-o’-lantern, brought to life with a cat skull, magic, and cockroaches.

But the kid isn’t the protagonist for the rest of the comic. In the other four parts, the protagonist is Rob. Rob’s a teenager, also apparently in a house without a dad, and he’s going out on Halloween to drink beers and maybe get to flirt with a girl he likes. His buddy is there, along with a girl for the buddy. Pretty soon they run into the kid and the teenage girls take her under their wing, which is cool until the kid gives the jack-o’-lantern the last ingredient it needs for whatever its got planned and it reanimates a skeleton. The teenagers can’t handle the skeleton. Especially not when it seems to have evil intentions.

The best stuff in The Seeker is the teenage girls. Valasco gets a whole different kind of energy when writing their scenes and characters. The buddy’s girlfriend is about six times more interesting than Rob and only because she tries to burb louder. Rob’s just a bit of a teenage jerk—he tries to be better, which is cool and full of potential, but it goes nowhere. The girl Rob likes is a great character. The Seeker kid is a great character, she just doesn’t get anything to do because she’s more functional to the plot than anything else. There are a couple times Valasco almost takes the comic somewhere special in regards to the kid, then doesn’t. In theory, the ending ought to be all about her too, but Valasco veers way away from that conclusion. Unfortunately.

The comic’s got a lot of uncanny vibes, but ends up just being a tad disquieting. Who knows what ending would work better, but it’s definitely not the one the comic’s got.

Valasco has a pleasant style, albeit with thinner lines than seem right for the comic—it’s too Gorey, not Schulz-y enough. Though Valasco does fabulous with the scary forest. More detail, especially on the faces, wouldn’t hurt. The Seeker’s in that uncomfortable spot where it’s not detailed enough to be one thing but too detailed to be another. But even with the less than steady art, Valasco’s got some great narrative instincts. And once the teenage girls show up, the dialogue problems go away; the conversations between Rob and his mom are real iffy. Rob’s just a dull protagonist.

There’s a lot of strong stuff in The Seeker. It’s not altogether successful, but it’s pretty darn good.

Duh, Ha-Ha (2019)

Duh! Ha-Ha

Duh Ha-Ha is quick and lyrical. The nameless narrator sets up the ground situation in a page; she’s a listless early twenty-something who works in restaurant of some kind, probably not a chain. Her boss gives her a ride home and she thinks about what would happen if she his old bones. Would his gratitude outweigh his anger? Not a lot of time for the narrator to think about it because when they get to their destination, a staff party the boss is paying for (hence why I can’t believe it’s a chain), the younger guy next to her starts chatting her up.

And old boss man doesn’t like it, which convinces the now drunk narrator to come on strong to stranger guy, leading to a moderately big reveal—except creator Casey Nowak doesn’t want to tell the story of how that moderately big reveal affects anything. Instead, she moves on to the narrator just talking about her relationship with the guy, who becomes a (decent) boyfriend, which adds to the lyrical quality.

Nowak’s art is good, her sense of visual pacing is superb—the way she’s able to get past the expectation of a reveal exploration comes with a white text on black panel jump ahead, but also on the effectiveness of the postscript, where Ha-Ha becomes more about the narrator in the relationship than anything earlier had been about the narrator.

Nowak’s also a master of the abrupt ending. When the comic stops, you expect there to be more, but when there isn’t… the stop point makes all the more sense. It’s not groundbreaking, but for a twelve-page indie comic, there’s not much more you could ask for than Duh Ha-Ha.

The Punisher #24, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #24

So in the last arc, Ennis found the pulp in Punisher MAX in a non-pulp setting. This arc ends in a pulp setting but without pulp storytelling. Instead, it’s this pensive, depressing look at people trapped by their lives. O’Brien realizes she’s trapped in this dark, violent, ugly world and only ever gets glimpses of the world outside it. Frank’s world. The real world. And in the real world the six issue story arc, which features gunfights, explosions, desecration, torture, and Frank Castle post-coital, it ends on anonymous street, in front of an anonymous building, with anonymous hostages, because everything is anonymous to Frank (and O’Brien). Everything but the mission. Everything but the purpose.

Ennis doing character development on Frank in Punisher MAX is always uphill. The series is set in the present, Frank’s been punishing since the mid-to-late seventies, we don’t get any information about those years. Other than he used to be more troubled by what was going on in his life. Nicky Cavella brings it back in this arc, which lets Ennis do that character development, but he’s always careful to pace it out. Frank’s big revelation came—we learn later—in the previous issue; he shares it at the end. The peace he’s able to find as it relates to his mission, his purpose. Even with the art, which is probably the best in arc—and still not very good—the end is very effective. You can feel the weight and calm in Frank, which is the whole point of Punisher MAX. Not to make Frank sympathetic, but to make him… rational.

The issue’s kind of strange as an arc finale; most of it is wrap-up. There’s a big action opener, but it doesn’t relate to anything before or after, not for Frank or O’Brien. Then Ennis hurries through Frank, O’Brien, and Roth’s blackmail scheme with Rawlins in order to get to the next action sequence, when Frank finally confronts Nicky Cavella after five issues of escalating animosity. It’s a “hero” moment for Frank (Punisher MAX doesn’t address the idea of Punisher as hero, but it definitely explores how he fits that expectation) but there’s no time to celebrate. Turns out there aren’t hero moments for Frank or O’Brien.

With better art, Up is Down and Black is White could be the best arc in the series so far. Instead, it’s the second best. Ennis has figured out how to work it; how to do the character development, how to handle the extremes, how to handle the narrative expectation. It goes all over the place, is always focused, is always expansive.

The ending, which has this wonderful detail about Nicky’s experience of it versus Frank’s, is lovely. Frank’s world is ugly, tragic, and hopeless, but there’s a definite, primal beauty about it.

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