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.

The Punisher (2004) #46, Widowmaker, Part 4 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  46

Ennis brings all the threads together this issue. Frank, the widows, the mystery woman, the cop. The cliffhanger resolve has Frank taking one to the chest. The issue opens with Frank thinking about how unlikely the house where the damsel widow has brought him seems like a front for a trafficking operation. He’s just about to bail when he gets shot. Ennis sticks to the ambushing widows for most of the action (including a somewhat confusing sequence—Medina’s fault—about why they can’t take a second shot). Then the mystery woman shows up and saves Frank and guts the damsel, which is the most gory the arc’s actually gotten so far. Or maybe seeing intestines exposed to oxygen just seems like the most gore.

But I think it’s the most.

Anyway. The mystery woman saves Frank, leaving the remaining widows to deal with the arriving cops and recover from a launched grenade, bringing the not Sam Jackson Sam Jackson cop into the issue. His investigation is a bit of a water tread; Ennis gets in a (very dated) jab at “C.S.I. New York” and recaps the opening action into exposition to get the cop caught up. But other than the cop figuring out the four women in the bad neighborhood late at night and discovering their identities, it’s just filler. Widowmaker is the first seven issue arc—instead of six—so there’s going to be filler. It’s not bad filler, but it’s definitely filler.

The widows regroup and calm down, with the leader realizing the mystery woman is the actually her little sister (who’s been mentioned in hushed tones since the first issue of the arc because there’s some kind of joint history involving all the widows and the little sister). Meanwhile, the little sister is busy patching Frank up. The soft cliffhanger reveals she’s yet another widow made by the Punisher, except instead of hating Frank, she’s his biggest fan (or so she says). Ennis does a fine job getting the reader wondering about the explanation but it’s time for the issue to be over so something for next time.

It’s a bit of a stretched issue, but still a good one. Maybe Medina and Reinhold aren’t the most interesting when it comes to the cop questioning and investigating scenes, but they do all right enough. It’s unclear why all the widows are wearing the same green turtleneck sweaters; you’d think the cops—even the dumb ones—would notice they’re in matching outfits. But apparently not.

Ennis treads water well and the build-up to the cliffhanger—specifically the widows freaking out over their plan gone wrong—works well.

The Punisher (2004) #45, Widowmaker, Part 3 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  45

Lots of action this issue. Frank’s taking out of a convoy of mob cars—the first page has Medina and Reinhold doing photo-reference on James Gandolfini but the character never figures in later so it’s not The Punisher vs. The Sopranos—but there’s a catch. The widows have put their decoy damsel in distress in one of the trunks and it’s her job to convince Frank to go with her into a trap. Since he’s a dumb lug when it comes to endangered women, he’ll go for it.

The comic goes from the action to the widows figuring out their plan. They luck out because one of them is willing to sleep with the mobsters to get information… and to just generally distract them. Ennis doesn’t specifically contrast the mobsters’ inability to refuse an easy lay with Frank’s weakness for women in danger, but there’s a general mood to it: men aren’t bright.

While the widows are plotting, they’ve got the mystery woman following them around and watching from afar. The issue’s either from the widows’ perspectives or the mobsters’. Frank gets some action-packed panels, but other than his full page establishing shot, the firefight is entirely from the mobsters’ perspective. No narration. Even when he finds the damsel, it’s still from her perspective, with Ennis offering no hint at how Frank is processing her bullshit story, which the reader knows all about.

It is a juxtaposition as far as Frank’s damsel in distress weakness and the mob guys thinking more with the little head than the big, but there’s nothing explicit about it. It’s a fact of life, kind of like how Ennis utilizes the randy widow. At least one of the other women seem to understand the plan only works because of the randy one’s willingness, but Ennis doesn’t dwell. He’s got the story he’s doing and he doesn’t get distracted. There’s a lot of context, which he establishes, but doesn’t engage.

The issue ends on a hard cliffhanger: Frank walking right into the trap, presumably unaware of anything being amiss, blinded by his sympathy.

It’s very nicely plotted, even if it is just moving Frank into position for what comes next. It doesn’t feel particularly bridging thanks to Ennis splitting the action sequence up with the widows’ plotting. He also gives the mobsters under attack just enough personality to keep things moving. It’s an efficient, effective issue.

The Punisher (2004) #44, Widowmaker, Part 2 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  44

Ennis opens the issue with Frank killing a couple child pornographers. It’s a few pages, with Frank considering his options considering the kids (and victims) are at home, as well as how much he wants to watch the perpetrators suffer. The growing itch he didn’t realize he had the desire to scratch. It’s Ennis’s long-term character development with Frank as the series progresses, understanding and exploring what’s going on under the skin.

After the opening, Frank’s out of the issue. Ennis splits the rest between the widows, the mystery woman stalking the widows, and Black NYPD detective Paul Budiansky.

The widows decide they’ve figured out Frank’s weakness—vulnerable women—from reading about The Slavers arc. Ennis plays their scenes for a combination of comedy and exposition, in case someone picking up Widowmaker had somehow missed the early arc and needed some catch-up. It’s fine exposition and decent enough comic relief (there’s no other place for it in the issue), but it’s all set up for the mystery woman, who’s right on the widows’ heels.

The mystery woman gets a scene where—if the reader paid attention last issue—there’s a bit of information conveyed. A little of the mystery revealed. Though it takes a reader who’s not just paying attention to the many Italian surnames the comic throws around, but also interrupted exclamation statements. Even though he’s very thorough with the expository catch-up, Ennis seems confident his reader is paying at least some attention.

Black NYPD detective Paul Budiansky—who Medina and Reinhold visualize half the time as Sam Jackson, half the time as… someone else; not Sam Jackson—is a complete aside. His big scene is in a mandatory therapy session with a shrink who condescends to him in an incredibly unprofessional manner. Budiansky took out a school shooter, saving kids but also killing one, and Ennis juxtaposes him and his processing of the event with Frank (as Budiansky—and everyone else—is as aware of Frank as Frank’s oblivious to them). Then there’s a scene with Budiansky and his wife as they try to support one another being Black people working in White supremacist institutions (he’s a cop, she’s a nurse).

The arc’s shaping up to be both accessible and not. Ennis is laying out the pieces, examining them as he does, situating them in relation to one another—how does Budiansky’s story look through this lens, how does it look when the lens is tilted (the loving husband bit is a—pleasant—surprise). Ennis is never too obvious, even with the deliberate expository sections, but he always spends enough time on each piece to make it resonate.

It’s not the most exciting comic—Frank taking out the bad guys at the open intentionally doesn’t get to have the emotional pay-off the Punisher offing child pornographers could easily have—instead it’s a gradual, intentional one.

Medina and Reinhold’s art, with the possible exception of Budiansky looking markedly different between his two scenes, is solid.

The Punisher (2004) #43, Widowmaker, Part 1 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  43

There’s barely any Frank in this issue. He opens it—gets the first two pages, then writer Garth Ennis shifts the action entirely to the villains. Frank’s been up against the mob, he’s been up against the Russians, he’s been up against big business, but now he’s up against a group of women he’s widowed.

Hence the arc title.

Their story—five women who band together to try to do what the men can’t, kill the Punisher—is separate from what it seems like Frank’s got going on. He narrates the first two pages, thinking about how he’s back to the basics, not torturing criminals anymore in imaginative ways, just terrifying them into talking then putting one in the head. Given the last arc has left Frank with many of the MAX series’s threads tied, not necessarily neatly either, he’s in a new place. A somewhat self-reflective one, where he’s not unsure of himself as much as interested in what not being unsure says about him.

The women have varied histories with the Punisher. Three of them just had their mobster husbands killed (one of them is widowed from a previous arc’s supporting player), one of them stands out because she’s a Black woman (which causes problems for one of the other widows), the organizer calls back to the first issue of the series when Frank took out almost fifty mobsters in the same family. She’s the daughter and granddaughter of the family. They bicker amongst themselves a little—actually it’s mostly telling the racist one to stop being racist and get with the program—then tell their stories, which Ennis flashes back.

He juxtaposes the widows’ plotting with another woman’s night out at the bar, picking up a rando, beating the shit out of him when he gets crosses a line (despite him being a shitheel, he doesn’t actually realize the line’s there… or what being disrespectful is going to get him). The issue ends with the somewhat problematic reveal the woman has had a double mastectomy. She’s also scarred on the face, which she had make-up concealing before… but that detail’s not the emphasis. The double mastectomy is the end reveal, making the issue—which features some questionably written AAVE from the Black widow—maybe Ennis’s most problematic?

But it’s also the most ambitious he’s ever gotten with the villains. He’s giving the mob widows all the power of being just as awful as their husbands. It’s rocky, but far from unsuccessful.

Good art from Lan Medina and Bill Reinhold. There’s a lot of detail, though Medina’s Frank is kind of boring. He’s a generic big guy with nowhere near the personality Medina and Reinhold put into the widows, which doesn’t really work. Showing Frank from their perspectives—their imaginations—would be something. Instead, he’s even more generic and bland (he looks like marketing key art) in the flashbacks than he appears in the first couple pages.

From the first issue, it certainly seems like Widowmaker is going to be a far more intimate affair than Punisher MAX, Frank, and Ennis have been having lately.

Archie Gets a Job! (1977)

Archie Gets a Job  1977

Are Christian comics better or worse since Archie Gets a Job! (from 1977)? The comic promotes a combination of functional illiteracy and profound ignorance, not to mention encouraging teasing of people’s appearances, particularly fat-shaming. Just like Jesus, no doubt.

The comic’s all about Archie and Jughead getting summer jobs at school teacher Mr. Weatherbee’s beach-front Christian book store. It’s not very Christian-y for the first half or so. It’s not, you know, any good—and the fat-shaming starts almost immediately, along with some ageism—but it’s not shockingly insipid Christian-y either. Not until Big Ethel shows up to be shamed for her appearance, only to get a Christian dating book (which is an ad for creator Al Hartley’s son’s real book; Hartley includes an illustration of his son to show off how handsome he is—at least Jughead thinks so, anyway). Pretty soon Veronica shows up at the store to get the same book because all the boys on the beach are enraptured by Ethel reading it to them. Silly Veronica thought her body would get her Christian boys. Not so. They want someone to read them Hartley’s kid’s book.

I do have to admit it might be fun to read the book but not aloud to a beach full of studs. From that point, Hartley lays on the Christian thick. Why get a book on sociology, ecology, or solar energy when you can just read the Bible and not learn anything real at all? And Archie and Jughead are much better fellows for selling Bibles—the Bible “tells you how to be a winner”—than pushing drugs or porno on the beach like other people. Sadly we don’t get to meet those people.

They’d probably be scummier but more amusing.

The last bit of the comic is all about how even teenagers need to tithe, which seems very anti-Capitalist.

There’s actually a couple technically good panels as far as how Hartley plots the action, but the comic’s a disappointment. The cover has Jughead crucified on a giant kite, which has no pay-off in the comic itself.

It might be amusing to read Gets a Job with the seven deadly sins in mind but… probably not. Again, there’s a good reason no one took Archie comics seriously until 2010 or whatever. This thing is dreadful.

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.

The Punisher #42, Man of Stone, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #42

When Ennis has Frank by himself for four days, walking across the desert, trying to beat Rawlins to the airport, in a foreign country, no gun, perfectly opportunity for some self-reflection. But no. Ennis does end up having something to say in Man of Stone—Frank’s buddy Yorkie is taking an unplanned retirement because he’s sick of the War on Terror. He’s the honorable soldier, not in it for the bloodshed, which is what he’s seeing now. Somehow Vietnam was different, he’s sure, but he’s not convincing. He and Frank have a drink (or don’t have a drink, it’s unclear because Frank’s gone monosyllabic) and Yorkie bares his broken soul. It’s a good scene. Probably should have been how Ennis did the whole arc, tracking Yorkie instead of him being a special guest star.

Per Yorkie, there’s no place for the traditional war story anymore, which seems kind of meta, especially considering Ennis came to a similar conclusion with General Zakharov, only Man of Stone isn’t really a war story. Because it’s still a Punisher comic and it’s not Frank’s war.

So the Yorkie thing is great and then it’s time for Frank to finish up. He starts with some very pulp narration, which is a strange development, but then it turns into a slasher comic with the Punisher. He’s the slasher. From the poetry of Yorkie’s sad British soldier monologue to Frank now monosyllabic even in his narration. It’s like Ennis going through and saying, it’s not a spy story, it’s not a war story, it’s not a Punisher story, because all of those things make their own mess.

The issue and—consequently—arc have a bad ending. Whatever Ennis is going for fails. It’s not Fernandez’s fault because Fernandez doesn’t have a say in any of it. It’s just how the story goes… doesn’t work, then ends worse. Ennis spent the arc trying out the supporting cast to see if they could resonate and didn’t find the best one until the final issue of the arc. Meanwhile, Frank the international troubleshooter is unpleasant; Frank Castle vs. the Taliban seems exactly like the comic Ennis doesn’t want to do and then turns around and does it half-assed because of his disinterest in how it actually plays out.

But it does resolve most if not all of the outstanding supporting cast story arcs; satisfactorily too. Ennis does a fine job cleaning house after forty-two issues. Just wish he could’ve figured out a way to do it with a better story.

The Punisher #41, Man of Stone, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #41

It’s not… the best issue. In some ways, it might even be the worst of the series so far. Not because there’s anything particularly bad–though Fernandez's art sort of tanks here so it doesn't help the finale hinges on Frank's expressions for effectiveness, though it might be on colorists Dan Brown and Giulia Brusco; it seems like Fernandez's panels, in black and white, might be effective. The colors don't help.

This issue is build-up to a big action set piece–how Frank and O'Brien are going to deal with the Russian general and Rawlins–and the resolution after they execute that plan. Even though Ennis opens the issue with Frank narration, there's no specifics about how the plan's supposed to go, just how transition stuff between the last issue's finale and this issue's opening.

But the issue also reveals just how wanting the villains of Man of Stone have been. Frank and O’Brien end up once place, still having to deal with Rawlins and General Zakharov. Zakharov and his flunkies find themselves at Rawlins’s mercy and he proves to be a vicious, cruel bastard, which the reader’s known for ages and Zakharov, based on when he told off Rawlins last issue or so, seems to know too. Shame he didn’t take it to heart and instead lets Rawlins get the better of him.

Rawlins is a tiring villain. He’s endlessly repugnant and opportunistic instead of smart. He’s not fun or edifying character to follow. Ennis just churns through his scenes. There are threats, there are violent realizations of those threats, there are more threats… on and on it goes. At least with Zakharov and his flunkies, there’s some examination of the characters and their situations. Rawlins is just caricature.

Meanwhile Frank is back to leading O’Brien on as far as their “romance.” Sure, he tells her not to plan for the future but he also banters with her against napalm going off in the distance; Ennis and Fernandez are way too intentional with the interplay given it can’t mean anything to Frank outside a temporary alliance.

Why can’t it mean anything to Frank?

Because, ostensibly no character development on him. Even though Punisher MAX is all about the character development on him.

It’s not a bad comic at all, it’s just a pointless enough one it’s hard to imagine Ennis is somehow going to wrap it all up into something special with the next issue. Man of Stone clearly went off the rails somewhere, but it might have just been on the wrong track the entire time. It plays to none of the series’s strengths, especially this issue, with Fernandez no longer able to keep the art more engaging than not.

The Punisher #40, Man of Stone, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher #40

Man of Stone puts Frank into a world where he doesn’t belong. This issue has him showing down with rogue Russian general Zakharov in Afghan mountains; the general wants Frank alive so Frank will confess on TV. See, Zakharov has a romanticized view of himself and his soldiers. His resolve is a strength and he sees the same thing in Frank, only Frank’s got no romanticized view of himself or anything else. Zakharov’s projecting. The world where Frank doesn’t belong isn’t Afghanistan or shootouts, it’s in the daydreams of general’s and CIA agent’s (good and bad).

Frank doesn’t get jack to do this issue. He gets a kind of big action set piece but it’s not about his experience of it, rather the damage he does on others because he’s the Punisher after all. He and O’Brien hang out a bunch but it’s all her talking and him occasionally showing interest but eager to remind her they’re not going to prom after they take out the Russians and her evil ex-husband. There’s no Frank narration this issue either. When he’s got an exposition dump, it’s brief and in dialogue to O’Brien.

There’s also a lack of preparedness on Frank’s part, echoing the previous story arc, which is either Ennis covering for dramatic manipulations or Frank just being out of his element. Though I suppose in this story, it could also be he was too busy making the beast with two backs with O’Brien.

After three issues of being a prop, O’Brien gets her big monologue here and it’s… okay. Fernandez does a better job with O’Brien as action hero in the issue than Frank, but he doesn’t bring anything to her talking head panels. He doesn’t have the timing for it, which isn’t a surprise. It’s effectively done, it’s just not as good as it could be. Because O’Brien does belong in this world only she wishes she didn’t. Or wishes Frank did.

Even though Man of Stone is far from the best arc—and, frankly, not the bounce back (so far) the series needs post-Barracuda—it does at least do something with the characters. The only new character this arc is Zalharov’s main flunky, who hates Rawlins; they’re kind of comic relief. Everyone else is back from previous arcs, laden with baggage. Good baggage, well-placed baggage. Ennis’s characters are in better shape than his narrative needs.

The Punisher #39, Man of Stone, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #39

Ennis starts the issue with some more framing: Frank and O’Brien eating rations in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan. It’s a two page teaser, with Frank giving in and going for a roll in the sack with O’Brien. Again. Even though, the narration reveals, he’d told himself not to do it. Ennis’s Punisher MAX has done a lot of things in its run so far, but establishing Frank Castle gets horny in his downtime… well, it might not be the biggest success but it’s definitely a success. Frank Castle: Sexual Being. Who knew.

The rest of Frank’s narration, with a couple exceptions in the last couple pages, is about him getting to Afghanistan. It’s not a lot of narration, because on the last plane he meets a reporter who’s going to talk his ear off and give the reader some exposition as to how big bad Russian villain Zakharov got the “Man of Stone” nickname; doing heinous shit to Afghan civilians during the Russian occupation. What’s weird about the sequence—besides the comic cutting from the intro to the exposition dump to Zakharov and his goons preparing for the Punisher’s arrival—is how Frank probably knows all of it (yet doesn’t want to talk to the reporter so doesn’t mention it)—so it’s exclusively for the reader’s edification, which plays weird. Something’s missing. Maybe Frank’s narration.

The issue continues the arc’s weird pacing—like Ennis is doing all the bridging issues in the front—with, once again, barely any time spent on O’Brien. She and Frank probably get about the same amount of page time but he’s got the narration to make more of an impression. Dialogue-wise, they’re probably equal. Or Frank’s less. O’Brien’s opening scene is with Yorkie, who does most of the talking (though not all) and then she and Frank talk a little, but pragmatically. Rawlins gets the most dialogue or at least seems like it because he’s got this lengthy ranting monologue about being a great spy and how valuable he could be to Zakharov. Rawlins and Zakharov get the most agency in the arc; Frank’s just reacting to them, O’Brien’s just a damsel (of sorts).

It’s an efficient, effective issue, with Fernandez drawing Frank the tourist a lot better than Frank at home, though he barely gets any panels compared to anyone else. Even when Frank does get a panel, Fernandez usually concentrates on something else. Fernandez’s art on Punisher is better because he’s drawing less Punisher. But, given Fernandez’s lows on the series, I’ll take it.

Man of Stone is half over and Ennis has just completed arranging the pieces on the board. He’s done a fine enough job with that arranging, but hasn’t really given a sign of what’s to come for anyone involved. There’s this inevitable showdown feel to it… except Ennis has only talked about the inevitability not shown it.

The Punisher #38, Man of Stone, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #38

Why is the only thing Fernandez unable to reliably draw, even with his much improved (and self-inked) Man of Stone style… why can’t he draw the Punisher? Frank’s out of action the entire issue, literally sitting around on the telephone, and Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to draw Frank’s arms. It’s really, really weird how he can handle everything else but not Frank.

So I guess it’s good Frank’s only in the first couple pages and the last page. He’s on the phone with Yorkie, Yorkie’s about the blow O’Brien’s brains out. The British are helping the Americans protect former Taliban and O’Brien’s killing former Taliban so she’s got to be got. Frank learned about the British involvement thanks to BBC America, which is a throwaway line but does give an idea what Frank puts on in the background while cleaning his guns. There’s quite a bit about how Americans war—the British soldiers aren’t happy about taking assassination orders from the CIA, evil ex-CIA guy Rawlins points out they can get Frank to Afghanistan—he’s not going to want to get into a firefight with the angry Russians in New York City; Americans like going to war in other people’s countries. Quick but important digs from Ennis, as Man of Stone is more about geo-political conditions than anything with Frank himself.

So besides the frame, the issue is about Yorkie and his team capturing O’Brien and getting into a fight with Rawlins and the Russians and then Rawlins getting dangled over a cliff until he comes up with another plan to take down the Punisher. The Rawlins and Russians stuff is forward moving, while the O’Brien and Yorkie pages are more like cast catch-up. Ennis seeing what the pair is like together, having written them both alone. It’s Punisher MAX world-riffing. It’s a good use of pages, as far as the single issue goes, though maybe not for the overall arc. Especially since Yorkie has this great closing joke for O’Brien and the comic skips her reaction.

Actually, the comic skips O’Brien’s reactions to almost everything. She’s either quiet or muzzled.

If the arc has an epical structure, outside the issue’s individual ones, we seem to have just gotten to the end of the first act. Ennis is gradual about setting up the ground situation, far more committed to the individual issues’ plotting. Even if this one doesn’t much involve Frank.

The Punisher #37, Man of Stone, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #37

Leandro Fernandez is back on the art, inking himself, and he’s better than he’s ever been before. There are still some panels where it’s clear colorist Dan Brown is doing a lot of the shading, but overall it’s a big improvement over Fernandez’s usual art.

The issue brings together a lot of the series’s leftovers—there’s ex-CIA assassins Rawlins and O’Brien, there’s the Russian general, there’s Yorkie. Well, Yorkie gets a name drop towards the end. He’s promised.

Rawlins is trying to team up with the Russians, only to discover the hardass, Wilson Fisk lookalike general from the Mother Russia arc. This arc, Man of Stone, well, the general is said Man of Stone. He doesn’t take to slimy American fixer Rawlins and most of their subplot is spent with the general, Zakharov, torturing him. Until Rawlins is able to come up with a plan to take on Frank. Zakharov’s still mad at Frank for the whole killing Russian troops in a nuclear weapon silo thing.

Meanwhile Frank is working his way through some drug dealers, which then puts him on a collision course with the Russian mob. The Russian mobster name-drops O’Brien, who skipped last arc, as a person of interest, though Frank doesn’t know O’Brien’s out there killing the off the Afghanis who kidnapped and assaulted her.

Now, post-9/11, these guys are all American assets because… America.

It’s a lot of setup, with most of the humor in how vicious sociopath Rawlins being no match for Zakharov and his crew. Initially Ennis gives Frank a lot of narration but mostly drops it after the first scene, which is an action sequence; he’s interrogating people, no need for narration, just talking heads.

So other than the soft cliffhanger with O’Brien and maybe a couple pages of Frank’s shootout, it’s all talking heads. Just one talker about to have the other talker castrated talking heads. Ennis is really good at keeping it moving, with Fernandez all of a sudden able to keep up. Whatever Fernandez did while talking the last arc off helped.

So far Man of Stone is a gritty, realistic espionage thriller juxtaposed against Frank being Frank. It’s perfectly solid stuff, engaging as a prologue to whatever’s coming next. Even if the only thing Fernandez can’t seem to figure out how to reliably draw in Punisher MAX is The Punisher.

Also weird is how it’s following up on the arc where Ennis embraced pulp for Frank’s narration and takes an entirely different approach here.

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 #36, Barracuda, Part 6 (of 6)

The Punisher #36

Turns out the big problem with Barracuda isn’t going to be Barracuda not being a great villain or the Wall Street betrayal arc not creating great ones either, but Ennis not really having a finish for Frank. Sure, he’s got a concussion and he’s outgunned, but his big plan in this issue doesn’t allow for every contingency. It also goes wrong because Frank gets sloppy—again, the concussion can allow for those mistakes, but shouldn’t he at least recognize it, acknowledge it? After gliding over past tense narration pitfalls, Ennis slips and falls just when he needs to keep it going. Barracuda might seem like an arc about a “guest as tough as Frank” adversary and some scumbag Wall Street types, but it’s really about Frank Castle messing up and apparently not learning from it.

It’s weird.

Especially since Ennis brackets the arc with this open-ended “what’s the only thing more dangerous than a barracuda” bit in the narration. Is it the sharks? There are a lot of sharks in this issue, some fully visualized, some just shadows in the water—both equally awesome, thanks to Parlov. Or is it Frank? Is Frank the only thing more dangerous? Because he’s not. Because he gets caught with his pants down this issue. Again, weird.

But far from a bad issue. Parlov’s art is great, Ennis’s writing is strong in everything else, whether it’s the Wall Street subplot (the boss’s conniving wife and her lover) or Barracuda. Though the resolve does have an unfortunate plot… depression. It’s not a hole, it’s something they needed to deal with in panel not off page. Parlov's implication is fine, it just doesn’t have any dramatic resonance.

Ennis brings the conclusion in all right, albeit with a somewhat fake finish—that dangerous barracuda musing—but it certainly feels like something happened with the Barracuda arc. The Punisher versus Wall Street certainly promised a lot more potential. And it’s not like Ennis is trying to avoid sensationalism—there are sharks eating investors and so on. Something just seems off, like mid-arc changes were made or things just didn’t shake out in the writing.

For the first time ever, Punisher MAX ends up leveraging the art to support the writing. Thank goodness Ennis has got Parlov to do it because Parlov can do it, does do it. Barracuda’s not great (outside the art) and it’s more than a little disappointing, but it’s still good. It’s just good enough instead of superb.

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