Pulp (2020)

Pulp  2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday (2020)

Friday  2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may turn out to be worthwhile.

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

Sleeper: Season One (2003-04)

Sleeper Season One  2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comics Fondle Podcast | Episode 50

We know you’ve been waiting… five months for this episode, which makes us even more embarrassed about the audio quality but the episode’s worth it. All three hours of the episode is worth it.

That’s right, it’s a three hour extra-sized episode… we cover the Best of 2018, a very deep dive into Love and Rockets Volume One, a discussion of media, and then some news about the new amazing.

(Again, very sorry about the audio. It’s been so long since we podcasted, we sort of forgot how. Technically speaking.

you can also subscribe on iTunes

Batman: Gotham Noir (2001)

Batman: Gotham Noir

Gotham Noir is a Jim Gordon story. Only he’s ex-cop Jim Gordon, divorced ex-cop Jim Gordon, just trying to get by as a private investigator. Only he’s a drunk. It’s 1949 and Gordon had a bad time in the war. Bruce Wayne was there. Bruce Wayne knows the secrets. Lots of secrets in Gotham Noir. Writer Ed Brubaker has this endless drawer of revelations to throw in to explain why a character did or said something ten pages before. The Noir is heavy.

Some of the comic is Gordon narrating why he’s on the run from the cops. Corrupt politicians have pinned a murder on him, a murder he’s trying to solve. Because when a man’s partner gets killed… oh, wait, no, wrong story. Gordon’s trying to figure out what happened because he woke up from a bender next to a dead body. Though his motivations waver and do a 180 at some point in Noir. Brubaker likes threatening and victimizing to get a reaction in the book, which is really too bad. There’s a lot of gimmick–the Batman cast back in the late forties, complete with Selina “The Cat” Kyle and a guy named Napier who ends up the ill-advised, last minute supervillain.

And Harvey Dent’s around, of course. And some crime boss. And some dirty politicians. And who knows who else.

Gordon heads to the newspaper stand in 1949 Gotham City.

With Sean Phillips’s beautiful, post-war urban Americana noir art–ably colored by Dave Stewart–Noir shouldn’t be able to go off the rails. Unfortunately, Brubaker runs out of mystery a lot sooner than he should. He goes for sensationalism for impact, instead of ingenuity of solution. It’s not like Gotham Noir’s Jim Gordon is particularly smart. He’s not smart, he’s not charming, he’s just pitiable. Strange setup for a protagonist, which Brubaker enables by keeping the rest of the cast obtuse. They’re obtuse to Gordon, who recognizes it and doesn’t care, and to the reader, who probably should care because it’s supposed to be a mystery after all.

There are some similarities to Batman: Year One in terms of cast list and general plotting. And Phillips’s detailed, lush art… well, it doesn’t break the reminder.

Déjà vu.

But the problems with Gotham Noir aren’t from it cribbing Year One’s climax or Harvey Dent. The problems are with Brubaker’s handle on the whole thing. He sets it up to be interesting with Batman and then has to fall back on a Batman villain to make it interesting. Gordon’s a bystander in much of the story, which is fine for a hard-boiled p.i. story, but the other characters don’t make up for it. They’re boring. Selina The Cat’s a yawn fest–and the hinted love triangle (Bruce, Selina, and Gordon) never manifests into anything. Gotham Noir is a bunch of hints not manifesting into anything.

It’s got some good art and is wholly readable, but Batman: Gotham Noir is “just” another Elseworlds book.

CREDITS

Writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Dave Stewart; letterer, Dave Stewart; editor, Ivan Cohen; publisher, DC Comics.

Kill or Be Killed 5 (January 2017)

Kill or Be Killed #5

I predict this issue of Kill or Be Killed will show the problem with the book is it’s about a millennial Punisher set in present day. The art’s modern, but Brubaker’s handling of the character is basically Reality Bites. It should be set in the nineties.

Drumroll please (i.e. after reading the comic).

Okay, yes and no. This issue has way too many other problems for it to just boil down to Brubaker not having a handle on it. Phillips has lost his handle on the art. This issue’s art is not up to his usual work, but at least it eventually shows some personality. At its worst, it doesn’t show any. Phillips always has some. Until a few pages into this comic. It’s like he runs out of energy for it, which is concerning.

It’s really got a bunch of severe problems and it’s not even amusing to make fun of it because I love Brubaker and Phillips and Betty Breitweiser’s comics. But Kill or Be Killed is–well, with the exception of Breitweiser–it’s kind of like the pod people have gotten them. I’m done. It just upsets me.

CREDITS

Writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Kill or be Killed 4 (November 2016)

Kill or be Killed #4

Brubaker’s really unclear on what he wants to be getting across with his now-masked vigilante emo white guy. The comic raises questions, which Brubaker then ignores to let Phillips do a decent but hurried rushed fight scene or two. It’s not good but better than usual.

CREDITS

Writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Kill or be Killed 3 (October 2016)

Kill or Be Killed #3

Kill or be Killed is cringe-worthy. Not a page of narration goes by where there isn’t something dumb or awful in Brubaker’s writing. He doesn’t have a story–the protagonist goes to wintery Coney Island with his best friend, the girl who’s dating his roommate and pity makes out with him. There’s the story. The rest of it is the lead getting Unbreakable powers from the demon to see the evil men and women do.

There’s occasionally some decent art from Phillips, but even it’s not enough to keep the comic going. Maybe because the characters are so bad; I mean, Phillips draws the protagonist like a tool but Brubaker writes him like a white savior character. There’s even a panel where some cute girl admires his studiousness. Because chicks think it’s hot when you’re all banged up and studying.

As for the best friend, she’s so poorly written I’m beginning to think Kill or be Killed is either a drawer script from when Brubaker was eight or he’s just putting his name on it and has some really lame friend who wants to write comics but Brubaker owes the guy a lung or something.

The only reason to read Kill or be Killed, with the occasional art exceptions, is to be mortified. I don’t read Brubaker comics to be mortified. I’m having a difficult time justifying giving this one any more of my time.

CREDITS

Writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Kill or be Killed 2 (September 2016)

Kill or be Killed #2

It’s definitely a better issue of Kill or be Killed, though Brubaker spends about a third of the issue just writing first person prose from the still obnoxious protagonist. And the prose isn’t particularly good. I mean, if it’s supposed to be the first person perspective from some annoying twenty-something entitled white kid who doesn’t know anything about writing prose, it’s fine. It also seems like Brubaker’s using it to give Phillips less to draw and, it’s already clear Kill or be Killed isn’t going to be one of Brubaker’s successes, so at least let the reader have as much great Phillips art as possible.

And there is some great Phillips art. There’s some paintings even–though it almost seems like they’re matching the story to what Phillips might have already around.

This issue doesn’t have the demon, which raises some questions (is the protagonist just insane?), and the protagonist–who’s so memorable I don’t even remember his name, annoying entitled white dude sums him up just as well (who’s shitty to his mom)–finds his first guilty victim. A thinking man’s Punisher this comic ain’t.

But it’s just all right enough, with Phillips getting just enough to do–a trip to upstate New York, some flashbacks involving the protagonist’s father (the guy’s family life is more interesting than anything Brubaker has for him to do as a demonically empowered vigilante), those awesome paintings of Phillips’s–to keep Kill or be Killed going. But it’s not a good comic. It probably won’t ever be a good comic.

CREDITS

Writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

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