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.

Kill or be Killed 1 (August 2016)

Kill or be Killed #1

What if the Punisher weren’t an ex-Marine, what if he were just some emo rich(ish) white dude grad student who had to kill to keep a demon from killing him? As punishment for trying to commit suicide. There’s the gimmick to Kill or be Killed. The draw is gorgeous Sean Phillips New York City artwork–he seems more taken with the setting than the characters, in fact. The characters he rushes with occasionally, the setting is always perfect.

But how’s Ed Brubaker’s writing? It’s not great. It might not even be good. Kill or be Killed is a really strange way to do this story. Not in how Brubaker structures it–the narration from the protagonist is obvious but not in a bad way. No, it’s in what Brubaker does with that narration. He makes the protagonist really, really, really annoying.

It’s not even clear if Brubaker is just making him annoying for melodramatic purposes or if he’s making him annoying because the reader is supposed to find him annoying. It’s up in the air. At one point, the lead is talking about cops killing innocent black kids, then next he’s whining about being a trust fund baby who didn’t get to go to NYU grad school until he was twenty-eight. And, guess what, the girl he likes didn’t like him back.

It might work out, it doesn’t seem impossible it could work out. But it seems unlikely. Especially since Phillips has got no time for the demon. Kill’s demon is a visual tranquilizer.

The comic’s not terrible, it’s just terrible obvious. But the art’s real good. It does have the art going for it.

Oh, no. It’s an ongoing series.

CREDITS

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

Velvet 15 (July 2016)

Velvet #15

No more Velvet. At least not for now; this arc ends with the end of Velvet’s initial storyline. I really should have known if it was just intended for fifteen issues. I always want that Brubaker ongoing, he always goes twelve to twenty. Or in that range. Enough to make fans out of the book, but then not to fully deliver on its possibilities.

Except with Velvet. The comic has always been very upfront about what it’s doing–it’s a spy thriller, it’s got Epting art, it’s not too creative in terms of the narrative. It’s a “cool” book. Brubaker and Epting doing a mainstream, “cool” indie title. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt Velvet is prime for media development. It is 2016, after all.

And, Velvet, the character, has never been much more than cool. She’s a great protagonist, but Velvet isn’t about her being likable or even relatable. It’s about her being cool and doing cool things, usually involving guns, car chases, subterfuge, explosions and gliding. When Brubaker returns to her narration of the book for the last few pages, it had been so long since Velvet had that kind of internal self-examination, I forgot it was one of the book’s narrative devices. And it’s been fine without it. Less ambitious maybe, but not by much.

Brubaker, Epting and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser deliver, because of course they do. Brubaker’s mastered comics pulp and always has the right artist for it.

CREDITS

The Man Who Stole the World, Part Five; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Steve Epting; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; letterer, Chris Eliopoulos; editors; Sebastian Girner and Eric Stephenson; publisher, Image Comics.

Velvet 14 (April 2016)

Velvet #14

Brubaker just did the Brubaker thing where his narrating protagonist finds something out but the reader can’t know about it so instead the protagonist just talks about how this piece of information is earth-shattering. It might not even be the first time Brubaker’s used this device in Velvet. It just sticks out because it involves the kidnapping of Richard Milhouse Nixon, who’s a vaguely likable dope here. Certainly far more likable than Ford, who also shows up for a second to get blackmailed.

The Nixon appearance, the Ford appearance, the guy at the end who is either the Sean Connery from The Rock stand-in or maybe he’s just supposed to be Sean Connery James Bond, it’s all a bunch of nonsense. I mean, it’s pretty nonsense to be sure. Even though Epting doesn’t have much to draw here, he draws it all very well. The kidnapping of the President is real boring. Brubaker sort of rushes through it. He hurries, let’s say he hurries. It doesn’t give Epting anything to do with it, except occasional (and awesome) Nixon reaction shots.

But the comic ends with the guy who’s after Velvet tracking down Velvet. Sure, she knows more than she did before, sure, James Bond might now be involved, but who cares. It’s a bridging issue. The red herrings are just there to distract from how little is going on.

Like I said, it’s Brubaker doing a Brubaker standard. I wasn’t surprised or even disappointed. Just a little tired. If only Epting had something great to visualize, the issue might’ve worked out a lot better.

CREDITS

The Man Who Stole the World, Part Four; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Steve Epting; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; letterer, Chris Eliopoulos; editors; Sebastian Girner and Eric Stephenson; publisher, Image Comics.

Criminal: Tenth Anniversary Special (April 2016)

Criminal: 10th Anniversary Special

Wow.

On its own, Criminal: Tenth Anniversary Special is objectively excellent. Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips do the touching story of a boy and his jerk criminal dad. Set in 1978. And there’s a juxtaposing of an old Marvel-esque kung fu comic. It’s scary, it’s funny, it’s sad. It’s a great story.

But there’s so much texture to it all, as the special ties into the old Criminal books. It’s not a haphazard anniversary issue by a couple excellent creators; it’s an excellent anniversary issue, its creators taking it all very seriously. Brubaker and Phillips aren’t congratulating themselves with this Special, they’re awarding the reader with it. It’s this perfectly paced, perfectly conceived gem of a book. It’s got beautiful art from Phillips. He has this way of protecting the son whenever his father is around, implying it through the composition and the panel layouts. It’s such a smart comic.

It’s also fun. The kid meets a girl. She’s precocious. Brubaker hinges the whole comic on her–it’s a pre-teen romance of sorts–and he does a great job on her character. He presents the readers two views into the story, one through the kid’s, one through the girl’s. He does it with this wonderfully prompt pacing–Brubaker and Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser (who’s become an essential part of the team) take advantage of every page, every panel. It’s flawlessly executed.

The Criminal: Tenth Anniversary Special is a class act and a great comic.

CREDITS

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

Velvet 13 (February 2016)

Velvet #13

Epting gets a little loose this issue, but it’s some great action art. The thing about Velvet is how well the creators understand what they’re doing. Brubaker occasionally pushes too far–The Rock Sean Connery thing–but Epting never does. His seventies action is perfect.

Brubaker does a talking heads book, mixed with some stylized action and dramatic–but uniquely underplayed–story beats. It’s a strange book–the situations aren’t spy movie, but spy novel. There’s no way, CG or no-CG, you can do some of Velvet’s stunts. So, instead, Brubaker and Epting have figured out how to perfect the spy comic. Same basic genre, only they get to take advantage of the comic book medium’s particularities to further the tale.

Velvet’s potential successes are limited–it’s pulp, there’s only so much anyone can do with just pulp–but Brubaker and Epting take it seriously. They’re pushing at the boundaries of the genre. Seeing them take it seriously is part of why Velvet is so much fun to read.

CREDITS

The Man Who Stole the World, Part Three; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Steve Epting; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editors; Sebastian Girner and Eric Stephenson; publisher, Image Comics.

The Fade Out 12 (January 2016)

The Fade Out #12

Well, it’s definitely great. The last issue of Fade Out is a great comic. And it’s a great close to the series. But does it elevate Brubaker and Phillips to that superior level of comic book creators, the ones only mentioned with hushed tones and reverence? I don’t know.

I don’t know yet.

I’ll have to reread The Fade Out someday, in one sitting, and decide. Because the pacing of this issue is key and I’m reading it in a single dose, but it was clearly broken out in plotting as part of a bigger whole. As a single serving, it’s that great success I just said. Brubaker and Phillips wrap things up and then wrap them up again. In doing so, they take readers through not just a recap of the story, but a recap of the experience of the comic, making them reexamine their own interpretations of the comic.

It’s really good writing. Brubaker’s comfortable with the cast, comfortable readers will get their sometimes abbreviated appearances. There’s a lot going on this issue, with Brubaker dropping two revelations (both make a reread seem like a good idea).

Phillips excels through all those complications. He even has this wonderful “Is that Clark Gable? I know that’s George Sanders” forties Hollywood visual in-joke element. He and Brubaker are doing a film noir as a comic, but stepped back, but still using film noir visual queues.

I don’t know what a perfectly finished Brubaker comic feels like (or, if I do, I can’t remember), but The Fade Out comes the closest.

CREDITS

Tomorrow, When the World is Free; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

The Fade Out 11 (November 2015)

The Fade Out #11

Ed Brubaker is about to deliver. He and Sean Phillips are break the skylight and get onto the roof. The Fade Out, an entirely grounded detective story set in Hollywood, is about to be where Brubaker joins the very small group of comics writers who I will buy regardless. Because what they do will be something special, even if its mainstream, because their styles may not reflect how comics are progressing as a narrative art form right now, but they will in a few years.

It’s like if Sleeper: Season Two had actually been as good as the first series. It’s like if Captain America really were as good as Catwoman. Brubaker jumps between projects with impatience. He gets excited for the new shiny. Only Fade Out doesn’t have the shiny, it just has the skills. It has the writing and the art and the writer’s understanding of what the art is going to do to this story. Brubaker understands how the comic book is going to read and he lets it inform how he’s writing.

It’s entirely commercial, entirely artistic and sublimely elegant.

He could screw it all up next issue, of course.

That would be very sad.

As for the comic itself, Brubaker gets around to revealing some things Gil should have known about from Charlie. Not to mention the reader. The reader should have known too. Except it works better here defining Charlie as a person, making him more understandable. It’s a genre standard and Brubaker pulls it off.

Then it’s Gil and Charlie on an adventure. It’s amazing. And Charlie’s narration of it, with how the plot progresses and then how Phillips illustrates it, that adventure is where Brubaker and Phillips do something extraordinary. They show how comics noir is its own genre. They prove the argument of their last ten years of work.

Even if The Fade Out flops next issue, Brubaker and Phillips have done something extraordinary with it.

CREDITS

Anyone Else But Me; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Velvet 12 (November 2015)

Velvet #12

Steve Epting is an action artist. It’s what he does, it’s what makes him special. He’s able to do fantastic comic book action, where he makes the reasonable fantastical and the fantastical reasonable. It’s a perfect thing for Velvet, which is a glossy spy thriller set in the seventies after all. The comic’s setting isn’t just good for Velvet as a character, it’s good because it gives Epting so many possibilities.

So when this issue is literally nothing but a windup for a hard cliffhanger promising a big action sequence? Well, it’s not exactly the best use of time. I suppose Brubaker does get a few expository things done, but they aren’t pressing, and he does give Velvet some great narration, which is great and all, but come on….

Give us the Epting action. Brubaker doesn’t even put it on the menu. He sets the entire thing to simmer. The narrative this issue, its possibilities, it’s not going to boil over. He never even suggests it might. So when it does and he stops the comic? Bad form, man, bad form.

Velvet is an entertaining book. It’s not masterful and it’s got problems, but it’s entertaining and competent and visually glorious.

CREDITS

The Man Who Stole the World, Part Two; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Steve Epting; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; letterer, Chris Eliopoulos; editors; Sebastian Girner and Eric Stephenson; publisher, Image Comics.

Catwoman 4 (April 2002)

Catwoman #4

How does noir work when the villain is a Clayface rip-off. I say rip-off because Catwoman is a Batman spin-off and Clayface is a Batman villain. Brubaker knew the similarity. It also gives Cooke something fantastic to draw. Selina in this gross pink muck–the leftover transformative flesh of the villain? Great stuff. Lots of movement in the art.

The villain does have something of a noir origin though. G.I. injured, army docs turn him into a monster, it’s like a film noir with shades of fifties sci-fi. It’s really cool.

But Brubaker relies on it almost too much. The script tries to showcase the art, which is fine and dandy and marvelous. Only it makes for some rushed scenes. One less page of the fight and one more page with Selina and Leslie would have been awesome.

The issue starts fast and rushes. The last few pages seem so short because of the action sequence pacing. Those last few pages are exceptional. Brubaker and Cooke figure out how to give noir a superhero. It’s great comic book storytelling.

Even if the fight goes long.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Conclusion; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editors, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

The Fade Out 10 (October 2015)

The Fade Out #10

Brubaker’s winding up. This issue of The Fade Out is the part of the detective novel where the detective–in this case Charlie, who’s not particularly good at it–is collecting all the final details to have his breakthrough. In fact, the narration hints Charlie’s confident in his conclusions, which means Brubaker’s got next issue to stir it up more and then the last issue to let it all settle. Not a bad structure, but it does mean there isn’t much to this issue.

There’s exposition and some revelation, but there’s no character development. Brubaker sets the issue during the wrap party for the movie, which should be a big thing. It’s not. It’s a logical narrative progression–Charlie using the party for cover on his investigating–as the story wraps up.

The last few issues of The Fade Out have been breathtaking. This issue’s good, narratively important, but it’s not breathtaking. It’s a necessity and it coasts on existing momentum. Fingers crossed Brubaker is able to stir up some speed in the next issue.

Phillips’s art, of course, is breathtaking. One never has to worry about him.

CREDITS

Where Angels Fear to Tread; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Catwoman 3 (March 2002)

Catwoman #3

It’s a strange issue. It’s a good issue–though it’s certainly the least ambitious so far–but it’s also a strange issue. Selina doesn’t have as much narration as she had before and now she’s doing much different things. She’s the star of a Bronze Age Batman comic, where Batman dresses up as Matches Malone and investigates on the wharf.

It’s a successful issue. Cooke’s in on the Bronze Age vibe of the issue and the art feels very seventies. The content Cooke’s illustrating, anyway. There’s even a sixties thing with a used car dealer. A lot of thought went into the visual presentation of the book. I just wish Brubaker hadn’t been so quiet.

So far, this series has been about Selina evolving into a do-gooder. This issue continues that evolution, but with the exception of the narration in the first few pages, Selina’s experience is absent from the comic. Even when Brubaker brings back the narration later, it’s to establish that Matches Malone sequence.

Like I said, strange. Expertly, enthusiastically done, but with too much confidence in the narrative effect of the comic to worry about the narrative itself. It’s showy.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Part Three of Four; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editors, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

Catwoman 2 (February 2002)

Catwoman #2

Cooke mixes a lot of styles in this issue. Selina lives her non-costumed life in a more angular city, one with more art deco designs than when she’s got the costume on at night. But Cooke also finds this mixed style for Selina herself. She’s got the modern look, but he also goes for Silver Ago influences to make her more sympathetic.

And then there’s what Brubaker’s narration does for her character. This series of Catwoman integrates whatever history the character had since Batman: Year One, so the Jim Balent stuff and whatever else, with a continuation of the character from Year One. Or at least something closer to that characterization. Including the history of prostitution.

The prostitution angle–with Holly, Selina’s sidekick from her Year One days–figures into the story, with Gotham’s dirty cops ignoring a serial killer preying on girls on the street. Selina ends up investigating it. There’s no humor in the comic. Not a moment. Not even when Cooke and Brubaker take the time and care to show Selina’s pure joy in running around the rooftops. It’s serious stuff; Brubaker’s very deliberate in how he works through Selina’s thoughts in the narration too.

Again, it’s noir. It’s a noir comic masquerading as a superhero comic (masquerading as a noir comic). Brubaker juggles the mainstream and more artistically ambitious beautifully. What Cooke does is just as important, but it only works because of how well Brubaker does his bit.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Part Two of Four; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editor, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

Catwoman 1 (January 2002)

Catwoman #1

In his ★★ review of Batman Returns, Roger Ebert said, “no matter how hard you try, superheroes and film noir don’t go together; the very essence of noir is that there are no more heroes.” I disagree about the film, but not all of the quote. I agree with the first part, not so much the second. Because it’s a closed vision of heroes.

It oddly doesn’t seem to occur to Ebert how the “junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything… [can be] the ring of brightest angels around heaven.” Because a review of a single comic book from 2002 needs this long of a preamble. One with the only time I’ll agree with Ebert this year and a great Rick Moody quote.

But Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman requires a significant preamble. Because Brubaker and Cooke crack Ebert’s problem. How do film noir and superheroes go together? Well, the superhero can’t be the hero. Batman shows up in this first issue of Catwoman for two reasons.

First, regardless of how progressive DC was being with a non-objectified characterization of Catwoman, they weren’t being so progressive they didn’t want to sell the comic. There’s an exceptionally tasteful, but sexy, suiting up sequence. Cooke can do that kind of thing, thanks to Brubaker selling Selina’s excitement. It’s believable.

That scene is so well-executed, one might just skip over it as a commercialist detail. But Batman is all commercial. You launch a spin-off of a Batman comic, Batman better guest star, especially in the early aughts, especially going from Chuck Dixon and Jim Balent to Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke. You need Batman. And this issue delivers. A full-on Batman action sequence–it’s hard to remember when Brubaker’s mainstream writing was a DC staple, not how he brought the same thing to Marvel to better sales–then Batman shows up for character stuff.

And that character stuff is the second reason Batman shows up. He’s essential to Brubaker’s characterization of Selina. Selina has an informed but seemingly simplistic view of Batman; he’s her dark blue boy scout. It gives Selina better possession over the shared setting, she belongs.

Brubaker and Cooke visualize that setting as a noir. They start with the already noir-ish David Mazzuchelli Year One visuals then develop it, creating a Technicolor film noir. Brubaker’s script follows Selina–the comic’s narrator as well as protagonist–through her last few days of sabbatical. She doesn’t know it, but she’s going to get suited up again.

There’s a lot of noir framing in the flashbacks and so on. The narrative construction is special stuff. It’s meticulous. Meticulously written, then meticulously illustrated.

By the time the most noir element comes into the comic–in its last pages–Brubaker and Cooke have already delivered an awesome read. The way the last two pages and the soft cliffhanger? It’s the chocolate sprinkles on the frosting.

CREDITS

Anodyne, Part One of Four; writer, Ed Brubaker; penciller, Darwyn Cooke; inker, Mike Allred; colorist, Matt Hollingsworth; letterer, Sean Konot; editor, Nachie Castro and Matt Idelson; publisher, DC Comics.

The Fade Out 9 (September 2015)

The Fade Out #9

I don’t know if I’d noticed before but probably not–Brubaker’s narration for Fade Out has the possibility of not just being a noir touch but also an actual part of the narrative. There’s like a single use of “you” referring to the reader so I’m reading a bunch into it like part of the mystery is figuring out who’s telling the story at the end. I’m probably wrong.

But if Brubaker was going to wait to reveal that narrative device, this issue would be the one to reveal it in. Gil and Charlie duke it out and the flashback reveals their back stories, separate to some degree, but mostly together. And the reveals make you want to go back and reread the earlier issues to see how Brubaker constructed it all.

There’s a lot in the flashback. Even though the present action takes place in a couple hours–at most–and is largely just one conversation leading up to the soft cliffhanger, Brubaker is able to make the issue dense with that flashback. It takes place over a decade or so, Phillips getting to illustrate a variety of settings, Brubaker able to work up tension in the flashback itself and not just how it relates to the present action.

Very cool; very good issue.

CREDITS

Living in a Memory; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Velvet 11 (August 2015)

Velvet #11

It’s my favorite issue of Velvet in a long time and I’m not entirely sure why. It might just be because Epting drawing an American secret agent with grey temples with a bouffant-ish hair cut reminds me of seventies Marvel black and white Gene Colan. It just feels right.

But the rest of the issue is good too. It’s got Brubaker doing a lot of quick summary sequences with Velvet catching the reader up to what she’s been doing since the previous issue. She’s been getting into trouble, but totally in control of it. It’s a new type of Velvet; she’s not just the protagonist, but she’s in charge of how the narrative affects her (and is aware of it).

Velvet usually reads like a light project for Brubaker, but this issue certainly suggests he’s at least got some ambition for how he tells the story. It’s a great comic.

CREDITS

The Man Who Stole the World, Part One; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Steve Epting; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; letterer, Clayton Cowles; editors; Sebastian Girner and Eric Stephenson; publisher, Image Comics.

The Fade Out 8 (August 2015)

The Fade Out #8

It’s another strong issue of Fade Out, which isn’t a surprise. Brubaker and Phillips are doing great work.

But it actually looks like Brubaker is doing something a little different with this series. His famous (are they famous, they should be) aside issues–which I believe he’s been doing since Catwoman–this issue features the first time (at least in my memory) someone else gets caught up on that aside.

Charlie finds out Maya’s story from her aside issue. It’s kind of crazy to see, just the way Brubaker handles it, having two protagonists collide. It shakes things up for The Fade Out, which didn’t need a shaking, but the shaking works out perfectly anyway. Brubaker shows he has the skill to do the series without a lot of leaps and jumps, so when he does those leaps and jumps, they’re all the more impressive.

Fade Out’s turning out great.

CREDITS

A Dead Giveaway; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

The Fade Out 7 (June 2015)

The Fade Out #7

The Fade Out doesn’t feel like anything but itself. Seven issues in and Brubaker and Phillips have shed any comparisons to their previous work; it’s another in their line of collaborations, but it’s wholly independent from them. One of the factors for it standing on its own so quickly is the lack of fantastical elements. It’s about creating the fantastic through “regular” human ugliness.

This issue opens with Charlie and Maya off on the beach enjoying a getaway weekend. Phillips has his delicate sex scenes, which give each panel a certain weight and pacing of their own, and even when Brubaker hints at the main plot lines, it’s gentle, conversational. The reader is on a getaway too. But, like Charlie, the escape can only last so long.

It’s not really a getaway so much as a scenic bridge. And maybe the best bridging issue I can remember, thanks to Phillips.

CREDITS

The Sound of Waves; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

The Fade Out 6 (May 2015)

The Fade Out #6

It’s a good issue of Fade Out but something feels off. Like Brubaker is backing off a bit in the narration–he’s set up the story, he’s telling the reader a whole lot about Gil and Charlie and how they feel and so on. There’s still a great story for Charlie and Maya.

It’s also where Brubaker embraces the regular reader. The previous issue had some big events and he doesn’t recap them here. If you aren’t on board with the series, you don’t get any more help.

Brubaker moves things along in a big way with Gil’s storyline getting clearer–Charlie’s is still a muddle, the noir screenwriter fumbling his way through a noir while Gil’s being the actual hero. Brubaker introduces a Little Rascals stand-in troupe for some plot fodder; it’s what feels off. It’s too much of an Ellroy homage.

Nice art from Philips as always.

CREDITS

To Set the World on Fire; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

The Fade Out 5 (April 2015)

The Fade Out #5

It’s a sort of gentle issue of The Fade Out, with Brubaker and Phillips heading to the country. The movie production is doing location shooting–albeit on sets, but they’re away from the studio and things are developing. Charlie the protagonist continues his flirtation with the replacement girl while his flashbacks reveal his relationship with the original. Blacklist Gil goes and gets drunk and finds himself in a pickle.

Plus there’s Hollywood stuff. There’s the tawdry stuff out of James Ellroy, but Brubaker’s got a lot about how the characters react to being away from the studio. While in Hollywood, The Fade Out just seemed like a noir set during the making of a film noir, but on location? Brubaker’s showing his research through Charlie’s narration. The setting feels fresh, real.

And Brubaker doesn’t go for a cliffhanger. He brings up some things, he stirs a pot, then it ends.

CREDITS

The Broken Ones; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

Velvet 10 (April 2015)

Velvet #10

It’s a bridging issue. But, since it’s Brubaker, he feels the need to do it to bridge his arcs together. To give that trade paperback an extended cliffhanger, not just each issue in the trade.

It lacks texture, it lacks tone. Brubaker actually does have this significant new character (Sean Connery) running around Velvet, but he doesn’t make his presence felt, just talked about. It’s unfortunate, but it’s still, you know, generally okay. Brubaker’s narration is good, Epting’s art is good, it just doesn’t go anywhere.

And it’s not clear Velvet really does need to go anywhere. It’s a spy thriller; the gimmick of having a forty year-old female protagonist in a “James Bond was framed” story isn’t even giving it any mileage anymore. It’s an okay comic book, with its creators a little jaded and commercial but still having fun.

I enjoy reading Velvet, even if it’s shallow.

CREDITS

The Secret Lives of Dead Men, Part Five; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Steve Epting; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; letterer, Chris Eliopoulos; editor; Eric Stephenson; publisher, Image Comics.

Criminal: The Special Edition (February 2015)

Criminal: The Special Edition (One Shot)

Criminal’s back for a one-shot and, wow, it certainly does do a good job reminding of when Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are hitting the high notes on the comic.

The special brings back a character, but Brubaker spends more time establishing this Conan knockoff than anything he does with the issue’s protagonist. Having black and white interludes to the Conan knockoff’s magazine (it takes place in the seventies) wouldn’t work without Phillips’s art. He has this beautiful way of being detailed but not too detailed. You can buy the interludes as hurried late seventies fantasy comic art, but there’s still the Phillips quality to it.

The individual scenes in the comic–whether it’s the protagonist in a jailhouse fight or yelling at his son at one point–work better than the whole. Brubaker doesn’t have time for a big twist. He’s got time for scenic awesomeness though.

CREDITS

By This Sword I Live!; writer, Ed Brubaker; artist, Sean Phillips; colorist, Elizabeth Breitweiser; publisher, Image Comics.

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