Duh, Ha-Ha (2019)

Duh! Ha-Ha

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

The Punisher #24

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

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

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

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

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

The Punisher #23, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #23

Lots happens this issue. Lots. Also not lots. It’s a very particular kind of comic, where the heroes find out what the villains have been plotting. A revelation issue… but for the characters. There’s probably a term for it. Sort of a diegetic revelation issue.

Anyway, it also has Frank getting his head straight—courtesy a shotgun blast to his chest (and vest)—which means he’s an active character not a passive player for Ennis to move through the events. It’s nice to have him back. You got worried about him last issue, as did O’Brien; this issue has a wonderful conversation between O’Brien and Frank. She does most of the talking. Fernandez and Hanna do the talking heads well, all things considered, though it’s hard not to notice the only time Fernandez can pace out a conversation is when the people are naked.

This issue has—probably for the first time, but who knows—Frank making the beast with two backs. It’s a great moment. Ennis has really got Frank down at this point. He’s comfortable writing him, not restricting the kinds of scenes Frank gets to be in. I guess if you’re writing Frank Castle playing kindly grandpa, it’s not too difficult to roll him in the hay.

Speaking of rolling in the hay, Nicky—who survives the showdown (all of the main cast does, there’s another issue after all)—gets the wrong roll in the hay offer, which ties directly into the issue’s cliffhanger. The plotting is shootout and resolution, escape, Nicky following, Frank and company interrogating a captured bad guy (Frank getting results thanks to it being a MAX comic), some shagging, then the cliffhanger. It might be the best art in the arc so far, just because Fernandez doesn’t screw anything up majorly enough to notice it.

It’s real impressive how Ennis has plotted this arc; he’s got all these threads he can wrap up in the fifth issue and prime the arc for a great finale. Especially when you consider Frank’s been on autopilot for most of the arc so far. He wasn’t even in the Nicky issue. The Frank narration, sparing as always, jars the comic’s narrative focus back onto him. Great character development on O’Brien too.

Up is Down and Black is White isn’t pulpy; it’s a straight Punisher MAX comic, much more in common with the first and second arcs than the third, but Ennis has definitely learned from doing the pulpy, long present action arc; it informs this one. So good.

The Punisher #22, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 4 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #22

The issue opens with one of those good Ennis ideas not explored; two guys breaking into a closed jewelry shop and terrified by the thought The Punisher, who’s (apparently) never cared about the non-violent street criminals, now does cares about them. Since he’s gone spree. Spree-er.

But it’s just the one-page opener, nothing Ennis wants to explore. Next up is Frank living in his dream, a dead world, everyone killed by him, and finding there’s still no peace for him. Presumably. Frank doesn’t analyze his dream, just regrets closing his eyes. Ennis then takes some time to catch up with Frank’s perspective on everything. Frank might not analyze his dreams, but he does analyze his feelings. Or at least he acknowledges he has feelings he could be analyzing if he weren’t trying to kill enough people to get a specific action from the city.

Speaking of the city, Ennis has what would be a great talking heads scene with the city brass yelling at each other about what to do with the Punisher. There’s a couple more tidbits of information—the cops don’t just go after Frank because, while he doesn’t do collateral damage, they would, and then how the city just looks the other way when Frank keeps the weekly kill count at a dozen. They just want a politically acceptable way to give Frank what he wants, because once Frank has what he wants (they think), he’s just going to go after Nicky.

And they’re right. They give Frank what he wants and after Nicky he goes. Right into a trap. Knowingly. Reflecting on it as he does, this one final act, so driven by a different kind of rage than normal he can’t stop himself. Even though Frank doesn’t think about it so Ennis doesn’t write about it (and there’s no one for Frank to confide in, thank goodness), there’s this “man’s gotta do” subtext to the whole thing. The Punisher undone by ingrained toxic masculinity.

Meanwhile, O’Brien and Roth have started staking out her ex-husband, CIA killer Rawlins, finding him not just conspiring with mobster Nicky, but also cavorting with him. Given the second issue of the arc… there’s a definite statement to Nicky being a passive, enthusiastic bottom in the sack….

Anyway, Rawlins isn’t just there for the hanky-panky, they’re teaming up to take out Frank.

Good thing O’Brien’s got horribly valid reasons to get the drop on Rawlins. But will she be in time? And would she help Frank if she were?

None of the art is good. Some of it is better than the rest of it, but it’s rather disappointing Ennis turns in this great script—building action versus last issue’s bridging action—only for Fernandez to fumble through it. Hanna’s inks… probably help. But who knows.

The scenery’s good? The scenery’s important. It’s good. Sadly the people aren’t and they’re the most important thing.

The Punisher #21, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 3 (of 6)

p 21

Every once and a while I wonder if I’m too liberal in my use of the term “bridging issue” to quickly describe how a writer uses an issue to set up the second half or next part of an arc. Then I’ll read a comic like Punisher MAX #21 and it’s exactly what I’m talking about. There have been a couple other bridging issues in Punisher MAX, but this one is the first where it feels like Ennis is writing for the trade. Makes sense as it’s the fourth arc and they’d have seen floppies versus trade sales.

Stuff sort of happens this issue, but all of it is anticipatory. Ex-CIA agent O’Brien breaks out of the pokey and heads to former colleague and fellow ex-CIA agent Roth’s apartment for help. Frank goes on a killing spree to force the NYPD to resolve outstanding issues with Nicky Cavella’s “prank” at the Castle family grave site. Meanwhile, Rawlins—who it turns out was married to O’Brien at one point because it’s still a Marvel comic and Marvel comics love nothing more than backstory coincidences—also happens to know Cavella and goes to meet with him. The issue ends with Frank killing a bunch of people and musing about a recurring dream, the one where he finally loses it and turns the guns on the civilians.

It’s a shame Ennis uses that Frank narration just to make the ending… more effective than it would be if it were just Frank killing a bunch of disposable, generic bad guys. The dream’s disturbing to be sure, but it’s also the Punisher reflecting on his chosen vocation and how he understands it. He’s not seeking vengeance, he’s not seeking redemption, so why does he do what he does. Ennis has been, slowly, starting to unpack that question since the start of the series. Just when he’s got the opportunity to do it here, he ends the issue. Because Frank’s killing spree is different than his usual thing—he’s slaughtering the bad guys in full view of civilians, hitting a night club, for example. He’s bringing his reality to a lot of people who don’t usually see it.

And then there’s the art.

Penciller Fernandez and inker Hanna choke on the talking heads. Miserably. O’Brien and Roth’s conversation has really bad “acting.” Terrible, actually. Their expressions are terrible.

It’s by no means a bad issue but it sure reads better in the trade versus the floppy. Especially for three bucks.

The Punisher #20, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 2 (of 6)

P20

It’s the Nicky Cavella origin story, complete with his original crew (from the first Punisher MAX arc) appearing again in fun little cameos. Well, as fun as a Punisher MAX cameo is going to get. Because Nicky Cavella has a very rough origin story. He’s the psychopath born to the family of sociopaths who don’t understand why he doesn’t have any compunctions about killing (anyone) while the family pretends there should be compunctions. It’s disturbing (mostly because Ennis doesn’t do any comedy relief with it, save the pragmatic violence of Cavella’s sidekick in the present) and it’s a lot, over a lot of pages.

The history also suggests what Nicky did to the Castle Family’s grave site is nothing compared to what he’d do if they weren’t thirty years decomposed.

The issue starts when Nicky is eight, though the first panel could be anyone in a Punisher MAX series—to the point it’s not even clear if Ennis is playing with expectations or everyone in the series is just so disturbed it’s the way the series goes. There’s an intro to his family life, including his manipulative, fellow psychopath aunt who wants to train Nicky for a brighter future than his father or uncle. They’re too soft. She wants to toughen him up.

It comes at a cost, though it’s pretty clear there never was a happy ending for Nicky.

At least not one where he doesn’t end up hurting a lot of people.

The present day stuff is Nicky and sidekick Tessie waiting for the other mobsters to decide whether or not to make Nicky boss. Other than the frame, which does account for a decent amount of pages and has the aforementioned closest thing to comic relief, it’s just the flashbacks. Ennis referred to Nicky’s ominous backstory in the first arc, now’s the pay-off. And it’s adequate pay-off. Ennis keeps his villain quirky, horrifically so.

Once again, Ferandez’s artwork disappoints. Once again, Hanna’s inks have to pick up way too much slack. Though it’s better art than the previous issue and far fewer of the bland but busy close-ups from the previous issue.

I’m not still 100% on Nicky as a master villain (or if a master villain belongs in Punisher MAX, but Ennis does the work to establish him as one hell of a bad guy.

The Punisher #19, Up is Down and Black is White, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #19

The issue opens with Nicky Cavella, returning from the first story arc—it’s hard to believe Up is Down and Black is White is only the fourth arc in Punisher MAX—at the Castle family headstone. He’s digging up the bodies, talking to a henchman with a camcorder. Whatever he’s got planned, it’s not 1) going to be bad and 2) going to piss off Frank. But Ennis delays any follow-up with Frank (or even what Nicky does) and skips to the prison showers, where former CIA agent O’Brien (she has a first name, but it’s not important), also back from the first arc, is fending off an attempt rape.

O’Brien versus the lesbian inmates is, in 2019, a little cringe-y. It’s also not factually inaccurate so… it is what it is.

Ennis mostly splits the issue between her and Nicky, so the first arc returnees, giving Frank one big action sequence—he’s back to normal after his Russian adventure last arc, trying to sort through the crime land power vacuum the previous eighteen issues of MAX have left. But Ennis is also doing a direct sequel to the previous arc, with the shady American generals hiring a CIA assassin to go after Frank. The assassin is Rawlins, who initiated the previous arc’s terrorist attack, where he got enough page time to be familiar without being very regular.

So Up is Down is Ennis doing two arc follow-ups in one. Nicky’s busy trying to get the Italian mob together under his command, O’Brien’s getting into more and more trouble with her enemies in prison, Rawlins isn’t thrilled he’s just been given the order to off the Punisher.

Ennis teases the horrific nature of whatever Nicky was up to in the first scene, he also has a surprise reveal on Nicky’s henchman. The reveal is a little mean-spirited but if you can’t hate the bad guys, they aren’t really bad enough. But that teasing—Nicky promises the other mob bosses he’s done something amazing but they’ll have to watch the news—just primes the issue for the last scene, when we all find out what Nicky’s done and are left to wonder what Frank’s going to do about it.

It’s an excellent issue. Great pacing, great characters, great Frank narration during the shoot out.

Only one problem. And his name is Leandro Fernandez. Inker Scott Hanna was clearly brought in to do a lot of the detail work, which is probably why the close-ups don’t look much like the medium or long shots—it almost looks like Fernandez just left the features blank and Hanna put them in. The action is okay but the talking heads—and there’s a lot of talking heads—is barely middling. When Nicky’s shocking the mobsters, for instance, their shocked expressions aren’t just identical, some of their faces are identical.

But the page layouts are really complex, so either Fernandez does an excellent job breaking out scenes but not illustrating them… or Ennis’s script has panel direction? Either way, rocky start to the art. Everything else is great. Just not the art.

Infinity 8: Volume Four: Symbolic Guerilla

I8v4

It’s been a while since I read any Infinity 8, but it’s the perfect series to return to after a break since each arc is a different take on the same thing. Literally.

Each arc has a different (far future) space agent who has a limited time to investigate why an intergalactic graveyard the size of Earth’s solar system is blocking the way of a giant ship.

This arc, Symbolic Guerrilla, introduces agent Patty Stardust, who’s undercover with a cult of performance artists but gets called to check out the graveyard. Meanwhile, the cult–led by sixties hippie in the future, Ron–finds out the ship is stopped and starts planning on how he’s going to exploit the situation for his–ahem, the group’s–benefit.

Patty’s Black, with a big afro–how French guy Lewis Trondheim and probably European guy Kris acknowledge people shouldn’t intrude on her wanting to touch her hair but White Americans can’t figure it out… anyway. Patty’s a fantastic lead. She’s been undercover with Ron and the Symbolic Guerrillas for five years, this mission could jeopardize it–good thing the ship’s captain is going to loop time–and she’s engaged to Ron’s stepson.

That engagement–Patty’s the stage manager, who has to do work and (presumably) stay sober, while her dude is mindbogglingly high all the time–is one of the most interesting things in the arc. Trondheim and Kris don’t dwell on the space graveyard too much. Patty sees some things, but they don’t figure into the main plot like what Ron comes across and decides to exploit. In multiple ways. With multiple terrible results.

But Patty and her love life? It adds a lot of texture to the character, who’s otherwise basically moving from action beat to action beat.

Great art from Martin Trystram. He concentrates on the psychedelic flashback aspect of the visual narrative, but doesn’t skip on the sci-fi setting. Or the ship. There are cameos from previous Infinity 8 cast members, which makes you wonder how it would all read in a sitting.

Speaking of reading… I was sort of assuming the original French publications were bigger size than the American comic format, but no. The American printings might even be a little bigger. There’s just so much little detail you want to see. Trystram packs each panel. It’s awesome.

Infinity 8 is, I guess, halfway through with Symbolic Guerrilla but thanks to the writers’ ingenuity and the consistently different, consistently fantastic art, it feels like it’s just getting started.

Also because there’s so little emphasis placed on the ship’s crisis. It’s a red herring (almost) so Trondheim and company can explore this future.

Angola Janga

Ang2

Angola Janga is historical fiction. It falls victim to a few of the genre’s main pitfalls. Cartoonist Marcelo D'Salete has done his research, he knows all the facts. And he moves within them. With the single exception of flashing forward to modern-day, urban Brazil (which turns out to be a bad move), D’Salete does it all straight. He stays within those fact lines. And Janga suffers for it.

Also, it suffers from the translation’s subtle Kingdom of Runaway Slaves. The actual translation of the original subtitle would be something like A History of Palmares. Now, maybe Fantagraphics is thinking American audiences won’t know Palmares—it’s a quilombo or a settlement of escaped slaves in 17th century Brazil. Palmares lasted eighty-nine years before the Portuguese destroyed it.

D’Salete doesn’t do a great job, in the comic, of laying out Palmares or the kingdom. The supporting cast isn’t interchangeable because there’s not really a supporting cast. Not of the escaped slaves. There’s a bunch of Portuguese supporting players, but it’s a core group of African survivors.

The comic starts in 1673. Palmares started in 1605. So D'Salete is skipping a lot of the formative stuff, because it’s not about the formative stuff. It’s not really a “History” of Palmares. Not like you’d know anything more about the historical facts. D’Salete, as an artist, also isn’t big on aging his cast, so they never feel like living people. And D’Salete’s got a great essay about the history. Mixing text and comics might be the better way of conveying the story. Though Angola Janga’s story also falls victim to that other big historical fiction pitfall… the wrong protagonist. D’Salete picks the wrong guy to follow, even though the whole thing is structured to follow this guy. He lacks personality, even as D’Salete keeps throwing him curveballs, the protagonist never reacts in an interesting way. Meanwhile all the Portuguese get great characterizations—with a single exception, they’re all exceptionally bad people—D’Salete gives them a lot of personality. But the actual good guys, D’Salete tries to humanize them through their faults. It’s very weird.

Again, D’Salete’s sticking to the facts and his cast are historical figures but… he’s got no insight into them. Hence why a more mixed media approach might sit better. Especially given there are leaps ahead in time between every chapter and no time spent connecting to the previous one’s cliffhanger or finish.

Art-wise, D’Salete’s fine. He’s best, both in art and writing, when doing the battle sequences. They’re incredible and make you wish he just did a war comic out of it instead of the story of the settlement’s downfall. The history is full of doubt, cowardice, and betrayal. D’Salete never makes it feel melodramatic but he also never makes it compelling.

It ought to at least be compelling. The battle stuff is phenomenal; compelling. The rest is obviously interesting, but not interesting in its execution.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: