Angola Janga

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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.

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Punks Not Dead: London Calling

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No spoilers, but Punks Not Dead: London Calling is obviously the last Punks Not Dead for a while. It’s the second Punks Not Dead series and it’s excellent, but it’s clearly finite when you’re reading the early issues. It’s a wrap-up series. It’s not growing. Writer David Barnett and artist Martin Simmonds are tying off threads versus stretching them out.

So when the series manages not to feel reductive, it’s a feat. The mystery of lead Fergie’s dad, which is pretty much the A plot throughout, works out. Sure, Fergie’s sidekick, Sid, gets reduced to a supporting player but so does everyone. So does Fergie. Instead of the characters driving the narrative, the narrative acts as a VW bus and drives the cast to their next scenes.

Insert super-film snobby reference to Other Side of the Wind here, which no one will get unless you did.

Barnett’s got some solid set pieces and some great observations–particularly how disappointing punk turned out to be in terms of social change–and nice characterizations. Culpepper’s still great and she’s still around, she’s just not a force of nature like before. Her sidekick, young agent Baig… well, even though he’s ostensibly got an important role to play in events… he really does feel shoehorned in as the gay Muslim dude.

And it really feels like there’s at least a missing issue about the bonding between Fergie’s mom, Julie, and his crush, Natalie. Barnett’s in a hurry, after all; he’s got to resolve the cliffhanger stuff from the previous series while introducing and working to a series conclusion in this series. It’s a lot.

The sequel series to close-off the first series is an indie comic publication trope at this point (though it didn’t really happen at old school Vertigo, which is about the closest comparison to what Black Crown Press has managed to do–make an imprint of comics worth reading at least once; major props to Shelly Bond). Barnett and Simmonds do well enough in their wheelhouse; Simmonds does a lot of double-page spreads in the middle of the series and a lot less towards the end. He could’ve used some at the end, to the point I thought I was missing a page. Or two or three.

Maybe I was missing those pages… it would explain a lot, but I don’t think so. I think they were just rushed and had to wrap it up, which is a shame; Punks Not Dead introduced a fantastic cast and was primed for far more than just one sequel series.

Hopefully the band will get back together someday.

The Punisher #18, Mother Russia, Part 6 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #18

It’s a perfect comic. There’s no big Punisher action, no rampant gun porn, just high levels of espionage action as Frank figures out how they’re going to escape the missile silo as he delivers on his threat to fire nukes on Moscow. Meanwhile the Russian general’s reaction scene is another beauty of an Ennis moment—the Russian general is the best villain Ennis has come up with in Punisher MAX so far; even though he’s in this comic book, like the rest of the “men of action” here—Frank, Fury, Vanheim the Special Forces guy—Ennis has got a lot to say about his behavior. Or Ennis says a lot with the characters’ behaviors. Particularly how they function and why.

The why is usually very subtle, very muted, very heavy. Frank and Vanheim have a particularly hefty scene this issue. People in crisis and the relationships they form and so on. Ennis gets it. He perturbs the plot to hit particular points, to trigger particular neurons, all of it adding up to the impact of the final pages of the arc. It doesn’t resolve for Frank or Fury or possibly even the Russian general, but it does finish up for some of the guest stars. How they’ve affected Frank, how this experience has changed him (which shouldn’t even be possible since the whole point of a Punisher comic is how hard it’s going to be to make him a person and not a caricature). It’s fantastic.

Ennis has been trying to get to the moment he hits with Frank in the last few pages in both the previous arcs; Mother Russia is where he figures out how to do it. Having Braithwaite probably makes it all possible. Braithwaite and inker Bill Reinhold, who I haven’t mentioned because Braithwaite’s clearly the driving force on the art, but they’re good inks. Braithwaite’s able to do the large scale military espionage stuff—the nuclear missile launch sequence is awesome—but he’s just as comfortable with the smaller stuff Ennis goes with towards the end. It’s a big success.

Ennis manages to do actual character development on the Punisher, manages to keep Frank the narrator (making the comic feel perfectly pulp), and he gets in just the right amount of sardonic humor. Can’t have Fury without the sardonic humor.

It’s a phenomenal close to a superior comic story.

The Punisher #17, Mother Russia, Part 5 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #17

And here’s the issue where Ennis goes for the heartstrings. Frank’s got to save the little girl, which ends up being a fantastic sequence. The issue opens with the hijacked airliner getting shot down; the response to it, both from the Russian general and Fury, are the B plot for the issue. Frank’s got other things to do. He’s got to save the little girl, first from the Russian general’s little assassin—it’s an outstanding sequence from Braithwaite—and later from the insidiousness of American generals. That sequence is effective but nothing compared to the action violence of the first. So far Mother Russia has been without truly evil villains. Frank’s been dealing with literal cannon fodder. But the little assassin… he’s a bad dude.

Ennis gets in two more big “Punisher moments.” There’s the response to the American generals’ backup plans, then there’s Frank’s solution to being trapped in the bunker with no hope of escape. The latter one is the cliffhanger, so we don’t get to know his plan, just his utterly awesome and succinct threat to the Russians.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Fury has a phenomenal meltdown scene when he finds out he’s been made part of the U.S.-sponsored terror attack. Morality is a big deal in Punisher MAX; wouldn’t work without it. Frank’s usually got a fairly simple one. Theoretically Fury’s line in the sand should be much further down the beach, but not so much it turns out. All of these soldiers and generals are hyper-violent sociopaths (or worse) while Fury and Frank are… humanists? The closest thing to them anyway.

The big scene with Frank and Galina, the little girl, successfully got me teary-eyed. It’s a really quick resolve to the scene but it’s enough; Ennis has gone out of his way to show the additional weight the girl is putting on Frank. It’s great work.

The plotting of the issue—Frank dealing with the Russian soldiers, the drama surrounding the backup plan, Fury’s meltdown with the generals, the Russian general trying to stay calm while dealing with moron officers—it’s beautifully paced. It’s the most action in any issue so far—most consequential action in any issue so far—and Ennis still makes the time to delve into the psychology of the characters and their actions. It’s exceptional comics.

The Punisher #16, Mother Russia, Part 4 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #16

Just over halfway through the arc and Ennis does a bridging issue. It’s an all-action bridging issue, but a bridging issue. We find out exactly what the U.S.-funded terrorists on the plane are going to do, we find out what the Russian general’s little henchman is capable of doing, we get some groundwork on Vanheim’s character. Not Vanheim as a character, but Vanheim the character’s character. Somewhat wanting character.

And some Fury mouthing off to the generals, who’re thrilled they’ve managed to execute a fake terrorist attack on Moscow without him knowing about it.

Frank’s busy holding off the Russian soldiers. Down the silo they rappel, up he shoots the bullets. Will the Russians run out of men before he runs out of bullets (something Ennis actually foreshadowed in the first issue of the arc, the very real problem of not having enough ammunition).

There’s also some more gentle moments for Frank—in between shooting down waves of Russian soldiers he goes and gets little Galina some ice cream. It happens off page (the actual ice cream getting and eating) because Ennis knows there are limits to Grandpa Punisher. Not many limits, really. But some. Ice cream would be too much. Ennis already has Frank make a bit of a joke in the narration so an actual cute scene would be too much. Though I do want to know if he had to make a flavor selection for her and, if so, what he went with.

About halfway through the issue, maybe a little further, the Mongolian—he’s the Russian general’s henchman—is able to infiltrate Frank and company’s defenses. Using nearly the same method a similarly little henchman used in the first arc of Punisher MAX. It’s… fine. It does make narrative sense and doesn’t come off contrived (did Ennis forget he’d used the device before? Did his editor? Why isn’t Frank prepared for this kind of thing having experienced it already). It’s just not original. And it was just twelve issues ago. You have to read Punisher MAX arcs; there’s no done in ones; readers are going to notice it.

Thank goodness for the awesome resulting fight scenes, where Braithwaite moves fast but with a lot of impact. Maybe it’s Frank getting his ass kicked in front of the kid, maybe it’s how well Braithwaite keeps track of the kid. It works and it works well. It’s just familiar.

There’s some great black humor with the Russian general as he deals with his incompetent subordinates.

Really good cliffhanger again, as things are getting dire for Frank and friends. Even the Russian general knows things are about to get really good. Ennis has got all the pieces arranged and next issue he can really start playing with them.

The Punisher #15, Mother Russia, Part 3 (of 6)

Punisher MAX #15

The first page of the issue introduces the latest cast addition—six-year old Galina Stenkov. She’s in a nuclear missile silo with mean doctors trying to get her blood out so they can have the super-weapon. And then in walks Frank. Ennis interrupts their introduction with a one page check-in to the U.S. generals. They’ve had a lot to do the previous issues. This issue they don’t have anything so a reminder of their subplot and their relation to the main plot is in order.

Also the Punisher—Ennis’s Punisher, Ennis’s Frank—introducing himself to a six-year old girl (in his rusty Russian) is a risky scene. Frank knows it’s risky too—he hasn’t talked to a kid Galina’s age since he talked to his daughter, lying to her about her chances at survival, some thirty years before. It’s also where Ennis is able to bring out all Frank’s humanity and wrap it in a nice bow and put it on his sleeve. Ennis doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of the situation—terrified child, unstoppable killing machine—he revels in it. To lovely result. Frank’s kindly grandpa bonding with Galina is fantastic.

And it should be an easy mission once he’s got her. Until the Special Forces guy, Vanheim, panics and screws it all up, getting them pinned down in the silo (kind of Die Hard in a nuclear missile silo but with the Punisher). Frank’s got to manage Vanheim, keep Galina amused and distracted from the surrounding carnage, and figure out a way to keep the Russian army at bay. The Russian army’s not very smart, but they’re at least determined.

Some of the Russians are smart though. The issue’s split between Frank and company in the silo and then this Russian general showing up to see what’s been going on at the silo (there was the U.S. attempt to get the scientist and daughter Galina, occurring before the arc started). The local commander thinks the general is out of date and overreacting. A reactionary leftover from the Soviet era. The general ignores the local commander, who covers his ineptness with humor. They’re very muted Ennis villains, but very definitely Ennis villains.

Especially since the general travels with a small Mongolian man who never speaks and, according to one of the officers, is to be feared. It’s Ennis reining in his extremes without losing some of his detail absurdities.

And the Russian stuff is really good, but it’s nothing compared to the Frank stuff. There’s a bigger action sequence near the end of the issue, giving Braithwaite somewhere to show off besides background detail. Ennis limited the action the first couple issues of the arc, building the narrative instead. He gives Braithwaite some gristle here, but it’s still more a thriller than an action comic.

A thriller with a lot of heart. Punisher and kid after all. It’s real good; real good.

The Punisher #14, Mother Russia, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #14

There’s so much Frank narration this issue. So much. It’s wonderful. Ennis is able to use the narration for some exposition, some texture, some humor. Not a lot of humor. He’s got Nick Fury around for humor. Frank’s narration humor is dryer; though maybe not more cynical than Fury’s. It’s hard to be more cynical than Fury. Frank doesn’t have the same worldly concerns… though it’s questionable whether or not the Punisher is cynical. I’m actually leaning towards no.

Regardless, the issue’s full of great narration. Ennis has found his Frank voice and isn’t afraid to use it. The first third of the issue is split between Frank narrating his illegal entry into Russia (hence the title of the story arc) and Fury briefing Frank before he gets to Russia. There’s no narration in the flashback, just really efficient storytelling. And a lot of dialogue. Nick Fury likes to talk. The reader needs to pay attention.

Frank’s going to Russia to rescue a little girl whose father created some great chemical weapon and wanted to sell it to the U.S. only to get killed (in interrogation) by the Russians. The little girl is pumped full of the serum. There’s a time limit before the antidote (also in her system) destroys the weapon and the U.S. generals get sad because they can’t efficiently kill as many people.

He’s got a sidekick with him—a Special Forces guy named Vanheim. Vanheim’s important for a few reasons. He knows how to use computers, which Frank doesn’t. He speaks better Russian (it’s unclear why Frank speaks any Russian at all). And he’s an ostensible babysitter. Keep the Punisher out of trouble. He’s also suspicious, though a little bit less after the generals get a scene plotting against Fury and don’t mention him. He’s a sidekick, something Frank doesn’t want or need but also something Ennis knows will make Punisher work a little smoother.

There’s not a lot of action. There’s a bar fight and then the Russian base infiltration, but Braithwaite and Ennis don’t concentrate on the action. They’re moving as fast as they can to get the story going because it’s issue two of six for the arc and it’s still setup at the open, juxtaposed with narration or not.

It’s a strong issue just a slightly off cliffhanger—Ennis spends a lot of time setting up the mystery of the pseudo-terrorists on the airliner when it hasn’t got a thing to do with Frank yet. But it’s a rather strong issue. Ennis’s mix of narration, exposition, action, talking heads… it’s assuredly compelling.

The Punisher #13, Mother Russia, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher MAX #13

Right away there’s something different about this issue; from page one. Penciller Dougie Braithwaite. Braithwaite is thrilled to be doing Punisher, you can tell from the detail—I still want to know what’s on the counter next to Frank in the opening scene, presumably a menu but who knows—and he works his ass off on it. So there’s two pages of this great art, then comes the next big difference—narration. Ennis is finally comfortable with Frank narrating his scenes. And he narrates all of his scenes in this issue, even the one where he’s palling around with Nick Fury.

I don’t know if it’s Nick Fury MAX from Ennis’s Fury MAX series; I can’t remember that book. Doesn’t matter. Punisher MAX’s Nick Fury has been around since Vietnam, knows Frank from then, lost S.H.I.E.L.D. to bureaucrats, wants to get it back post 9/11. How’s he going to get it back? By sending Frank on a secret mission and currying favor with the generals who can revitalize the spy org. The bar scene between Fury and Frank is awesome. Ennis likes getting to do the mix, likes getting to do the “real” take on the weathered old warriors.

Meanwhile, the generals are cooking up their own scheme to “help” Fury, which has something to do with a plane full of terrorists. It’s the issue’s cliffhanger because Ennis has so nicely resolved Frank and Fury’s scene.

The issue’s assured, restrained, and bold. Frank takes out a bunch of Russian mob thugs but Braithwaite and Ennis don’t focus on the action violence, rather Frank’s perception of it. With excellent narration. There are some “MAX” violence moments, of course, but Ennis and Braithwaite saves those for the most emphasis. Even with a lot of narration from Frank, the comic still shows rather than tells. And the way it cuts between scenes is fantastic. It goes from Frank to Fury to Frank to Frank and Fury to the cliffhanger. Braithwaite handles the various locations beautifully (again, it’s clear he’s enthusiastic about this book, he puts a lot into the art). And it’s what Punisher needs, someone to not just take it as seriously as Ennis, but be able to show that seriousness. Braithwaite does.

The issue raises a bunch of questions, multiple plot hooks, and none of them are anywhere near as interesting as Frank. Thanks to that narration. It’s all happening around him.

Basically Punisher MAX #13 is when Ennis has truly figured out how to write Punisher MAX but also has a penciller who knows how to draw it.

Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is another of these YA graphic novels without any chapters or natural narrative breaks. The first time I came across one, I realized it was going to be a trend and yep, it’s a trend. The difference is last time it didn’t work, this time it works out perfectly. Writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s plotting works for a single sitting read. Tamaki has these narrative frames—the protagonist writing emails to an advice columnist—which provide a nice backdrop and structure. The protagonist not being particularly reliable also helps.

Not reliable like she might be dishonestly reporting to the advice columnist (and thereby the reader) but she’s not reliable. She messes up, just enough to stay actively hopeful she won’t mess something else up. Because at some point it just becomes her predicted behavior.

The protagonist, Freddy (short for Frederica), is dating the titular Laura Dean, a popular girl. Freddy’s got her core group of gay friends, while Laura Dean seems to be popular with everyone. It’s never explained why Laura Dean is popular—other than her mom frequently being out of town and there being booze and beds—but it’s also never explained exactly what Freddy sees in her. Presumably it’s some unquantifiable attraction thing but… Tamaki doesn’t give it enough attention. And Valero-O’Connell’s art doesn’t do implying of that nature. It implies other things; it has to imply a lot of other things, actually, because Freddy is frequently turned away from the panel or somehow obscured. We don’t get to see her reaction shots to how things play out around her.

There’s something non-committal about the book too—it’s aimed at a YA audience and there’s a certain age appropriateness. Or not being willing to not be age appropriate, which is fine but is definitely going to limit some potential.

It’s a solid read. Valero-O’Connell puts a lot into the panel layouts and compositions and it works.

I’m not a hundred percent on the coloring. At least every page something is pink. It’s a drab pink, kind of a mopey one. Or maybe the story’s just sad a lot. But it doesn’t add anything to the work.

Last thing—Tamaki has these talking stuffed animals, which is awesome, and not in it anywhere near enough.

The Punisher #12, Kitchen Irish, Part 6 (of 6)

This issue, the last in the arc, starts without a title page or credits, which makes it almost suspenseful to see if we’re ever going to find out what happened with the art. Because the art at the beginning of the issue, with the Napper French resolution, is a lot better than the art’s been for a while. And Dean White’s colors aren’t doing the weird bleached out but still too neon yellow thing. It’s a great opening, even if it seems like someone decided MAX didn’t mean in-panel amputations and did some cropping so things don’t immediately make sense. Or maybe Fernandez really did leave the “shot” out, which would also make sense, but someone would’ve had to send the page back to him then… right?

Anyway. The improved art holds up for a while, but starts to slip once Fernandez has to do the big meeting of the gangs. They finally team-up this issue to go get their fortune (completely forgetting the Punisher has been after them, which seems like a mistake but whatever). For the action showdown, even with White’s color scheme being better… Fernandez loses control of the art again. Maybe even gradually, like it gets worse as it goes along. By the end of the sequence, he’s back to those terrible panel compositions so the action barely makes sense and all Ennis’s preparations are for naught.

It’s particularly upsetting because it seems—during that first scene—like the book is going to right the ship in time.

By the end, it’s back to overlooking Fernandez’s poor panel composition and lousy expressions and trying to concentrate on Ennis’s dialogue. The comic does pull off a solid Punisher moment (while Ennis identifying MAX Punisher as “Old Frank”—vs. “Big Frank,” which is what Ennis called him back during the early Marvel Knights days), but Fernandez chokes on anything involving the British agents. Ennis has already turned the gang leaders into caricatures so it doesn’t really matter given Fernandez and White (the coloring on the showdown is where he starts going wrong this issue).

Kitchen Irish isn’t able to deliver on any of its potential. It’s not like Ennis layered his “Old Frank moment” through the issues; he just gets away with this great, impromptu Frank observation because the book’s still got a bunch of goodwill. Ennis’s writing is just sensational enough to separate itself from the art.

It’s not all good from Ennis, however; there are three word boxes of narration from Frank and they’re solely to remind the reader. Way too functional. If Kitchen Irish is any indication, Ennis doesn’t yet have a handle on how to comfortable make Frank the protagonist for an entire arc. He gets an issue, some pages here and there, but the leads of Kitchen Irish are the bad guys, then the British, then Frank. And then Napper French; he’s ancillary but not to ancillary. Frank being subject is fine, just so long as he never becomes caricature.

He gets way too close to it in Kitchen Irish. Partially because of Fernandez, but mostly because of Ennis.

The Punisher #11, Kitchen Irish, Part 5 (of 6)

Fernandez’s art goes from where it was on the lacking scale last issue to much worse this issue. And someone else noticed, because Dean White’s color work now includes giving the walls textures in addition to doing all the perspective on Fernandez’s faces. It’s a bad turn.

And most of it comes after the already bad turn when Fernandez utterly chokes on the big action sequence. He can’t keep track of the characters, he can’t keep track of the setting, he can’t keep track of the action. Worse, the issue opens with it. It ought to be a great sequence and instead it’s impossible to imagine it even being successful, much less superior. Frank’s got a little bit of narration for it, then Ennis drops it and Frank from most of the rest of the issue. Instead when it’s on Frank and sidekicks, Yorkie—the ‘Nam buddy turned MI6 assassin—gets the big scene. It’s great scene, with Ennis getting to show off how well he can write expository dialogue about the Troubles and the British soldier take on it. Shame Fernandez does such a bad job with the art.

While Yorkie’s having his combination history lesson and sociology riff, the bad guys are recovering from the opening firefight. Finn—whose terrible rendition (Fernandez somehow has a harder time with bandages on the face than a translucent mask the first couple issues) forecasts the art depths—teams up with widow Brenda while the River Rat brother and sister find themselves on their own (and the sister becomes an even stronger character, despite how bad Fernandez is at her arc in particular), and Maginty gets into a bit of trouble.

It’d be nice if Frank played a bigger part in the story, but it’s also very much not his story. He’s a guest star in his own comic, which is fine—Ennis does well enough with the additional cast—but the art. It’s not fine with the art. Fernandez is just too slim and whatever the compensation thing with White’s colors? Doesn’t work. Really doesn’t work.

Only Ennis’s writing is holding the book up now and he’s got his slips and slides too. Though it’s hard to know if they’re on him or because Fernandez’s composed the panel so poorly.

The Punisher #9, Kitchen Irish, Part 3 (of 6)

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Fernandez’s art is so underwhelming the entire issue feels like it’s incomplete. Like it’s storyboards for the actual comic. After the opening shoot out, which Fernandez entirely flubs, it’s a talking heads issue and instead of expressions, Fernandez uses a lot of shadows. Static faces and shadows. Sometimes the faces look so static you think they’re just copied and pasted from another panel. Even stranger is when colorist Dean White tries to pick up the slack for the lack of dimension, doing it in the coloring (particularly on faces), only then his shadows don’t match Fernandez’s shadows.

Other than the art problems, it’s a solid issue. Lots of exposition (from everyone but Frank) and the introduction of Brenda Toner, wife of Tommy, who is being cut up by Napper French for Magnify. Brenda proves to be a lot tougher than her husband’s goons, which is nice. She’s a loathsome character, but not as cruel as Finn or Maginty. And not as dumb as the bro in charge of the River Rats. So she’s at least interesting. Unfortunately she’s only it in for a few, poorly illustrated pages.

After the opening shootout involving Frank, the Brits, Finn, and the River Rats, Ennis splits the issue between Frank and the Brits interrogating Finn’s nephew, Finn and his pal regrouping, the River Rats recovering, Maginty getting Napper to cut up Tommy Toner, Brenda Toner getting pieces of her husband. In the interrogation scenes, Frank barely talks. It’s mostly monologuing from head Brit, Yorkie, which is fine… Ennis writes it well. Fernandez doesn’t render it well, but the dialogue’s good. It is redundant because Ennis is going through information the reader already has about what’s going on. It’s like the reader is getting a refresh, only it was just last issue the reader got the information (maybe some of it in the first issue) but it’s more than they need. If the art were better, it probably would just pass, but with the particularly wonky talking heads art? It drags. The most boring stuff in the Punisher comic is the Punisher, because mostly he’s just standing around and letting some other guy do the talking.

There’s some good character work for the younger Brit, the one seeking revenge. Ennis is almost too serious this issue. It’s like he doesn’t know how to balance macabre absurd with the non-absurd. It’s not a misstep, it’s just… incomplete. Maybe better art would’ve fixed it all. Someone really needed to talk to Fernandez about his thumbnails, if he made them, because it’s not just the detail he’s not doing, he’s also not hitting the right action emphases.

And to keep a bridging, talking heads exposition dump of a comic going? Got to have all the right art emphases.

The Punisher #8, Kitchen Irish, Part 2 (of 6)

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This issue introduces two more groups involved in Kitchen Irish, starting with the British guys. One of them is a Vietnam vet who knows Frank from the war, the other is the son of the last British foot soldier killed in Northern Ireland. The older guy, Yorkie, is bringing the younger guy, Andy, along because the guy who killed his dad is villain Finn Cooley’s nephew. They meet up with Frank and Yorkie goes over Finn’s history with the IRA, fleshing out some backstory for that character (Finn). It’s a nice talking heads scene—spread throughout the issue—particularly because it forces Frank to be sociable. Or his version of sociable. There’s no Frank narration this issue.

Then there are the River Rats, a gang of modern-day pirates who target yachts headed for the Hamptons to rob. Lots of action with them, then lots of character setup after the job’s finished and they’re on their way to the bar. The yacht robbery feels like an entirely different comic book but it works out fine; Fernandez’s action art on it is strong, Ennis keeps it moving. The characters are kind of bland though, at least compared to the rest of the bad guys. Ennis throws out a bunch of character names, which seem disposable at this point, and it’s just texture.

Speaking of the other bad guys, there’s more of Maginty getting the old guy to cut up a rival gang leader while the grandson is handcuffed to a radiator in the other room. There’s not a lot of violence in the issue, most of it’s implied, but the psychological aspect is there. The grandson clearly shouldn’t be involved in what’s going on in the comic, but then should anyone else.

Ennis still hasn’t revealed what all the bad guys are talking about—money but no context for it—and the issue ends with Frank getting ready to take on Finn, who makes the mistake of going out in public after the bombing last issue. Not sure how Frank finds him. Maybe the British intelligence guy knows something?

It’s a concise issue, even when it feels like Ennis and Fernandez are taking their time on action. It’s perfectly paced, perfectly balanced between the various factions. Very thoughtfully executed; very nice Fernandez is able to keep up here too.

The Punisher #7, Kitchen Irish, Part 1 (of 6)

Ennis does three things with the first issue of Kitchen Irish, he sets up Frank’s involvement, introduces two bad guys. The bad guy introductions are separate because only one set of bad guys—led by a disfigured, former IRA bomber—have anything to do with the issue’s inciting incident (an explosion). The other bad guy has his own separate, kind of horrifying thing going. Frank does introduce a third set of bad guys—while everyone talks about four total sets—but the emphasis is on Frank’s narration, which is a history lesson.

Kitchen refers to Hell’s Kitchen, which is going through gentrification and only hoods and the Punisher are longing for the old days. It’s never really clear what Frank’s doing before the explosion changes the course of his day. It also doesn’t matter. Ennis uses Frank’s narration to set up his mindset and perspective, then it’s for exposition on the ground situation with the hoods, but the comic quickly becomes all about the villains. And some of the action, though Leandro Fernandez concentrates on the composition a lot more than the detail of the action. More on Fernandez in a bit.

The issue’s two villain introductions are strong. Finn, the IRA bomber, and his somewhat dopey, blusterous Irish-American sidekicks, and Maginty, an apparently vicious Black Irish hood (Finn and company are at least weary, if not scared, of him). Finn and company get a far less dramatic reveal than Maginty, who gets the last scene in the comic, where he kidnaps a kid. Maginty’s trying to get the grandfather to cut up a body for him; not out of the blue, the grandfather used to cut up bodies for the Irish mob. Frank running around rooftops to watch some guy through his sniper rifle doesn’t start to compare.

Partially because of Fernandez, partially becomes Ennis’s intentionally focused on the villain introductions. Frank’s already gotten a great sequence as he recovers from the explosions and finds himself in shock, physical and mental. But Fernandez… the more he does, the less well he does it. The art is occasionally lazy (Finn’s sidekicks have the same face in a few panels, just different hair, only then their haircuts change too) while the writing is disciplined and thorough. It’s hard not to imagine how the comic might read with a more effective artist. Even when Fernandez doesn’t do anything wrong, he also never does it right enough.

Nowak’s Girl Town

Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak cover art

Girl Town is haunted. Far more than it is haunting. Creator Carolyn Nowak often cuts right before it gets haunting, instead its cast is haunted. Town collects five different stories. At least two of them deal with heartache. Two of them deal with nonspecific ache. One of them is potential literature but in the modern podcast, fandom era.

Nowak has some similar themes and visuals. She’s got this “roofs off” shot she does into houses. Sometimes it’s for establishing shots, sometimes it’s for scene. Usually it’s establishing shots. Theme-wise, things are often in a near future of some sort. The first story has space being colonized and attractive women left behind on Earth instead of getting to go into space. The third story—by far the longest one (sort of the “feature”)—is about a woman getting a sex robot who proves, just like the T-800, to be the only one who measures up (no, not that way). Those two stories, the futuristic realism ones, are the two heartache stories. The first one—the first story in the collection—ends with this really awesome, really weird move from Nowak where she changes things up at the last minute, staying truer to the character than reader expectation.

It helps set the tone for the rest of the book. Like the second story, which has an unexpected finish as well. It’s a little bit more magical realism than futuristic; there are some mundane fantastics in it, but no specific sci-fi tech. The second story is really good too. Town just keeps getting better until the sex robot feature; after it, the intensity of the read changes. The fourth story is that aforementioned potential literature one. It’s all about these two podcasters who get their hands on a copy of a rare vampire TV movie from the early nineties. It’s got a cult following, even though no one has seen it since it first aired. It works out to be a really nice, really assured story. Different from everything else, but a nice show of range.

Then the finale is an encore of the quiet devastation Nowak does earlier. The last story has no futurism, no magic. It’s just about sadness and memory. The characters are so layered—Nowak’s got these aching leads opposite powerful, confident love interests and friends—and the finish to the story just makes the whole book ache. Just like the first story’s ending reverberates through the rest of the read, the last reveal shoots it back to the front. Girl Town is a literal mood.

The Punisher #5, In the Beginning, Part 5 (of 6)

The Punisher #4; Marvel Comics, MAX; June 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

No spoilers but it’s appropriately awesome how Frank gets out of the cliffhanger. That resolution gives way to the female CIA agent showing up and attacking the mobsters, saving her boss, distracting the goons from Frank, which gives Micro the chance to loose him.

The resulting action sequence is fast, bloody, and brutal. LaRosa paces the action out beautifully. Even though Frank’s been in action before in the series, it’s been a while and we’ve just sat through two full issues of Micro hyping up The Punisher. Turning him loose—with Micro mooning on about it after unlocking Frank’s chains—Ennis has to be careful not to go overboard. It’s intense, but guided. During that sequence, Ennis also shifts the narrative distance a little, back to Frank. It’s no longer Micro running their scenes together, it’s Frank. It’s a distinct change, alongside the CIA and mob plot lines, which stay about the same. Sure, there are going to be less CIA agents in play, but there’s only one more issue in the arc. Ennis is very clearly building up to something.

The issue ends on a softer cliffhanger. The danger is unseen, but imminent. Frank has called the mob boss up and told him to come and get it. Meanwhile, the CIA boss is betting his career on being able to bring home The Punisher.

As for Micro, well, Frank tries to explain how he doesn’t actually understand the things he thinks he understands. Once they’re out of the interrogation room, Frank starts talking a lot more, which Ennis does very, very carefully. Frank hasn’t had much dialogue until now. There’s probably twice as much dialogue from him in this issue as in the previous four combined, not counting the narration, which is a different thing.

But Frank talking to Micro? Trying to make him see reality. Ennis is on a tightrope to get across enough information without giving Frank any extraneous lines.

It entirely changes the Micro character, turning him into tragic figure, one whose misunderstanding is going to get him in more trouble than anything else ever would have. Including his arrangement with the CIA boss, which Micro seems to have gone for just because he desperately wanted to make Frank—and himself—more legitimately relevant.

Ennis makes Micro sympathetic without having any sympathy for him.

While moving the narrative distance away from Micro’s shoulder and over to Frank’s. It’s the most exquisite writing yet, if only because it makes Frank so much more active a participant.

The Visual Reflux Podcast | Season 1 | Episode 1

When you last heard from Vernon and I, we were finishing up the Comics Fondle podcast and planning on doing a sequel series–Visual Reflux. And now Visual Reflux is here. Give it a listen! We still talk about lots and lots of comics.

The Punisher #2, In the Beginning, Part 2 (of 6)

The Punisher #2The Punisher #2; Marvel Comics, MAX; March 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

The second issue of Punisher, second part of the story arc, echoes nicely with the first. Last issue opened in a cemetery, this issue opens in a cemetery. Ennis also explores a little of Frank’s regular behavior; meeting one of his informants, getting involved with something there, then just heading home and cleaning his guns. Presumably Frank spends a lot of time cleaning guns.

Ennis splits the rest of the issue between Microchip and the mob. Microchip’s got to convince his rogue C.I.A. handlers he can deliver on his promise to get Frank while this New York mobster calls this other, higher up mobster to come help since Frank has wiped out all the higher level mobsters in New York. Ennis has a lot of fun with both scenes. The comic’s only got maybe six—Frank at the cemetery, Micro, Frank and the informant, mob guy, Frank cleaning guns, cliffhanger. It’s real simple, reads kind of fast, kind of not. Ennis puts a lot of attention into the dialogue for Micro, the conversation with the mobsters. Because the cliffhanger has to be a surprise. Ennis is trying to shock the reader and it works.

LaRosa does better with the action than the talking heads. There’s a lot of digital editing on the talking heads panels and sometimes the colors are doing the shading work, which doesn’t match the rest of the issue. But the point is the dialogue. The art is secondary in those scenes. A distant second.

Micro’s exposition dump has a little more about of the back story—in Punisher Max universe; he and Frank worked together for ten years, he helped Frank kill over eight hundred people, before Micro came along Frank was just a nut job with a gun, basically. In the moment, it doesn’t read too much like self-aggrandizing—Micro’s also showing off his tough guy cred in the scene—which is impressive since it’s a lot of self-aggrandizing. Ennis does a phenomenal job setting the narrative distance with Micro and the mobsters. The way he angles it, it feels like the book is going to alternate the reader’s perspective from being in line with Micro and being in line with the mobsters. They’re both after Frank, Frank will be the subject.

It’s a really nice move, especially given how the cliffhanger functions (and turns everything upside-down).

The visiting mobsters (from Boston) are more Ennis eccentrics than anyone else in the comic so far; the sexually explicit C.I.A. agent doesn’t have much to do this issue (except get in a couple great lines). But the mob guys? The leader is slick and mean and generic, but his stooges are amazing. There’s the rude one and the weird quiet one. The rude one is somewhat standard looking—tough little, older guy in a tracksuit—but the quiet one looks like Beaker from the Muppets. They both get excellent moments during their scene; Ennis knows how to lay in sly humor. Even if it’s terrible.

It’s almost like the big boom of the cliffhanger distracts from all the strong work the comic does throughout. Almost like, but not quite. Ennis keeps it all balanced.

The Punisher #1, In the Beginning, Part 1 (of 6)

The Punisher #1The Punisher #1; Marvel Comics, MAX; March 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

The first page of the issue is the Castle family tombstone. Names, birth years, death year. 1976. A Marvel comic with years. Well, a MAX Comic. And the MAX Comics Punisher apparently isn’t going to be de-aging Frank Castle.

Well, actually, it does. The Punisher first appeared in 1974. So, 1976 is at least two years adjusted, but whatever. Frank’s going to be in his fifties at least.

The next page introduces the “MAX” Punisher. He’s a shadowy giant, his face indeterminately scarred. Penciller Lewis LaRosa and inker Tom Palmer rarely show Frank’s eyes. Instead they’re just shadows on his steely face. The first seven pages of the comic are the closest to an origin writer Garth Ennis does; Frank narrating his recollection of the family’s “picnic in the park.” The sounds of the machine guns, the expressions of his family—the expressions. Everyone else in the comic emotes through their eyes. Frank’s the only one who doesn’t. LaRosa and Palmer do a devastating job with these single, two-thirds of the page panels of the Castle family as they’re shot. Then there’s the “bridge” to the present. And the only questionable pages of art in the entire issue. They’re not LaRosa’s fault, not Palmer’s fault, maybe not even Ennis’s. There’s just something off about a Frank Castle amid anonymous New Yorkers panel and a gun porn panel. The comic’s got its Tim Bradstreet cover, it’s more than got its quota of gun porn just from it.

And then LaRosa’s full page Frank, skull, and guns doesn’t work either. Not after the gentle open with the family. Horrifying but gentle.

Juxtaposed against Frank’s big action set piece, the rest of the issue is setting up the arc’s hook—there are these shadowy government agents surveilling Frank for some reason. Because his old buddy Microchip has apparently sold him out. Lots of hand-wringing from Micro at the end, lots of emotion (in face and eyes), some wistful expounding about Frank Castle, and—frankly—a too quick end to the issue.

Frank’s action set piece has him taking out a bunch of mafiosos en masse with a big gun. Ennis writes some fantastic narration for it. From page two, he’s got Frank’s voice. Because Frank’s got to make it all seem not just plausible but rational and inevitable.

Lots of blood and gore, some swearing, even some Ennis dirty jokes—one of the agents has the hots for Frank and she’s explicit when describing her thoughts to her prude partner. There’s a little more character development on them later, all in dialogue, all done fast and efficient. Even though it reads a little short and there are those two somewhat wasted pages at the end of the “prologue,” Ennis paces The Punisher #1 beautifully.

As the first “X-rated” Punisher comic, Ennis manages to do the proof-of-concept and get his actual story started without ever having to change pace. Considering some of the comic—some of the arc (it’s titled In the Beginning after all) is going to be about Ennis showing his “take” on the MAX Frank.

It’s a really good first issue.

Robocop: Last Stand #4 (November 2013)

Robocop: Last Stand #6Robocop: Last Stand; Boom! Studios; November 2013; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

Putting on my Robocop nerd hat a minute (does it ever come off?), the first film’s writers wanted it to be a commentary on how Detroit used to make the best cars and—by the eighties—they made shit. This issue of Robocop: Last Stand has an inspiring, come-together moment for Detroiters to rebuild Murphy in a garage. One has to imagine if it’d made it into a movie, even Robocop 3, it’d have been effective. Well, okay, maybe not Robocop 3 as it is, but a 3 more like Last Stand.

The garage where they put Robo back together again is called “The Stand,” no less.

I’d been waiting for this issue to see if I was right about Boom! and Grant splitting the series into two parts, one through four (for the first trade), five through eight (for the second). The answer—should Last Stand be read in two sittings, one (or eight)—is complicated and immaterial. Last Stand doesn’t work as a “movie,” it works as a comic, where it doesn’t need anything resembling a three act structure—whether it has one or not, the medium doesn’t require it. Not when the book relies so heavily on Oztekin’s art. It’s a mostly action issue—there’s some big changes at OCP, which is some talking heads but mostly action too—as Robocop and his young, still nameless orphan charge lead the OCD cops on a car chase, culminating in Robocop and kid trapped in the sewer, Robocop literally falling to pieces.

This sequence is mostly from the girl’s perspective, which gives Grant a chance to be funny without being crude. Last Stand’s usually got a pretty base humor—the jokes at the expense of capitalist stooges aren’t subtle—and having the kid run the show for a bit is nice. She doesn’t overstay the spotlight. She and Robo trying to find the “rebels” is concurrent to the OCD cops hassling said rebels at their day job. Or at least at Bertha’s diner, where they all seem to hang out.

The tone shift—action chase then tense comedy (in a couple different situations)—gives Oztekin a lot to do. There’s frenetic action in the car chase and then frenetic energy from the participants of the diner sequence, as the cops can’t resist threatening (or trying to threaten) the civilians and the civilians aren’t going to be threatened.

That inspiring come-together finish, where the ragtag group of Detroit natives put Robo back together again is more of a writing thing. Oztekin’s got to match the script’s tempo. The rest of the issue, the comic has to meet his.

The way Grant plots Last Stand, as issues, in half, as a whole, is kind of permanently screwed up but thanks to Oztekin, it’s always gloriously so.

Robocop: Last Stand #3 (October 2013)

Robocop: Last Stand #3

Robocop: Last Stand; Boom! Studios; 2013; $3.99; 32 pgs; available collected.

Robocop: Last Stand #3 gives a great example of what’s lost in the idea of adapting Robocop 1, 2, 3, or 4 to comic books—the damage to Robocop. The movies are all about him getting beat to crap, just about broken, losing limbs, his human face getting revealed, on and on. This issue has something similar, but since Robo doesn’t have anyone to play off of, Grant and Oztekin can’t give any insight into his condition. The comic doesn’t have any Robo-vision shots giving the efficiency level. It’s just a lot of dialogue-free action as Robocop tries to survive an ambush by the Japanese cyborg bad guy. It’s a great sequence, thanks to Oztekin’s art and how he paces it, but it’s extremely detached from Robocop’s trials.

In fact, when he rescues a young girl left homeless by a fire (one the evil company doesn’t let the firefighters fight until Robocop forces them to do so), Grant’s script moves to her perspective (because she’s talking) and Oztekin follows suit (a little, but a little shift in the art’s narrative distance is a big thing).

The issue opens awkwardly once again; turns out the final panel of last issue was one of those panels where Oztekin was doing important, unspoken visual exposition. Once the issue reorients—there’s a twisted back twist to start things off, which might play differently in the trade—it’s straight into the Robocop action. The beginning, albeit with the plot twist teaser and some black comedy, is all evil company OCP plotting and bickering. The comic’s biggest leap in logic is how such a dysfunctional organization could coordinate enough to even set a trap for Robocop. And not because Robocop is too smart, but because there’s no one particularly bright at OCP.

Once the action starts at the burning building, it never stops. The third act of the issue, with Robo playing guardian to the little girl, is just him getting into a souped up car so he can outrun the OCP cops chasing him. It’s got an excellent pace thanks to Oztekin (and presumably Grant) and a rather effective finish.

Though, once again, it feels like Grant is just starting the story. Now we’re going into the second act, at the end of #3. Of eight.

So it’ll be very interesting if the next issue really does end with a “Volume One” feel.

Robocop: Last Stand #2 (September 2013)

Robocop: Last Stand #2

Robocop: Last Stand; Boom! Studios; 2013; $3.99; 32 pgs; available collected.

The previous issue of Robocop: Last Stand had a weird ending; it was truncated. This issue continues that scene and it’s very awkward since the previous context is gone. Maybe Grant’s not so much being quirky with the screenplay adaptation as just not knowing how to break out scenes because this issue goes out on a very similar truncation. Instead of the end of a scene, it’s like the “movie” fades out on a reaction shot.

But once that awkward opening is done—it’s also part of the Robocop and Marie character arc, which is pretty strange—the issue’s incredibly solid. Grant just has a hard time with the two characters. Robo it’s hard because he doesn’t have a story arc (it started before the comic did, with the cops being shut down or maybe Nancy Allen getting killed), Marie because she’s the tech person without any history. She’s a Robocop expert—at one point she tells Bertha how she’s only in it for Robocop, not to help save Old Detroit from OCP and the Japanese bad guys. Oztekin uses a lot of in-panel action this issue, often with Marie and Bertha, because he’s trying to move along conversation without going over to talking heads for exposition. It’s a nice move but it doesn’t leave time to really think about the ramifications of Bertha or Marie’s statements; see, Bertha doesn’t think it’s cool Marie is trying to make Robo fall for her, even if Bertha does just think Robo’s a tool.

There’s some more interesting “sequel” stuff this issue, with Dan O’Herlihy’s “Old Man” from the first two movies returning. He wasn’t back in that Miller Robocop 2 adaptation, so it’s a bit of a surprise (even if it’s an inglorious cameo). Meanwhile, villain lady from 2 is also back, which is a bigger surprise when taking that Frank Miller Robo 2 adaptation into account—the character, while a villain lady, was a different villain lady. Grant does a rather good job bringing the character back here; she’s in charge of the company’s brainwashing unit, which electro-shocks teens into behaving well. It’s all prelude to a solid action sequence.

Lots of good art from Oztekin, but more impressively the way he utilizes the panels to move scenes along. Grant has a some decent scenes too, though—like I said before—the end has a similar truncation problem to the first issue.

I really do wonder if Boom! laid out the comic to be read in two four issue trades. I’ll have to pay attention to the end of #4.

Robocop: Last Stand #1 (August 2013)

Robocop: Last Stand #1

Robocop: Last Stand; Boom! Studios; 2013; $3.99; 32 pgs; available collected.

Robocop: Last Stand is, conceptually, a tough sell. It’s a comic book adaptation of a movie no one liked (Robocop 3) when it came out twenty years before the first issue of Last Stand dropped. It’s ostensibly based on Frank Miller’s original screenplay, but when a different publisher did a “based on Frank Miller’s original screenplay” adaptation of Robocop 2 (just called Frank Miller’s Robocop), it turned out Miller’s Robocop 2 script included a lot of his Robocop 3 too. That much-hyped adaptation, Frank Miller’s Robocop, wasn’t just a bad comic, it was a notoriously late one. It’s also not like there had been any particularly good Robocop comics over the years. But the license kept bopping around as one publisher after another tried to hit Robo-gold.

So it’s interesting Last Stand is so… well… good.

The comic is a perfect storm of creative impulse—Steven Grant’s adaptation of the film (which he’d already adapted for Dark Horse back in 1993) is one event after another, with Korkut Öztekin’s punky cartooning tying them together. This first issue has plenty of action violence, but never gets particularly gory. Or, more accurately, Öztekin doesn’t focus on the gore. He emphasizes the action, focuses on the characters.

The issue opens with the issue’s only direct tie-in to the Frank Miller’s Robocop series, which Boom! (Last Stand publisher) reprinted when they picked up the Robo-license. It’s a TV ad showing the future dystopia, which the movies did a lot better. The TV segment also reveals some of the ground situation—Robocop has gone rogue. The newscasters, again played by Leeza Gibbons (who hadn’t returned for the actual Robocop 3) and Mario Machado don’t buy it. The evil company, OCP, has fired all the cops. They’ve also renamed their urban housing project for some nonsensical reason. Maybe something with the license?

Seriously, if it weren’t for Öztekin, the most interesting thing about Last Stand would definitely be the behind-the-scenes editorial mandates.

There’s an action intro to Robocop, saving a streetwalker from the OCP cops, then the action cuts to a new character, Marie. She’s trying to find Robocop. Only Grant doesn’t establish her name so her identity is unclear; she could even be Nancy Allen. Only she’s not because there’s a flashback to Nancy Allen dying and making Robocop promise to avenge her, which he’s apparently doing now as he takes on the OCP cops.

Meanwhile, OCP is trying to kick people out of their homes in Old Detroit and they’ve only got five days to do it, then OCP and their Japanese financing partners will default. There’s a big expository altercation involving a company suit, Bertha (who everyone always assumed was a Frank Miller nod to Martha Washington, but who knows), and then Robocop. Öztekin gets to do a big action scene involving an ED-209 robot, then the issue ends awkwardly with Marie—introducing herself finally—tracking down Robocop.

The awkward finish, which leaves the scene hanging mid-conversation, is just the sort of awkward Last Stand needs. Grant and Öztekin can only do so much, with a Robocop 3 adaptation, with a Robocop comic, and the truncated finish seems to acknowledge it. Grant’s not willing to make Robocop a more traditional protagonist, but he’s also shifting the spotlight. Not in this first issue, anyway.

The comic functions as a peculiar hook, distinguishing itself—in no small part thanks to Öztekin—from all those conceptual limitations and obligations.

Maybe it’s all thanks to editors Alex Galer and Eric Harburn. But whoever’s responsible… it’s a Robocop comic where you want to read the next one, which is quite a feat.

Peloponnesian Cliffs

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Titan Comics; issues 1-5 (of 5); 2017-18; $3.99, most issues 32 pgs ea., first issue 56 pgs; collection (2018), $19.99.

En France… whoops, sorry. In France, Hercules came out in three forty-eight pages volumes. The first came out in 2012, the second in 2013, the third in 2017. It appears each volume is going to be one of Hercules’s twelve labors. Are they called labors? I spent about fifteen minutes trying to dig up original publication information because French comics information doesn’t get readily translated. The Wikipedia page for Hercules author JD Morvan is atrocious.

The reason I was trying to dig up that original publication information is because Wrath of the Heavens is five issues and gets through the first three labors. I was even reading up on Hercules’s Wiki to try to figure out if the story was done or if the gigantic cliffhanger was indeed a cliffhanger.

I’m not familiar with the mythological Hercules, which (thanks Wikipedia) doesn’t matter too much with Morvan’s hard sci-fi take on him. It’s the far flung future, humanity lives in some kind of servitude to intergalactic beings (the gods). There’s a bit about a revolution of the humans being bad because it would tank the economy. Morvan does a really good job updating the mythology and adding to it. Same goes for Looky, who realizes it all without ever getting goofy with the design. The gods look like gods, but in the context of being this special race of alien overlords.

There are some too obvious moves—humanity is called sklaves or slkaves or something similar. It’s slaves, get it. But it usually doesn’t matter because the story’s moving so well, which is another reason the strangely abrupt ending seems wrong. Morvan is very deliberate in his plotting. The finish is perfunctory at best.

The comic’s got some inventive and loose adapting as far as the mythological source material goes, which is weird at first then improves. Awesome art start to finish. Some of the characters resonate, even though Hercules is a bit underdeveloped. His actions are interesting to Morvan, not his reactions.

It’s a good comic. I only hope it doesn’t take another five years to get the next installment.

Though Titan, who translates and reprints, seem to have waited until the third volume was done for this series and it’ll be ages for labors four through six get done. There’s not even a four in France yet.

In Threes and Fours: Christmas Alien

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Dark Horse Comics; issues 1-4 (of 5); 2018-19; $3.99, 32 pgs ea.

I’m really impressed with Johnnie Christmas’s Alien 3 from Dark Horse. No doubt they’ll lose their Fox licenses to Marvel, who should just have Disney buy Dark Horse at this point, since it would simplify reprints and give Marvel a better back catalogue.

Because someday Disney and AT&T having a big back catalogue of mainstream but indie genre comics will be important.

Anyway, Christmas is doing an adaptation of the William Gibson A3 script, which has probably been floating around the Internet since Usenet. I know I’ve downloaded it a couple times and never read it, separated by large swathes of time, getting it the second time because I was nostalgic for being a teenager who thought he’d someday have time to read unproduced screenplays, like it would be important.

Crying emoji.

But it’s not a bad story. Elements have come through in the subsequent sequels, though Christmas also appears to be doing some knowing homage, which is cool. Christmas never gets lost in the homage, just the occasional nod. It’s well-executed.

Unfortunately I read the first four issues without realizing it was a five issue series. I would have just waited. But depending on how it wraps up, I’m considering doing a focus on it. I watched about half of that “Alien: Isolation” digital series and so maybe I’m just more aware of how easy it is to do this kind of thing poorly—this kind of thing meaning to insert breaks into a narrative to serialize it—Christmas’s adaptation is more impressive.

I imagine it’ll all hinge on how it wraps up, but so far it’s all very character-focused. Christmas isn’t doing an Aliens comic so he can do a lot of Alien drawings. He always works with the characters, making it far more like Aliens than one would assume. Depending on that last issue, who knows… maybe I’ll finally read that Gibson script. Though I would need to download it again.

If this adaptation ends up being one of Dark Horse’s best Aliens comics… well, the best Robocop comic is the BOOM! Robocop 3 so….

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

Love and Rockets #50 (May 1996)

Love and Rockets #50

Fantagraphics; 1996; $4.95; 60 pgs; available collected.

Love and Rockets #50 is a perfectly solid issue of Love and Rockets. Beto’s Palomar farewell is outstanding in its execution, with him employing a lot more comic strip-influenced narrative techniques than usual. He doesn’t have enough room, it’s clear, and some things are rushed. Mario’s back for the finale too, which is fitting since he was in the first issue. It’s a perfectly good Mario story, not great, but with some excellent art and a fine sense of humor. And even Jaime’s Locas finale is good. It’s definitely affecting, even when Jaime’s being manipulative and burning through pages for no reason except to mess with the reader. Beto doesn’t have enough room, Jaime’s got too much.

The issue starts and ends with Jaime’s last two parts of “Bob Richardson,” which have seemingly unrelated short text pages before them. Short but big letters. So when the third part of the story opens with “God Mother Son,” you’re paying some attention to Esther talking on the phone to her mom. Maggie’s off having a really weird scene with the masked wrestler where she tells him about their mistaken engagement (her family thinks they’re getting married, as does Danita who’s in love with said masked wrestler). It’s a wordy, lengthy scene and Jaime doesn’t really get anywhere with it. Maggie seems weird. And she goes on seeming weird the rest of the chapter. Jaime’s lost her perspective. Even though “Bob Richardson” always seemed like a series finale for the strip, chapter three doesn’t feel much like chapters one or two. Maggie’s positioned way different. So’s Danita. Esther gets more to do but it’s literally nothing for herself.

Then there’s a break and it’s time for Mario’s interlude. It’s a story about him (Mario) losing his comics creating muse and how he gets her back. There’s some great art and it’s always an amusing story. It’s just not particularly special, other than Mario coming in and doing a last contribution. It just…doesn’t make a lot of sense given how little Mario’s done in the book lately. It’d be a lot more effective if he’d been regularly contributing. Emotionally effective anyway.

And then it’s for the Palomar extro, where Beto runs through what seem like a dozen story ideas–some resolving outstanding issues, some creating new ones–in twenty-four wonderful pages. There’s a big overarching story–an earthquake has hit Palomar and residents are back from all over to help in the time of crisis, including Luba’s family from the States (save Maricela). Even the awful American photographer guy comes back for a bit. It’s not exactly like a Human Diastrophism-focused sequel, but it’s sort of like one.

Beto does an amazing job hopping and skipping through all the stories as they go. Sometimes a scene or a subplot will get its own page, usually not. Sometimes it’s just an extremely well-executed panel. It’s kind of a Chelo story, but also a Luba and family story–which now includes Pipo. It’s very interesting to see how all the characters interact thanks to their developed, much different relationships, something Beto mostly skipped over when he left Palomar for a while. It’s a far more upbeat Palomar story than usual, full of Beto’s love and enthusiasm for the characters.

And he finally makes the Guadalupe and Jesus stuff work, though I might just be worn down in the last issue.

The last page is a big reveal. Sort of. It’s a big reveal with no bearing on the series, not even in hindsight. It’s just a big smile to go out on.

Jaime’s also got a big reveal in the last seven pages of Locas, “Bob Richardson Part Four.” He intentionally wastes three of those pages so it’s more like four, story-wise. Of course, the big reveal comes as an aside on one of the wasted pages, not even given a hint of the time it deserves. One last revelation about Speedy.

But otherwise, it’s just a chipperer-than-ever-before Hopey finally tracking Maggie down. Maggie’s possibly sad out of jealousy, possibly not. Doesn’t actually matter as it turns out, because the grand finale hinges on coincidence and bad luck. It’s a really fast, flashy finale, with Jaime laying on the nostalgia. It’s a perfunctory finish. There’s no ambition to it, not like Beto did in his Palomar farewell. Jaime just lets it wrap up and avoids the rest. The big difference, as always, being Beto never avoids anything, he just paces it out. Jaime always implies he’s pacing it out, then just avoids it.

Some great art on the Jaime stories, of course.

The last pages of the comic advertise the future from Los Bros, so you’re not too broken up about the series’s conclusion (I mean, Beto practically has Chelo advertise a new Luba comic), but it’s an earnest occasion. Especially since both Bros had done some amazing work in just the last few issues, when they weren’t steaming to the end. Or, at least, you didn’t know they were. Love and Rockets goes out high.

Love and Rockets #49 (November 1995)

Love and Rockets #49

Fantagraphics; 1995; $2.95; 36 pgs; available collected.

On the inside front cover, there’s an announcement Love and Rockets #49 is the penultimate issue. Both Bros embrace it, but very, very differently.

Beto has this exceedingly disturbing and self-loathing series of short strips, usually starring himself (or an obvious analog). There’s some great art and some rather good storytelling–like the one where he talks about meeting a girl–and some “funny” anecdotes. Like the kid superhero, unidentified by name, he just has a big G on his chest. There’s also a lot about racism and how it exists simultaneous with his art. Like, it’s a lot. Beto digs really, really deep. Or gives the impression of doing so. Given the bad situations the stories recount or imply, one hopes there’s some narrative liberty.

The least depressing story has a guy chopped in the head with a butcher knife who can’t get change to make a phone call. Because maybe all but two of the rest of them have a bunch to do with abuse. Usually with a child suffering. Like, it’s really heavy, all the way through.

Beto’s got some great visual pacing in the stories, great storytelling, especially with the longer pieces (standouts for visual storytelling are the superhero one and one with an alien kid getting in trouble for staying out after school). Oh. And then the adorable Disney one about the dead father.

Running through it all is this undercurrent Beto–the creator–is a failure for the series ending.

It’s almost unbearably heavy.

Jaime does the complete opposite. Sure Maggie’s got to tell everyone she’s not really getting married and she’s got to survive Rena and her cousin getting attacked by would-be kidnappers, but it’s all fun. Rena and her cousin kick ass. The cousin’s the masked wrestler who Danita works for and, we find out, secretly loves. Danita’s convinced Maggie is going to steal him away. Meanwhile Esther feels like Maggie is abandoning her after her telling her to come to Texas. And Hopey is in town on tour and trying to see Maggie.

There’s some wonderful art and great moments from Jaime and he’s really just getting ready to give everyone a nice ending. It’s all romantic confusion and delayed gratification (the Locas way). There’s a cameo from one of Luba’s sisters, which is funny, and then a visual callback to the Izzy story in the very first Love and Rockets. Jaime’s story seems content.

Beto’s stories do not.

It’s a great issue. The clashing styles does make it read a little funny–if Beto went second with all the downers it’d be a very different experience–but Jaime’s pacing makes it work. He seems to have some regret about wasting Esther and Danita’s time, which makes one wonder what the original plan was for the three girls living together.

But it’s an extremely well-executed wrap-up. Jaime’s storytelling is a lot tighter. Even if it does turn Hopey into a cameo in her own book.

Love and Rockets #48 (August 1995)

Love and Rockets #48

Fantagraphics; 1995; $2.95; 36 pgs; available collected.

Two issues to go, but no countdown clock other than Beto promising a last visit to Palomar in #50. Now, he got me once before with that Farewell, My Palomar story so I’m not sure I’d have believed him back in 1995.

Because the Jaime story, despite dealing with Maggie trying to tie up the loose ends of her life, doesn’t seem like an end of the book story. It might be an end of the arc story, but there’s nothing ominous about the story. It’s Maggie going and telling people she’s getting married, presumably to a guy named Bob Richardson (the title of the story). She breaks wrestler Gina’s heart, has a pointless farewell with the migrant worker guy who she literally made out with once, tells Aunt Vicki, then gets herself held hostage with Rena.

Locas is so much more exciting with Rena around.

Meanwhile, Esther is having a secret birthday and Danita is thinking maybe her boss is sweet on her. Mild stuff. Then a big cliffhanger. It’s good. Jaime works at it composition-wise. Maybe it doesn’t feel like a second-to-penultimate story because it’s such a solid narrative. Jaime’s not doing a long-form Peanuts, he’s doing a Locas. It’s really cool.

But then Jaime does that promised “Last Maria and Gorgo Story,” which is about Fritzi and Petra going down to Palomar to meet Luba, Guadalupe revealing her son’s father, Gorgo and Luba getting used to being around each other, whatever’s going on with Jesus and Guadalupe stalking him (sort of). It’s all set against Doralis getting famous on TV. It’s a big, awesome story, in seventeen pages but two of them don’t relate so it’s fifteen amazing pages. It’s absurdly great work.

There a bunch of Palomar cameos–Ofelia gets an arc, sort of, but enough of one–and maybe even some visual references to previous issues. There’s one big one and I wish I could remember if Beto’d used the visual before. Luba also gets more to do than she’s had, in the present, since before Poison River. It’s established material with Beto’s always developing narrative skills looking at it with slightly different eyes. It’s very much a done-in-one.

And then Beto just one-ups the whole thing with the last page. It’s too good.

Right before he promises last Palomar story in two issues, which doesn’t exactly make the story any better but it does make reading experience sincerly precious. After forty-seven issues, Beto’s earned the right to be sincerly precious with Palomar. He’s more than earned it.

Great issue.

Love and Rockets #47 (April 1995)

Love and Rockets #47

Fantagraphics; 1995; $2.95; 36 pgs; available collected.

It’s an outstanding issue. Los Bros each contribute a story and each story does very different things.

Beto’s first. He’s finally bringing Luba’s daughters into contact with their previously unknown grandmother, while also doing a Gorgo story. There are flashbacks for Gorgo and Maria–including Maria’s (previously unrevealed, I think) involvement in Eduardo’s death (which happened during Poison River). In the present it’s mostly a Doralis story, as she’s meeting her grandmother and Gorgo. She saw Gorgo get shot on the news, so Beto finally irons out that timeline of events. Maricela, Pipo, and Guadalupe all have parts too. As well as Fritzi and Petra. Beto juggles it all beautifully, taking the time to do two almost wordless pages of Maria flashback with a bunch of sci-fi slash good girl art while still making time to do character development on the entire cast. Even Gorgo, though not in the present. He barely speaks in the present.

It’s a fantastic story. Lots of seriousness but a lighter tone than usual. It’s sunnier than Palomar or, most definitely, Poison River.

The end has Luba being brought into it (only just), along with the promise of the “Last Maria/Gorgo Story” next issue. So while Poison River started as a Luba origin story, that phase of Beto’s Love and Rockets has really become the Maria/Gorgo Stories? He’s done amazingly well with it, given how much he’s been doing at once and in extended format. It’s not a single story, it’s threads in a series of stories, something Jaime (initially) did a lot better in the book.

Speaking of Jaime, his story’s excellent too. Though it’s all about the subtle formal exploration he’s doing with it. He’s basically doing a long form Peanuts strip, which he references at the end of the story.

It’s a Maggie (or Perla but really Maggie) story. Danita’s sick and Maggie needs to take her wrestling valet outfit to the evening’s match. Esther’s hanging around the house, around for conversation and to further Maggie’s character development but otherwise mostly inactive. She peaked early.

Simultaneously the prostitute Maggie had problems with at Chester Square gets run out of said strip mall and ends up at an Italian restaurant. After a frustrating adventure of dropping off the outfit at the wrestling match (and having to dodge Gina, who’s still in love with her but also wants to beat her up for the prostitute cutting her), Maggie heads over to the same restaurant. There she’s got to avoid Gina, survive an encounter with the prostitute, all while trying to find out if the masked wrestler Danita works for is handsome under his mask.

And then she runs into an old friend.

It’s light and mostly breezy–though with some real danger at times–and Jaime, of course, avoids the pay-off scene with the old friend. But he doesn’t avoid it too much. He lets it affect Maggie; the story, which is continuous, has some really solid character development for her.

Great art, fantastic visual pacing, all while sticking to that extended form Peanuts riff.

It’s a fantastic issue. Each story has very different ambitions–the enthusiasm is the closest similarity–and both Bros realize them successfully.

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