Patreon Preview Week : “Reckless” By Ed Brubaker And Sean Phillips

I did this last year, so I’m doing it again : in an effort to gin up interest in my Patreon site, I’m posting a selection of reviews that ran on there originally with the brazen goal being to get you, dear reader, to part with a buck (or more, if you wish) per month so that yours truly can find some level of intellectual justification for the sheer amount of time I put into cranking out so much comics criticism. Really, anything helps and is much appreciated. Next up : proof that I don’t ignore the comics mainstream entirely, as I take a look at the first volume in the new graphic novel series from the fan-favorite creative team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips —

Here’s the deal : the crime comics “dream team” of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips have been at it for so damn long now — over two decades, in fact — that they’re bound miss on occasion. The problem for me as a reader and as a critic, though, is that they had a pretty long string of misses going before finally hitting again with their most recent run of Criminal (in particular the two-issue yarn collected as Bad Weekend, which featured a clear Gil Kane stand-in up to even more underhanded shit than the real Gil Kane was sometimes known to be) and, especially, the pulp-western-New Deal thriller PULP, which for my money may be the high-water mark of their collaboration to date.  So, after a long dry spell, 2018-2019 saw the pair, in my humble estimation, back on a real roll.

You know what they say, though — nothing lasts forever.  And while eschewing the single-issue rat race in favor of going directly to self-contained-but-interconnected graphic novels with the adventures of their newest character, Ethan Reckless (hey, don’t laugh — the serial-novel heroes he’s loosely based on such as Remo “The Destroyer” Williams and, even more absurdly, Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin, are exponentially more ludicrous) makes pretty good sense in the post-COVID comics marketplace,  unfortunately too much on offer in his debut story, Reckless, simply doesn’t. That’s my queue to tell you that small but crucial “spoilers” follow —

The nuts and bolts of Ethan’s “character Bible” are interesting enough : former ’70s Weather Underground-style radical injured in a bomb blast that gives him amnesia, dulls his pain receptors, and fucks up his overall emotional processing and affect goes even further underground as an off-the-books private dick is a cool enough conceptual framework for these seasoned hands to craft some fun noir-ish stories around, and the early-’80s LA setting is pretty much pitch-perfect for the kinds of things they’re obviously itching to do. The added wrinkle that Ethan was, in actuality, an FBI CONITELPRO cop secretly out to bust his friends works, too — not because it makes him more likeable, but because it makes him decidedly less so : I mean, good pulp protagonists are almost always morally conflicted, right? The problem arises not from the fact that he’s an asshole, but from the fact that he’s a self-pitying one.

I don’t hold it against Brubaker for starting this new series out with the most obvious story choice of all — old flame from Ethan’s radical days comes back, is in trouble, needs protection from a bad dude, etc. — and again, I’m intrigued that lack of normal emotive ability on the part of our erstwhile “hero” is one of his defining traits. What I do hold against our scribe, though, is a running internal monologue on Ethan’s part throughout that is tinged with remorse not so much for the people he fucked over, but for himself. Rainy, his ex, isn’t even a “character” as much as she is a symbol of all that Ethan had and subsequently lost, and inserting himself into her dilemma, while ostensibly a way to make things right, actually isn’t even that for him in any appreciable way, rather it’s a self-administered test to see if he can still feel anything at all — other than, of course, regret that he can’t feel anything. It’s all pretty frustrating because, again, the sort of character they want this guy to be — and that, in fairness, he may still develop into down the road — seems like he might be a pretty memorable one. But he comes off here as the kind of dude you’ll be happy to forget as surely as he forgets parts of himself.
There are some issues with the pacing of the story, as well — Brubaker delivers his biggest shock twist before even the halfway point, then lays off the gas with any others until serving up a rather customary-for-this-sort-of-thing volley of them at the end, but seems to forget that they each successive one should, ideally, be more impactful that the one that preceded it — but all of that pales in comparison with the folly of trying to make a tough-guy action hero out of the most woe-is-me guy in comics since Ditko’s Peter Parker. And he was supposed to be that way. Ethan Reckless, by contrast, is supposed to be flat, unresponsive, uncaring — but instead comes off as self-absorbed to the point that even his more altruistic moves are open to the “what’s in it for him?” question.  Consequently, when he earns a bit of an emotional respite, maybe even some sense of inner peace, in the book’s final pages, it feels entirely unearned.
I definitely give Phillips credit for pulling his weight, though, and ditto for his son/colorist, Jacob. Projects like The Fade Out and Kill Or Be Killed featured art that leaned far too heavily on photo referencing for my tastes, but here, while Phillips has obviously done his requisite period-setting research, he’s doing mainly free-hand drawing again, and injecting everyone with a fair degree of visual personality that I wish the script lived up to, and the overly-saturated color palette drapes everything in a highly appropriate thick, almost oppressive, California haze. Reckless looks great, then — and I’m sure the series pitch read great — but at $25 per volume, Brubaker’s gonna have to come to grips with how to really write this character pretty quickly before it becomes difficult for readers to justify such a large expenditure three or four times in the next year, as their publishing plan calls for. I guess I remain cautiously optimistic — but damn, how about that? I can’t for the life of me remember why.

Want more? Check out my Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Mainstream Comics Worth Paying Attention To : “Tartarus”

Granted, it’s early days yet, but at three issues in I’m already prepared to say that writer Johnnie Christmas and artist Jack T. Cole’s ambitious sci-fi/comedy epic Tartarus is my favorite thing coming out from Image Comics at the moment, and perhaps my favorite thing coming out of the mainstream in general. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s got everything you want : compelling characters, breakneck action, smart scripting, a solid premise — and, oh yeah, absolutely gorgeous art.

Cole first came across my radar screen via Boom! Studios’ The Unsound, where his stunning visuals elevated a rather derivative horror script from Cullen Bunn and turned the insane asylum of the book’s setting into a Dante-esque phantasmagoria of despair and delight, revenge and revelation, but to say he’s kicked it into another gear here is to sell his visionary work short — his design work and figure drawings belie a little bit of a Moebius influence at the margins, sure, but this is about as close to a wholly original-looking comic as you’re likely to find from a (relatively) major publisher, and with Cole serving as his own colorist, he intuitively selects the best hues to accentuate the inherent strengths in his material, of which there are many. Make no mistake, though, this is not just “eye candy” illustration : his fundamentals in terms of composition and perspective are really sound, as well, making for an experience that’s both “far-out” and grounded in equal measure.

I don’t mean to sideline the writer entirely, though, so let me correct that imbalance before we go any further. Christmas paces a script like nobody’s business, and while the set-up is simple enough  — imperial military cadet Tillie and her woman-crazy BFF Klinzu lead a small band of rebels/fugitives who make a break for it after Tilde is framed for crimes against the established order when said order discovers her to be the daughter of a notorious warlord who led an uprising on the outpost colonial world of, you guessed it, Tartarus — he understands how to do things that have certainly been done before in new and interesting ways, and he’s an expert at crafting scenes that give his collaborator plenty to sink his metaphorical teeth into. Plus, he’s got a great sense of humor and effectively utilizes his far-future setting to comment in wry fashion on a host of contemporary issues ranging from income inequality to online dating. He can overplay his hand toward the obvious sometimes, sure, but by and large he gets the balance between high-octane adventure yarn and critique of modern excess exactly right.

Any weak spots to speak of, then? I’ve gotta be absolutely honest — so far, not yet. There’s an ongoing backup strip called Life by Stephanie Cooke and Megan Huang that’s to date failed to make much of an impression it terms of what it’s trying to achieve, but even there Huang’s visuals are vibrant and absorbing, and who knows? The story might coalesce into something interesting at some point. And even if it doesn’t, it’s not like two subpar pages at the end done by other creators are indicative of any slack in Christmas and Cole’s act.

Now, a quick suggestion if I may be so bold : this title has such a distinctive “Eurocomics” sensibility to it that I sincerely hope Image will consider collecting it in oversized, “album”-style hardbacks rather than their traditional cheaply-made TPBs. Not only would it be a real treat to see Cole’s art presented at a generous size, the format would fit the entire aesthetic that he and Christmas are going for (and achieving) to the proverbial “T.” So yeah, Eric Stephenson, if you happen to be reading —

For those of you who are definitely reading, though, I implore you : don’t sleep on this one. We all know the finances of these creator-owned titles produced under Image’s “buy now, get paid later” business model are tight, and it would be a shame to see this series die a premature death due to simply being economically non-viable. Besides, why deprive yourself of the chance to follow a potential classic-in-the-making as it’s happening? It’ll cost you all of twelve bucks to get caught up on this book — and those will be twelve dollars that are very well-spent indeed.

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Review wrist check – how about the look of my Longines “Legend Diver” riding a Colareb “Spoleto” strap in green? Three days in a row on the wrist and I’m not tired of this combination yet.

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 06/10/2018 – 06/16/2018

If it seems like Image Comics is rolling out a new series (be it limited or ongoing) every week — well, that’s because they are. But even by their standards, four in one week is a lot —

Bloodstrike : Brutalists #0 is the one everyone’s been talking about (although that fact was apparently lost on my LCS owner, who ordered precisely one fucking copy — and it was the godawful Rob Liefeld variant, as opposed to the awesomeness shown above), as it brings the punk ‘zine/”alt” comics sensibilities of the great Michel Fiffe (most notably of Copra fame, although my favorite of his works is unquestionably Zegas) crashing headlong into the mercifully-shuttered world of the aforementioned Mr. Liefeld’s Extreme Studios line-up circa about — I dunno, 1996 or some shit. From the book’s numbering to its purposely-stilted dialogue to its admittedly lame core premise (undead heroes who bear more than a passing resemblance to a bunch of Marvel characters fight equally generic villains for reasons never apparently thought through all that completely) there are any number of deliberate “call-backs” to a late and decidedly un-lamented era of comics history on offer here, but Fiffe isn’t content with some basic-ass exercise in nostalgia, instead allowing his inventive page layouts and inherent sense of visual “flow” to propel the narrative along in a manner that Liefeld (goddamn, there’s that name again!), with his clunky, static, over-rendered-yet-still-hopelessly-sloppy “Hollywood blockbuster on bathtub PCP” imagery never could. This story is apparently a continuation of one left abandoned in the wake of Extreme going belly-up, but it doesn’t matter : no one who was working on the book “back in the day” had any idea what was going with it, either.

Fortunately, Fiffe does, and despite the rather annoying fact that you really do need to read the backmatter here (which comes complete with some hijinks courtesy of Paul Maybury, Benjamin Marra, Charles Forsman, and Ed Piskor, so you won’t regret spending time on it in the least) in order to fully grasp the scope and intentions of the project as a whole, to say nothing of this issue’s narrative specifically, it seems that the characters are given far more meat on their bones in a handful of pages here than they ever were in the sum total of however many issues this series ran for in the past. In short, this is fun stuff with a reasonable amount of thought put into it, especially aesthetically, and since it’s gonna be a brief run (three issues, I thought I heard?), there’s almost no way you won’t get your four bucks’ worth every time. You certainly do here.

Proxima Centauri #1 kicks off a new six-parter appropriate for all ages from the always-interesting Farel Dalrymple, and it’s as utterly charming as it is visually striking. I defy anyone not to take an immediate liking to teen inter-dimensional adventurer Sherwood Breadcoat, and while the “quest across the universe to find our hero’s brother” story is pretty standard as far as plots go, the people, places, and things he encounters along the way are anything but. Rendered with a pleasingly loose line that makes the pages breeze by in something very near to stream-of-consciousness fashion, this is intricately-woven stuff cleverly designed to look and read like it’s literally being made up as Dalrymple goes along. Once in awhile a book hits the stands that is so obviously inventive it literally hurts — this is one, and you don’t want to miss it under any circumstances. Another one well worth forking over $3.99 a pop for.

And while you’ve got four singles out (wait, sorry, that’s eight so far), grab another four and fork ’em on over for The Weather Man #1. Jody LeHeup flexed his comedy “chops” writing Shirtless Bear-Fighter!, and while he’s not toned down the absurdist humor in the least for this one, artist extraordinaire Nathan Fox does his part to ensure that the belly-laughs are matched with an admirably ambitious futurist tour-de-force of, dare I say it, mind-blowing proportions, all colored with uncharacteristically garish aplomb by likely-best-in-the-biz Dave Stewart. Earth has been destroyed in some sort of mass catastrophe, what survivors there are have colonized Mars, and the beleaguered masses are kept entertained by an asshole TV weather guy who seems to have more in common with a morning radio “shock jock” than he does with an actual meteorologist. Except, ya know, there’s a lot more to him that we ever suspected if the implications of the absolutely jaw-dropping cliffhanger are to be believed. I figured I was gonna like this book, probably even like it a lot — turns out I actually freaking loved it.

One that I didn’t expect to care for, though, was The Magic Order #1. Yeah, okay, Olivier Coipel’s art is always lush, evocative, and magnificent, as it is (and then some — I mean it, this is absolutely gorgeous work) here, and Dave Stewart (hi again, Dave!) absolutely kills it with his understated, cinematic (is this guy versatile or what?) color scheme, but let’s be brutally, painfully honest : when was the last time Mark Millar actually wrote a comic that was any fucking good whatsoever?

Well, I’m pleased to report that drought (however long you think it may have lasted) is over. This first Millarworld title to be published since Netflix bought the imprint lock, stock, and barrel is the surprise hit not just of the week, but maybe of the month : a simple premise (family imbued with magic powers going back generations battles otherworldly monsters to keep us mere mortals safe — and we never even know about it!) admittedly ready-made for Hollywood exploitation (hey, Millar is still Millar, right?) needn’t necessarily be a bad thing, and here it’s not : the protagonists are all immediately likable to one degree or another, the story moves along at a solid clip, the “ground rules” are laid out succinctly, and the “fight scenes” are equal parts trippy and fun. Mostly, though, the whole thing is just breathtaking to look at and I’d happily shell out $3.99 for Coipel’s art even if the story sucked — which, in this case, it actually doesn’t. In fact, it’s really damn good — and no, I still can’t believe I’m saying that, either.

So there you go — four great reasons to hit the comic shop in one week. I had a huge smile on my face after reading every single one of these books. Will next week prove as bountiful, dear readers? Only one way to know, of course — join me back here in seven days!

Howling With “Coyotes”

In my never-ending quest to find something new worth following on a month-to-month basis, I’ve taken a flier on a few recent Image first issues in the last couple of weeks, and in between the ones I decided to throw the towel in on immediately (No. 1 With A Bullet) and those I’ve decided to stick with on a tentative basis (Port Of Earth), there was one definite standout that hooked me from the outset and didn’t let go and/or up : writer Sean Lewis and standout newcomer artist Caitlin Yarsky’s Coyotes.

So, yeah, that’s the “plot” of this review given away right out of the gate, I suppose, but what the hell, let’s talk about why I felt this was $3.99 well-spent and why I think you should sink your hard-earned cash into it, as well, shall we? I think we shall.

Yarsky’s stunning cover will draw you in, no question about that, all eyes and blood and mystery and attitude, but once inside you’ll find a story that knows just what to tease and when — concrete details are few and far between, a trope that more opening salvos would do well to emulate, but in between expertly-shifting timelines and Sicario-esque action sequences we learn just enough about our protagonist, Analia/Red, and our audience identification point, one Detective Frank Coffey, to give us that inexorable tug to find out more.

The world is recognizable enough as “our own,” yet different enough in ways that are less than oblique, more than abstract — a martial sisterhood of fighters known as Victorias, hailing from a hidden desert locale called the City of Lost Girls, are at war (an eternal one, by all appearances) with Coyotes, who may be just that, may be a symbolic stand-in for patriarchal oppression, may be both — and the struggle, as they say, is real : clinically-dispatched ultraviolence and controlled bursts of ferocity being the order of the day for Red and her colleagues, unrestrained feral savagery being the Coyote way of doing things. Us mere mortals? We’re caught in the middle, it would seem — it’s just that we (in the form of Det. Coffey) don’t seem to know it yet.

I like the writing — it’s crisp, clean, quick, economical. It’s all about going in, getting the job done, and getting out. But I love the art, and that’s what I really need to gush about for a second here.

Yarsky goes above and beyond the basic task of illustrating a written story here, and intuitively adopts and reflects in equal measure the ethos and worldview of her characters through her art — it’s not fancy, but it is stylish : sleek and elegant in its brutality, horrific in its stark delineation, efficient and unforgiving is its precision. She does the coloring and lettering, as well, and the overall singular aesthetic she creates is as seamless as it is stark. Goddamn, but this book leaves a mark.

Now, sure, I suppose the possibility exists that things could go off the rails here, but my confidence level in these creators is high. There’s something very purposeful about Coyotes, a statement of intent that comes through in every word, every drawing, even if that purpose isn’t entirely clear yet (nor should it be). Part paean for innocent lost, part primal scream of justifiable rage/outrage, part less-than-subtle metaphor that’s arriving at just the right time in terms of the overall cultural zeitgeist, part homage to bad-ass movie heroines from Pam Grier on down, part something only partially defined, but completely felt — and altogether singular as something that gleefully mixes its influences right in front of our eyes yet seems as determined to subvert them as it is to honor them. There’s plenty here I’ve seen before, no question, but never done in this way, and never with this same intent.

At this point my natural cynicism should, one would think, kick in, and something between a list and an outright litany of things that could trip Lewis and Yarsky up going forward be delineated. But ya know what? I’m just not even gonna go there. Potential for greatness leaps from every page here, and I think we’re in very good — and, better yet, very dangerous — hands.