THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM
Garth Ennis restarted THE PUNISHER a few years ago with a darkly humorous take on Frank Castle. He surrounded Castle with a cast of offbeat characters and made the villains as quirky as anything you might see in a MONTY PYTHON skit. For a character who's been portrayed for more than two decades now as a remorseless assembly line killer, it was an interesting new viewpoint. Ennis took the more outrageous parts of the character's moral code and played it to an extreme absurdity.
As issues wore on, Ennis started adding stories that are more serious. You can see it most notably in the second hardcover collection, where the Punisher finds himself dealing with terrorism in Ireland. That story, I believe, marked a turning point for the series and for what Ennis saw in the character.
In the third hardcover collection of THE PUNISHER (Marvel, $24.99), Ennis alternates between single-issue lighter tales and multipart serious stories. The first multipart storyline walks the thin gray line of two tortured New York City cops, and the lapses of judgment they have in trying to get through their days. The second half of the volume is a descent into a very horrific tale of a man controlling the city's homeless, only to do unspeakable things with them. Urban legends and teenager slasher movies are made of this stuff. Along the way, Frank Castle has a heart to heart with a liberal do-gooder that, for me, makes the entire storyline.
Let's break down the nine issues collected in this book.
"Of Mice and Men" is the first story, as we catch up to Joan the Mouse, Castle's former neighbor from the city in the first Ennis storyline. A meek woman, she's now retired to the Vermont countryside. Frank's surprise appearance in her duck pond awakens some old feelings she's held for him. Ennis writes a great action set piece here despite the timidity of Joan, but the underlying one-sided romance is what keeps the reader on his toes.
"Brotherhood" is the story of two partners on the NYPD, and lengths they go to protect each other, their brothers, and their families. It's a look into a couple of dangerous people, but it might just surprise you to see who the really dangerous one it. Ennis also artfully adds a priest character to the story to compare and contrast current issues of the church with the problems that the NYPD has. There are striking parallels acknowledged there.
"Squid" is a one-shot played completely for laughs. The only troublesome part with it is the final punchline, which is ruined by being on a right side of a page. If you had to turn the page to see it, the gag would work much better. Don't know if that's the way it appeared in the single issue or not. The story reminds me a little bit of the movie, BIG FISH.
Steve Dillon drew all of the storylines mentioned so far, with his usual open style. While characters still come off looking stiff and far too many panels are concentrated on just talking heads for me, I've warmed up to Dillon's style over the course of his run on this book. His Frank Castle is the one who truly looks the part to me, as Ennis writes him.
Tom Mandrake draws the rest of the book. His first story is "Hidden." It's a big creepy action story set in the New York City subways, as one madman sets up the hidden homeless underground to do his bidding. Mandrake is the perfect artist for this storyline. His natural tendency towards drawing the macabre and the horrific fit in perfectly with Ennis' story. Every page is drenched in black ink. There are no supernatural elements to the story, per se, but there is a large case of the fantastic going on here. This is the kind of story you check at snopes.com after someone e-mails it to you.
Finally, "Elektra" is the story of Daredevil's resident psycho slaughterer running through the city and beating Castle to every hit. While there's plenty of gruesomeness going on, it's all done in a very lighthearted way. Castle has to balance his admiration for her skills with his annoyance at her continual interference and, possibly, murderous intentions towards him. Mandrake's art isn't as effective here as in "Hidden." The story is really lightweight, as if it's all there just to hit us in the end with the big punchline. Your reaction to that gag will color your opinion of the whole story. I found it cute. Others will not agree.
I notice also that Marvel takes advantage of having all of the post-production work done on a computer here when it comes to the lettering. They've removed the credits at the start of each issue. The story title remains in place, but the individual acknowledgements are saved for a text page at the top of the book. It's a small thing, but I think it helps to reduce the clutter on each title page and helps to tie the book together as one large whole, rather than a series of individual parts.
The book includes some sketch pages from Tom Mandrake, as well as the entire script to the first story in the book illustrated with panels from the story.
If you have a strong stomach and can handle darkly humorous situations, THE PUNISHER HC, Volume 3 is a great addition to your library. Ennis see saws between two wildly different kinds of stories, and is effective at both.
CATCHING UP WITH THE FANTASTIC FOUR
I caught up on Mark Waid's FANTASTIC FOUR over the weekend, reading everything since issue #500. It's a great take on a traditional Marvel Universe book, with Waid leading the way with strong characterization, a well thought out plot, and just enough style to keep it all interesting. For the first time that I can ever remember, I feel like I really know these characters and can care for them. They're not cardboard cut-outs based on something Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did forty years ago. I'm really enjoying it for that reason.
It's the sign of a good book that I read all nine issues without ever looking at the clock. I didn't care what time it was or how long it took me to read the book. I only had one thing in mind each time: I want to read the next one. So it went, until I had cycled through nine straight issues of Waid breaking down a set of characters he already broke down pretty heard in the previous storyline. Waid's strength of characterization is what's driving this book now. Sure, you get some of that "imaginauts" stuff still going on, but that's just the set dressing for the heart of the book. This is Reed Richards having a particularly bad day, month, and year. He reacts to it like a broken and desperate man instead of the typical aloof genius. In the previous storyline, Waid established Reed's feelings of guilt over creating the mess his family is stuck in as the F4. In this storyline, he's feeling worse over his inability to keep it glued together. It drives him to extremes.
In "Authoritative Action," we see just how far he's willing to go, in an entertaining and logical story that reads as much like a political thriller as any Marvel comic I've ever read. The title for the storyline obviously invokes a certain WildStorm comic book. THE AUTHORITY paved the way for more than just "widescreen comics" or "decompressed storytelling." The core of the series was superheroes going to what some would consider extreme lengths to prevent massive damage. The rest is just style points. It's reminiscent of on-going arguments like whether Batman should kill the Joker. The arguments range between doing the greater good versus lowering the hero to the villain's level. As superhero writers run out of characters to unmask (Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man to Aunt May, Daredevil, etc.) they're looking for a different direction in which to go.
Lately, we're seeing more writers looking at how far they can push a character while still being a hero. They know they're looking over the edge, but it's a lifetime of frustrations and repetitive fighting that drives them to what some consider madness. Brian Bendis is doing a magnificent job of sustaining the Jungian paradigm -- when you look into the abyss, it looks back at you and all that -- over at DAREDEVIL. Kurt Busiek explored the notion in his last months on THE AVENGERS. Now Waid does it here with Reed Richards, and I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of it in the near future. With FANTASTIC FOUR, however, I think it's less a matter of sustaining a new story arc as it is an exploration of a specific group dynamic and how this move will affect it. I have no doubt that things will get "back to normal" soon enough. That's not to say that things won't change or that characters won't be affected. It means that this is just one smaller story arc in a grand plan.
Waid has handled it well, mixing the Silver Age feeling of powerful heroes with a more modern take in pre-emptive strikes, Machiavellian plotting, and darker consequences. He's successfully driven Reed Richards to the brink, and succeeded in showing us a new aspect of the character without resorting to silly changes. (You remember Sue Storm's lingerie costume from the early '90s, don't you?) These are substantive directions to take and interesting moral dilemmas to explore. Waid handles it well.
The problem with reading those nine issues at once is that following it up with ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR is an inevitable disappointment. UFF #2 is a decent issue, but it feels horribly lightweight by comparison. It's a more cutesy look at the superhero family that's still being formed, with a side game of, "Oh, look who they're Ultimatizing next!"
And, I have to say, the cover looks horribly silly. That's the goofiest looking Reed Richards I've ever seen.
I really liked the first issue, but the second issue is testing my patience. I guess the third issue will be the tie-breaker.
Comparing a comic book to a novel to a movie is commonplace. It's particularly useful in trying to get a "civilian" to try a comic book, or in convincing a friend to read a comic he or she would normally not look twice at.
This week, I have two recommended DVDs for comic fans. While I'm sure I'll review them in more detail at Various And Sundry in the coming days, they leapt out at me for the potential of being good viewing for comic book fans.
For fans of QUEEN & COUNTRY, I'd have to recommend MI-5, Season One, now out on DVD from the folks at the BBC. Each of the six episodes is like a mini-movie, in anamorphic widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. These are unedited, unlike the episode that aired in the States last year. Each episode is a full hour set in the world of the British government's secret service, as they chase down racial riot inciters, abortion doctor murderers, Irish terrorists, and old friends gone bad. It's much more grounded than the (relatively-speaking) fantastic 24 or ALIAS. If you like the rapid dialogue found in so many American dramas today, you'll find plenty to like here, particularly in the dissections of international politics. Watching this series in the past week has pushed Q&C back up pretty high on my reading stack.
The other comics-related DVD offering is GIGANTIC: A TALE OF TWO JOHNS, the documentary about THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS and the relationship between their two front men, John Linnell and John Flansburgh. The two met in high school, where their earliest collaborations were done as comic books.
One other comic connection: There's a short 30 second animation near the end that is unmistakably created by MAAKIE'S Tony Millionaire. The little crow guy gives it away.
UPDATES AND CORRECTIONS
This week's Latin lesson comes to us from Great Britain. Antonio wrote in to correct me on my piggish Latin. I used an incorrect phrase from that one Film class I took in college. The proper spelling for the term I used is "in medias res." Click on the link for a definition or 12. Thanks for the spelling correction, Antonio!
My review of DC: NEW FRONTIER #1 points up how soft I've become from reading far too many comic books. There was one aspect in the book that should have stuck out at me like a sore thumb, but didn't. I think Jim Henley hits is right on the head in his blog entry. Warning: there is stronger language in his blog than I use here. Click through with caution if you're wary of it.
This is a good reminder to myself to keep thinking as I read, and not just to sit back and enjoy the ride.
One last note that doesn't fit in anywhere else: If you're headed out to San Diego for the convention in July, book your flight now. Don't wait. I got the same flight out this year as I did last year. By booking it a month and a half earlier than in 2003, I paid half as much for my ticket.
Pipeline Previews returns on Friday, February 6th for a look at what's coming to stores in the month of April 2004. Pipeline Commentary and Review returns next Tuesday in its usual slot.
Various and Sundry chugs on, now with more posting. Besides the return of the Friday Links Round-Up and the weekly look at new DVD releases, I also covered the end of MST3K, another round of massive ball dropping, PIXAR dumping Disney, the Marx Brothers on DVD, ANGEL and BUFFY, and more.
Nearly 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.