Other comics that came out LAST week.

Rasl #2
Written and drawn by Jeff Smith

I’ve never read Jeff Smith before, an admission here in comics land tantamount to buggering yourself with a mahogany log with the word ‘IDIOT’ scratched on it. Got the first Rasl based on the ‘indie guy doing a genre book’ hook, and liked it a lot. For me, comics are like ice cream – lots of good flavours, but basically there’s just vanilla. All the rest are interesting, it’s nice that they’re there, providing colour, richness and variety, but they’re never really what you crave. In comics, vanilla is superheroes (oh the layers of irony in that sentence.) Or perhaps vanilla is action-oriented genre books generally. Whatever, it’s always great when an idiosyncratic, non-mainstream creator joins the action playpit for a bit – it’s a bit like adding organic Cornish clotted cream to the recipe DIE METAPHOR DIE.

As Quh-thurg said in his review of issue 1 the thing with Rasl is the physicality of it, like the body dismorphia issues lurking in the standard superhero book have been foregrounded to the degree where they become subject, plot and metaphor all at once. Physical space and form, whether figured in the flat, blank (New Mexican?) landscape, occasionally punctuated by mesas and outland city structures; or in the warped, reptilian nastiness of our suspicious MIB from issue 1; in the jacked-up and sexualised bodies of Rasl and the women he meets in this issue; or even in the labyrinth motif this issue introduces, is very much the meat and drink of this comic.

In issue 2 Rasl finds his way home but finds himself becoming increasingly threatened and displaced, the disquiet and tension nicely illustrated by the foot-shot Picasso, a literally multidimensional cubist painting, which later becomes even further disconnected from itself. This is what that indie thing does which your fightbooks so often lack: simple, well-constructed and salient metaphors and other images supporting the narrative thrust. It shouldn’t be too much to ask or regularly expect, and again a really good comic saddens me with the fresh anamnesis of how rare it is. Clotted cream, man (DIE!)

Smith, to his credit, as if saying ‘this is is just too easy’, keeps the dialogue sparse, and the panels wide, squared-off and somehow always empty. He avoids almost any exposition and uses nearly comically generic dialogue to pass as the comic’s pseudo-scientific underpinnings, all ‘thermo-magnetism’ and the old fave ‘quantum theory’. These latter elements, combined with the labyrinth thing, the parallel universes deal, and the vague allusions to determinism give away Smith’s otherwise hidden schmindie leanings and seem tacked-on, which is a bit of a shame. Another comic with a barely-subterranean discussion about how the human emotional personality is ultimately as unknowable and unpredictable as a fundamental particle’s superposition is not something I need.

The overground message however, which paradoxically could be manifesting somewhere beneath the author’s conscious narrative intent at this stage, is far more interesting, while being something much less familiar and easily expressed: something about the goodness of poisons; the physical toll of attachment; and the tacit but unavoidable truths of being possessed of and possessed by animal biology.

All this in a thrilling, throbbing muscle comic filled with menace and the threat of imminent peril, as beefy, compelling and exciting as a James Cameron flick. Until Jeff Smith turns to homeopathy*, make mine Rasl.

*And even afterwards.

Hellblazer #245
Written by Jason Aaron
Drawn by Sean Murphy
Published by Vertigo

I pick one up every year or so – this one got the nod from shop-man and is written by current wunderkind Aaron, so it seemed like a good place to take my semi-regular sample of this much cherished and much ignored title. I was encouraged as soon as I flicked through it, thanks to the efforts of colourist Lee Loughridge. As I remember it, since around the start Will Simpson’s art tenure years ago, Hellblazer’s single worst feature has been the default colour palette of dull browns and dirty earth tones, as if every shade should somehow complement Constantine’s trenchcoat. These muddy hues are not the colours of horror. The colours of horror are blacks and reds and purples, and Loughridge gets this perfectly. If he’s been on the title for any amount of time, I may even be tempted to go pick-up some back issues.

The rest of the issue fits the improved colour scheme perfectly. It’s a grisly standalone two-parter that yet gets to handjob old-school fans by riffing freely off the events of ‘the Newcastle incident’, the worst and bloodiest episode of Constantine’s somewhat sanguine life. It follows the traditional Hollywood horror model, as some incredibly annoying American kids go somewhere they shouldn’t and get royally fucked for their troubles. It starts light, with an excellent gag about the eternal UK/US accents debate, but gets bad fast. The payoffs and punishments in this issue are the strongest and most vivid horror moments I’ve seen in a comic since the twins’ severed heads awoke in The Walking Dead (if you don’t know what I’m talking about then you’ve not read The Walking Dead, because you couldn’t possibly have forgotten it, and you should go and check that out very soon).

Before I go on to unreservedly recommend this comic as the best issue of Hellblazer I’ve read in literally years and years, I’m afraid I have to mention a certain incident on page 8. Regular readers will know that only one thing will stop my gushing praise in full flight, and that is, yes I’m afraid so, a soundtrack. Every motherfucker’s doing it, apparently. Jason Aaron, every hot young new thing of him, does quite well to embed the soundtrack listing inside the text of the issue itself, with a ‘casual’, Tarantino-esque conversation between the doomed youth as to the identity of ‘the perfect punk song’, almost as if he feels a little guilty at the intrusion into his readers’ aural independence. As well he should. One of the problems with the soundtrack idea, for me, is the alienation – how punk – that it can evoke – what if I don’t like these songs, when I’m effectively being told I should like those songs? Somehow, it makes the comic feels a little less mine, and I paid my two quid fair and square goddammit. I don’t want to dwell on this tiny aspect of this ace little bastard of a book and moan on about the songs Aaron’s characters try to impress me with, so let’s do it quickly with bullet points:

  • There is punk, and there is punk rock. The Damned/X-Ray Spex/Vibrators songs mentioned here are all punk rock, and arguably not very punk at all.
  • For me, punk rock begins with the opening chord of New Rose by The Damned and ends with teh final snarl of never mind the Bollocks.
  • Punk rock is mohawks and army boots and rough cider and biker jackets and three chords in three minutes and safety pins and ripped denim. And, like all those things, a bit crap thirty years later.
  • Altenatively, punk is basically paraphraseable as ‘do what you want how you want fuck anyone else’, and so the greatest punk record is Fear of Music by Talking Heads.
  • The cool punks in this issue, in mistaking punk rock for punk, are equally as misguided as the fucking-a-dead-dog uncool punk who likes Green Day.
  • This is the perfect punk song. There need be no other: [youtube=http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=bdTELokKfCk]

Forget me and my grumpy aging ‘proper punk’ moaning. Just treat yourself to this book – if you’ve ever loved Hellblazer, and I know you have, then you’re going to love this.

Two out of two so far. Can it get any better? Only if…

Punisher MAX 58
Written by Garth Ennis
Drawn by Goran Parlov
Published by Marvel Comics

With the sharpness and darkness of Hellblazer, Jason Aaron demonstrates, and not for the first time, that he’s probably the only person curently in the game who might possibly be able to follow up Ennis’ Punisher run. Only two issues after this one. It’s basically an impossible act to follow and a big problem for Marvel. Their solution, to have rotating teams on an arc at a time, bringing in writers from the world of crime fiction, can only feel like a stop-gap measure, and in all likelihood, unless Ennis can be convinced to return, the book will be lucky to last eighteen months without him. Getting a novelist in for the recent Annual didn’t work, and it’s doubtful anyone new to the medium is going to have much luck balancing the tricky crime/war/serial killer/superhero/social realist genre elements that Ennis has so skilfully mixed on his run.

It’s important to say it out loud again: Ennis’ Punisher MAX is the greatest comic of the decade, full stop. Nothing else in the medium has faced the dark and dirty realities at play in this fucked-up century with comparable insight, purpose and narrative drive. Even if you look outside the comics village, there’s The Wire, and there’s Punisher MAX, and that’s it. A serious comic for a serious planet, with, helpfully, the tightest fights and hottest explosions you’ve ever held in your hands.

58 is a typically masterful exhibition of two talents at the top of the game. Ennis is so confident and in control of the pacing he can fill the gap between a bomb-trigger being flicked and the resultant explosion with a six-page cut, completely away from the central plot to a slow series of captioned ‘photographs’ enriching the story with references to the book’s overarching historical and thematic contexts. Goran Parlov uses these big wordless panels to dazzle with another display of his unique metahuman talents: Look at the ‘photo’ of John Chadwick on page 9. As your eyes flick from his eyes to the mouth, the picture fucking moves and Chadwick actually smiles at you. And that’s incredible.

So there we go, that’s the comics got last week. No Morrison, no capes, no crossovers or events, no autobiographical reflections on the pressures and perils of la vie artistique, no ‘I’m crap at getting girls’ – just three delinquent funnybooks, roughly slouching towards you and begging to be read.

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27 Responses to “Better than never: the late review”

  1. The Beast Must Die! Says:

    Nice reviews. I think you may be missing slightly that Jeff Smith has always been doing genre books however. ‘Bone’ is about as genre-tastic as it gets. He’s indie, in so much as he self-publishes. His work is basically extremely mainstream – albeit very, very artfully done. Walt Kelly’s ‘Pogo’ seems a more likely inspiration than Ol’ Bob Crumb.

    Picked up the Hellblazer – Aaron knows his way around the horror comic pretty nicely, although it’s basically a straight-to-video slasher movie plot draped with some classic Constantine backmatter. It’s been a while since Hellblazer felt fresh or even remotely unsettling.

    Nice to see a man having sex with a dog’s corpse in a Time Warner comic though.

  2. Martin Says:

    For an alternative Hellblazer review:

  3. bobsy Says:

    The Blair-Witch/Shrooms/straight-to-video set-up was what was so charming I thought – it’s a horror comic innit? So what does it got? Horny teenagers! Die teens die! etc. Good fun – despite the reliance on cliche, the whole thing was delivered with Aaron’s customary slickness and assured touch. But then – Well, the TFO Hellblazer review pisses all over mine. I’ve changed my mind.

    Re: Jeff Smith see my mahogany/idiot comment at the top of the post. My ignorance knows no bounds, and it seems I have some swotting to do..

  4. Qthgrq Says:

    Latest Rasl bulges with paranoia. Loved that page where he wakes up convinced something’s wrong, that despite all appearance he isn’t home. Could probably write many, many words just on those few panels.

    So what do we reckon – is he back or isn’t he?

  5. tucker Stone Says:

    I would’ve loved if the interview could’ve dived more into the whole best punk song portion, but eh, can’t force it in that direction. And you’re out of your mind thinking this little missive got pissed on at all-cowboy up motherfucker. Your shit-so tight.

  6. neonsnake Says:

    I have no interest in any of these comics.

    But, then, y’know.


  7. amypoodle Says:

    I’m not sure whether that was a KLF diss or a KLF ‘they’re fucking ace they burnt a million quid threw a rave for a bunch of international journalists and made them perform the rites of MU straight out of Illuminatus resurrected Tammy Wynette and wrote the manual on obtaining a number one in the late eighties not to mention the fact that Bill Drummond managed both the Teardrop Explodes and Echo and the Bunnymen and…’

    I mean which KLF was it?

  8. amypoodle Says:

    Oh, and Tucker, you only need to scratch the surface of the KLF to find the shiny situationist punk ethos fizzing beneath.

    Wikipedia is probably your friend.

  9. tucker Stone Says:

    I think you’re coming after the wrong person there Amy, but thanks for that.

  10. Qthgrq Says:

    Don’t worry, he has a habit of directing his comments at the wrong people.

  11. amypoodle Says:

    It’s because I never understand anyone.

  12. Carlton Says:

    >”Even if you look outside the comics village, there’s >The Wire, and there’s Punisher MAX, and that’s it. A >serious comic for a serious planet”.

    You jest, right?

    Not only on there only being The Wire outside of it, but Ennis? For real? What material has he been touching on?

    I ask since I’ve only read this issue. And it’s samey old ‘Nam veterans and Ennis wanking to a death metal cover of “In The Navy” while going on about soldiers’ honor and the old Circle of Trust between these hardened folks who went to hell/war and its harsh realities and came out of the other side as Lancelots (“Come To War and Grind Yourself Out of It Into a MAN!”).

    And, of course, Castle would kill anything (or so I’m lead to believe since he’s so ruthlessly dark and unforgiving) but God forbid some soldiers/mercenaries? It surely seems like an arbitrary limit was put here on who is punishable – and that it was mostly coming from the author, who just loves scarred old soft-steel-hearted brutes of shitty wars that american folklore tries to convince itself they were unambiguous proof of a legacy of noble (“grim and shitty” sometimes, as we real men have to confront, but ultimately noble) warriors, and also convince itself that yes, we strongest of the strongest must face the harsh horrors that, at times, its glorious history had moments of “honorable failures” (Vietnam/Iraq/ bad apples doing bad things etc), but ultimately honorable.

    Sorry, I just hate Ennis’ shitty “let’s hear tales of WWII while smoking cigars” stench. It congratulates itself for its gray “subtlelty” and for not being stupid (like those hippies and anti-war pussies spitting on soldiers’ faces while calling them “baby killers” – yeah, there were so many of those. Pff, spitting on their faces while we and our government get out of our way to help those troops in everything. Argh, I hate you strawhippies! Almost as much as I hate Nirvana fans!), but it never really touches on anything in a more tone of grey other than “now, now… it’s complicated… and hard…” – they’re just a nice self-congratulating pin on its brooding suit. The only reason he’d approach horrors of war, of what people doing awful things entails is for it to be ultimately just for the sake of being co-opted into this gung-ho and bad-ass about facing horrors head on, and blabla. And it just stinks of the sort of shit that surrounds an air that permits something like the McCain brand to exist (“I know how awful war can be. I’ve been there… BUT”, and there’s always a “but” with some words about sacrifice and necessary tragedies etc from men who think they’re able to judge – “war is hell”, the anti-war banners would say, but some folks wrote on it afterwards, “are you a pussy in not wanting to face it?”).

    I keep remembering Custer giving the “reformed” nazi the rope (but not really “reformed” – them unambiguous devil people that grant us unambiguous righteousness don’t change!). But fuck, it’s Vietnam, you know? What difference would it make on the work if these were ex-members of any other army of a criminal war? Would he recognize it’s a bit more complicated than just “they were nazis!” (at least this much of subtlelty, I think, probably would be present) and go on about a sexy hot-forged steel anti-hero vigilante and his manly soldier righteousness (twisted, yes – he’s no BOYSCOUT you know? – but understandable to say the least) and the bonds these men have for the horrors they shared and were forced into, or would he take a bit of a different road?
    (he might have, I don’t know – I haven’t read all of his war books, nor all of his books for that matter. So it serves as a genuine question)

    And the entire “ah he called me a ‘black fucker’, NOW I know he’s up to no good” from a african-american Vietnam veteran (where the folks were getting drafted, and were largely consisting of poor people and minorities – although this was very briefly touched on Preacher, so perhaps it could be a sign of some knowledge from Ennis on how many of these soldiers saw the war as a white man’s war). It just felt so… weird, trite and made him look sort of tribal-minded. Like a one-removed iteration of a white anti-pc ranter’s anxieties of saying the wrong words is like. The character’ll do anything, but with something like that – oh boy, now he knows he’s working FOR THE MAN, and fuck that, that’s where his pride draws the line: I deal with race issues in my work!

    Sorry. Had to vent on Ennis’ love (not love, no no. Only retarded inbred soft-headed pussy fools love war, you see – Ennis’ unflinching understanding) of war. I’ll be calm now. Good soldier. Good soldier.

  13. Qthgrq Says:

    Good rant.

    Strongly disliked the hyperbole at work in the sentence quoted, but I’m not one to lecture on Hyperbolizing. My knee-jerk reaction is to agree with you, Carlton, but I’m wondering whether there isn’t something to said in Ennis’s defence. Something which I can’t think of right now.

    I should own up to having enjoyed the vast majority of Ennis Punisher run immensely.

  14. bobsy Says:

    No jest on The Wire comparison, and no recognition of the world of soldiery described. Maybe I’m overlooking something, but the very basic message I’ve got from the book, is that war creates two things: monsters and victims. Some of the victims still walk, and this is why the Delta types in this issue aren’t getting the gunishment they otherwise might. I reckon the Delta Colonel is a monster, far as it goes. You might be misreading the book somewhat if you think that Frank Castle’s outlook is something morally supportable.

    >What material has he been touching on?

    Vietnam as a way of selling guns. Post 9/11 Aghanistan as a way of selling heroin. Quite Wirey stuff.

    Ennis has come a long way since Preacher.

  15. bobsy Says:

    Yeah, got to say actually, not a good rant, really quite an ill informed one as it happens. Loved you in TFPOBA and everything, but why were you ranting about something you admit you had no knowledge of?

    Read Ennis war stories – unless I’m a complete cunt – quite possible, ademittedly – then in those you should find that he really does have quite a mature, sensible, progressive view of what war is and what it does to people. Bloke grew up in Belfast in the Seventies, after all.

  16. Qthgrq Says:

    But he does love a bit of war, though, yeah? The genre I mean. I think he does. I think he doos

  17. Carlton Says:

    >You might be misreading the book somewhat if
    >you think that Frank Castle’s outlook is
    >something morally supportable

    See, that’s the thing. I always assumed that was Ennis’ MO in his books – the distanced perspective towards a character, varying from looking down on them and coming down to them in empathy, sympathy, and overall identification but mostly lucid distanced; but from that perspective he rarely took it to somewhere from there or gave much signs that it’s in fact his MO (explicit case, Just a Pilgrim – yeah, distanced, but never taking it much further than the basic humourous premise, it dies on the note it began). Jessie Custer and Constantine ended up proving the contrary, that they were mostly with Ennis cheering on the back going “yeah, fuck yeah man!” to whatever is happening (not that they were fully supported by Ennis – he gives lip service to the ideas that Constantine is an asshole or that Custer is a sad prick – but the books overall works on another assumption. It’s like those medium/psychic shows, there’s the little annoucement for ten seconds before the credits saying it’s for entertainement purposes only, but then the show spends a full hour giving thought to the idea the guy is contacting the audience’s dead relatives. It’s a bit like that with most of his characters, no? “He’s human, he fucks up, he’s flawed and with many shades of gray, oh yeah look at him fucking that dude up! Pnewd!”).

    I was mostly ranting after looking back recently at some of my old Ennis comics (War Stories, Hitman, Hellblazer, Preacher, Just a Pilgrim, The Boys, Fury). I think I might have come off a bit harsh on things that didn’t merit any criticisms in my rant. I might’ve ended up sounding like I was complaining about your review or your appreciation of Ennis, or something like that. If I did, it was unintentional and with no basis. I apologize.

    >>>Ennis has come a long way since Preacher.

    See, I only read this issue after seeing the recomendation here (since all the other reviews – including yours – were really fucking amazing). I’ll be taking another look on some other Ennis’ Punishers (I liked some of the first few issues years and years ago). If I become disappointed again… be ready for kung fu, good sir. For I have numchucks.


  18. Qthgrq Says:

    Don’t apologize. Seriously, you could kick Bobsy’s arse.

  19. bobsy Says:

    I know someone with numchucks. All these years of practice, and he stillconstantly has bruised testicles.

    Don’t want to be Ennis’ cheerleader – I don’t read most of his work, on account of the macho macho and the disappointing knob gags. I think Punisher is his A-game though – consistently presenting brave, insightful and progressive perspectives on a wide range of geopol issues, through the reader-friendly lens of an insane roughhousing septuagenarian as he takes out the trash. I’m sure mileage on this varies hufgely by the way – I hope I’m righ ton this and not justben blindsided because I like reading the fighty bits so much.

    TFPOBA was a meaningless low blow – forget it, I apologise unreservedly.

  20. Qthgrq Says:

    Bobus, as you are clearly such a total cheerleader for this run I reckon you should write a review of it in its entirety. That’ll get you to crystallize your thoughts.

    For les records, I think it’s one of the best superhero comics evar, but I can’t be arsed to do the work a proper review would demand.

  21. Carlton Says:

    Well I’m buying a couple of more issues in my next trip to the shop. The mention of The Wire gave me an idea. If I don’t like it, at least I can re-read them pretending Castle is Omar! But you be careful, bobsy. I might still come over for a Tom Jones-off.

  22. Duncan Says:

    Carlton – just buy the trade of ‘The Slavers’; it’s actually a far more serious and hard-hitting look at human trafficking than yr Wire season 2, say, where the victims are peripheral, corpses. I mean – it’s ludicrous that it has a Marvel antihero in it, I feel a quite odd about how passionate I am on that comic, but really making you complicit in his murderous rampage is the only spoon of blood-sugar for the black medicine.

    Stuff like – well, Born or The Tyger as well, I think there’s some great versifying in there, quite biblical; I don’t think there’s any, even lingering, endorsement whatsoever of the US’s ongoing addiction to war at all so much as a crystallisation of that very thing – just of the non-university educated, poor guys who fight it, the kinship they find… there’s no ‘BUT’, you know. “War is Hell” as the Phantom Eagle mini also has in boldface, out on the cover; clearly he grew up on, and has spent a career trying to make people read his version of, Commando comics – I’ve high hopes for David Simon’s ‘Generation Kill’ series in the following respect and, frankly, I wish all, any or more media had Garth Ennis’ approach (of seething, moral disgust and yet sympathy to those frontline participants with little option but to be there) to international combat and its’ fallouts.

    I’m finding, though, with the present arc that the book excerpts are the best bit by far – Ennis demonstrates a sawn-off prose style that not only unquestionably kicks the shit out of his comics peers but that could frankly, quite easily, live with the likes of George Pelecanos or whatnot. Maybe not Ellroy. But pretty damn good for a jobbing scriptwriter, y’know?

  23. Tucker Stone Says:

    I can’t dive too hard into this–I’ve been reading a lot of old Ennis lately and don’t have the best objectivity for it (as i’ve enjoyed the majority, even the sort of dull Judge Dredd stuff, which is probably because I’ve never read Dredd before) but I will wholeheartedly say that if you want to dip into Ennis’ Punisher stuff–read Slavers. If you don’t dig on Slavers and see it as a pretty mature, and pretty wildly out there kind of super-hero story with the same sort of multi-leveled type storytelling that the Wire prided itself on, then yeah, you aren’t going to get into it. Slavers is…jesus, it’s just a fucking great comic. Makes Preacher look like something by Bill Willingham.

  24. bobsy Says:

    I’ve not re-read it at all yet, and I think it was probably pretty overwrought by the end, but the Widowmaker arc impressed me highly too, in a comparing- it-to-lauded-TV kind of way: it’s like all you ever really needed to know about the Sopranos.

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