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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