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.

Todd McFarlane is still Todd McFarlane

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Todd McFarlane is none of the things mentioned above, though he’s a great example of why you can be nuts if you can draw a way enough people like. I mean, Spawn? It’s objectively tripe.

No surprise he’s about to jump ship from his own movie. No surprise.

Hey Kids! Comics! – Howie Chaykin’s History of Comics

Heykids

Howie Chaykin, a writer/artist who’s been on the comic scene since the early seventies, has always been a bit of an outsider. While he’s done his share of the standard and not so standard mainstream hero fare, has generally exemplified his best work among the “anti mainstream” tendencies. After all, a guy’s gotta work, right? But it’s within those oddball, fantasy concepts he reveres and excels in.

Early on at DC, working on the Burrough’s revival Weird World series, the wonderful Sword of Sorcery adaptions from Fritz Lieber; the related creator owned Cody Starbuck from Gary Frederich’s Star Reach label; culminating here on his most successful creation (in my own humble opinion), American Flagg for First comics. About this time he matured, decided to push the envelope on “acceptable” comics, and went off on a series of outlaw concepts for the mature readers Vertigo line, did the nasty x rated Black Kiss series at Vortex, and stayed away from the big two, only dipping his feet in the water for the steady paying work. During a recent reentry into semi mainstream, he collaborated with writer Matt Fraction on the wonderful (but also not fer kids) Satellite Sam series at Image.

While all this time having both steady income and critical praise, he still kept that outsider, trend bucking cynic that picked scabs frequently off those with gentler tastes. Whether brought on by personal experiences or sympathetic attitudes towards his fellow creators, this history in comics has brought him to create Hey Kids! Comics!, a five issue history of comic books and the creators that brought them to life and suffered greatly for the experience.

Chronically depicting the lives of three comic books creators that spent their lives working within our favorite hobby, he covers lots of ground by splitting chapters by decades, showing the aging and growth of our protagonists and the world they inhabit, warts and all. It’s a good way to keep all the misery from overcoming us, done in several page chapters, each issue repeating the format while continuing the main story, as well as some of the more scandalous and heartbreaking tales from its history.

Chaykin spares no expense here in the lives of these creators, as they struggle to continue to earn a living, meanwhile watching the business grow and evolve around them, swallowing decency and mutual friends along the way. The comics business is shown by its soft underbelly, the stuff you didn’t want to know, but knew it existed. The many lives destroyed in its endless conquest for fame and the almighty dollar.

While a decent understanding of comics actual history will provide dividends to those who study such things, the synonyms of those depicted will entertain and horrify any reader. The industry whose products we loved for a lifetime had their origins in stories not far removed from EC horror comics of the fifties. Both sides of the coin are represented and contrasted, the wealthy publishers, the insane editors, and the mercilessly taken advantage of creators, adding up as entertainment for mainstream comic readers that probably didn’t even know they existed for the most part.

Chaykin is in his element here, ceaselessly parading it all for us, never withholding the sordid truths, the monetization of sex, the racism and ever present class warfare, all adding to our precious comic memories, unshielding our eyes from it’s mean and devastating truths.

Aesthetically, one can say Chaykin here has some of his ticks that some readers may find off putting; his slight visual repetitions from one character to another and an expanding list of characters can make you work a bit to keep it all straight. I read each issue a couple of times, then blew through all five for a much more coherent and continuous read. The sheer cynicism on display here could turn off some readers, but its the subject matter here thats off putting, Chaykin’s talents only serve too well the stuff he’s depicting. For me, these ticks can be forgiven. After all, Howie is in his seventies, and he’s producing here an incredible tale- a sympathetic story thats incredibly sad mostly because it is real and the casualties are those we grew to love and admire in our desire for four colored fairy tales.

Chaykin only works with A-list talent, so kudos also to Wil Quintana’s rich, lively colors, and the never ending varieties of Ken Bruzenak’s lettering. Also assisting in his line up are several guest stars, helping him create the detailing that helps give the book life and it’s authentic touch, as well as back matter thats essential.

Despite whether you can stomach the details and the story, the utter lack of ethics or morals portrayed by those in charge that benefitted the most from them, there can be no doubt that (paraphrasing from the book) comic books are truly the ATMs of the media development industry these days.

Howie, you’re a tough read. But somebody’s got to do it, and while I’m sorry its you, you are the best fitted for it. Thank you.

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

The Punisher #6The Punisher #6; Marvel Comics, MAX; July 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

Ennis brings back Frank’s narration for the last issue in the arc. He’s got some observations about the mob guys, a blow-by-blow on his fight with Pittsy, the preternaturally tough mob thug (which Ennis handles brilliantly to show Frank’s disorientation after a particularly intense beating), and not much else. It’s an all-action issue; Frank’s taking on the mob as the CIA boss comes in with an attack helicopter. Lots and lots of bad guys getting taken out by Frank. There’s the most insight so far in the series into the character too. While Frank doesn’t expound in his narration, he does actually converse with someone besides an informant or Micro. He sums it all up in four words to the CIA boss when they finally collide.

The issue ends with another of Micro’s long speeches, explaining how the Punisher works only for Punisher MAX not to work that way. Micro again refers back to the Born limited series; it comes off as nonsensical, reaching. As opposed to the interrogation, he and Frank are actually conversing. Frank’s not verbose in his responses, but he tells Micro what’s what. Tersely.

In addition to the action violence, there’s a lot of gore this issue. Much more than the first issue, which had ordnance capable of removing bad guys’s heads from their bodies. This issue those types of “kills,” for lack of a better term, get the close-up. One time the close-up gore kill is for a joke (as close as the comic ever gets to a joke—there are two in the issue, Ennis’s somewhat sardonic humor soaked oily black), the other time it’s for emphasis, to leave the reader with a better understanding of what they can expect from the series. The arc is called In the Beginning, after all. Beginning could also refer to how Micro comes to understand Frank. He’s got the wrong ideas at the start, he learns more, makes more wrong conclusions. It’s more unfortunate than tragic, as Micro’s only likable opposite the CIA pricks, never sympathetic.

Ennis does a particular great job of showing how Frank and Micro work together, presumably echoing their many years together in the old days. Before Punisher MAX, before this Frank, before this Beginning.

It’s a phenomenal conclusion to the arc. Ennis has everything running smoothly—the mob stuff in particular (the mob boss all of a sudden, but appropriately, gets a promotion serious villain)—and Frank’s fistfight is awesome. Strong art from LaRosa. He, inker Tom Palmer, and colorist Dean White toggle from small scale action to a big scale much different than they’ve done before. Even though Frank’s got a plan, the odds aren’t in his favor. Except with Frank, odds don’t have anything to do with it.

It’s haunting. Depressing. Unpleasant. And exceptional. Garth Ennis figured out how to do the Punisher straight. Not ironic, not right-wing gun porn, but straight. In the Beginning gets Ennis, Frank, and The Punisher off to superior start.

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

The Punisher #5; 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 Punisher #4, In the Beginning, Part 4 (of 6)

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

Ennis doesn’t waste any time with the pitch—Micro’s pitch, the reason there’s a story. Does Frank want to go hunt Bin Laden? The CIA can turn Frank into an international terrorist hunter, with Microchip backing him up, all the weapons he could want. On and on Micro chip goes, talking to empty-eyed Frank, who occasionally looks like Clint Eastwood again, but only occasionally.

Frank’s not impressed with the pitch. No more heroic action outings to fund the military industrial complex. The first time he gets the hint of an eyeball it’s to tell Micro where to stick the proposal. The second time, when he’s actually got a visualized eye, he’s talking about the Vietnam war memorial.

Turns out all Micro’s big talk about being Frank’s best friend and a valued part of Team Punisher? It’s all in Micro’s head. He doesn’t seem to understand Frank, who does take a moment to try to explain it all. It’s a flashback from Frank, to after his family died, and he explains what punishment means to him. It’s brief and fast—the mob guys are mounting their assault to take him (and the CIA) out—but it’s really, really heavy. And Micro, who seemingly really thought he was going to get Frank to agree to be a one man war on America’s enemies… doesn’t get it.

The interrogation scene is phenomenal, even with LaRosa and Palmer’s frankly (no pun) off-putting Frank. He looks like a soulless thing more than a person. The lack of visible eyes (Micro has a bunch here, as he blathers) is unsettling, which is part of the point. Outstanding dialogue from Ennis, great visual pacing from LaRosa.

Ennis has Frank and Micro as his A plot, then the CIA and the mob as his B plots. The CIA stuff is good—both closer to humor than the rest of the book (mean-spirited dark humor, but still humor) and as character development. Ennis isn’t forgetting about his cast.

Similarly, the mob stuff is all good. Turns out the Boston crew is a lot smarter than the CIA. They don’t do decorum, they do brutal.

When it gets to the hard cliffhanger, which is one of those “worst case” cliffhangers, it’s hard not to remember how Ennis already got away with one just a couple issues ago. So straits aren’t too dire. It’s a going gets (impossibly) tough. Time to see how Frank gets going. So it’s less about concern or confusion and more about anticipation.

It’s exquisitely written, well-illustrated, with a great pace. Ennis and LaRosa have definitely hit their stride.

The Punisher #3, In the Beginning, Part 3 (of 6)

The Punisher #3The Punisher #3; Marvel Comics, MAX; April 2004; $2.99, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

I guess I technically need a spoiler alert. Frank Castle, The Punisher, did not die at the end of the second issue of his seventh series. Ennis is not going ahead with some kind of New Punisher series. Instead, Micro and the CIA team hit him with rubber bullets; which would have, outside the Marvel MAX universe, been lethal given how close Micro got the barrel to Frank’s head, but whatever. He’s the Punisher, he can take it.

Ennis splits the issue, once again, between Frank, the CIA, and the mob. The Boston mob guys open the issue by taking over the New York mob; they keep the one local lackey around because they need a straight man in the gang. Even the composed leader guy is a little nuts. While cementing their control, they see a news story about Frank getting arrested and go to a dirty cop to find out what’s really going on. The cops don’t know everything, of course, because CIA, but they know enough to put the gang onto a witness.

Meanwhile, the CIA also wants to talk to the witness and tell him to shut up, putting the CIA goof (not the female agent, who’s having conniptions over hearing Frank speak) on a collision course with the gangsters. If he’s lucky, he’s going to survive. But he’s not the cliffhanger. The cliffhanger, which comes off as a hard cliffhanger, is actually pretty soft; it comes at the end of Micro talking to Frank. He’s been working up to this single question, spending the rest of the issue in an interrogation room with Frank, telling Frank why Frank is the way Frank is.

Micro’s clearly thought a lot about it. Though apparently not enough to realize he’s got two mutually exclusive opinions about Frank’s psychological profile. But Micro’s got a hubris problem.

He also thinks Frank’s origin story is Born. Given how that series turned out, it might have been nice for Ennis to have bookended it with Micro telling the story. It would’ve helped.

Frank, however, doesn’t say his origin story is born. Frank doesn’t say much of anything. He speaks once in the issue, bound to a chair in a dimly lighted room (I wish Ennis and LaRosa had shown the CIA guys converting a hotel suite bedroom into an interrogation box). Only on that one panel does Frank get eyes. The rest of the issue, both he and Micro’s eyes are obscured by shadows. It removes the personality from Micro’s exposition, in a phenomenally subtle way, and it makes Frank seem like a caged animal.

When Frank speaks, and we see his eyes… Well. It’s awesome.

And it’s also Clint Eastwood’s face on Frank’s head. Frank’s a gigantic guy, body-wise, muscles everywhere. But when he’s got to look at Micro and tell Micro what’s what, he does it with Clint Eastwood’s face.

It’s not even subtle. It’s awesome, if obviously. And does give some idea what his voice might sound like, if only to support the female agent’s reaction.

The cliffhanger’s a little pat, but otherwise it’s excellent. Ennis presents two (and a half) versions of the Punisher for the reader to consider. Except all those versions come from Frank’s jailers, not Frank. Micro’s seems the most factually informed and therefor accurate (at least from Micro’s perspective), but….

Micro can explain Frank. The CIA boss can explain Frank. Only the half impression doesn’t explain him.

It’s such smooth, such subtle work from Ennis. LaRosa does a good job on the art, but it’s all about Ennis’s script.