Born #2 (of 4)

Born #2Born #2; Marvel Comics, MAX; September 2003; $3.50, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

This issue—titled The Second Day, so we can guess what the next two issue’s titles are going to be—focuses more on Stevie. Or at least, it’s always from Stevie’s perspective. Frank has a big money shot action sequence, but it’s still Stevie seeing (and reacting). Ennis also reveals a bit more about Stevie’s experience in Vietnam; turns out Angel saved his life so now where Angel goes, Stevie goes. Even when Angel goes to get his fix and Stevie has to drag him out to go on patrol and the racist smack dealer threatens them.

If Stevie and Frank are the leads, Angel is the main supporting cast member, just because he’s still taking care of Stevie; getting him to think less about the terrible things they see, terrible things they may do. One could be overly complimentary and say Ennis is subtle about Angel’s character development. Thin would probably be more accurate. Because even though Born is a comic about the Vietnam War, but it’s also a Punisher comic. So there’s a big Frank action sequence with a very big gun. But then there’s a couple quiet, shocking scenes, which Ennis doesn’t seem to have thought through entirely. But when Stevie muses about “American through the looking-glass, lost in Vietnam” early in the issue (and you want to smack Stevie—and Ennis—for the purpleness but then high five Ennis for the period appropriate vernacular), it isn’t until after Frank gets through his quiet moments that line truly resonates. But then it comes apart a bit when Ennis can’t wrap it all up. And Robertson changes what Stevie looks like six times in two pages, which is actually worse than his seemingly randomly selected Frank faces.

With Born, Ennis avoids various project-related pitfalls. He doesn’t get overtly symbolic or make protracted comparisons; in fact, he avoids them. But it leaves him with two narratives, one of the internal Frank Castle, one of the external. This issue has zip on the internal. There’s Frank’s awkward attempt at bonding with Stevie, which seems like it gets a scene because it’d been a while since Frank had been in the issue and Ennis wanted to send things out not just with him but also with a minor, but pointless reveal.

Ennis really doesn’t seem comfortable trying to figure out the series’s potential. When he and Robertson do a gory action sequence—there are a couple great ones—or when Ennis does a shock twist or plot development, there’s enthusiasm to be sure. But there’s not a lot of ambition. Ennis’s ambition for Born seems to be in selling Stevie’s narration of the experience, particularly when he (Ennis) gets to be wordy about it.

Despite being more obvious in its Punisher-related money shots, the issue’s stronger than the first. Ennis is focused on Stevie’s experience of the day; Frank plays his part, but the structure is all about making Stevie the protagonist now. Especially the ending.

Where it seems like the Voice should or would make an appearance, but does not.

Frank’s kill count is something like seven this issue, six of them enemy combatants, one of them not. It’s where Ennis loses track of Frank… on the photo-Punisher stuff. It’s like he can’t pretend it’s not a stretch so he doesn’t even want to address it.

Born #1 (of 4)

Born #1Born #1; Marvel Comics, MAX; August 2003; $3.50, 36 pgs; available collected and digitally.

Born is, twenty-nine years after his first appearance, the secret origin of The Punisher. How did Frank Castle go from being a regular Marine to being an unstoppable, relentless killing machine. Only, as the narrator explains, Frank was never a regular Marine. The narrator’s name is Stevie Goodwin, which seems like it’s got to be an homage to Punisher writer Archie Goodwin. I was never a big fan of Punisher comics before Garth Ennis, so I’m not sure if there are other references. Maybe it’s coincidental. I don’t know anything about Archie Goodwin’s Punisher other than it’s extant.

After some “Welcome to Vietnam” material, both with and without narration, Stevie (and Ennis) lay out the ground situation as it relates to Frank. Stevie’s got a ground situation too, but it’s going to have to sit.

Frank is on his third tour. It’s October 1971. The war is winding down. Frank’s first tour was for Tet, his second tour had him an assassin (or so the rumors go), his third tour he’s the only officer who cares at an almost forgotten outpost near the Cambodian border. The base is in disarray; half-manned, Frank’s platoon the only guys not strung out on heroin or stoned. The CO is a mess, hiding in his office until the war is over. But Frank knows something is coming, he’s got his platoon out every day and they’re intercepting a lot of weapons.

Oh. Frank also has never had a man killed since he’s gotten to the base (Valley Forge).

The issue starts with Stevie, narrating about the base, about going home (he’s thirty-nine days short), about his imagined future, about Frank. The imagined future stuff, where Stevie thinks about how proud he’ll be of his wonderful future sons who will never know about Vietnam, where the rivers ran red with blood; he will never tell them.

Born #1 is full of great lines. Even when they’re totally wrong, they’re great (not historically wrong, or out of character, but the character is making an incorrect assertion).

Frank doesn’t get any great lines. He’s purely functional. In fact, his first scene to himself—reporting to his CO about the patrol, which has a bunch of action—ends with writer Ennis and penciller Darick Robertson having a non sequitur, partly due to Robertson’s inability to keep characters looking consistent. Frank never seems to look the same, not even on the same page; his head changes size and shape, features become more and less pronounced. Is it supposed to be intentional, like you can’t ever truly see him? Probably not, as Robertson has the same problem with Stevie and the CO.

About the only guy he keeps consistent is the visiting general who Frank gets killed. Intentionally. And gets away with it. Because Frank’s got to keep his war going, or so, at the end of the issue, the voice tells him. The voice appears in black word balloons, white text. Frank doesn’t react in anyway to the voice. Is it his voice? If so, then why’s it got a separate first person perspective. Is the voice the Devil. Is it Mephisto (no, it’s not, spoiler time). Is it… The Punisher? How deep is Ennis going to go with this?

The issue ends on that question. Where’s Born going; Frank’s set up, the base is set up, the narrator is set up. The story title is The First Day… which doesn't refer to anything special for the characters. It’s not even the first time the Voice has shown up. It’s an effective story title, just maybe not an accurate or relevant one.

Ennis’s writing is mostly strong, always solid. Goodwin’s narration is long-winded but excellent. It’s a war story narration, it’s supposed to be purple. Goodwin never says what he’s going to do with himself, but Great American Novelist seems like a goal. He’s a white guy, after all, smart, thoughtful. The Frank-led scenes are fine. They’re well-written exposition, dumping a lot of information and context on the reader. Frank’s a man of few worlds, luckily everyone else likes to monologue to him.

Robertson’s art is… uneven. At least on things like characters’ heads and faces. It’s not just Frank he slips on. He handles the gore–Born is very bloody, which is part of the point; it’s the first Punisher MAX series, so even though the comic was able to get violent before, not exploding brains violent. I don’t think. They definitely weren’t saying “Fuck” all the time in the old War Journals though. Characters say it occasionally in Born #1, Ennis and Robertson both have showcase moments for it being “unrated.”

Robertson has some good panel layouts, some really good composition, but problematic detail. The weirdest thing about the art is the inker… it’s experienced, awesome Marvel inker Tom Palmer (who’d been inking comics back when The Punisher first appeared). You’d think he’d have… made the heads the same size, if not the faces similar. Frank does look the same a few times in the issue, it’s just they’re never in the same scene, much less same page.

But it’s okay. It’s all right. At the end of Born #1, it seems like Ennis has got things well in hand. Even if the Voice scene at the end is ominous for the wrong reasons.

Robocop: Last Stand #8 of 8

Rls8Robocop: Last Stand #8; Boom! Studios; March 2014; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

Robocop: Last Stand #8 screams behind-the-scenes story. It’s got a new writer, on issue eight of an eight issue limited, but it’s also got no mention of Frank Miller. Besides the narrative—which loosely follows the previous seven issues but could also be seen entirely as a follow-up to Robocop 3—and Oztekin’s art, it’s a very different handling than what Steven Grant had done. Ed Brisson’s Robocop Detroit feels very much Judge Dredd-inspired with its gang of marauders. They’ve come to town, which—following the events in issues one to seven and also Robocop 3—has no functioning city government or government services.

Brisson does a rather good job addressing that situation without a lot of exposition, which wouldn’t be appropriate because it’s a shortcoming of issues one to seven and Robocop 3. Even if the enemy gang is a little bit too cartoonish. There’s just not enough time spent developing them. It seems like an editorial issue—Oztekin’s only got so much space and there’s a lot of action; character development—even caricature-y character development—takes a third seat. Back seat is already taken (by humor). There are some decent smiles thanks to Oztekin’s visual pacing.

By the end of the issue, it’s clear Brisson isn’t just end-capping Boom!’s pseudo-Frank Miller Robocop comic, he’s also end-capping the Robocop franchise. But subtly. He’s getting around to answering narrative questions you didn’t bother answering in eighties-born movie franchises. Robocop: Last Stand #8 sets up a fine sequel possibility for Boom!, a good starting point for an ongoing series.

Though none of the subsequent Robocop ongoings have used the Last Stand continuity (or the Last Stand #8 continuity).

As a franchise, film or comic, Robocop is a disaster zone. Brisson at least makes some attempt to put order to it here. As an epilogue to the previous seven issues, I guess it works fine? It does work fine, but it does some extra credit too and the extra credit is where it’s interesting. Brisson’s got some franchise enthusiasm not seen in the previous issues. There’s an actual surprise cameo.

Robocop: Last Stand is a singular success. It’s a good Robocop comic and a good Robocop sequel. Brisson at least seems to understand its possibilities (and responsibilities) and turns in the right finish. Even if it is too short.

Robocop: Last Stand #7 of 8

Robocop: Last Stand #7 of 8Robocop: Last Stand #7; Boom! Studios; February 2014; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

This issue of Last Stand has me wishing I had been timing how long the comic took to read. It’s an all action issue. There’s Robocop versus Japanese cyborgs, good guys at OCP trying to survive slash beat the “suit” villain (which gives Last Stand’s sidekicks more to do than Robo sidekicks usually get to do). There’s a two page resolution, which features some of the civilian cast but they weren’t important enough to get any page time during the main action.

And how is the main action, since there’s nothing else to the book?

It’s good, sometimes really good. But it also reveals how clunky Robocop comes off in big action sequences. Oztekin doesn’t solve that problem (or even acknowledge it), but the rest of the issue? The all-action comic with a single fight scene determining the end of the story? Oztekin does a fine job. It’s a good fight, with Grant getting in some occasional, effective banter.

Then the issue ends—in those two pages—with such ambiguity it’s hard to imagine what they’ve got in store for the grand finale. Because it doesn’t seem like anyone’s got any idea what they’re going for with tone for the ending. The issue’s been twenty-ish pages of constant conflict; Grant and Oztekin don’t have room to shift gears fast enough. Considering Oztekin doesn’t have room for giant explosions by the end of the issue, the resolution to a Robo subplot—or, more, the nod to a resolution for a Robo subplot—doesn’t figure into the issue’s plotting, which is too bad. Especially since Last Stand #7 is Grant’s last one on the eight issue series, which also makes you wonder where exactly this script came from… did Grant write it back in the Frank Miller’s Robocop (Robocop 2) adaptation? Did Boom! get it with the license?

Regardless, Grant and Oztekin (and their editors) did the incredible—they turned an exceedingly troubled pseudo-cyberpunk action sequel into a successful comic book. Oztekin’s the star, obviously, but whatever Grant contributed—seemingly—was exactly what the book needed.

Robocop: Last Stand #6 of 8

Robocop: Last Stand #6Robocop: Last Stand #5; Boom! Studios; December 2013; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

Robocop: Last Stand #6 is where the comic finally gets around to one of the main Robocop 3 plot points (and advertising focuses). The jet pack. Flying Robocop. The way Grant handles it is to bake it into an even bigger cyberpunk-y but mainstream sci-fi moment. This plot point, however, seems to have come from the pilot movie for “Robocop: The Series,” which was written by the original film’s screenwriters and may well have been their Robocop 2. See, the Robocop fan hat is every present and often shameful.

So the issue has Robocop getting his wings, fighting the Japanese cyborg in his helicopter fleet (again with the helicopters) as the people of Old Detroit fight the final OCP cop push. Grant structures the Old Detroit stuff like a subplot to Robocop’s subplot about going renegade. It barely makes a ripple anymore, especially since that not-jet pack twist is so big.

Grant’s also got his villain—who he and Oztekin still can’t imbue with any personality, which is still a big problem—but the pacing of all the action is great. There’s villain versus good guys at OCP, there’s Robocop versus helicopters and karate cyborg, there’s the imminent massacre of innocent people. Grant and Oztekin set up the stakes—so maybe Grant put in just enough time with the regular folk—and then just set the issue spinning.

The finale, with Robo getting ready for the last battle (not stand), is awesome. So basically Last Stand goes #1 through #5, then #6 and #7 (#8 is a detached epilogue). All it needed to be complete is another two issues to open it. Instead it’s sporadic but not episodic, just a bunch of great action. This issue, where Grant has to engage with the infamous Robocop 3 jet pack, is sort of a victory lap. Grant and Oztekin got the comic through a lot, earning a lot of trust, so why not the jet pack. Oztekin’s take on it, visually, is pretty cool; I mean, it’s Robocop-in-a-jet-pack but whatever. The helicopters are more of a problem.

It’s also impressive they’ve got Robocop positioned as the big hero for the finale given how detached Grant’s narrative distance to the character has been throughout.

Robocop: Last Stand #5 of 8

Robocop: Last Stand #5Robocop: Last Stand #5; Boom! Studios; December 2013; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

This issue opens with a “you really should have seen this coming” twist. It’s an intense open, then the issue moves right away into a lengthy action sequence. Pretty much the whole issue. I went into this issue expecting it to start a “second story” or at least make sense as a halfway point in the series, which Boom! traded in two down the middle. And maybe the finale is the start of the series’s third act….

Was it Dan O’Bannon who said end of the second act is when things are at their direst for the heroes? It’s pretty dire for Robocop at the end of the issue. He’s lost all his friends, he’s had his heart ripped out (literally and figuratively—his new heart too, he just got it last issue). There was another surprising plot turn later in the issue, which maybe the first one should’ve foreshadowed. Conceptually, anyway. Last Stand has an interesting disinterest with the actual Robocop 3, while still playing with the same toys.

It’s like one kid is really bad at playing with his toys so this other kid comes in and plays with them better. Only there’s also all the awesome Oztekin art. The first kid didn’t have Oztekin, he had a lower budget than needed for the special effects. Though Oztekin, in another Robocop vs. helicopter sequence (second in the series so far, because attack helicopters used to be a really big deal in movies), shows what’s wrong with Robocop’s design in too physical action. He’s visually imposing—while slick—but not visually graceful. Quite the opposite. And it comes through in the issue for a bit.

Another reason the issue feels like the end of the second act is the emphasis on the villain. She’s been around since the second issue or so (her return being an adaptation surprise) and, after last issue, it makes sense she gets more solo page time. She’s fine. The exposition and setup is good. But she’s a villain who needs a performance, otherwise she’s too slight, sort of tedious in her evil. She needs some charm. And Grant and Oztekin don’t bring it in writing or art. They both do fine, they just aren’t interested.

And nothing in Last Stand actually seems to interest Grant so for him to be further detached… it’s unfortunate.

Though predictable.

Robocop has had villain problems since the end credits rolled on the first movie.

Robocop: Last Stand #4 of 8

Robocop: Last Stand #6Robocop: Last Stand; Boom! Studios; November 2013; $3.99, 32 pgs; available collected.

Putting on my Robocop nerd hat a minute (does it ever come off?), the first film’s writers wanted it to be a commentary on how Detroit used to make the best cars and—by the eighties—they made shit. This issue of Robocop: Last Stand has an inspiring, come-together moment for Detroiters to rebuild Murphy in a garage. One has to imagine if it’d made it into a movie, even Robocop 3, it’d have been effective. Well, okay, maybe not Robocop 3 as it is, but a 3 more like Last Stand.

The garage where they put Robo back together again is called “The Stand,” no less.

I’d been waiting for this issue to see if I was right about Boom! and Grant splitting the series into two parts, one through four (for the first trade), five through eight (for the second). The answer—should Last Stand be read in two sittings, one (or eight)—is complicated and immaterial. Last Stand doesn’t work as a “movie,” it works as a comic, where it doesn’t need anything resembling a three act structure—whether it has one or not, the medium doesn’t require it. Not when the book relies so heavily on Oztekin’s art. It’s a mostly action issue—there’s some big changes at OCP, which is some talking heads but mostly action too—as Robocop and his young, still nameless orphan charge lead the OCD cops on a car chase, culminating in Robocop and kid trapped in the sewer, Robocop literally falling to pieces.

This sequence is mostly from the girl’s perspective, which gives Grant a chance to be funny without being crude. Last Stand’s usually got a pretty base humor—the jokes at the expense of capitalist stooges aren’t subtle—and having the kid run the show for a bit is nice. She doesn’t overstay the spotlight. She and Robo trying to find the “rebels” is concurrent to the OCD cops hassling said rebels at their day job. Or at least at Bertha’s diner, where they all seem to hang out.

The tone shift—action chase then tense comedy (in a couple different situations)—gives Oztekin a lot to do. There’s frenetic action in the car chase and then frenetic energy from the participants of the diner sequence, as the cops can’t resist threatening (or trying to threaten) the civilians and the civilians aren’t going to be threatened.

That inspiring come-together finish, where the ragtag group of Detroit natives put Robo back together again is more of a writing thing. Oztekin’s got to match the script’s tempo. The rest of the issue, the comic has to meet his.

The way Grant plots Last Stand, as issues, in half, as a whole, is kind of permanently screwed up but thanks to Oztekin, it’s always gloriously so.