Revenger and the Fog hits and hits hard, with force and propulsion. Charles Forsman starts his story running and never stops.
First, there’s Reggie, a/k/a Revenger. She rocks a shaved head, and favors black sleeveless t-shirts. A badass. Then there’s Billy (Slim), Tara (Scalpel), and Jenny (Dynarat). Together this fantastic four form The Fog. Set in Southern California in 1979 this “most feared and revered quartet of young outlaws” play Robin Hoods in the ‘hood. When they’re not shooting, slicing, or blowing up baddies, it's a team that drinks in bars, goes to the beach to fuck, and hangs out in sparsely decorated spaces. A couple years back Jenny ran out on her dad, Robert Grimm. He’s “America’s favorite film producer”—and a pedophile who had been abusing Jenny mentally and physically since she was a child. Shortly after ditching daddy, she hooked up with Reggie and they fell in love. Now, Grimm wants Jenny back and can’t abide his “little pumpkin” with anyone else but her dear ol’ degenerate dad. Forsman could have stopped there. Instead he pushes the story further into darker and far creepier corners.
Give Forsman’s Revenger comics a quick flip -- Revenger and the Fog is the second collected volume, paired here with a one-shot, Revenger is Trapped!!! -- and they appear as love letters to those twin arrested adolescent male thrill machines of the '80s: action movies and Marvel Comics. Think Commando and Cobra as well as lesser (greater?) flicks like Lone Wolf McQuade and Red Scorpion. Comics-wise Forsman channels Larry Hama and Klaus Janson at their workmanlike most awesome.
In her review of a similar genre send-up, Anya Davidson’s Lovers in the Garden, Katie Skelly challenges readers “to read Lovers in the Garden back to back with All Time Comics #1 and see the difference between absorbing and reinterpreting genre versus trying to sell it back wholesale for laughs.” I may disagree, a bit, on what Messrs. Bayer and Marra et al. are after in All-time Comics, but Skelly, who in her own comics absorbs and reinterprets genre like a boss, is on point. She nails the nitrous hit nostalgia gives an artist while simultaneously undermining making art that’s on par with the beloved primary text. Forsman’s voice may belong to a previous era and he may wish he could've hung out in the ‘Marvel Bullpen,’ but he has to reconcile that impulse in order to say something relevant, personal.
The cheese and sleaze Forsman peddles in Revenger and the Fog proves pastiche without purpose grows stale. So he plays it straight and self-aware. From an idiosyncratic style that looks like it comes from the spiral-bound notebook of a kid doped on Jolt and Joel Silver movies to the exaggerated plot, Forsman dares readers to dismiss him. And yet that’s the joy in a Forsman comic, the performance and presentation. He makes it easy to burrow into those memories of '80s kitsch, settle in, and forget it’s 2017. Don’t.
Yeah, The Fog drive around in a van with a radar dish mounted on the back and, O.K., “crank-fueled bikers” get impaled with lit sticks of dynamite. So what? Cheap laughs are what keep the darkness light. In spite of its signifiers and over-the-top silliness, Revenger and the Fog is a sophisticated deception that hits on themes of loyalty, love, and family, a comic for grownups. For a master of misdirection like Forsman the punches, stabbings, and beat-downs only go skin deep, superficial distractions giving way to the meat of deeper matters. Idiosyncrasy cuts both ways. Couple that idea with Revenger and the Fog’s reliance on genre and generational tropes and, yes, Forsman's nuance runs the risk of not being taken seriously and only engaging readers at the surface level—another pitfall of reinterpreting genre. To counter such concerns, Forsman follows a simple code: look cool, be cool, but care.
To understand Forsman’s game: look at it. He may play all absorptive and sly, but his cartooning carries no pretense—what you see, you get. His semi-realistic style incorporates a child-like or teenage charm. Readers may recall their own juvenile stabs at ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.’ The difference is Forsman knows where that book ends and he begins. He doesn’t draw comics the Marvel way, he draws comics the Forsman way. Blank backgrounds, screentone, and speed lines show a love for manga without being obtrusive. His characters possess an ugly beauty, a realness: paunches, wrinkles, crumbs in crevices, bald spots, stringy ‘staches—gross anatomy. There’s a restraint to his cartooning that contradicts his love of over-the-top action. His layouts are consistently and purposely uncomplicated. Panels and pages serve the story by either developing character or moving the narrative along, not showing off. The one time he uses a splash page (outside of introductions to chapters) happens when Reggie and Billy parachute out of a helicopter for their not-so silent interlude to rescue Jenny. Such artistic self-control results in a release that’s consistent with characters emotional journeys while also the perfect visual choice.
Reggie/Revenger is Forsman’s ideal, but real. Strong of thigh, she’s sexy without being sexualized, a lean and mean figure whose body fits her calling as a bruiser. One look says she would have held her own in G.L.O.W or as a lookalike bodyguard for her doppelganger, Grace Jones. Reggie is always in motion: running, jumping, brawling. During the climactic confrontation in Grimm’s home -- opposite a page where Forsman does his best Tony Salmons with a spot-on Dakota North bob on an innocent bystander -- Forsman turns Revenger into a many-armed killer, Kali, the god of death in fingerless black leather gloves. Each finger of her hand wraps around a pistol as she blasts away, a sinuous blur set against a red circle faded at its edges. So much of the Revenger vibe comes from feeling or intuiting what’s on the page. Forsman’s not an anatomist. He draws muscles and popping veins only to convey an idea, not to ape a medical textbook. Reggie’s physique is from the streets, not the gym. When she pulls up her shirt to reveal a rectangle of blood-soaked gauze taped over a beeping incision -- because a bomb’s been sewn into her guts after she was zapped unconscious by a Taser, because of course -- her skin folds over her jeans like a normal person, no washboard abs here. It’s an easily overlooked detail given the character and situation. Details like this is how Forsman sneaks in the real amidst all the unreal.
In addition to action, Revenger and the Fog is a comic about relationships, both positive and destructive. Unlike the first Revenger volume or the one-shot, this isn’t a story for lone wolves. Getting separated from the pack means death or worse.
Jenny and Reggie wear satiny jackets with a stylized ‘Fs’ at the shoulder. In context, the ‘F’ stands for The Fog. But given their relationship to each other and to their teammates the ‘F’ could as easily stand for family. For a story that revolves around a father and daughter, the word ‘family’ comes up both in obvious and oblique ways. When Jenny leaves her dad, Miguel, Grimm’s right-hand man and someone Jenny calls ‘uncle,’ tells her, “Without family, we are nothing in this world.” On a cab ride Reggie takes to the Extreme Studios lot to try to get Jenny back the first time, the driver tells her a story about his cousin who died on set at Extreme. He says Grimm used the footage and it broke “his mama’s heart.” Reggie’s taunts Miguel with the word ‘grandpa’ when they face off. During the raid, Billy tells Reggie to “bring Jenny home.” It’s specifics like these that support bigger pieces of plot scaffolding like Billy’s love for his mother, who’s infirm and requires his care, which causes him to betray his friends and set the main action of the story in motion.
So Revenger and the Fog is lousy with family. And like the '80s action claptrap, these family moments are signifiers that get at bigger issues. After Tara dies -- she leaves her friends behind to take some personal time at the gang’s beachfront cabin, never a smart choice in this story -- Reggie and Jenny, decked out in their jackets with the ‘F’ shoulder patch, commiserate at a bar. Jenny’s processing Tara’s death and says, she’s "bad at feelings." Reggie puts it off to her being “such a spoiled little rich girl.” Jenny (apparently?) has never told Reggie about the abuse she’s experienced from her father. The phone rings. The bartender answers and says it’s for Jenny. Forsman draws a sequence of Jenny talking on the phone using three identical rectangular panels, with a larger fourth panel to fill out the bottom of the page. Reggie drinks a beer at the far left hand edge while Jenny is on the right. Forsman draws a piece of molding on the wall next to Jenny which boxes her in and cuts her off from the far right hand side of the panel/page. She and Reggie are apart, but (still) together. These asymmetrical compositions show the deftness at which Forsman conveys feeling and emotion. In case readers miss the message, in each panel he slowly turns scratches on the top of the bar into letters that form the word ‘RAGE.’ Whose ‘rage’ it is isn’t clear; it’s mutual for sure. In the last panel Jenny says, “I gotta go,” adding, “Just leave it, Reg. I’ll be fine,” and exits the bar.
It’s unclear if the call came from Grimm, and Jenny willingly went back to her father, or if she was kidnapped. She’s bound and gagged at the end of the chapter, so maybe she put up a fight? How Jenny ends up back with her dad and, more importantly, why isn’t explained. This sort of about-face lines up with pulpy plot twists in action movies and comic books, but doesn’t work here. Forsman gives no direct evidence Jenny is some prodigal daughter. She never says or acts like she’s biding her time raising hell, fighting, and fucking with The Fog so one day she can return to her father’s side to either suffer more abuse or become the movie star he’s always wanted her to be. Or, in a worst case scenario, is Forsman trying to say Jenny’s trauma goes so deep that she feels compelled to return to her abuser? For Forsman to set up these group dynamics of family by circumstance versus family by choice and choose to be implicit instead of explicit causes the story to take a Deus-ex-machina-like hit it doesn’t deserve. Perhaps it offers insight into Reggie’s lone wolf nature? If so than it resonates with something she says to the cab driver: “People have a way of gumming up the works. Fucking Assholes.” People, assholes or not, do make bad choices. And sometimes revenge is the decision, when what’s needed is a better, more careful, explanation. Revenger’s flaws aren’t Forsman’s. If nuance gets the better of him here, it’s all in the game, and Forsman’s game is strong enough to withstand the hit.
Revenger and the Fog stands as an easily dismissed piece of pop culture with little apparent redeeming or artistic value, which makes it the perfect comic book. Something so deviant and dismissible that by the time it’s got its fingers pressing down on your windpipe you realize this is what great art does, how it feels. Now that’s the ultimate revenge.