The Ribbon Queen #1 (of 8)

The Ribbon Queen #1 (of 8)

Garth Ennis, Jacen Burrows, Guillermo Ortego, Dan Brown & Rob Steen



32 pages

A new project by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows1 brings with it a certain set of expectations. This is the team that brought us Crossed, and more recently the excellent Punisher: Soviet. Appropriately, The Ribbon Queen, a miniseries from AWA,2 is that now-rare thing: a Garth Ennis horror comic. There have been several besides Crossed, including A Walk Through Hell (2018-19, AfterShock), Caliban (2014, Avatar)... Hellblazer, if you count it. But that’s hardly a blip in his vast bibliography.

The Ribbon Queen promises to step on several toes, with its police-centered plot looking back specifically to Black Lives Matter protests in New York. The protagonist, detective Amy Sun, investigates the case of a young woman who was rescued from a serial killer in a SWAT team raid. "The N.Y.P.D.’s one and only P.R. win in all of twenty-twenty, is that what you’re talking about?" asks her beleaguered captain. That woman is now dead, and the main suspect in the very commander of the team that rescued her - and then apparently spent a long while pursuing the woman like a conquering hero's reward.

As you can see from my summation, there’s a lot of ‘there’ there. There are the BLM protests themselves, toxic masculinity, the ‘blue wall of silence,’ workplace intimidation; The Ribbon Queen promises to engage with these issues, though what, if any, will be its particular response is anyone’s guess. A Walk Through Hell, which I read in the early months of 2020—speaking of synergy—entertainingly threw a lot of balls in the air and caught almost none of them in its whiff of an ending. Ennis is a very aware writer, but one that tends to get locked inside his own obsessions. The kind of having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too approach he takes to military forces as useful monsters doesn’t really track with police;3 soldiers in Ennis comics tend to be entangled in foreign conflicts, doing things ‘over there’ to ‘other people,’ observed from a certain distance. But everybody has a chance to encounter cops on duty, and for a lot of people this encounter is not positive, and while this first issue of The Ribbon Queen would very much like you to know about this subject, it doesn’t quite do more than state the obvious.

Still, it’s a pretty good start. Ennis retains his knack for dialogue that sounds realistic while doling out expository or background information in pretty much every speech balloon. On the very first page, for example, the captain asks Sun to leave his office door open while they talk, because closing the door means she is going to tell him something awful; Sun then apologizes and closes the door, which tells you a lot about the history and relationship between these characters. It’s a playful exchange in an otherwise dour story… but it also lets you know these people don’t exist in a void.

Notice the captain's bald spot above. You can see it in less than 1/5 of the panels in which the character appears; most of the time he is portrayed from Sun’s eye-level POV, which gives the appearance of a full head of hair. The story never calls attention to it, and I don’t know if this detail was in the script (Ennis’ are famously concise) or if it's something Burrows came up with on his own, but it’s a good character touch because it is subtle. This is a man whose entire body language, entire presence, speaks of barely holding together under pressure. A man who wants to appear strong, while hiding his weakness as much as possible.

Visually, so far at least, it’s a very subdued book, all solid location and character work. It's closer in spirit to what Burrows did with Alan Moore on Providence than any of his prior works with Ennis, though it looks a bit better because inker Guillermo Ortego gives a sharper definition to Burrows’ architectural line.4 I’m sure things will get much more brutal as the story progresses, and gore fans will have their pound(s) of flesh, but I’m satisfied with the comparatively quite menace of Sun encountering the SWAT guy unexpectedly in her house; his mere presence oozes threat, even before he stands up and we see how much larger he is. The clean-cut look of a Hollywood hero presented in an askew manner.

The whole thing is so well executed on a craft level, I can almost forget that it plays out like a television/movie pitch, which I assume is how most of these AWA series get made. It's like the location budget has already been calculated. Still, if we are to have this type of comic—and they don't seem to be going away—let them all look as good as this one. Or at least try to. Burrows is good enough to elevate even middling concepts (see his work on the very short-lived Warhammer 40K title at Marvel from a few years ago), and particularly great when he’s married to the right material.

Is The Ribbon Queen that right material? Past experience with Ennis’ attempts at socially-conscious horror suggests it may not be; the road to hell, like A Walk Through Hell, is paved with good issues that end poorly. I will surprise no one when I admit I'm looking forward to their promised next Punisher/Fury/whatever-military-stuff project. Still, even if this series fails to deliver on all that it promises—and how can it, when it is promising so very much—I am sure that pound of flesh and those pints of blood will be entertaining enough.

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  1. Specifically, Burrows is the penciller. The inker is Guillermo Ortego, who has been working with Burrows since Moon Knight in 2018 and always elevates his game. The colorist is Dan Brown, and the letterer is Rob Steen.
  2. I will not be using the publisher’s full name, both to save space and because it’s very nearly the worst name for a new comics publisher in my lifetime, beaten only by the time TidalWave Productions briefly shared a name with a neo-Nazi web forum.
  3. As demonstrated in his two Red Team series with Dynamite.
  4. We spend time on three major ‘sets’ in this issue - the captain's office, a morgue, and Sun’s house. All of them feel so precisely rendered, without ever calling attention to themselves, that you wonder if Burrows drafted blueprints.