The other week, our own Tucker Stone complied a list of anticipated comics for Flavorwire.com, in which he made note of writer Garth Ennis' imminent return to the discreet world of his tenure on Marvel's The Punisher, specifically the adult-oriented MAX iteration thereof. It has proven to be an unlikely source of acclaim for Ennis, who often tried to avoid long runs on superhero-related characters; indeed, Stone isolated only one series of Ennis' since that time to achieve any real sort of impact: the zombie-ish horror series Crossed, which Ennis originated with artist Jacen Burrows for Avatar, a publisher Stone characterized elsewhere as "all about making as much money as possible off of blood, guts, and nudity, all the time, it’s the only game they’re interested in playing."
There isn't any contradiction here, not for longtime observers of this most reputable of disreputable comics publishers - gradually, up from its origins in the '90s "bad girl" boom in cheesecake comics, Avatar has become a place where 'name' writers can not only do whatever they want along certain bloody parameters, but where certain longtime affiliates become uninhibited enough to reveal odd things about themselves.
For example, last week saw the conclusion of Ennis' & Burrows' second and most recent Crossed storyline, a three-issue launch project for the ongoing, biweekly Crossed: Badlands series. I've heard some chatter online that this new story isn't as good as the expansive, nine-issue original -- a reorientation of zombie comics tropes to accommodate a run-and-gun survival horror tone, set in a world where humans have not become the living dead so much as victims of a disease that removes all of their inhibitions so that they become true, ah, consumers, to get all Romero on you -- but I disagree. In fact, I'll go so far as to argue that this new storyline occupies a unique place in the Ennis catalog, in that it's a religious work at heart.
Ennis, of course, is not religious, and indeed was never raised with a religion to eventually reject, though he's made reference to the unavoidable presence of assorted brands of Christianity in the Ireland of his youth. Still, to a Catholic school boy such as myself, there's an unmissable connotation to the image above, with its pained humanoid figure having temptations literally whispered into his ear by weathered, demonic jaw; it's rather kitsch, even. It's also a variation on one of the longstanding Ennis tropes - the mellow, younger, less 'hard' man having the depths of his capacity for violence teased by a comparatively amoral father/master/superior figure. Here the former is Ian, our semi-reliable narrator and a simple bookish man prior to the outbreak of the crossed, which obliterated his already-tenuous relationship with the lover he'd cheated on. The latter is Prince Harry, which is to say a scarred man claiming to be Prince Harry of Wales, whose military service has left him unique among aristocrats in his ability to survive in the ruins of society.
As is often the case, Ennis has no sympathy for royals from the very start, though as the story proceeds his Prince Harry is revealed to be a distinctly Luciferian figure, by which I mean he holds genuine knowledge that serves to bolster Ian's own rejection of morality in the wake of his community splitting off into desperate groups of survivors trying to make it in the titular Badlands. "Looking back on it now, I can see the mistake we made was in putting all our hopes in the child," our man muses up front, referring specifically to a pregnant woman in his roving group but obviously signaling something else. As the story proceeds -- and much space is taken up by tactical action of the sort you'd expect from Garth Ennis, generally keyed toward revealing the beast inside of the ostensibly mild-mannered 'hero' a la many a war story from the writer -- the increasingly pragmatic Ian becomes convinced that sticking with the woman is an inexcusable sop toward their eternal pursuers, the hordes of fallen Crossed and their distinctive cross-shaped markings that suggest a Christian imprint ripped away from their faces.
In a critical moment, Ian makes an effort to convince the group to leave the woman behind. He is outvoted, but she and the child die anyway in the process of giving birth.
Ennis sets up this central drama as a continuation of the various moral compromises Ian has made in his life, suggesting that his new, post-cataclysm attitude toward killing off the weak and slow is but an evolution of a selfishness that's followed his entire life. Prince Harry supports and reinforces him; as an elite, an aristocrat, he understands the sacrifices that must be made in leading people, in leading society. This does not protect Harry from eventually getting trapped and killed by the Crossed, which sets up the final act of the story as a deliberate scramble to reach Harry's lost gun, sitting by his felled corpse, as a means of escaping the hordes. At risk of committing some religio-political faux pas, I will characterize the disposition of plot as distinctly Catholic, in that the idea of grace (such that it exists) is accessed only through works and actions. As such, in pursuit of the gun, Ian manages to lose his valuable comrades as meaty distractions for the pursuers, and ultimately loses control upon discovery that the Crossed have dug up the dead woman's corpse and begun carrying it around as a totem, to some demoralizing effect. Hm, maybe it's more instant karma.
Nonetheless, as you can see above, our man is finally stained by his moral compromises, as Prince Harry's exploding head spatters him with brain matter during the final assault. It's a simple, effect extrapolation of the old zombie rule that you can't get bitten, lest you become one - instead, being marked with blood causes swift disintegration of a person's character, so that they become one of the Crossed. It is not a complex or innovative denouement, but it is interesting in how thoroughly Ennis internalizes an idiom of religious imagery and suggestion, with no interest in challenging it. Here, his interest is communication, of a much darker theme than the eventually hopeful initial Crossed story. Perhaps such ideas of sin and punishment are seen by the writer as applicable mainly to downbeat, futile, doomed souls in a story like this, a frame that captures them in recognizable terms, just as surely as artist Burrows, in the story's final image, lines up many of the story's characters, now Crossed, like the cast of a play arriving to take their bows.
Ian is already bowing, hunched over a grenade he's hidden from his group - his final lie. He is trying to gather enough presence of mind to pull the pin, wedding Ennis' love of military hardware to the notion of salvation. But you don't need to know your Ennis to see he's in prayer.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.
Harvey Pekar's Cleveland: In which ZIP Comics and Top Shelf present one of the final works by the late Harvey Pekar, a 128-page contemporary history of Cleveland, Ohio, purportedly folded into his own personal experiences in a manner that can't help but suggest a capstone on a tall enough build of such observation. The artist is Joseph Remnant, and the introduction is by short-lived American Splendor contributor Alan Moore. Preview; $21.99.
The Shark King: A new hardcover Toon Books release from Candlewick Press and Editorial Director Françoise Mouly, of particular interest for being the return of writer/artist R. Kikuo Johnson to longform comics-making after the 2005 release of his Night Fisher from Fantagraphics. This one's very different in tone, being a raucous 40-page color rendition of a Hawaiian tale of the shark god Kamohoalii and his voracious son Nanaue; that means lots of high-spirited misbehavior and happy greed, an old-timey lack of concern for pedagogical propriety expressed in a manner that deftly evokes both Alex Toth's smooth shadows and John Stanley's slapstick expressions (dead ringer for Tubby in here). All-ages funnybook deluxe, this. Preview; $12.95.
The Survivalist: You might have seen this one in stores last week, but Diamond is solemnizing right now as the moment of North American ingress for another Blank Slate one-off comic, in the 11 1/4" x 8 1/4" Chalk Marks format cozy to followers of the old Ignatz line. Box Brown is the artist this time, presenting a 48-page heartwarmer about a paranoid isolationist and the woman that teaches him shit about living life and self-publishing comic books(-as-a-metaphor-of-personal-awakening) after a seemingly global cataclysm. Brown's figure work recalls Chris Ware, but I was reminded quite a lot of James Kochalka's work, both in its off-handed sentimentality and its tendency to veer into super-cute/vulgar gags as a means of keeping the emotions involved at a low simmer; you can probably gauge your interest from that. Video preview; $7.99.
Reset #1 (of 4): Hey, it's Peter Bagge! Reuniting with Apocalypse Nerd publisher Dark Horse, the artist now offers a sci-fi scenario of virtual reality allowing folks to revisit prior scenes from their lives. Preview; $3.50.
The Shadow #1: Hey, didn't I just talk about Garth Ennis? The Boys is rapidly drawing to a close over at Dynamite, so here the publisher cranks out ten separate covers to commemorate what might be the writer's next extended series -- I'm not sure exactly what proportions we're looking at here, to be honest -- a new look at the longstanding pulp institution who most enjoys a good laugh. Controversial revivalist Howard Chaykin pops in for two of the variants, but note that Ennis is planning a period piece set in the run-up to WWII. I wouldn't mind this license affording the writer a Preacher-sized war story canvas at all. The interior artist is Aaron Campbell. Preview; $3.99.
3 Story: Secret Files of the Giant Man: And getting back to Dark Horse, here's a 'new' Matt Kindt comic, a supplement to his 2009 graphic novel 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man, which appears to have been collected from the old MySpace incarnation of Dark Horse Presents (a new issue of the present DHP series is also due this week); $3.50.
Prophet #24: I liked the direction this Brandon Graham-led revival of the old Rob Liefeld series seemed to be going as of last issue - very facilitative of a multi-artist approach. Here begins a two-issue run with Farel Dalrymple, in which the title character navigates a large starship. Preview; $2.99.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Micro-Series #4 (of 4): Leonardo: Elsewhere in newly Image-affiliated artists -- albeit in a comic from IDW -- Ross Campbell provides art for this well-traveled franchise, written in this instance by Brian Lynch; $3.99.
Judge Anderson: The Psi Files Vol. 2: This is one of those weeks where a stack of 2000 AD issues (theoretically) show up in North American stores, going up to Prog 1775 and the start of the new Brendan McCarthy/Al Ewing serial The Zaucer of Zilk. However, you also might be getting this 304-page color brick of increasingly 'visual experiment'-oriented '80s/'90s Dredd universe comics, mostly written by Alan Grant and prominently featuring artist Arthur Ranson. Douglas Wolk runs it down here; $32.99.
BPRD: Hell on Earth - The Long Death #3 (of 3): Somehow this has become the prime Hellboy comic of the moment, in part because it looks to be wrapping up several outstanding and slow-building plot developments, but largely due to artist James Harren proving very good at bloody action scenes of the sort that will probably make up most of this issue. Have a look; $3.50.
Cross Game Vol. 7 (of 8): Lots of manga out this week, so I'll divide it up by age group. First is the 372-page latest from Viz the excellent sports manga specialist Mitsuru Adachi, in which baseball is played; $14.99.
20th Century Boys Vol. 20 (of 24): And from the same publisher comes a seinen-skewing series in a similar state of near-conclusion from suspense author Naoki Urasawa (there's also new volumes of Dorohedoro and Gantz due, Suggested for Mature Readers); $12.99.
Katsuya Terada's The Monkey King Vol. 2: Dark Horse is the publisher of Gantz, by the way, not Viz. Their main selection this week, however, is probably a 2010 sequel to a 1998 manga (released in English in 2005) by prolific illustrator Terada, a version of the old Journey to the West myth done in painted color. Preview; $16.99.
Hellcyon: I don't know a thing about writer/artist Lucas Marangon -- he appears to be an artist of Star Wars licensed comics -- nor have I seen anything from the 2010 Dark Horse series which this book collects and expands upon, but I do know it's a rare thing today to see this close a homage to Masamune Shirow, once among the defining artists of the 'manga' style in North America, and presently content to provide concepts to anime while drawing sexy girl pin-ups. It's like late '80s OEL manga all over again! Preview; $12.99.
Batman: Odyssey 2 #7 (of 7): Finally, Neal Adams concludes his very long alternative continuity for the DC superhero, which in recent months proved to be a necessary holdout from universal rebooting. I think the lingering curiosity surrounding this eccentric project calmed with its extended sojourn into Journey to the Center of the Earth-style derring-do, although that stuff appears to have ended in issue #6. Adams is also in Dark Horse Presents this week, if more is what you need; $3.99.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: A veritable format suite is available to you this week, as Castle Waiting Vol. II #16 takes the form of a 24-page comic book ($3.95), Krazy & Ignatz 1922-1924: At Last My Drim of Love Has Come True wraps up a longstanding softcover reprint series complete with a memorial for preservationist Bill Blackbeard ($24.99) and Krazy & Ignatz: The Complete Sunday Strips 1916-1924 weighs in as a 600-page hardcover alternative to collecting less supple things ($95.00).