Rawhide Kid #1
Marvel Comics/MAX – Ron Zimmerman (w); John Severin (a)
Well, it’s here. And since it is, people can finally stop saying “You can’t judge a book until it’s been released!” on message boards, ’cause it can certainly be judged now.
Oddly enough, I’m not inclined to judge it as harshly as I had expected to. Now, I’m not saying, by any means, that Rawhide Kid is a GOOD book, because it’s not. But it’s probably not as bad as most fans out there expected it to be.
The set-up of the issues is stereotypical, a concept that’s applied to nearly every situation or characterization in the book. Matt Morgan is an aging farmer-turned-sheriff, single-handedly raising his son, Toby, in a small, frontier town, Wells Junction. The day that Cisco Pike, an outlaw with a lightning draw and an itchy trigger-finger, rides into town is the day that things change for the Morgans and the rest of the town (see what I’m talking about? I can’t even summarize it without sounding clichéd). Pike draws on Sheriff Morgan and his deputy, but doesn’t kill Morgan. Rather he leaves him wounded and shamed, saddled with the knowledge that, as he claims, Cisco Pike is the only law in town for as long as he wants. Or so it would seem.
The timely arrival of the Rawhide Kid looks to change things considerably, evening the odds for the forces of law and order. However, Rawhide doesn’t do much of anything. He basically sashays through town in his purple outfit, attracting attention from all and sundry but not accomplishing a heck of a lot else.
So the real question, I suppose, then is, “So how gay is it?” The answer? Not very.
Knowing beforehand that the gay angle is being taken, you can sort of see an effeminate quality about the Kid. And obviously, the constant remarks by the townspeople of Wells Junction on what a snappy dresser Rawhide would tip you off a bit, but probably not enough to make a difference. If anything, the comments are in the vein a villain questioning why Batman runs around with a teenage boy in tights. Such a comment would be lampooning the obvious homoeroticism of the situation, but would not necessarily denote an actual gay subtext to the story. It’s just a humorous observation. The end result is that longtime Rawhide Kid fans will probably be irritated by the presence of the Kid’s less-than-mainstream sexuality, but won’t be forced to tear the book to shreds in a fit of anger. It’s relatively subtle, as far as work by Zimmerman is concerned (since he’s normally about as subtle as a sledgehammer).
The real saving grace is John Severin’s art, which is really quite impressive. Severin was outstanding in his day, but hasn’t been seen much in countless years (to my knowledge). So it’s nice to see that more legendary creators than just Joe Kubert can maintain a high standard of quality well after becoming eligible for a senior citizen’s discount, because Lord knows a lot of older creators (both writers and artists) attempt to simply get by on their good name and little else (see the Just Imagine Stan Lee… series for a prime example).
In the end, the book is simply mediocre. Much like The Truth, it’s obvious that the reason Marvel spent so much time hyping this book was for the sales that controversy generates, rather than for any genuine artistic merit. However, there are a few legitimately amusing moments, particularly the one where Toby Morgan bares his soul to his father, much to Matt Morgan’s chagrin (and no, the boy doesn’t come out of the closet, if that’s what you were thinking). I guess the real problem is that I can’t seem to figure out who exactly should be buying this book. Fans of westerns should direct their attention to the Apache Skies trade paperback that shipped this week. Longtime Rawhide Kid fans will find little of the warm glow of nostalgia herein. And those looking for open homosexuality in a comic book are likely to be disappointed as well, as the Kid’s preference is never explicitly mentioned and barely implied. For $3, your money is better spent on something else.
Point Blank #1-5
DC Comics/Wildstorm – Ed Brubaker (w); Colin Wilson (a)
Last week, I read Sleeper, a book that I was looking forward to because I enjoy both the genre (noir) and the writer (Brubaker) that were attached to it. However, I was a little leery of it, knowing that it spun itself out of this mini-series, which I never read. I never read this mini because, frankly, I’ve never been a big follower of the Wildstorm universe (aside from my brief Image kick when the company was in its early days), and hence, I wasn’t sure that I’d get the continuity in a book centering around Cole Cash (the unfortunately named character who moonlighted as Grifter in Wildcats). The problem is that Brubaker claimed in an interview that one could bypass Point Blank and move straight into Sleeper without any problems, something that I found to be technically accurate, but moderately misleading. After reading Sleeper, I found that while it was enjoyable, I wasn’t entirely clear on what was going on. And while this was not surprising, as noir tales typically (and, almost, by necessity) begin with a certain amount of ambiguity, I felt that I would be well-served by tracking down this mini and catching up. And I can say that I’m glad I did, for two reasons. One, this series does explain a decent amount of what’s going on in Sleeper, albeit in an indirect fashion. And two, it’s simply a good story.
Dashiell Hammett is one of the all-time greats of crime fiction. His most famous protagonist, an eponymous detective known only as the Continental Op (so named because he was a field agent for the Continental Detective Agency, a riff on Hammett’s real life former employers, the Pinkerton Detective Agency), was memorable for his distinct lack of subtlety. Despite a quick wit and a sharp eye for detail, nearly every story involving the Op ends with him, .45 automatic clenched in each meaty fist, killing a gratuitous amount of bad guys (incidentally, Bruce Willis’ character in the movie Last Man Standing is the Op, as that movie was adapted from one of Hammett’s most famous works, Red Harvest) and sorting out the pieces of the mystery from amidst the carnage that’s left in his wake. Why am I telling you this, you ask? Because in this story, for all intents and purposes, Cole Cash is the Continental Op.
The story opens with Cole Cash, hard-drinking and down on his luck, accepting a job from his former teammate and former director of the shadowy Internal Operations, John Lynch. Lynch, true to form (both for himself and for the archetypical role that he plays in this story), doesn’t give Cash much information about the actual job itself. Rather, he uses Cole as a pit bull, pointing him in the right direction and unleashing him. However, during the weeks that follow, in the course of interrogating the survivors of their bloody encounters, one thing is repeated: Lynch’s desire to learn the whereabouts of a man known only as Carver. When Lynch is found shot through the head (surviving only via a newly empowered gen-active ability to regenerate tissue), Cash picks up the slack and begins trying to piece together the sequence of events between the last time that he saw his friend and his near-fatal shooting. In classic crime fiction style, this is accomplished through a series of casual interrogations, moving from lead to lead as each conversations inevitably ends in one suspect fingering another. Sure, gun battles are sprinkled here and there, but it’s mostly to break up the monotony of monologues and dialogues. This, naturally, leads to the Op-style big firefight. The twist, however, lies in the nature of Carver’s connection to Lynch, as well as the ending confrontation between Cole and the mastermind behind the whole she-bang.
Carver, for those not in the know, is the lead character of Sleeper. Knowing that beforehand sort of ruined a bit of the suspense for me, as I was already aware of the fact that Carver is playing on the side of the angels (though that term, in this setting, is a relative one). So really all I needed to learn was the backstory that this mini provided, which, to be honest, wasn’t that much. However, it does clarify enough that I feel like I have a better understanding for the direction that Sleeper is likely to take and it was interesting, given the fact that I’ve already read Carver’s version of his origin, to see the opposing (and more popular, amongst the supporting cast) viewpoint.
In any case, even if Point Blank had provided no insight into Sleeper, I’d still be happy with the purchase, because it’s an archetypical, enjoyable read. If you read Sleeper, but not this book, you should definitely look into picking it up. If you didn’t read Sleeper at all, you should. And then you should look into picking this up. At this point, it might be a wiser decision to just hold off and wait for the trade, but knowing DC’s erratic publication scheme for them, I wouldn’t chance it. Great story all around, with gritty art from Colin Wilson that is very reminiscent of 100 Bullets‘ Eduardo Risso (and that’s no bad thing, my friend).
Hotel Harbour View
Viz – Natsuo Sekikawa (w); Jiroh Taniguchi (a)
I’ve owned this book for about three months now and I’ve held off on reading it until just this past week, when I broke down. I didn’t avoid it because I was afraid that it’d be bad. No, I kept my distance because I knew it was going to be great. And I also knew that when it was mind-boggling good, I would feel compelled to write up a review for it and that, for me, is a bad thing. Why? Because no matter how much I tell you to go out and buy a copy, that’s going to be a difficult task for you: this book is out of print.
And I am telling you, if you’re a fan of crime fiction or film noir (anyone see a theme starting to develop this week?), do what it takes to track this book down. It is absolutely amazing.
Self-loathing is a common theme in a large portion of contemporary American crime fiction (just ask James Ellroy, his novels are living proof) and Sekikawa proves in this graphic novel that it isn’t a concept that those authors have a monopoly on: it is the central theme to both of the stories that comprise this collection. In turn, these two stories are tied together by a shared central character: one female assassin named Mariko.
In the titular opening story, a businessman arrives in Hong Kong to escape trouble on the mainland (or so he claims). Drinking himself into a stupor, he awaits the arrival of a prostitute, who he then pays for the services that working girls are known for, as well as the chance to amateur pornographic photos. Pillow talk with the girl reveals that he is awaiting a confrontation with an unknown hitman (or hitwoman, I guess, in this case) and that it is his intention to test his skill with the gun or die trying. A good portion of the panels in this first story are establishing shots, static images the city and its environs that evoke the mood of the story so well that one can imagine a slow, mournful sax being played in the background, as though “Hotel Harbour View” were a film noir rather than a manga version. In the end, the twist is revealed: the man isn’t a rogue agent from some shadow government. He’s an administrator at the Ministry of Trade, a man who simply and tragically was stricken with cancer, a man who loved guns and paid an assassin to ensure that he was able go out in a blaze of glory like a gangster in a movie rather than an emaciated patient in a hospital bed. The entire story is an elaborate game of Russian roulette, as the eponymous man’s revolver is drawn first, but the gun’s hammer finds only an empty chamber.
In the second story, “Brief Encounter,” the lack of self-respect is even thicker, as the story revolves around a quest to win that feeling back. Mariko is featured again; only this time she is the central character of the story, rather than simply serving as the source of conflict. Hired to kill a man, she realizes that he is someone with whom she had a brief romantic entanglement several years prior to the story. Again the use of establishing shots is heavy and Taniguchi’s art shines as he displays a wide range of emotions through his characters’ dynamic facial expressions. Here, however, those shots are often overlaid with narration, Mariko’s inner thoughts expressed on the page, silently willing her target to recognize her face and remember their encounter as she shadows him through his day-to-day life. When the moment of truth arrives, on opposite sides of a subway tunnel with the train’s arrival mere seconds away, recognition hits him like a slap in the face as he calls out her name. The recognition comes a heartbeat prior to Mariko’s bullet striking him in the chest.
I just can’t say enough good things about this book. The stories are classic, worthy of the great of prose crime fiction. And the atmosphere here is so thick you could cut it with a knife. The two shorts told herein would be great no matter who penciled them, but I can’t imagine a more fitting artist than Taniguchi after having seen his performance. Again, if it’s at all possible, go out and track a copy of this book down. For God’s sake, I found my copy in a fifty-cent bin.
Hawaiian Dick #2
Image Comics – B. Clay Moore (w); Steven Griffin (a)
If there’s another theme common to crime fiction, this time embodied by the works of Raymond Chandler (generally considered the master of the genre), it’s that nothing in a story happens without a reason. Even the most trivial details or extraneous supporting characters serve some purpose. B. Clay Moore continues that tradition in this creator-owned mini-series, as his shamus, Byrd, navigates a labyrinth of underworld bosses, mysticism, murder and the vengeful spirits of long-dead warriors.
Byrd is hired to track down Leila Rose, the missing girlfriend of the island’s infamous moss boss, Bishop Masaki. Byrd accepts the job, but there’s a bit of a problem: he’s already found her and she’s dead. In addition to this complication, Byrd is still trying to reconcile what he has seen the night before (the appearance of the Night Marchers, a tribe of spectral warriors who take vengeance on the guilty) and what he had previously held to be the nature of reality. Factor in the appearance of a venerable female kahuna, Madame Chan, and you’ve got the makings of one hell of a final issue next month. Things are going to come to a head very shortly and I have a feeling that they aren’t going to be pretty.
Steven Griffin has a style that is perfectly suited to this book and its tone, a clean, easy-to-follow manner, but with a coloring scheme that is reminiscent of Tim Sale, an ink-washed or water-colored look. It evokes the mood perfectly, as Hawaii is shown to be a sunny, up-tempo place by day, but full of sinister and mysterious tradition after sunset.
Moore, to his credit, writes every character convincingly. Byrd is a nice stand-in for Phillip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler’s protagonist) and as Marlowe always had a friend somewhere in the Los Angeles Police Department, so does Byrd. Byrd and Mo, his flatfoot friend, make their way through a colorful supporting cast that’s highlighted by the appearance of Bishop Masaki, a devilish man with a slight build but an imposing wit and personality, practically oozing menace. I mean, take a look at the cover, for God’s sake. That guy is scary as hell.
In the end, it’s a nice riff on Chandler’s stories, moving the private dick from his traditional stomping grounds in the Los Angeles area of the 1950s and setting up his shop in Hawaii of the same time period. Superficially, very little changes, as you’re moving from one sunny locale to another. However, Hawaiian folklore’s emphasis on the spirit world is a welcome change, one that’s played to full effect by Moore. In any case, Hawaiian Dick has been a real standout effort from both Image and Moore and here’s hoping it warrants its own regular series or, at the very least, another mini.
Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #2
Marvel Comics – James Sturm (w); Guy Davis (a)
James Sturm, a creator that I have nothing but respect for, finally makes a mainstream debut, much to the chagrin of hoity-toity indy press fans everywhere. I, on the other hand, applaud him for doing so, as he’s not only produced an incredible pair of issues so far, but he’s set the standard (in my opinion) for small press stars looking to climb the ladder. I wish this sort of thing happened more often, but it seems that Kyle Baker’s performance in The Truth (which, for the record, I’ve been completely unimpressed by, despite absolutely loving Baker’s other work) is the norm rather than work like this.
So, that having been said, I must admit that this book absolutely broke my heart, it’s that sad. But I mean that in a positive way.
Last issue, this real-world retelling of the origin of Marvel’s First Family sort of spread the focus around, giving everyone all four characters a moment in the spotlight and closing with the teenage hi-jinks of Johnny Sturm. This time, everyone is present (except Reed, who is present only through other’s conversations regarding him), but it’s Sue Sturm who takes center stage.
James Sturm is showing, essentially, that these characters’ traditional powers to represent an important facet of their personalities. For instance, Ben Grimm’s rocky and gruff exterior disguises a tender soul. Johnny Storm’s ability to wreathe himself in flame is representative of a fiery temper and generally erratic behavior. And Sue, the Invisible Woman, is precisely that: she’s invisible to everyone around her.
Now, that is not to say that this version of Sue has the ability to turn transparent or create unseen forcefields. Instead, her invisibility is thrust upon her by society and its rules, rather than happenstance and cosmic radiation. Her invisibility is shown in the lack of respect that she receives from her brother, Johnny, and her fiancée, Reed. Neither of them show her the slightest consideration, be it Johnny’s misbehavior or Reed’s general disregard for her own needs or feelings. She is a woman burdened by tradition, not only the overarching societal demands of women (be pretty, dress nicely, be a good cook, etc.), but also by her own self-imposed need to fill her departed mother’s shoes, taking up the daunting two-front task of mothering Johnny and inserting herself into her mother’s social circle. Her own feelings that she is an increasingly irrelevant part of the lives of those she cares about are paralleled by sequences from her favored comic book title, Vapor Girl, drawn by Sikoryak.
In the end, I find myself almost longing for something involving spandex and superpowers, because this brutally honest examination of 1950s domesticity is absolutely heart-breaking. However, after this issue, I cannot wait for the next; Sturm has shown an absolute affinity for exposing the souls of these characters. It’s a must-read book, I’m telling you. In a perfect world and perfect comic book industry, a mini-series like this would the sort of thing that makes a star.