So last week was, as so many of them are, a damn fine week for funnybooks. But this was a particularly good week, one that saw the release of what might just be my four favorite current comics. And while none of them quite managed to earn that elusive five-star rating… If that’s not a hook for this week’s column, I don’t know what is…
Kill or be Killed 20
by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser
The latest Brubaker/Phillips joint draws to a close this issue with an ending that’s not entirely satisfying, but rather brilliantly executed nonetheless. Things pick up right where they left off last time, with Dylan (Our Vigilante Hero) bleeding out in the snow after taking a bullet for Detective Sharpe. Everything fades to black on page three, but considering that he’s also Our Narrator, I wasn’t entirely surprised when I turned the page, and…
The story moves on from there, with Dylan slowly recovering and Sharpe covering for him out of gratitude. I wasn’t sure I completely bought that motivation for her, but there’s also a sting on the Russian mobsters who tried to kill them, and some other business involving a crooked cop, so I wrote it off as Brubaker twisting the knife on vigilante morality one more time. It’s also a nice play on the “Spider-Man No More” story Sean Phillips referenced with this issue’s cover.
In that story, Peter Parker gives up being Spider-Man, fed up with all the trouble it causes him, only to return to his double life after being reminded of why he started fighting crime in the first place. Here, Dylan gives up vigilantism after nearly dying, only to be brought back in when Sharpe tells him that the cop who set them up is being released into witness protection because of a plea bargain. From there, Dylan rededicates himself to the cause and moves forward, getting better at what he does and even changing up his look to something a bit more comic booky.
I mean, it’s hardly a spandex super-suit, but it’s decidedly more… design-conscious? …than the book’s been up to this point. The cool factor of that outfit was almost funny to me, to be honest, and I wondered if the book wasn’t heading toward some dark, terrible irony. An ending that made you feel good about Dylan’s vigilantism while simultaneously demonstrating that you very much shouldn’t. But something didn’t feel right about that. Though I could certainly see the book going there, it’s also the kind of bitter dark comedy Brubaker usually leaves to guys like Garth Ennis. It would be more like Brubaker to make his point more directly, by pulling a fast one with an unreliable narrator or something. In fact… Wait a minute…
Hasn’t he established that Dylan’s lied to us before?
So, yeah. That’s EXACTLY what Brubaker’s doing. And he pulls it off so well that I fell for it, about 96 percent. But something was nagging me about it, and in looking back over those pages, I can see why. Phillips and Breitweiser leave us plenty of visual clues that we may not be looking at reality. There’s that slick new vigilante costume, for one thing, but there’s also a change in how the fantasy pages are colored. The palette’s just as rich as the rest of the series, but Breitweiser’s laying in a lot more textures in that sequence. You can see it above, on the hospital blanket in that wake-up page I posted earlier. But anywhere she can, she uses textures instead of just colors. There are weird circular patterns in the trees in a couple of places, and then this page right here…
Holy crap. The background in that panel where Sharpe’s getting the commendation looks like an old four-color funnybook Ben-Day dot pattern. And that big panel at the bottom, with the wallpaper and the carpet and Kira’s shirt… It looks like it was draped in zip-a-tone.
That’s a nice touch. The textures in general give those pages an air of heightened reality, but the zip and Ben-Day effects plant things solidly in the realm of funnybooks, just as Dylan turns into a funnybook hero. It’s a great visual clue that we’ve entered fantasy land, subtle enough that it doesn’t give the twist away, but obvious enough that you know something’s wrong. Even if you only know it subliminally.
So, yes. It’s a brilliantly executed ending, one that upsets expectations and forces you to confront the book’s themes one last time. I can’t complain about it one iota.
Taken as a whole, Kill or be Killed feels like it had more to say. At one point earlier in the run, Brubaker said that this book would be the longest of his and Phillips’ career. And it’s had a certain thematic and narrative momentum that felt like they were planning to sustain it for a good while to come. Dylan has made vague reference to things that happen later, discussing his vigilante career in longer terms than what we’ve gotten. I’ve felt for a long time that Brubaker’s had longer-range plans for Kira, as well, and (in spite of a closing stinger that I won’t spoil here) her story now feels somewhat incomplete. The story as a whole feels incomplete. Truncated. Cut off. And he pays lip service to that sensation, talking about how life’s just like that sometimes. He even has Dylan apologize to anyone who feels like they’ve been mislead. So he obviously gets it. He knows this ending, good as it is, isn’t as satisfying as promised. But he opted to end the story here, anyway.
Why? Hell, I dunno. Maybe he got bored. Maybe he thought he was starting to repeat himself. Or maybe he just became uncomfortable with exploring vigilante justice as entertainment in the current social climate. I might argue that “crazy white dudes with guns” has become an even more vital subject in the last two years, but I can see how it might make someone eager to move on.
So I get it, too. I do. And Brubaker has done maybe the best possible job of wrapping up Kill or be Killed without the deeper examination promised along the way. So I’m not really complaining. I’m just… feeling wistful, for the story I had been anticipating.
Stray Bullets: Sunshine and Roses 36
by David Lapham
Exactly halfway through this issue, Sunshine and Roses passed the 10000-page mark. That’s impressive. The original Stray Bullets made it just shy of 1200 pages, spread across 41 issues, but Sunshine and Roses has been far more of an epic, focused intensely on one story that takes place in-between two other stories from that original series. It’s still sprawling, don’t get me wrong, with a huge cast and lots of character depths to plumb. But the action’s still rolling out directly from the events of the earliest issues. It’s… well, like I said… It’s impressive.
It’s especially impressive that Lapham can still expand the web of this thing to ensnare brand new characters worth remembering. But that’s exactly what we get this issue in the form of Love Yourself, a bad ass rasta gangster who saw the error of his ways and switched from selling hard drugs to psychedelics. Love’s a hippy samurai philosopher now, still a criminal, but one who looks out for his neighbors and tries to do the right thing when he can.
In a series filled to bursting with colorful characters, Love really stands out. I liked him almost immediately, and cringed when I realized that he was getting mixed up with the collection of lunatics and bad news assholes who make up the cast of this book. But there he is, caught through no fault of his own in-between Kretchmeyer’s Sunshine gang and Harry’s syndicate. And, oh my, it just ain’t pretty.
But it is awfully damned entertaining, yet another in Lapham’s long line of Tarantinoesque crime shorts, and a really nice place for the modern version of the series to pass a milestone.
Sex Criminals 25
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
So I paid five bucks for a comic about people who have super-orgasms, and I didn’t even blink. I mean, it was 30 pages of story and art, plus five pages of the best letter column in funnybooks. And it’s about a lot more than super-orgasms. It’s some of the best, and most honest, relationship writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The things this book says about love, sex, and trauma are simultaneously funny, moving, and true. So, yeah. Five bucks really doesn’t seem entirely out of line to me.
But, still. As long-time readers know, I am normally not very eager to pay even FOUR bucks for a comic about anything. But I paid five for this without a second thought, and that’s before I realized how long it was.
So let that be a lesson to you, funnybook business: quality is worth paying for.
The Wicked + The Divine 37
by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
This issue features ten pages of empty black panels, counting down the years between the Pantheons of 3127 and 3037 BC.
Yes, you read that right.
Of empty black panels.
The BALLS on these guys!
Granted, there’s still 23 more pages of story here, and the issue only cost as much as a normal-sized comic.
So it’s not like they shorted us on content in the name of formal storytelling excess.
And, holy crap, was that formal storytelling excess ever effective.
I mean, I kind of rolled my eyes at it a bit at first. Because, you know, it just kept going.
But then I saw that each panel counted down a year…
…in much the same way that last issue’s formal storytelling excess counted down the centuries of every Pantheon in human history…
…and, like I said, it just KEPT GOING.
So by the time we see Minerva reborn after what appeared to be a terrible mishap in the ceremony to fend off the Great Darkness…
…we can share in the obvious horror she’s experiencing.
Because that’s a long time to get left alone in the dark.
And… Plenty of actual stuff happens this issue, too, but honestly…
That’s too good a line not to finish with.