Thursday, April 19, 2012

Punisher #7 "the String"

Greg Rucka and Marco Checchetto's "the Punisher" ongoing series has from the start faced an uphill struggle. Coming at the heels of a long string of Punisher revamps that have been chipping away at the good will of all but the biggest fans of the character, it's easy to see why the latest #1 was met with a lukewarm response from both the critics and the audience. Debuting at the same time as the highly acclaimed latest iteration of "Daredevil", the Rucka/Checchetto vehicle seemingly felt too familiar, both in concept and execution.

On the other hand, "The Punisher" is highly comparable to Bendis and Maleev's "Moon Knight", in that it was the product of long form plotting, done in the style pioneered by Brian Michael Bendis in the early 2000s, that is slowly falling out of the favor. Rucka's police procedural inspired take on the Punisher aims for the slow burn, and takes time to develop an extensive supporting cast, basically approaching "the Punisher" as a true ongoing title, and not the publisher's latest shock tactic, to try and engineer interest in their longtime intellectual property.

The writer's soundly crafted scripts are regularly being brought to life by Checchetto, featuring a style that is both detailed and dynamic. Peppered throughout the backgrounds are occasional flashes to Daredevil continuity, serving the purpose of reminding the reader they should group together the publisher's grittier titles. Until this last month, little was done to actually make "Marvel New York" titles feel like a coherent whole. Over on "Daredevil", Mark Waid has introduced a subplot regarding Matt Murdock coming into possession of an Omega drive hiding the info about several of Marvel's terrorist organizations, but the publisher waited until the last moment to announce the three part crossover between their vigilante books.

When they finally unveiled the solicitations, the readers and retailers were informed that the "Omega effect" crossover would be taking over the April issues of "Punisher", "Daredevil" and heretofore unrelated Spider-Man's team up book "Avenging Spider-Man". The story would be co-written by Greg Rucka, and feature the artwork of Marco Checchetto. As such, it's understandable that artist's work on the ongoing title would have to be rescheduled for the duration. To no one's surprise, the editorial's solution was to hire fill in artists. Thanks to their previous work on DC's "Gotham Central", this meant that at least for an issue Rucka would be reunited with his "Gotham Central" collaborator Michael ("Daredevil") Lark.

Fitting between two parts of the ongoing storyline, "the String" acts as an intermission designed to spotlight one of the detectives tasked with investigating the massacre that opened Rucka's run. In many ways, the story works as a character piece, thus making it a much more approachable series primer than the aforementioned first issue. Oscar "Ozzy" Clemons, the Harry Edgerton-inspired veteran African American detective had up to that point made several negative asides regarding the Punisher, and Rucka uses the Lark drawn issue to explain the character's frustration.

Just seeing Michael Lark's work, inked by frequent collaborator Stefano Gaudiano almost serves to set the bar in regards to the artistic level. For all of Checchetto's attractive animated figures, Lark and Gaudiano, much like Matthew Southworth before them, simply present art that is more seasoned and better thought out. Where Checchetto opts for imitating the cinematic presentation, and the editorial sees fit to color his work to reinforce the illusion of familiar special effects, Lark dismisses the notion for the traditional, layered comic book storytelling. And while the series' regular artist could hardly be said to feature traditional superhero art, Lark and Gaudiano go one step further, by presenting the moody, representational style that works as quality comic book art by any definition.

Rucka starts the story off with the familiar image of the detective staring at the city map strewn with photos and pins, but thankfully it's the switchblade that Ozzy's playing with that becomes central to the story. Called up to investigate seemingly yet another in the crime scenes left after the Punisher's shootouts, the detective joins his younger partner and they finally start discussing their differences when it comes to Frank Castle's vigilante work. Detective Walter Bolt had already been revealed as the Punisher's police source to the reader, adding to the tension behind Clemons' monologue.

From the moment Ozzy hands his partner the keys to the car, the story starts feeling like an episode of the "Homicide" TV-series, but Rucka is careful not to get carried away on a tangent. These characters, no matter how well defined, exist primarily to add dimension to the Punisher, and it's in this way that a flashback to their shared past proves crucial. Rucka specifically recalls an early "Punisher" issue, that crossed over with "Daredevil". Typical of Mike Baron's scripts for the original Punisher ongoing, the story of the Zum killer was an over the top affair, but executed in a very memorable way. Marvel used an Ann Nocenti/John Romita jr. issue to recast the action from Daredevil's point of view which, barring the Frank Miller's work with the character remains the most memorable of the two vigilante's team ups.

By inserting Ozzy into the well regarded 1988 story, the writer both solidifies his character's place in the Punisher continuity, and at the same time foreshadows the upcoming "Daredevil" crossover. The latter is most important, as the recapped story basically boils down to a single heavily narrated action scene that would otherwise serve mostly as fan service for longtime readers. The Daredevil connection goes a long way to elevating it and justifies the continuity nod over the new scene that would have served a similar purpose.

By treading this kind of material, and basically recasting the superhero formula from the point of an innocent bystander, Rucka is clearly following in the steps of "Marvels" and his own work on DC's Batman titles. Despite the over familiarity with the scenario, the insertion of human element is often key in making the larger then life plots resonate for the reader. This is how Frank Miller used journalist Ben Urich in his history making "Daredevil" run (the character cameos in one of the early Rucka/Chacchetto "Punisher" issues), and there is nothing wrong with the practice. In a genre where the reader point of view characters routinely become superheroes themselves after a while, it's clear why Rucka felt the need to populate his story with both the ambitious journalist stereotype and a pair of detectives.

After making clear his enmity against the Punisher and his self insertion in New York's penal system, Ozzy goes on to directly confront Bolt on his role as Castle's informant. The moment feels needed but unearned, since the reader has seen little evidence to corroborate Clemons' conviction. That Ozzy's intuition alone was enough to infer that Punisher was being given information by someone close to the investigation seems plausible, but in lieu of any direct evidence, Ozzy's proclamation seems rash and unrealistic. Thankfully, Rucka follows it with an extended epilogue showcasing the investigative skills of both detectives, with Clemons' talents bringing the character on the right trail and concluding the issue on a high note.

The last two panels featuring Ozzy's switchblade perfectly round out the story, as they both call back to his story of the Punisher's tempering with the justice system when it comes to the Zum killer, as well as releasing the detective's pent up anger in a way that seems both threatening and methodical. Having affirmed his belief in his own abilities, Clemons slides the knife in for the last time, to symbolically proceed to tighten the net on the vigilante killer by using his mind as a weapon.

All this makes for a welcome change in the heavily plot-driven series, and serves as the showcase for both the character and the creators. If Rucka's "Punisher" was a TV series, "the String" would be the episode nominated for Oscar Clemons' performance, as realized through Lark and Gaudiano's spotless cinematography and actor direction. Following the "Omega effect" crossover, the reader can only hope that Rucka will feel inspired to turn out more issues at this level of quality.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Amours Fragiles 2: A Summer in Paris

In 2006, Casterman published a follow up to their original "Amours Fragiles" album, a historical fiction series featuring a German protagonist coming of age along the backdrop of the conflicts that culminated in World War 2. Debuting five years after the initial album, writer Phillipe Richelle and artist Jean-Micheal Beuriot revisit their creations with an album that makes several difficult choices.

From the very first caption the reader is aware that they are returning to the story seven years later, hinting that this 1939 episode will culminate with the German occupation of Poland. The story is set in Paris, and features a completely new set of characters, save for the protagonist Martin, and his former flame, Katherine, who plays a relatively minor role in the series second outing.

Despite all these changes, arguably the most noticeable one is the change in process undergone by the artist Beuriot. With "A Summer in Paris", the artist stops painting the series in oil and reorients himself to what appears to be traditional pen and ink method of working in comics. The contrast is striking when compared to the gorgeously painted pages from "The Last Spring", but it's not difficult to understand why Casterman and the artist decided to continue in this fashion. As noted by Gipi in the back matter of the "Notes from a war story", the process of making comics using the techniques having to do with oil painting is particularly time consuming and difficult.

At a more standard page count than the original's 84 pages, "A Summer in Paris" invites the reader once removed from the Franco-Belgian comics scene to second guess the publishing decisions involved. Considering the long break between the first and the second volumes, and the subsequent three albums being released in a much timelier fashion, it could well be that Richelle and Beuriot simply returned to their creation, once devised as a single volume story, to re-purpose it as a multi volume series. This would explain the change in page count and the simplified artistic technique employed, but is otherwise pure conjecture.

In any event, as a story, "A Summer in Paris" is a solid piece of low key drama, well researched and dramatized in what appears to be a completely genuine fashion. The series' unorthodox protagonist Martin is working on a doctorate in the City of Lights and has assembled a network of friends from different walks of life. Chief among them is Henry Emmerich, another German expat, that tries to make his living as an actor in Paris. The traditionally languid Martin takes an even more passive role in this album, as most of the story revolves around Henry, and his relationship with his fiancee, as well as the toil unemployment and administration take on him.

As a character the bohemian starts out as a likable young man with boyish features, yet he quickly becomes so self-obsessed that he turns borderline unsympathetic. Both his relationship with Maria as well as Martin appear to be exploitative, especially in spite of the sacrifices both of these people make for him. All the while, Henry is completely engrossed in his struggles of first finding employment, and then on his fight to gain French citizenship. The latter actually seems so realistic that it borders on anticlimactic.

For all of the observed character work that Richelle does in what eventually becomes something resembling a love triangle between Henry, Maria and Martin, the rest of the cast doesn't fare as well. Simply put, there are too many of them, which is again, realistic, but somewhat unnecessary in such a slim volume. Henry's friend the traveling salesman has a somewhat larger role but he could easily have been excluded to make for a tighter plot. The writer's intention was probably to slightly confuse the reader with so many of the new faces, so not to too deftly foreshadow the role Martin's lawyer friend's has in the book's conclusion.

The inclusion of a high society painter introduced in aforementioned prologue in "The Early Spring" exists only to introduce the set up another set the characters for a future volume, but is otherwise completely inessential.

On the other hand, the volume's understated nature is nowhere apparent then in the characterization of Henry's fiancee, Maria. And while the hard work she puts up with to provide both for herself and Henry does show in Beuriot's rendition of her tired, yet youthful face, Richelle is very subtle when it comes to a much dearer prize she pays to keep a roof above their heads. Her subsequent relationship with Martin is also interesting, in that it feels much more mature than the protagonist's previous infatuation with Katherine, where he was still infatuated in the romantic woes of the first love. The post-graduate student's bond with Henry's fiancee, following Emmerich's rude rejection of her, feels borne out more of the need than anything else. This does not escape Martin's actor friend, but at that point he's too occupied with his own troubles to get back at the lover he's already found a substitute for.

Even more nuanced is Richelle's treatment of the role Katherine has, as she return in Martin's life. The writer deliberately keeps her on the periphery of the plot, and out of Martin's reach, until the melancholic German is once again powerless to stop her from falling into another's grasp. By repeating the same pattern we have already seen Martin struggle with in high school, Richelle is keen to explore the difference that the passage of years has played on his character. A passing mention one of the cast members makes, that indicates their involvement with Katherine leads Martin to despair, but his spiral is much more pragmatic this time around. The distraught young man simply reorients to Maria, as they find solace in each other's embrace. The brilliance of Richelle's script is in including the scene where her new suitor introduces her to his present as an Evangelist, setting her up with another break up based on her true Jewish heritage.

Overall, the aforementioned subtlety somewhat undermine the impact of the volume. It's clear that the creators aimed for a character piece where the ominous tone of the pre-WW2 tensions would hang over the plot, before stepping in to brutally drag the German expats back in line with their country's fate. Yet, Richelle and Beuriot's focus on Henry Emmerich and his struggle so overshadows the historical context that it takes place in, that even when it finally collides with the French authorities forcing the German expats out of their country, the post occupation of Poland real world overtones feel tacked on. Likewise, Martin's return to Germany and the necessary re-positioning of Katherine for the later volumes seems necessary but doesn't make for a very powerful climax.

As is typical with most Franco-Belgian offerings, the album features a completely accessible story, with a clear beginning and the end, but a new reader is still advised to start with "The First Spring", the extended opening that communicates its themes much more directly.