Oh, man. This issue was amazing. With the first arc done, the book takes an issue to step back and take a look at one of the indie movies that Buddy Baker starred in earlier on in his Animal Man career. Of course, there is some method to this madness, as the movie (appropriately named Tights) tells the story of a father whose obsession with being a (failed) super hero tears his family apart.
The parallelism is a little on the nose, but it's played straight throughout the issue and it works really well. A good part of that success is how good the whole thing is, but also the willingness on Jeff Lemire's part to dedicate seventeen of the comic's twenty pages to the story. Having the lion's share of the page count gives Tights the time to grow and breath.
Jeff Lemire and John Paul Leon tell the story of Chas Grant, looking at a snapshot of his life years after he's given up a vigilante career of being Red Thunder. It is evident that he is a broken man, unable to get steady work or stay sober. At the same time, you can see that he's trying so hard, but he just doesn't know how to function in any other way anymore. It's brilliant, it's honest, and it's all kinds of tragic.
And this is all just from the story within the story.
The entire issue builds slowly, content to follow Buddy's "movie" until the last three pages, where things pull out to reveal who has been watching the film. It's a testament to Lemire's writing skills that, while the film is amazing on its own, those last three pages recontextualize the whole thing and make it far more meaningful and poignant. The overall narrative that Lemire has been building throughout this series doesn't move terribly far in this issue, being more or less limited to a reiteration of the fact that they have to find Alec Holland, but this issue accomplishes a mind blowing amount of characterization in a single issue while also telling a brilliant story.
Lemire is definitely outdoing himself here, but his artists are right there with him. I hadn't seen a whole lot of John Paul Leon's work before this issue, but after reading through this, I think I can call myself a fan of his work without hesitation. The first two pages of this issue really sell the movie concept with ease, alternating between silent panels that tell you about Chas Grant's character and blank panels filled with the movie's title sequence. I also really enjoyed the amount of wordless panels, which I found also emphasized the "movieness" of the comic as well as emphasizing Chas' frustrations and challenges. I often laud this type of thing, but Leon's facial expressions and body language are absolutely killer. There is never any doubt as to what's going on, with Chas' constant failures being clear from his many pained looks throughout the issue.
Verdict - Must Read. This is a fantastic comic. Lemire and company offer an excellent done in one that stands up on its own but also serves the overarching narrative. I had no idea what to expect going into this issue. I'm thrilled we got this; it completely blew me away.
I'm happy to tell you that, after being absent for a couple of issues, Marco Checchetto is back in a big way. His triumphant return coincides with the reader finally getting to see how the fateful meeting between the Punisher and Rachel Cole-Alves played out, something that Greg Rucka has been teasing for what seems like forever. Fortunately, it was well worth the wait.
In a lot of ways, this issue reminds me of the first issue of Punisher that Rucka and Checchetto dropped all the way back in August. There are a ton of silent or near-silent pages sprinkled throughout the book, including the aforementioned meeting between Frank and Rachel. The comic opens on two pages focusing on the death and destruction these two have left in their wake, and then it transitions to the standoff we saw at the end of issue #6. Their confrontation lasts four whole pages, where the two killers exchange about as many words, and it's fantastic.
Checchetto's art is stunning, providing equal parts beauty and brutality in this scene and throughout the entire issue. When there is dialogue, Rucka unsurprisingly nails it, but Checchetto's lines and inks and Matt Hollingsworth's colours make it all better. I'm not trying to belabour the point, but while I really liked all of the fill-in artists we had on this book, having Checchetto back reminds me of just how good he is. As far as I'm concerned, his style is how this iteration of the Punisher is supposed to look.
Of course, there's a bit more to this book than Checchetto's masterful artwork. We get a closer look into some of the Exchange's activities, although at this point those seem to mostly revolve around killing the Punishher, which hasn't been going particularly well for them. Their ultimate goals are still somewhat vague, but I feel that what they're up to is far less important than the fact that they're up to no good - at least for now. And if we get some quality character work between Stephanie Gerard and Christian Poulsen, I'm more than happy to wait for that particular reveal.
For all the silent pages, this issue is pretty jam-packed with story, as we also get to see Detectives Ozzy Clemons and Walter Bolt investigating Rachel's involvement in the slayings over in upstate New York. This is an incredibly tense scene where everyone involved knows that there's a lot more going on than anyone is willing to admit but no one really has any proof. The character interaction is top notch and Rachel's disgust and frustration is really powerful.
Verdict - Buy It. This is a beautiful, well-written, and engaging issue that demonstrates just how well Ruck and Checchetto work together. Rucka's trust in letting Checchetto's pictures tell the story pays off over and over again as the issue progresses. I never thought I could like the Punisher this much, but here we are.
In case you missed the memo, Ed Brubaker has taken the rather underwhelming "death" that Bucky Barnes suffered in Fear Itself and used it for the forces of good. Now that the world believes him to be dead, Bucky is able to operate as a super secret agent, trying to make up for his Cold War transgressions as the Winter Soldier. In this case, he is tracking down three sleeper agents that were sent over to America during the conflict and then promptly forgotten. The problem is that an ex-KGB general by the codename of Red Barbarian has recently remembered the agents and subsequently sold off their activation codes and locations on the black market. Since these enhanced agents' return to active duty is pretty much unacceptable, it's up to Bucky, once again working under the Winter Soldier moniker to put a stop to it.
That's more or less where we open for this opening issue of Winter Soldier, and I gotta say, it's a pretty agreeable way to start a new series. Based on this outline and the fact that Brubaker is at the writing helm, it's perhaps not a terrible surprise to learn that his noir predilections are revved into overdrive for this issue, but I'll mention it nonetheless. Indeed, Winter Soldier #1 reads much more like Brubaker's Sleeper or Incognito than a book taking place in the mainstream Marvel shared universe. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing.
The return to Bucky's Winter Soldier past is pretty ripe noir material, feeding as it does on his intense guilt for his past actions as a Soviet programmed assassin. And the whole thing works really well throughout the issue. I must say, literalizing his sense of responsibility in those three sleeper agents is a simple idea, but all the kudos to Brubaker for thinking of the concept and then pushing it forward. The mission gives Bucky lots of time to think on his regrets, which works quite well with Brubaker's penchant for narrative caption boxes.
I was really impressed at how well Brubaker was able to marry his signature style to the character. As I say above, the whole thing works. And it works really well. The inclusion of Natasha Romanoff is perhaps the icing on the cake. It satisfies the noir genre's requisite woman category, but it also adds a heck of a lot to the story. Her and Bucky's relationship reads really well, as it really feels like the two of them have been through a lot together and in consequence really know what makes the other tick. For lack of a better term, their interactions feel right, with each one helping to reassure the other at various times.
The duo are also a welcome inclusion because of how much fun their action scenes are. And for a twenty page book, you get an awful lot of actions scenes. They have very different fighting styles that act as excellent compliments in these moments, with Butch Guice obviously playing a pretty big role in the success of these scenes.
Guice (along with Bettie Breitweiser on colours) does an amazing job on this book, packing in panels sometimes numbering in the double digits onto each page without every losing any sense of clarity. His work throughout the issue is top notch, and without taking anything away from him, actually reminded me a lot of Sean Phillips' work with Brubaker, which is partly what brought up the comparisons to Incognito and Sleeper. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that Winter Soldier is written in a similar style, but it also comes back to the willingness to put in as many panels as necessary to tell the story. Nowadays, a lot of artists will keep their panel count pretty low on each page, but that is far from the case here. And that is a big reason of why Brubaker and Guice can tell so much story in a scant twenty pages. They have lots of things going on on every single page, but there's not a single panel that's wasted. It's all important and it's always evident why that's the case.
Finally, one other thing I really enjoyed about this issue is how serious the whole thing is. That might sound a bit odd, but I'm a big fan of playing goofy villains straight, and I don't think you can get any goofier than the Red Ghost and his super apes. But they're here, and they don't take away from any part of the story. As weird as it might sound, they work real well, all things considered.
Verdict - Buy It. Like many, I saw Winter Soldier #1 as a tryout from Brubaker and Guice to try to sell me on the series as a whole. At issue's end, I'm definitely sold. The story's engaging, the action is thrilling, and the art is perfect. This is a great start, and I will be back to see what comes next.
Some rather wonderful books on my end this week. Did you make your way through any of these titles? If so, what were your thoughts on 'em? And are you thinking of picking up Winter Soldier #2 when it drops later this month? Let me know!