Comics

Queen of the Sea (2019)

Queen of the Sea  2019I spent the first ten minutes of Queen of the Sea underwhelmed. The book’s set in the mid-1500s—maybe—it’s unclear because creator Dylan Meconis isn’t doing a straight historical fiction thing. Meconis is sort of doing Elizabeth versus Mary but not exactly. The world is a lot like fourteenth century England, but it’s not exact. Everything’s got different names and for a while it seems like there’s some point to it, the fake history lesson. There’s not. There are other real history lessons, which are great and interesting, but the fake history exposition at the beginning… big yawn.

And Queen of the Sea is geared fairly young. It ends up getting really complicated but the first fifth of the book seems like Meconis can’t get the engine started.

The opening scene is a problem. It’s the Elizabeth stand-in, Eleanor, only we don’t know her name yet because it’s just her and some dude talking about how she’s got to go because the enemy has arrived. They make plans. The dialogue’s iffy. The art’s… okay. It’s not a catchy opening at all. Then Meconis introduces protagonist Margaret, a tween living on an island in the something something itsh-Bray Channel in a convent. The convent’s the only thing on the island. Margaret’s an orphan.

Then comes the exposition dump, where Margaret explains everything to know about the convent and the island. The supporting cast, the geography. It’s a bunch and, while it often looks great, it’s a slog to read through. Because besides the main nun, none of the rest have much of an impact on Margaret’s character development or the story in general. And Queen’s got a big story. One day two new residents arrive on the island—a fellow kid, albeit a boy, named William and his very serious mom. They’re political prisoners, exiled to the island for safe keeping (of sorts).

Margaret and William become friends and make all sorts of discoveries about their lives, including how it just so happens all the nuns in the convent are nuns because they’re political exiles too. Margaret’s there for a similar reason, even if she doesn’t find out what exactly. The arc with William and his mother and how they change Margaret’s life is fantastic. It’s where I stopped wondering if I was wasting my time with Queen. Meconis has very pretty art with a great style, but the art’s not challenging. It’s welcoming. I’m uncomfortable with how often Queen interrupts the comic to insert a prose block, which doesn’t negate the book being incredibly successful with that device. And once Meconis gets more comfortable about Margaret’s narration and we’re done with all the fake place names, the pauses in the comic narrative get to be a bonus. When Meconis and Margaret explain how the nuns’ day works—eight hours and what’s done during those hours—it’s this fantastic double-page perfectly executed infographic. It’s awesome.

It just took the book a while to get there through some rough waters.

But then it turns out the William stuff is just prologue. He’s how Margaret learns to be around people who aren’t nuns or the convent servants; she’ll need to learn to apply those lessons once the Queen from the first scene shows up on the island. It doesn’t take long before Margaret is ex-Queen Eleanor’s bestest friend, even if Eleanor doesn’t want one; a big part of Margaret’s character development is how she internalizes the teachings of the convent order and how to help those in need. Eleanor is in need, Margaret is bound to help her. It’s fascinating character stuff.

Especially once the secrets, adventures, and romances start playing out.

Meconis is always able to ratchet up the stakes, without ever losing sight of how to best make it work for Margaret’s character development. Queen’s got a very strong lead character and Meconis is very deliberate with her. Great work.

Queen of the Sea isn’t short. Approximately 400 pages. The first 85 or so are maybe tough, the next 150 are great, the final 165 are even better. The weird not historical fiction but also not exactly ahistorical fiction takes some time to work itself out. Also very weird is how Meconis handles religion. It’s too cute, especially given the convent angle.

But it’s a good graphic novel. Very impressive work from Meconis.

There’s a sequel tease at the very end, which seemed a little too forced but I’m also very interested in reading said sequel.

Weird Melvin (1995) #3

Weird Melvin  1995  3Hansen introduces a whole new character—or two, actually—but one with history with Weird Melvin; his sidekick, reformed monster Shag. Shag hangs out in Weird Melvin’s abandoned headquarters. Seems like he’s been there a while… but he’s finally ready to walk out. But Shag doesn’t come into the comic until the third-ish act. I’m not sure if Weird Melvin has acts. Kind of but it’s hard to tell given the sequential narrative.

The issue opens with Melvin, in his Wimpy Melvin, de-powered state, still a prisoner of his new girlfriend, Vampuh. He meets her father—a monster with a runny nose—who decides not to eat Melvin after Melvin gives him a hanky, which will come up again later for Hansen’s grossest sequence in the comic. But the action then shifts to the kid, who’s decided—having lost his entire comic collection—to give up comics collecting and go out and be a regular kid.

Of course, being a regular kid who has a past of comics collecting… the neighborhood bullies beat the crap out of him.

Little does the forever(?) nameless kid realize he’s got some more trouble in store as the swamp witch has a plan to overtake him as the world’s biggest Weird Melvin fan, which involves making herself irresistible to the tween comics fan. The plan has her transforming herself into a supermodel… a supermodel with a complete run of Weird Melvin comics.

Again, it’s another full issue, with the plotting just as imaginative as the grody visuals. At one point there’s the Mucus Monster, preying on an unsuspecting Weird Melvin, and it’s amazing how Hansen’s able to do dripping repulsion palatably. It’s a very strong mix of art and story. The art’s obvious—you can seen Hansen’s technical chops during with the swamp witch supermodel, when Weird Melvin all of a sudden has panels out of a Gothic horror comic—and the story’s subtle. The plotting’s so precise. So well done.

Weird Melvin (1995) #2

Weird Melvin  1995  2Leave it to Hansen to make it weirder.

The issue starts with a bookend—Melvin’s still unnamed comic fan sidekick is berating Weird Melvin for not stopped Monster Fanboy (who owns every comic every published and hordes them in an underground lair and is, actually, a monster when it comes to collecting)—and then goes into flashback. It’s a little confusing at the start since last issue ended with Melvin needing to hibernate for thirty years. Seemed like the kid should’ve aged.

But what actually happened was the worms went after Melvin and dug a hole down to Monster Fanboy’s lair; Monster Fanboy, knowing Weird Melvin from the comics, natch, then chained Melvin up—see, Melvin’s in his Wimpy Melvin persona since last issue, when he lost his power.

The flashback gives an origin on Monster Fanboy, who ends up being the kid’s nemesis this issue as Melvin never gets his power back. Worse, he gets a girlfriend. So it’s all up to the kid to stop Monster Fanboy’s plan to drive up the speculative market on comic books (by exploiting the other fanboys). Hansen’s got some funny stuff in the issue. He doesn’t do much in the way of building to a laugh, he just gets the joke out of the way in a panel or three. Lovely pace, especially when he moves the action over to the kid’s perspective.

Meanwhile, Melvin picked the wrong girlfriend. Vampuh used to date Sy Cyclops, who attacked Melvin last issue and is responsible for his de-powering; Melvin took care of Sy, leaving Vampuh without a dude to push around. Turns out she likes her men wimpy and Wimpy Melvin is just what she needs. So she throws him into the cellar with her father, who’s been imprisoned there a hundred years and has apparently gone cannibal….

Presumably that cliffhanger will resolve next issue. Though the finale introduces yet another bad guy, who also wants to be Weird Melvin’s biggest fan, and she might be a more immediate danger (to the kid, who’s apparently still Melvin’s biggest fan even though Melvin failed to stop Monster Fanboy)

Weird Melvin is a peculiar comic. In all the right ways. Great gross art, thorough, engaging plotting. It’s amazing how sympathetic Hansen’s able to make the characters when he’s just playing them for icks or laughs.

Weird Melvin (1995) #1

Weird Melvin  1995  1Weird Melvin is a gloriously weird comic. Creator Marc Hansen brings the weird to the art—not just the muscle-bound grotesques (Melvin and, later, a regular human) but also Melvin’s cyclops nemesis, Sy Cyclops. The comic starts from Sy’s perspective, as he nitrous ups his car and hits Weird Melvin full speed. Good thing Melvin’s almost indestructible. While Melvin crash lands in a kid’s bedroom, Sy goes about trying to figure out a weakness.

Luckily for everyone—though not really—there’s the in-world Weird Melvin comic, which retells his monster-hunting adventures. It’s how the kid knows about Weird Melvin but it’s also how Sy is able to figure out one of Melvin’s weaknesses.

Hansen plots it out gradually, revealing in the scenes between Melvin and the kid why the moon dust Sy is going after in the other story thread is so important. See, Weird Melvin used to be a monster, not a monster hunter. And he ate kids. Lots and lots of kids. So many kids it was hard for humans to have enough kids to keep Melvin fed, much less the other monsters.

So they teamed up and took Monster Melvin out, but then the souls of the kids he ate went to Heaven—or the Moon—and then moon rays brought Melvin back to life as a good guy monster hunter. What makes Melvin’s retelling even more engaging is his reassurances to his listener he no longer eats kids, though the kid (and the reader) can’t be sure….

Then there’s a big action finale.

Hansen sets it up like a done-in-one or a special, getting to a good conclusion, with a lot of funny moments. Not just the monster stuff either. Weird Melvin’s got a lot of jokes about comics collecting.

Like I said… it’s a weird comic; a weird, good comic. Hansen’s plotting—he does a bunch this issue in twenty pages—is excellent and his art is intricate, deliberate madness.

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass (2019)

Harley Quinn Breaking Glass  2019Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass is a Young Adult graphic novel reimagining of Harley Quinn, set in high school, with Harley making friends and enemies while living with a delightfully supportive group of drag queens, fighting gentrification and 1% incels. It’s also almost two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It’s the new Mariko Tamaki too, bring real YA graphic novel cred to the project, but it’s two hundred pages of Steve Pugh art. It doesn’t get cancelled halfway through. We don’t have to wait three years for a third issue, it’s just… lots of Steve Pugh art. All at once.

It’s glorious.

And Pugh’s even able to keep a straight face in the denouement, which introduces all the possibilities of the future. See, Breaking Glass is realistic (enough). Ivy is a Black girl in a “progressive” White school, trying to force them to drop the quotation marks. Their nemesis, John Kane, is the rich White kid who runs the film club. He’s basically Ferris Bueller if Ferris got a car instead of a computer. He only shows White men—Tamaki gets in some great digs about film noir but I feel seen with the Kubrick—anyway, the first act of the book is the high school stuff. It’s overly dramatic but not soapy; Tamaki and Pugh both have this focusing style and it plays well in the high school environment. The scenes focus on conversations, Pugh focuses on the speakers. Tamaki and Pugh are most in sync when Harley’s with other normal people—Ivy, the drag queens—not when she’s with the Joker.

I forgot the denouement. Okay, so after pushing for some kind of realism throughout, the denouement turns it into a CW teen show. But checking in on the possible familiar face of Breaking Glass’s Gotham City. So kind of like a teen drama version of “Gotham,” next year on HBO Max. Though, in all seriousness, the comic companies ought to launch a monthly subscription reading club and center them around a single release (but with old stuff too). I got Breaking Glass from the library, read it on a whim, but definitely would’ve paid five to seven bucks to read it on my iPad. Getting to zoom in on the Pugh art? Homer Simpson drool. There’s not a lot of action–or it’s rushed action—but the level of mastery Pugh’s working at in Breaking Glass is stunning.

And it’s a good read. Tamaki’s narration is just the right amount of too cute without ever being cloying. It’s occasionally a little wordy, which has a fun resolution in the third act.

Not a fan of Ivy and Harley’s friendship getting shortchanged as far as page count—once Ivy brings up race, the comic runs away. Knowingly and responsibly, but it runs away. Into the Joker, who’s problematic. It’s fine. But pretending the Joker is the best mainstream comics can do has gotten exhausting. Tamaki also cops out on really showing Harley’s infatuation because the comic’s not willing to go that subjective. The Joker’s objectively a shit-heel, even viewed through a fifteen year-old’s lens, which also becomes a bit of a plot point.

Thankfully it’s not a Joker comic, it’s Harley’s and it’s good. She doesn’t get too annoying until just before the end, which is more about Tamaki’s hammering of the foreshadowing finale events. Or racing to get them.

But Breaking Glass is a good comics read. Finite. Successful without too many qualifications. Hundreds of Pugh panels.

The Punisher (2004) #49, Widowmaker, Part 7 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  49Bill Reinhold’s back on inks—solo—this issue. It doesn’t have to be Tom Palmer, it could be someone else, but it needs to be someone else because Medina and Reinhold completely botch the finish. Ennis is going for something—something confused, because there have been too many issues in the arc and not enough focused ones, but something and the art screws it up. The final page (to the issue and arc) is a full page spread of hero Punisher in what ought to be a tragic, noir-ish Punisher. It’s an absolute fail and you’ve got to wonder what the editors were thinking okaying that page for the finale.

It looks less like the conclusion of an arc about Frank discovering what’s sown in the blood he’s spilled and more like reference art for a special edition Slurpee cup. It’s a really bad final page. The art’s wanting throughout—Medina’s pacing of the final shootout is deliberate without being interesting; that last page is a disaster. Especially since it’s a sunrise scene. It doesn’t exactly ruin the arc, but it definitely leaves it on some wobbly ground.

Ennis tries to bring everything together while still mostly following vengeance-seeker Jenny. She takes on the other widows before kidnapping her sister and tying her to a chair in front of Frank’s bed. Frank’s still recuperating; he opens the issue, watching TV, narrating about what a bum rap the news is giving the Sam Jackson but not Sam Jackson cop, then imagines how Jenny’s final run on the widows is going.

The cop spends the issue internally debating whether or not he’s going to cross the line into Punisher-like vengeance, but he’s always a few steps behind Jenny so he doesn’t get the chance until the end. Shame Ennis cuts away from the scene between the cop and Frank, which might’ve been really good. Instead, there’s no time for the cop, so quick wrap-up. Frank’s still got some thinking—and narrating—to do about his encounter with Jenny, which has a horrifying conclusion; Ennis starts the final narration like it’s going to go somewhere interesting, somewhere significant. Jenny’s had a lot to say about Frank, both as man and symbol, but it all gets wrapped up with a pretty little bow instead of another albatross for Frank. I mean, it’s possible it’d have worked out if Medina and Reinhold hadn’t so bungled the last page, but it would’ve had to be a great page. The conclusion reads like Ennis knows he has to give some postscript from Frank but doesn’t want to get too deep into anything because, really, we should’ve been getting Frank narration throughout.

Same bad eye closeup reactions too. Medina really did this arc a disservice; he’s way too bland for the story.

The Punisher (2004) #48, Widowmaker, Part 6 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  48Tom Palmer on inks this issue—he also did some of the previous issue’s inks; he makes Medina’s pencils look a lot more pensive. People are thinking, listening, far better than before. Even if maybe Palmer on inks just show off how Medina isn’t the right fit for the material. It’s mostly a talking heads issue, people standing around talking, sitting around talking. Lots of both. Along with Ennis’s very questionable AAVE with the Black female character, who’s angry this issue and speaking in a lot more contractions than before. She’s also not really thinking. See, it’s crisis time for the widows—the Punisher’s probably out there, Jenny the other widow is out there gunning for them, plus the cop (who no longer looks anything like Sam Jackson besides basic description thanks to Palmer) is questioning them. The issue opens with the questioning. Ennis going through everything a reader might have missed as far as the widows and their plan to take out Big Frank.

The exposition is some padding. It’s a decent scene thanks to Ennis’s sense of humor with the cop, but it’s all padding. Get the arc to seven issues; sure, it probably makes it easier to pick up and read just this issue, which isn’t really a usual concern for six issue arcs. And Ennis isn’t too concerned with it anyway. He’s intentionally padding here. Plus, bringing the cop in for the exposition dump with the widows and being likable makes it all the worse when tragedy befalls the cop—at the widows’ behest—to get him into position as a potential Punisher himself.

Meanwhile, Frank and Jenny spend the issue hanging out while Jenny prepares for her final assault on the widows. Frank’s healing, she’s talking about herself. He’s trying to be… sensitive, which she doesn’t have much time for. She’s got her take on the Punisher, the emotional void of Frank Castle, and she’s not off. She talks, he listens, often with these reaction shots emphasizing his baby blues; Frank’s tragedy and Jenny’s tragedy are completely different but the emotional deadness is the same. They’re similar because of circumstances, coincidences, brokenness; despite her “heroizing” him, she’s able to see him without romance. There ought to be some kind of juxtaposing with O’Brien, Frank’s previous female counterpart, but Ennis doesn’t. He stays out of Frank’s head this issue. It’s all from Jenny’s perspective and then just the observations she’s sharing (with Frank and the reader).

The soft cliffhanger—rather viscerally—sets up the next issue’s finale, while also commenting on Frank the symbol, Frank the man, Frank the not-mentor, Jenny the not-protege, Jenny the widow, and Frank the, no pun, widow maker. There’s a lot of meat to Widowmaker, too much for Ennis to chew but he certainly does gnaw here.

The Punisher (2004) #47, Widowmaker, Part 5 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  47It’s not a light issue. There’s barely any Frank; he’s just sitting around and listening to sixth widow Jenny tell him her life story. She was a mafia princess. She got married off to a full-on psychopath who, on a good night, just beat and raped her. The other mob widows knew about it, lied to her to get her into the marriage, handled her to keep her at home once she was in. Nothing changed until Frank killed the husband, just another dead crook reaching for his pistol. Then Jenny lost a husband and got diagnosed with breast cancer (what Ennis laid on a little thick in the first issue no longer seems it, not after the recounted horrors of her married life); when she decided, fatalistically, to go to the FBI, her big sister arranged to have her killed. The killers botched it. Fast-forward ten years—which seems like a bit too long but whatever—and Jenny’s back to take them out, Frank having considerably thinned the mob herd since she’d been gone.

Ennis and Medina go all in on the awfulness of Jenny’s life, the intensity and constancy of the abuse being enough to get them past any lingering questions about whether it’s too much, dramatically speaking. Or Ennis’s writing for the Jenny character’s narration being a little too light on specific personality. It’s a heavy comics, with the release valves being the widows trying to figure out what they’re going to do after failing their first shot at the Punisher.

They’re finding out the same things Frank and the reader are finding out from the narrated flashbacks. Everyone’s getting on the same page, including the not Sam Jackson anymore Sam Jackson cop, who’s piecing together the widows’ plan for the attempted hit on Frank. He only gets a page, just to remind readers he’s still around. There are two issues left, after all. Anything could be coming next.

Ennis closes it out without a cliffhanger, just a feeling of profound sadness over its broken “heroes,” Punisher Frank and the widow he made.

It’s an unpleasant read, especially for a mainstream book, even for Punisher MAX, but Ennis pulls it off. He’s able to keep the humanity, no matter the grandiosity of the awful specifics.

The Punisher (2004) #46, Widowmaker, Part 4 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  46Ennis brings all the threads together this issue. Frank, the widows, the mystery woman, the cop. The cliffhanger resolve has Frank taking one to the chest. The issue opens with Frank thinking about how unlikely the house where the damsel widow has brought him seems like a front for a trafficking operation. He’s just about to bail when he gets shot. Ennis sticks to the ambushing widows for most of the action (including a somewhat confusing sequence—Medina’s fault—about why they can’t take a second shot). Then the mystery woman shows up and saves Frank and guts the damsel, which is the most gory the arc’s actually gotten so far. Or maybe seeing intestines exposed to oxygen just seems like the most gore.

But I think it’s the most.

Anyway. The mystery woman saves Frank, leaving the remaining widows to deal with the arriving cops and recover from a launched grenade, bringing the not Sam Jackson Sam Jackson cop into the issue. His investigation is a bit of a water tread; Ennis gets in a (very dated) jab at “C.S.I. New York” and recaps the opening action into exposition to get the cop caught up. But other than the cop figuring out the four women in the bad neighborhood late at night and discovering their identities, it’s just filler. Widowmaker is the first seven issue arc—instead of six—so there’s going to be filler. It’s not bad filler, but it’s definitely filler.

The widows regroup and calm down, with the leader realizing the mystery woman is the actually her little sister (who’s been mentioned in hushed tones since the first issue of the arc because there’s some kind of joint history involving all the widows and the little sister). Meanwhile, the little sister is busy patching Frank up. The soft cliffhanger reveals she’s yet another widow made by the Punisher, except instead of hating Frank, she’s his biggest fan (or so she says). Ennis does a fine job getting the reader wondering about the explanation but it’s time for the issue to be over so something for next time.

It’s a bit of a stretched issue, but still a good one. Maybe Medina and Reinhold aren’t the most interesting when it comes to the cop questioning and investigating scenes, but they do all right enough. It’s unclear why all the widows are wearing the same green turtleneck sweaters; you’d think the cops—even the dumb ones—would notice they’re in matching outfits. But apparently not.

Ennis treads water well and the build-up to the cliffhanger—specifically the widows freaking out over their plan gone wrong—works well.

The Punisher (2004) #45, Widowmaker, Part 3 (of 7)

The Punisher  2004  45Lots of action this issue. Frank’s taking out of a convoy of mob cars—the first page has Medina and Reinhold doing photo-reference on James Gandolfini but the character never figures in later so it’s not The Punisher vs. The Sopranos—but there’s a catch. The widows have put their decoy damsel in distress in one of the trunks and it’s her job to convince Frank to go with her into a trap. Since he’s a dumb lug when it comes to endangered women, he’ll go for it.

The comic goes from the action to the widows figuring out their plan. They luck out because one of them is willing to sleep with the mobsters to get information… and to just generally distract them. Ennis doesn’t specifically contrast the mobsters’ inability to refuse an easy lay with Frank’s weakness for women in danger, but there’s a general mood to it: men aren’t bright.

While the widows are plotting, they’ve got the mystery woman following them around and watching from afar. The issue’s either from the widows’ perspectives or the mobsters’. Frank gets some action-packed panels, but other than his full page establishing shot, the firefight is entirely from the mobsters’ perspective. No narration. Even when he finds the damsel, it’s still from her perspective, with Ennis offering no hint at how Frank is processing her bullshit story, which the reader knows all about.

It is a juxtaposition as far as Frank’s damsel in distress weakness and the mob guys thinking more with the little head than the big, but there’s nothing explicit about it. It’s a fact of life, kind of like how Ennis utilizes the randy widow. At least one of the other women seem to understand the plan only works because of the randy one’s willingness, but Ennis doesn’t dwell. He’s got the story he’s doing and he doesn’t get distracted. There’s a lot of context, which he establishes, but doesn’t engage.

The issue ends on a hard cliffhanger: Frank walking right into the trap, presumably unaware of anything being amiss, blinded by his sympathy.

It’s very nicely plotted, even if it is just moving Frank into position for what comes next. It doesn’t feel particularly bridging thanks to Ennis splitting the action sequence up with the widows’ plotting. He also gives the mobsters under attack just enough personality to keep things moving. It’s an efficient, effective issue.

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