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Hey @$$holes, Village Idiot here.

Okay, so we're a little late this week. But with so many comics to talk about, and what with Senior Prom coming and all, it was easy for us to fall a little behind.

But what we lack in timeliness, we tried to make up for with good grammar, proper punctuation, and the following:
  • Corm's explaination of how AQUAMAN might be one of this years Most Underappreciated Comics (that's in color and isn't a bitterweet slice of life where people talk about their feelings).

  • The Comedian's latest look into Mark Millar's oeuvre with a review of MARVEL KNIGHTS: SPIDER-MAN #1. (Come home, Mark. All is forgiven.)

  • A SPECIAL FEATURE where Buzz puts down the comics and reads an actual book, THE COMING OF CONAN THE CIMMERIAN. Luckily, it's a book with a lot of pictures.

  • An even SPECIALER FEATURE where select @$$holes talk about the comic highlights the lastest 4-color hero to make it to the big screen, THE PUNISHER.

  • And other good stuff too.

Time's a wastin'! Let's get to it!

Table of Contents
(Click title to go directly to the review)

AQUAMAN #15-17
Cheap Shots!
@$$terpiece Theatre: THE PUNISHER

Chuck Austen - Writer
Ivan Reis - Pencils
Mark Campos - Inks
Published by DC Comics
Reviewed by
Village Idiot

"Look out die-hards. With me and Greg and Brian, Superman's about to get interesting. (laughs). Now I can have both X-fans AND Superman fans hating my guts and shredding me online. Can't wait. (laughs)."
- Chuck Austen, Comic Book Resources, July 30th, 2003

I don't know if this review qualifies as "shredding," but I didn't like ACTION #814 so much.

But first, a little context. I'm sure you've heard this one before, or at least a version of it.

Once upon a time, there were two young guys from Cleveland (one originally from Canada), who were interested in creating a newspaper comic strip. After years of batting around ideas, they finally came up with a concept that worked: a pulp hero that wasn't just strong, but superstrong. With this added feature of superstrength, they were able to take the wish-fulfillment aspect of heroic fantasy to a whole new level. Never before had coping with the frustrations of the world been so easy and satisfying: This new character could not be bullied because he was the King of Bullies, and he was on our side. You know how you always wished there was someone to smack the wife-beater around? Now the wife beater gets smacked around. And you know all those crooked politicians? Now the crooked politician encounters uncorrupted physical force. Villains? Now the villains have the wings torn off their airplane, so they can meet the crash they deserve. Now all the bad people get what's coming to them, good and hard, with a steely-eyed squint and wisecrack or two to go along with it. It was the ultimate adolescent power fantasy.

But it was still an adolescent power fantasy. There was little about it that spoke to a morality higher or nobler than frontier justice and might makes right.

But as time went on, the character began to change. Some of this was by editorial decree, making the character less violent and more acceptable for children, the primary audience. A war came about that required all facets of American society to pull together, perhaps making the character a little less independent or rebellious. Perhaps there was some maturation going on with the writers themselves. Whatever the case, the character grew stronger, both physically and morally, almost in tandem. Frontier justice and might makes right weren't quite good enough anymore, gradually replaced by a more principled idealism, including a humanist's respect for law and dignity. The wisecracks gave way to a gentler humor (sarcasm, after all, can be a bit petty). The eyes were no longer quite so squinted, but more open, friendly. This wasn't a muscle that was flexed in every story, of course: the business of the character was still fun adventure stories. But he was no longer the King of the Bullies. He seemed better than that.

Most historical analyses of Superman will stress the nuances of the character that change from decade to decade, showing how the character reflects the prevailing zeitgeist of whatever era he's in. I've tried to take a much broader view here, explaining what I think to be a primary distinction in the character's history, and further, how this affects the character's value. Simply put, Superman evolved into more than just an adolescent power fantasy. He transcended that, becoming an paragon of modern (and yes, perhaps Modern) virtue. Still quite human in many respects; never unchallenged, usually physically, but often psychologically or morally; but most often representing the best within society, and most significantly, the best within ourselves. I would argue that this evolution of Superman is what resonated so strongly with the world; that this quality, rather than being an alienating factor, is actually key to his durability and uniqueness even today. More than any other comic book character, Superman inspires us to become better people. This is the difference between the 1938 Superman and what he evolved into -- and what the character continued to be, more or less, for the last 60 years.

So in ACTION #814, Superman suckerpunches Darkseid.

I suppose that isn't so bad in itself; after all, Darkseid is a really bad guy, and sometimes you need to take the advantage where you can get it. But after suckerpunching him, Superman seems to gloat about it. In fact, amidst all the violence in the issue, Superman seems to do a lot of gloating. And mocking. And being sarcastic. At one point, he threatens to take a subway hijacker's gun and give it "a guided tour of [his] intestines." After the ax that Steppenwolf uses to beat him over the head with collapses, Superman says "Steppenwolf? Hello? Indestructible?" When Darkseid threatens to kill him, Superman replies "Been there, done that." This Superman is one sassy bitch.

He also seems to take a lot of joy in being Superman; but since so much of the issue is violent, it's as if he's taking joy in the violence. (Writer Chuck Austen seems to try to cover all the bases in the book, tackling one crime, one rescue and one supervillain slugfest; but somehow the rescue seems a little upstaged.) With both his glib demeanor and enthusiastically violent attitude are combined, this Superman felt off-model. Or really, on-model -- 1938's model, with a more contemporary snark. The Golden Age Superman by way of Joss Whedon.

None of this is too surprising since in an interview given to CBR last year, (an interview that amounts to a pre-emptive rebuttal of this very review), Austen has described his preference for the Golden Age Superman, and the emphasis on "adolescent gratification through power fantasy." Austen knows what he's doing. The problem is that what he's doing may be coming at the expense of something better, like the Superman that I mentioned earlier. And if that's the case, I don't think the trade is worth it.

That said, I need to be careful that I don't overstate my criticism here. I think that Austen is more off by degree than substance. Superman is confident, but should he be cocky? Superman is aggressive, but should he revel in violence? Superman has a sense of humor, but should he be snarky? I think Austen takes things far enough in these directions in a way that's not outrageous, but more disappointing.

What makes the situation all the more disappointing is that the issue had so much going for it visually. Ivan Reis' art was very sharp, very pretty, and a lot of fun. Superman works so well with art that tends towards realism, and a guy like Reis has been a long time coming. Art Adams also put together a great cover, one with so much energy, you can almost hear it crackle. Even the old ACTION COMICS trade dress is back, and looking fantastic. But it wasn't enough.

I've spoken with folks online who really liked this comic, and it's not hard to understand why. We live in a pretty postmodern world these days, and for many people, the adolescent power fantasy is easier connect with than Truth, Justice, and the American Way. This seems to be the path of least resistance that Austen is choosing to follow for Superman, and from the interview I've linked to, he indicates that it's the only one he's capable of. But I don't think comics are just about easy connection; I think they can be about aspiration as well; I think there's something to be said about the connection made on that level. It's a matter of emphasis, and I think Austen is emphasizing in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, there will always be characters to act out the adolescent power fantasy, in fact, I think they're a dime a dozen. But really, there's only one Superman.

AQUAMAN #15-17
Writer: Will Pfeifer
Artist: Patrick Gleason
Publisher: DC Comics
Reviewed by

Wait a sec.

Say it ain't so!

Frickin' AQUAMAN has a good writer?!

It just might be the case, folks. It just might be.

Now I'm gonna hedge my bet just a bit as I wait to see how the story resolves, but right as of this moment? Right as of this moment, writer Will Pfeiffer is seriously impressing me by making the most famously difficult superhero in the DC pantheon...interesting. Pfeifer hit the sand running by sinking San Diego into the sea with an Irwin Allen-level earthquake in issue #15. There's something both ballsy and blackly humorous about an arc that opens with a drowned zoo panda floating by the camera. But the alien-ness of that opening image was more than just a lark. It was the keynote for what Pfeifer and talented artist Patrick Gleason would be doing with the book: playing up the exotic nature of the underwater environments. Playing up the mysteriousness and deadliness of the sea. Look, here's another page. Cool, huh? A sunken city of dead people. Definitely something you don't see everyday, but it's the chief setting for this entire arc, so get used to it.

Pfeifer's taking a slow-burn approach that's been occasionally frustrating as a serial read, setting Aquaman to the task of playing investigator into this unearthly disaster. In the first issue he found a lone survivor who swam to the surface only to mysteriously suffocate, having apparently "gone native" while trapped below - literally, this poor kid grew thin gill-slits without knowing it and had no clue he'd die in open air. Issue #16 revealed another survivor, this one a cute twenty-something girl - yes, she can live! Aquaman caught her before she suffocated on land, took her to the JLA Watchtower to pop her in a water tank for observation (Aquaman, you sly dog), and eventually discovered through the Martian Manhunter's telepathy that the girl was part of a large group of survivors trapped in a hollow beneath a crapload of collapsed buildings and debris.

This was revealed, incidentally, in a terrific point-of-view flashback from the girl. Through her eyes we saw her with her boyfriend at the San Diego Zoo weeks earlier, followed shortly by the impact and violence of the first massive wave crashing down on them, and finally a succession of sinking shots as she's dragged down to the depths of the ocean. I was much impressed with the immediacy of the POV envisioning of the moment of the disaster, turning what could have been a by-the-numbers flashback into something terrifying.

But's been a little slow-burn, despite the novelty of the scenario. Aquaman's seemed overly passive in his response in the first two issues, and you don't want your heroes to seem passive. As of this latest issue, though, I'm beginning to think the build-up might have been worth it as Aquaman uses his newfound information to track down the survivor enclave and set into motion a wholly unique rescue scenario. The survivors have somehow made it through weeks in their strange new environment, but they're terrified, they're starving, and once Aquaman frees them by hefting what appears to be a massive bridge section (a great and needed moment of physical resolve), he's also got to contend with their unwittingly suicidal instincts to swim to the surface.

This is where the book really has some fun. Aquaman commands a swarm of sharks to block off the surface, warning two fleeing kids meaningfully: "Those sharks won't hurt you. They're here to keep you safe, believe it or not. Of course, you've both got a lot of cuts and scratches...there's bound to be at least a little blood in the water. Right now the sharks are obeying my commands...but there's a limit to my control..."

They kids swim back – fast. And Aquaman's subsequent interaction with the survivors is memorable too. He's comforting, but he doesn't sugarcoat the bizarre nature of their survival: "This means you can never leave the ocean. You can never go back to the surface." And I wonder – since Aquaman's been ousted by the people of Atlantis, is it possible Pfeiffer is setting the stage for a strange new kingdom for him? A unique bridge between underwater civilization and American life? I'm intrigued, and the environment of the sunken city is consistently fascinating, one of the best elements of the book. There's a scene where we see scuba divers bringing food to the newly-evolved water-breathers and patching them up on a former San Diego boulevard now eerily illuminated with emergency light pylons. It's typically great work from the artist – detailed, shadowy, convincing - and it sold me on Pfeifer as a guy who's going to bring something truly unique to AQUAMAN. I've griped a little about the seeming passiveness of our hero, but seeing him as an investigator, as a rescue operations guy, as the one hero who can handle a situation like's refreshing, even if the book took a little while to ease readers into the scenario.

So for the first time ever, yep, I'm onboard AQUAMAN. Good writing, good art, unique environment, strange atmosphere, and a humans-become-water-breathers mystery that, as of the end of issue #17, looks like it'll have some creepy reveals shortly. I even like the cute water-breather babe who somewhat contrivedly sets about helping Aquaman in the issue. The loner hero thing is all well and good, but he needs a sounding board, and maybe, just maybe, he needs a girlfriend who's not Atlantean royalty.

This book deserves the attention of superhero fans. Not only is it out-innovating recent DC relaunches like TEEN TITANS and OUTSIDERS that've focused blandly on the return of old villains (Zzzzzzzzzzzz...), but how can you not want to see how such an underdog title sets itself up for a comeback?

Written by Mark Millar
Illustrated by Terry Dodson
Published by Marvel Comics
Reviewed by
The Comedian

Two weeks ago I gave a less than favorable review of a bloated, over hyped soufflé disguising itself as a modernized Avengers story. I took a lot of the usual heat in talkbacks about what a senile, toothless old pansy I was for not digging a story whose epic-climax involved tricking the Hulk into destroying an Alien fleet by baiting his insecurities about his sexuality. Sorry if the righteous heroism in that was lost to me. My main beef was that I knew Mark Millar was capable of so much more. I'd seen him do real stories with real characters that were layered and entertaining in previous issues of ULTIMATES; Iron Man, Cap and Betty discussing Hank beating Janet in the Galaxy Diner for example. Hell, I'd even seen it in "The Nativity" storyline from THE AUTHORITY 4 years ago that was the genesis of this whole mess. Luckily for me and everyone else it didn't take but a few weeks for Millar to prove me right. MARVEL KNIGHTS: SPIDER-MAN #1 was awesome.

When it comes to Spider-Man stories the easiest parallel can be drawn to Superman, his DC counterpart. They're counterparts in the sense that they're the flagship heroes of their respective universes not merely because they're the most publicly recognizable but also because they each represent the quintessential philosophies of each of those universes and how they contrast one another. Superman is the DC universe. He's pretty cut and dry as far as what he stands for and what he believes in. His powers and the world he inhabits aren't necessarily realistic or remotely believable but that's the point, it's a fantasy and the fantasy is entertaining and elaborate enough in and of itself that we can excuse the implausibility of it all. That's what the DC Comic experience is all about. Spider-Man is in contrast of course Stan Lee's quintessential everyman who "has to take the bus" and horribly fumbles his way through interpersonal relationships despite the fact that he can bench press the bus. That's what the Marvel Comics experience is all about.

Unfortunately for both of these characters the past 15 or so years have seen creators wasting them in their regular series with silly gimmicks that had nothing to do with these basic principles. Fandom had become bored with the both of them and pretty much written them off because of all the misfires and the general consensus that there wasn't much else that hadn't already been done with them. I know that JMS and Paul Jenkins have done their part to remedy this over the past few years with Spider-Man and poor Kal is still somewhere on a rack in some shop being ignored by most of fandom rehashing cheesy silver age plots involving bottle cites.

Millar's Spider-Man really works for me on that essential level because he nails the everyman bit. The pacing is of course "for the trade" but the meat of characterization and story are filling enough. The characterization is spot on especially in the scenes between him and Aunt May and the scene with Peter's google-crazed students. The bit with Aunt May's Iron Man tapes didn't even ring as nod-wink cynicism or a hipster way dirtying her up (Millar and Dodson already blew that wad last year). It was just funny and quirky. Some of the dialogue in this issue is a little cheesy and "easy" like "Who's your daddy now, Mr. Osborn!" But it's forgivable. The crowd in the opening is obnoxious but these kind of ungrateful morons have been plaguing misunderstood heroes for decades. Dodson's pencils are fantastic and he's surpassing Adam Hughes the same way that Hitch eventually surpassed Alan Davis. I look forward to the next eleven issues of this series and I hope they can keep up this level of consistency. At the very least we'll get cheesecake shots of The Black Cat and maybe they can wrap up that whole miniseries with a simple throw away line or something.

Devin Grayson: Writer
Manuel Garcia: Artist
DC Comics: Publisher
Vroom Socko: Back Ally Reviewer

This is my "WHY?" title.

Twenty-odd days out of the month, I find myself wondering why I still buy this book. After all, the current arc is a bit, shall we say, derivative. The past ten issues or so could be easily described as BORN AGAIN LITE. Blockbuster, the lord of crime in Blüdhaven, has learned the true identity of Nightwing, and has been systematically destroying every element of his life. Nightwing, of course, has been fighting back, as well as fighting a bit dirtier than usual.

I also find myself wondering just why Nightwing continues to tolerate the actions and presence of the Tarantula, a gun crazy vigilante who's not only bloodthirsty, but is admittedly indebted to Blockbuster. How Dick is even willing to work alongside her is baffling to me. For god's sake, she killed the chief of police!

The thing is though, that one Wednesday a month when I actually pick up NIGHTWING, I wonder why I'd even consider dropping it. Not only is new artist Manuel Garcia kicking absolute ass on his first issue, but writer Devin Grayson has a great handle on the various supporting characters, as well as Dick himself. Also, almost every closing page from the past year or so has me either going "what the fuck!" or giggling like a madman. This issue had me doing both.

This book is really the Chinese food of my pull box. It's a fun ride while I'm reading it, but it doesn't last after I've finished. And I really don't have a helluva lot to say about it, now that I think about it. But for those few minutes I'm reading it… man what a good book.

By Robert E. Howard
Illustrated by Mark Schultz
Published by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
Buzz Maverik Book Club Selection

Now, we bring you a segment for our more sophisticated readers, who know that there is more to life than comic books, who can appreciate classic literature. We bring you .... BUZZ MAVERIK'S BOOK CLUB.

Hang up your leather jackets and put on your smoking jackets. Put the tallboy back on ice and pour yourself a snifter of brandy. Hide the bong back under your comics and fill your Meerschaum with an aromatic blend of Virginia Cherry Briar, Turkish Breeze ...and a glob of hash oil, because who the hell are we kidding here?

After all, why should Oprah have all the fun?

Our selection this week is a somewhat recently released collection of the first thirteen Conan the Barbarian stories written in the 1930s by Robert E. Howard, the greatest pulp writer who ever lived. Yes, yes, Hammett, Chandler, even Fitzgerald and Faulkner contributed to the pulps, but Howard was a true pulp writer in that he never transcended the pulp magazines of his era. He may have, had he not died at age 30 from a suicide over a mother complex that made Elvis look like a cool, rockabilly badass ... but while spoil Conan because of that?

These stories are untouched Howard, the way they were written, the way most of them appeared in the pages of Weird Tales . Sure, we true fans own all the books with the Frazetta covers, but they were heavily edited by L. Sprague De Camp and full of posthumous collaborations. To be fair, De Camp at least got Conan in a way that August Derleth never got Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Howard sort of believed that he channeled the spirit of Conan when he wrote. I only wish the spirit of Conan had been around when the posthumous collaborators were at work. Then, we'd have seen some sword and sorcery, boy!

We may know Conan from the comics, from der Ahnoldt moobies (in which Ahnoldt was really playing Kull; I dunno who Kevin Sorbo was playing in the stupid KULL movie), from the TV series or from the De Camp tainted books, but this is our first crack at Howard's Conan. We see the barbarian hero in stories jumping back and forth from his days as a beleaguered king (his first appearance was in a rewritten Kull story called THE PHOENIX ON THE SWORD if you're wondering about the significance of the broken sword in the movie) to his time a young thief (THE TOWER OF THE ELEPHANT, perhaps my favorite story in this collection) to ale guzzling, wench gnawing mercenary, to wild pirate (THE QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST; again the movie didn't invent Conan's lover returning from the dead to strike at one of his foes).

This Conan is more human than any you might have met before. He gets scared. He considers fleeing some circumstances. He's smarter, considerably more amoral. And the great thing is that when Howard was less inspired, and writing for the easy dough, the Conan stories usually feature a good and an evil naked chick who both dig Conan. Conan is the kind of guy who would pooch both Snow White and the Wicked Queen.

How do these compare to the old books? I dunno. I didn't feel like getting my old books out of the garage and looking them over. I know I was glad to get these stories in their original forms, thrilled that they're back in print. In particular, I liked the wonderful illustrations by Mark Schultz and the essay "Hyborian Genesis," full of background information, by Patricia Louinet.

So, come read tales of the days of high adventure!

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Adrian Alphona
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Reviewed by

Here's the deal with the new RUNAWAYS trade:

Firstly and most importantly, it's only eight bucks for a FULL DAMN SIX ISSUES, making it the single best superhero buy you're going to find all year. Period.

It's digest-sized (manga-sized if you prefer), and while I first thought this was a great idea to attract the manga crowd, now I'm concerned that hardcore Marvel types might pass it up because they'll think, "Ahh!! Crazy manga shit!", and manga fans might pass it up because they'll think, "Ahh!! Crazy American superhero shit masquerading as manga!"

But you know what should convince ALL parties to give it a shot? That beautiful, sexy eight dollar price point. Flip through the book. Look at that crisp dialogue from Y: THE LAST MAN's Brian K. Vaughan, the stylish art and character designs from Adrian Alphona, poised to become this generation's Kevin Maguire (only better). You're getting all that for only about $1.30 an issue and you think you there's even a remote chance you're going to walk away from Marvel's best debut of 2003 unsatisfied? Aw, hell no!

Our own Sleazy G wrote an excellent overview of the series when he reviewed issue #13 of the ongoing series. If you've somehow missed the unprecedented critical praise for this series you can sample for ONLY EIGHT BUCKS, go read Sleazy's review. He hits all the high notes. But for those who might, for whatever reason, still be holding out on the series, I'm going to focus on some highly specific reasons you're going to want to get onboard, namely...

  • A kid gets offed in the very first issue, so you know it's no wussy teen superhero book. There are plenty of light moments, but the stakes are real.

  • The leader of the Runaways is an African-American kid named Alex who defies all the stereotypes. That might not seem like much, but outside of Jakeem Thunder over in JSA, can you think of any other notable young, African-American heroes? I can't. Alex is a great character.

  • There's also cute Goth chick in the group who teen readers can lust over, and having once thought Kitty Pryde was about the cutest fictional character ever, I know the value of such things. I mean, the Goth girl is a simply a good character too, but c'mon...I'm just saying what we're all thinkin'...

  • The parents of the kids are revealed to be part of an evil cabal that's essentially a supervillain organization, except...they don't look like standard supervillains – they look like something...original! What a concept! They're made up of mutants, time-travelers, and black magic users, and their costume designs from Adrian Alphona are, each one of 'em, unique to their origins. I see the design qualities I like in Japanese RPG's like FINAL FANTASY, but without the over-designing such games sometimes fall prey to.

  • Speaking of costumes, the kids themselves actually dress in current styles. It's a sad truism that so many superhero books have kids wearing what they wore when Kurt Cobain was still kickin', but RUNAWAYS ain't one of those books.

  • RUNWAYS is unpredictable. From one issue to the next, good luck guessing the direction it'll go. It's ostensibly got a road-trip vibe, a quality I always like, but there's no set status quo, which is even better.

  • In an early interview for the book, Brian Vaughan wrote of his inspirations for the series: "If any outside sources influenced me, it was probably the His Dark Materials novels by Philip Pullman, which reminded me that the best 'children's stories' are usually dark and complicated and very adult. Young readers like to reach beyond their grasp, so it's best to aim high." See, now there's a guy who gets what he's doing.

  • Sample exchange of dialogue from the scene where the kids spy on their parents and find them in full cult gear for their evil ceremony:
    "Check out those costumes."
    "Are you guys thinking what I'm thinking?"
    "Yeah, our parents are totally gay."
  • And the last and perhaps greatest overlooked quality of RUNAWAYS...


    It's not another goddamn Spider-Man or X-Men book!

Hey, I could keep this up all day folks, but in the end the one thing I'm trying to get through is that this trade would be worth your money at a standard fifteen bucks – for a mere eight, it's a no-brainer. In the interest of being a hardboiled critic, I'll levy one charge against it: the lower quality paper on the trade doesn't bring out the colors as strongly as the glossy paper on the regular book. And, uh, that's about it.

RUNAWAYS is wholeheartedly recommended to fans of BUFFY, TEEN TITANS, STAND BY ME, HARRY POTTER, conspiracy stories, road trips, the Marvel Universe as an unashamed setting, classic Spielberg suburbia movies, eight dollar graphic novels, and the somehow comforting notion that maybe, just maybe, parents really are pure evil.

Brian Michael Bendis: Writer
David Finch: Artist
Marvel Comics: Publisher
Vroom Socko: Anti-Mutant Protester.

It seems, sometimes, that I'm the official Bendis Booster among the @$$holes. What can I say; he's one of the best writers working in comics today. In particular, the initial few issues of the current ULTIMATE X-MEN arc have been some of the best X-Men books I've read in a long time.

Unfortunately, the latest issue is one of the worst.

Don't get me wrong, there's a good moment or two in this issue, particularly the interaction between Wolverine and Angel. But the bulk of the story just doesn't work. First of all, there's the six pages of talking heads. Now, most of the time I enjoy these moments from Bendis, because they're being used to illustrate an effective point. For example, look at the monologue Milla has at the beginning of the previous issue of DAREDEVIL. That's a touching scene, showing a classic moment from DD's origin from a new perspective, while also giving us insight into Milla's character. But here, here we get no new information, no new insight. All this section really is is a rehash of the entire previous issue. Now, does anyone honestly think that in this day and age of "Wait for the trade," that anyone's going to be buying the next to last installment of an arc who hasn't read the previous issues? There's nothing in these six pages that couldn't have been told in two.

Then there's the second half, where the President is introducing his new team of mutants on the steps of the Capital Building. This group, of course, is led by Emma Frost, who in the previous issue was garbed in a white smock-like outfit that managed to look creepy, sexy and cool all at once. Here she's now wearing a white variation on Janet Jackson's Superbowl outfit, and I doubt even another "wardrobe malfunction" would make this look anything but yawn worthy. Last issue had an Emma Frost that had a look we'd never seen on her before. This is just more of the same old same old. Sure, this is just a small sticking point, but it's a point nonetheless.

But then, there's the uninvited guests that arrive at the ceremony, as a Sentinel appears out of nowhere to attack the collected mutants. That's right, a 100-foot tall robot appears OUT OF FUCKING NOWHERE! Anyone who's ever been to D.C. can tell you that if a 100-foot tall robot were heading for the Capital Building, you'd see it coming. It also doesn't help that once the Sentinel shows up, the whole thing becomes a mess. Finch's art, up until this point, was damn fabulous, but when things start blowing up everything becomes confusing. Excluding one member, I completely lost track of all of the New Mutants, not to mention the President. Perhaps if there's been some more space to clearly illustrate this section, the story might have benefited. If only there had been four more pages to clearly define the action…

I'm still a Bendis fan, and I still enjoy his dialogue, and I still love the initial chapters of this arc, and I'm still going to read the finale. But this issue is easily the weakest comic he's written since his work on Elektra. Unfortunately.

Cheap Shots!

WHAT’S MICHAEL? – THE IDEAL CAT (TPB) - I dearly love this manga, and I say this as someone who tries to avoid ever using the word “dearly.” But WHAT’S MICHAEL is just that endearing. For the newbies, this is the latest in a series of funny-as-hell manga volumes from Dark Horse featuring vignettes surrounding a cat named Michael. I think my favorite shorts are the “realistic” ones with observational cat-humor, the best one in this volume featuring a Japanese couple vying manically to have their cat perch on them to avoid doing chores (“He’s sleeping so comfortably.”). But the more bizarre anthropomorphic stories are great, too, like the Warner Brothers-esque visual face-off between a vampire and the curious cat who locks eyes with him when he inadvertently uncovers it in peeling back the bedcovers to bite a sleeping woman. You have to read it to get its greatness, but read it you must! No comic book artist has ever more perfectly captured the nature of cats. – Cormorant

STAR WARS TALES #19 - Anthologies are a tricky business, especially one like this. You're just about guaranteed to get several crap stories mixed in with one or two good ones. This volume is no exception. There's several clunkers, one okay one about the lightsaber Luke lost in Cloud City, and one pretty good one featuring the main character from that other trilogy Lucas had a hand in. Then there's the gem of the issue. Written and drawn by PVP creator Scott Kurtz, it's a mad cross between Star Wars and The Breakfast Club. Not only is it funny as all hell, but it somehow seems natural for a guy like Han Solo to say stuff like "Blast doors short out all the time. The universe is an imperfect place." Definitly worth checking out. - Vroom Socko

KNIGHTS 4 #4 - You know what? I liked this issue. KNIGHTS 4 is, of course, the spin-off Fantastic Four book featuring stories originally planned for the mainline FF title when Mark Waid was temporarily fired. Everyone's been praising the art on this new series (it really is astonishingly good - and the coloring, yowza!), and writing off the story because it's a contrived "FF goes broke" arc where the group has to find “real jobs.” That remains a somewhat fair criticism, but this latest story - a Reed-centric one - features a good confrontation with mob boss, Hammerhead, and a surprisingly heartfelt conversation with a suicidal jumper. If it were the only FF book, I'd be more critical of these character-centric pieces, but as an optional sister book to the main title? Actually kind of pleasant. - Cormorant

INVINCIBLE #10 - Image's teen superhero book is nearly always a nice surprise, and the page spoofing Bendis/Maleev/Chaykin-style repeat panels had me laughing out loud...BUT...a few elements brought this issue down for me. For one, I’m not big at all on the Marvel/DC/Watchmen/Powers analog characters that occasionally pop into Kirkman's otherwise only moderately analoged pastiche universe. They seem like cheap gags. I’m also concerned about what a single, particularly violent scene means for the series. I like that this is a book that's generally managed to be "all-ages” yet still very smart and witty, but while the scene in question was undeniably meant to startle, it felt wholly out of place. - Cormorant

HACK/SLASH #1 - This is a guilty pleasure book from the guys at Devil’s Due Press: a slickly drawn and produced exploitation comic about a girl who hunts movie-style slashers in the mold of Jason, Freddy, Michael, etc. It’s deliberately cheesy and deliberately gory (our lead mows through a legion of undead pets to get to the slasher manipulating ‘em), but it manages to occasionally evoke the sly wit of a BUFFY or a SCREAM. I liked the simple explanation of “Slashers” in this world: “It’s a type of undead, I guess...sort’ve like a vampire or zombie. They’re so full of anger that they don’t wanna die. They hate love, youth, sex...things they miss from life.” Simple and effective! This is pretty lowbrow stuff, but its self-aware sense of humor and strong art make it well worth a look to genre fans who’re still looking for more blood after KILL BILL Vol. 2. – Cormorant

FALLEN ANGEL #10 – I hope you’re all going to pick up the trade of this series when it comes out. Peter David’s moody, violent, unpredictable, character-rich meditation on good and evil is one of the coolest books DC’s put out in ages, and I want everyone caught up and reading new issues alongside me so we can have a good TalkBack on ‘em. In the latest: God gets flipped off, a shard of the cross on which Jesus was crucified is burned, a nun’s piety is treated with hardboiled resolve, and Hitler advises our lead on the virtues of chaos in what I can only interpret as an advocacy of liberal theory. Kind of nice to have some escapist entertainment with a little meat on its bones, eh? - Cormorant

THOR: SON OF ASGARD #3 – Very traditional quest-story stuff in this mini that focuses on a young Thor adventuring alongside his fellow godly youths, Sif and Balder, but the art from Greg Tocchini makes it worth a look to fantasy fans. It’s stunning design work, packed with lots of neat monsters and exotic fantasy locales, and even the coloring sets it apart. Check out a
page from the first issue as a sampler. – Cormorant

Punisher War Journal Entry 6459: Last night's stakeout proved to be successful. Tonight the heads of the five families will meet and I'll be there to dole out—

Greetings! Welcome to another edition of

@$$terpiece Theater!

PUNISHER: *CHA-CHIK* Who said that!?!

Holster that weapon, Franky boy. You can't shoot me. I'm the Moderator, the invisible, omniscient, and lonely voice of reason haunting the halls of @$$hole HQ.

PUN: What the hell do you want?

MODERATOR: Well, last Friday, THE PUNISHER, starring Thomas Jane, was released in theaters and the @$$Holes want to celebrate it by honoring you. Frank Castle. The Punisher. Judge, jury, and executioner of the guilty. Cursed by the death of your family and waging a one man war on crime. We @$$holes love comics and in @$$terpiece Theater, the 'Holes talk about comics they would recommend to those who loved the movie and want more, or those who hated it and want to see Frank Castle done right. Some of these comics haven't seen print in years, so check the back bins at your local comic shop or bug Marvel to get these great recommendations reprinted.

PUN: Wait a minute. What is an @$$Hole?

MOD: The @$$holes are a group of avid comic book fans who buy comics, read comics, and then write reviews about them on the Internet.

PUN: They write comic book review...

MOD: Yup.

PUN: ...on the Internet?

MOD: They've even reviewed a few PUNISHER comics. What do you think of that?

PUN: I think you're lucky I punish the guilty and not the stupid.

MOD: Well…a-heh…let's get started then with our recommendations. First up is Cormorant.

"The U.S. sent this chopper down to wreck coke factories. Let me show you how it's done.

- The Punisher critiques the 1980's War on Drugs from behind the stick of an AH-64 Apache Gunship
The preceding is one of my all-time favorite Punisher moments. It's a straight-up action/adventure cliché of understated bad-assery, but the story surrounding it had a surprising tone of sophistication. The year was 1987; the writer was Mike Baron of indie-superhero NEXUS fame; the artist was Klaus Janson, whose inking is probably responsible for at least a third of what folks loved about Frank Miller's art in the '80s; and the story was the opening two-parter to the Punisher's first ever ongoing series. Had the series continued with the same level of craft, I'd probably have read it past issue five.

Now if you can believe it, this story marked the first time I'd ever heard of crack cocaine. Remember, it was still an emerging drug in the mid-'80s. But there it is on page one. An undercover Frank Castle (already more sophisticated than Ennis's "he just KILLS" interpretation) follows a crackhead back to the crackhouse that supplies him, gives the audience a quick overview of how crackhouses can be fortified to withstand small arms fire, then proceeds to crack that mutha open with a shoulder-fired rocket launcher. He dusts the survivors with his Uzi, and boom, he's started up the ladder in the best Drug War action movie never committed to film.

Castle goes undercover again later in the issue. He's playing at being an up-and-coming runner looking to muscle out a rival coke smuggler who's an old grudge from his Vietnam days. Through the issue's terse narration, more than a little like Miller's punchy dialogue from DAREDEVIL, we know he's mixing lies and a little truth to play the role, but he gets busted. I learned another something here: "Bolivian Telephone," a quick and dirty means of electric shock torture that Castle is shortly thereafter subjected to.

"There are other places we can attach these wires..." his captors warn him.

Holy shit! I think it was precisely there that I realized the character had officially grown past his days as a Spider-Man villain who sometimes used rubber bullets! And Janson's art really lets the reader taste the grim 'n' gritty. He's "French Connection" sophisticated in the talky scenes, all bone-crunching "Die Hard" dynamism when the action explodes. And Castle's got an ace up his sleeve, so we're about to see the latter. See, prior to going undercover, Castle affixed razor-sharp diamond slivers under his fingernails and he's been working on the ropes the whole time he's been tortured. He forces himself to vomit, counting on the bad guys wanting him to talk rather than choke to death on his own vomit, and when they lean his chair forward so he can cough it up...he springs. What follows you're just going to want to *read* for the full effect.

And the second issue? Oh, baby. Issue #1 was all foreplay by comparison. Issue #2 has Frank going 100% Rambo on a cocaine plantation in Columbia. The sophistication is still there, from Frank bluffing about going merc to an old 'Nam buddy ("Maybe you saw my ad in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE?") to the realistic execution of a DEA agent, but the action overwhelms all. Automatic-fire shotguns, helicopter gunships, the diamond-tipped fingernails to someone's wrist artery. Shit, you didn't think Garth Ennis invented nasty moves for The Punisher, did you? Y'know, these issues could really stand a trade paperback collection. Hey, Marvel, if your Punisher movie doesn't tank all interest in the character, howzabout it? First five Baron/Janson issues? Hey, I'll buy 'em again just for the purty format.

MOD: WOW! Sounds like some cool stories. What'd you think of that, P-Man?

PUN: I wish I had those diamond fingertips right now. I don't have time for this.

MOD: Aww, you'll have plenty of time to prepare while Vroom Socko tosses out a few blurbs about one of his favorite PUNISHER series.

"I've got a bad rap as a senseless killer. Let me point out that I am a very sensible killer."
That's my favorite Punisher line of all time. The funny thing is, it's from a comic where Ol' Frank Castle doesn't actually appear. Instead, it's part of the internal narrative/technical treatise that is THE PUNISHER ARMORY. We're talking ten solid issues of The Punisher talking about all the different weapons and training methods he uses in his war on crime. One of the surprising things about this series is the accuracy of the information presented. Writer/artist Eliot R. Brown knows his stuff when it comes to guns, as well as tech in general. (Brown also worked on the famous OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE, as well as giving Tony Stark a similar rundown in IRON MANUAL.) This was one of the first places I heard the names Casull, Taurus, and Sig-Sauer, for example. Hell, some of the information on knives has informed my own purchasing decisions. The really creepy entries, however, are for the unconventional weapons in his arsenal. Like the .38 Frank bought for his wife, or his son's cap pistol, or the personal effects bags of his family. There's some creepy psychological stuff going on between the lines here. That, and some cool ass guns.

PUN: That's reminds me. I'll need the RPG for tonight. Tonight they will feel my—


MOD: Well, look who's here! It's the @$$holes' beloved mascot, Schlepy!

PUN: Is that a monkey?

MOD: It's not just any old monkey. It's a monkey with a special hat that allows him to talk. Schlepy is here to do a review of THE PUNISHER movie that was released last week. Go, Schlepy, go!

SCHLEPY: Schlepy go see PUNISHER movie starring Boogie Night Guy. Movie stink like Schlepy's diaper after Big Burger Tuesday. No monkey in movie at all. Movie need more monkey. Director put palm tree in New York. Schlepy been to New York. No palm tree there. Punisher carry around fire hydrant a lot. Schlepy don't understand. Why Disco Man so chunky now a days? Did he quit dancing? Schlepy fell asleep and dream of old PUNISHER movie with Rocky 4. Old PUNISHER movie is far better because it had Lou Gosset-icity. In new PUNISHER movie, there is no Lou Gosset-icity.

PUN: Is the monkey guilty of something? Tell me the monkey is guilty of something.

MOD: It's guilty of going to see THE PUNISHER and paying full price for a ticket.

PUN: Good enough. *CHA-CHIK*

MOD: Run, Schlepy! Run your stinking monkey @$$ off!

SCHLEP: Buh-naners!!!

MOD: Okay, calm down, Castlevania. He's gone. Let's lend an ear to Ambush Bug and see what he has to say.

AMBUSH BUG: Y'know, before Garth Ennis' recent MAX relaunch, I really had to think hard about the last time someone got the Punisher right. I really hated Ennis' cartoony take on the character during his Marvel Knights days. Sure the kiddies seemed to love the Bumpos and the Russian transvestites and the Wolverine mutilations, but I didn't. Beneath it all, I could just see ol' Garth grimacing in disgust for the character as he put him in one ludicrous series of events after another and I hated the series for doing so. Now that Ennis is treating the character with respect in the mildly entertaining BORN series, the newly relaunched and MAXed-out PUNISHER series, and the excellent THE END one shot (reviewed by our very own Cormorant in last week's column, natch!!!), it seems that right now is the last time I liked the way Frank Castle, the character, was used to tell a decent story.

But before that, I seem to recall a series that wasn't really accepted or lauded by many as anything spectacular, but in my twisted mind, it really was an interesting take on the Punisher. MARVEL KNIGHTS Vol. 1 was supposed to be a non-team book, throwing together characters who usually worked alone on adventures that required all of their skills to survive. Starring Daredevil, the Black Widow, Dagger (of Cloak &… fame), Shang Chi Master of Kung Fu, and the subject of this article, the Punisher, MARVEL KNIGHTS was a truly interesting concept that ultimately failed to sustain its coolness for the duration of the fifteen issue series.

The thing that intrigued me the most was the way writer Chuck Dixon cleverly used the Punisher in this series. When Frank stumbled onto something that was too big to be taken down with a shotgun or pack of C-4 explosives, he manipulated those who usually do handle this stuff to do it for him. This series cast Frank Castle as the Grand Manipulator, pulling the strings of street wise do-gooders, to continue his war on crime. The coolest part of all is that Daredevil, Black Widow, and the rest didn't even know they were being played most of the time. Yes, there are shades of Batman in that concept, but it really worked for me, placing the Punisher firmly in the confines of the Marvel Universe without taking away the strengths that made the character work on his own. Dixon wrote the Punisher as intelligent, meticulous, and downright devious in his methods, but also highlighted the fact that he was dedicated to do whatever it took to enact his brand of justice on those he deemed guilty.

The problem with this series is that it would have made a much cooler miniseries. Frank's manipulations worked once, but to have him continue to fool these heroes into doing his job would've made all of the characters seem inept and ineffective. I suggest you pick up MARVEL KNIGHTS Vol. 1 #1-4, depicting the first arc of the series, when the concept was fresh and Dixon's heart was in the book. In those issues, Dixon took the character seriously and made him more than just the cartoon joke that inspired the newly released movie.

MOD: Damn that series sounds like a good-un. What'd you think, P. Shiddy?

PUN: I think the only reason you're breathing is because I can't see you.

MOD: That's because I'm the @$$Holes' invisible voice of reason, you silly goose. Let's hear what Sleazy G has for us.

SLEAZY G: I first jumped on board the Punisher with the first issue of his first ongoing series. From the very beginning, what I always liked about Frank Castle was how removed he seemed from the rest of the Marvel Universe. Don't get me wrong, I love the Marvel U - it's just that Frank Castle was a regular guy, with no X-genes or exposure to radiation or superpowers. He was just one incredibly pissed-off but well-trained guy seeking to rectify the problems other heroes didn't even notice. Whether it was serial killers or crack dealers or the mob, if they were turning up in news stories, they were turning up dead in the pages of THE PUNISHER. That book in the mid to late 80's served as a kind of cathartic wish fulfillment for the readers. If there was a teflon don in the news, his crew got taken apart. I'll never forget the two-issue storyline where he flies to a tropical island in the middle of nowhere to take out a Jim Jones-level cult leader who's convincing his followers to off themselves. On the flip side, of course, I'll never forget the story where Frank Castle was turned black through some scientific means for a month and then gradually lost the pigment like he'd just over-tanned a bit - but that's a whole 'nother story...

Obviously, The Punisher is hardly a "realistic" character. He'd never have survived as many woundings as he has over the years, and the cops could never let somebody like this walk the streets. That said, he's far more realistic than anyone else in the Marvel U, and when he's put anywhere near any of the other characters it takes something away from Frank. Garth Ennis recently realized that for all the fun he was having with Spidey and DD going up against Frank Castle, it wasn't what was best for the character. Since he re-launched THE PUNISHER, the book and character are both back on track, focusing on a hard, lonely man who is a dispassionate killing machine. The only time he shows any real emotions is when somebody makes the mistake of bringing up his dead family to him, which is clearly a bad idea. This is the core of who Frank Castle is: a guy who had everything that mattered taken away from him and started a personal crusade so that he would never have to stop punishing those responsible or anyone like them.

Which is why, naturally, my favorite Punisher story has to be the cruelest, most brutal, most realistic Punisher tale ever told: ARCHIE MEETS THE PUNISHER. I have no idea what the editors at Archie comics were thinking when they allowed this to happen, but it's a true classic. It might just be one of the best inter-company crossovers ever published. The Punisher scenes and dialogue are dead-on, completely appropriate to the character. Naturally, the same can be said of the Archie scenes, with Jughead getting into his usual tight spots. The story of Frank Castle traveling to Riverdale to pursue a criminal who looks just like Archie works surprisingly well, as does the idea of Frank going undercover as a gym teacher. The story is far better than it ever deserved to be, and the Punisher scenes are drawn by the late, great John Buscema. There's even a final panel that hints at a potential sequel that, sadly, never came to pass. Now, I admit I'm kinda joking here, but only kinda. It really is a good story, funny and serious in all the right places, with art that matches both characters' traditions. Oh, and the logo is killer: the white Punisher skull with Archie's eyes and nose on the top half. This one is a true overlooked classic. Sure, I'm praising a book that kinda flies in the face of what I said made the character great, but I think it's one of the exceptions that proves the rule. If you can track this down, it's well worth a couple bucks because it's so damned fun.

PUN: Listen up. The next one who speaks up with a stroll down funnybook memory lane dies. I've got a war on crime to get back to and you're all keeping me from it.

MOD: Well, aren't we a little testy. I tell you. We dedicate an entire special feature to you and this is the thanks we get. Corm didn't even get to ring in with his
ESSENTIAL PUNISHER recommendation, but I guess the readers will just have to check out that truly excellent trade paperback featuring the Punisher's earliest appearances themselves because Mr. Hasty-Pants has stuff to do. I have half a mind to become visible and give you a swift kick in the danglers. In fact, I think I will—


PUN: @$$Hole.
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