Wow, we haven’t done one of these battles in a while. For those of you who are new or don’t know what Monkey Knife Fight is… It’s where I, The MSpot, pit similar media properties against each other– determining a winner. Absurd? Sure, but I’d rather be reading the books featured in this latest installment of Monkey Knife Fight than watching anything involving Toddlers and Tiaras. (How is that show still on the air? And has a spin-off series no less?!?) Anyway, I’ll try to keep things short and save the profundity for later, but I make no guarantees. In the immortal words of Judge Mills Lane, “Let’s get it on!”
In the first match, we have Butch Baker, The Righteous Maker verses Punk Rock Jesus. (Did I mention how absurd this column is? Good… Because that last sentence may have been the most ridiculous thing I have written so far for the Inveterate Media Junkies.) But I think these two comics are a great match up. They represent ideas that, on the surface, are absurd but work in a way that are just pure comics. I’m sure they’re not the only two titles being published that achieve this goal, but for the purposes of this column– they’re the ones I want to talk about.
Butch Baker, The Righteous Maker– written by Joe Casey with art by Mike Huddleston– is pretty hard to quantify. It would be too easy to say it’s The Dark Knight Returns on acid, with a protagonist who’s an amalgamation of Captain America, Nick Fury and the Punisher… But the comic is more intentionally (or unintentionally) clever, depending on your perspective concerning its execution. Anyway, this is Casey’s writing at work. Any time I read books by this man, they remind me of why I like his other works in the medium– like Godland (Oh yeah, Jack Kirby did great cosmic superhero epics) or Officer Downe (reminiscent of some stunning hard-boiled classic Frank Miller and Geof Darrow would create together).
At this point, I can’t and won’t fault a superhero book published outside the “Big Two” if it seems derivative of a Marvel or DC character. Especially if the deviation is more interesting than its Marvel or DC counterpart… And I really don’t want to go into a whole diatribe about editorial constraints or creators not being allowed to work outside certain parameters of a character to protect the almighty “franchise”.
Needless to say, Casey isn’t writing to the lowest common denominator here… Butcher Baker triumphs most when Casey makes shit up. This all comes to a head in the final issue– where Butcher Baker uses this same excuse as means to defeat an entity (that appears in and out of the series) by simply saying, “I made that shit up… Didn’t know if it would work or not.” The part where the story gets a little “meh” for me: Casey uses a trope seen in lots of crime fiction– in this case, a superhero who takes on one last job with hopes of one last shot at redemption before meeting his end. Others may see this particular plot device as being a little played out as well.
Switching to the art, this is my first exposure to Mike Huddleston– as I have not yet read The Homeland Directive published by Top Shelf. I can’t speak to that work, but his art on Butcher Baker is as close to someone illustrating a hallucinogen-induced fever dream as one can possibly get. Huddleston switches techniques and styles, depending on the scene. The art can go from black and white with sporadic use of colors to full-on Technicolor blasts. Huddleston also uses darker, more textured colors to provide depth to certain sequences, and his use of Ben-Day dots provide a cool retro feel to flashback sequences. It’s all very exciting and somewhat daunting… And it’s no surprise why the art delayed the release of the final issue. My favorite aspect of Huddleston’s art is his character design, and I really liked one character in particular– Angerhead– whose power is derived from a belt in the shape of a giant mood ring.
Onto Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this comic… Other than, it takes a great artist to get me to look at the art before the text pieces on the page. I’m beginning to understand what Len Wein meant when describing artist Dave Gibbon’s line work as “warm”. I think this description applies to Murphy’s work as well. Compared to Huddleston– who’s use of colors and inks one might find jarring– I find Murphy’s art inviting. It’s extremely rare to see an artist whose work lends itself so well to big action pieces as well as small, emotional character moments. It’s definitely a hard balance to achieve, and Murphy does it surprisingly well.
It begs the question, why isn’t he getting more high-profile mainstream work? He clearly wants to work on a Batman title by dropping not so subtle hints into his art. According to Murphy’s deviantART page, Punk Rock Jesus may make ever working on a Batman title impossible. To counter that thought, I note Grant Morrison’s Kill Your Boyfriend. If Morrison can write a comic as provocative as that and still be heavily involved in the DC Universe– why can’t Murphy? (Oops, I’m drifting off topic again.)
I really wasn’t expecting the story in Punk Rock Jesus to be on par with the art… Yet here’s Murphy tackling big topics like religion, genetic engineering, terrorism, the nature of celebrity and Reality TV. Usually when a writer plays around with so many ideas, they get in the way of each other and all that’s left is a hodgepodge of a story. Thankfully, Murphy allows these various ideas to hover around the story and help define the characters… Characters that are all three-dimensional, with voices unique to each one. Three issues in, Sean Murphy’s Punk Rock Jesus is more than just a showcase for Murphy’s art style… It’s the ultimate template for the great comic books Murphy will be able to create in the future. It’s all impressive, to say the least. Punk Rock Jesus is not only a title that’s good for publisher Vertigo… It’s good for comics in general.
Round One Winner: Punk Rock Jesus. Marvel and DC have left the superhero genre so toxic for me that very few such comics impress me anymore. Punk Rock Jesus is only three issues in but I’ve found them to be more engaging than the entirety of Butcher Baker, Righteous Maker. A clear-cut winner for the first match.
Our final match features two legendary pulp heroes. It’s The Shadow #1 verses The Spider #1. Why only the first issues? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t like paying $3.99 for an ongoing series– regardless of the character, creators or publisher. I find $3.99 too much of a monthly investment for what I fear will be very little pay off in the end. Right now, I’m using these first issues to get an impression of whether or not I’ll be picking up the trades. With that justification out-of-the-way, on with the match.
First up, The Shadow #1 written by Garth Ennis, with art by Aaron Campbell. It’s fair to say I was hesitant to pick up this title. When I think of Dynamite Entertainment, I think exploitation– from their use of titillating covers for Warlord of Mars or diluting their IPs with so many spin-offs that it makes it hard for readers to differentiate the good books from the bad. So Yeah, Dynamite wasn’t my first choice of publisher for The Shadow’s return to comics. Nor, for that matter, was Garth Ennis my first choice as writer. If you’re a fan of Ennis’ work on Hitman or Battlefields– The Shadow is very much akin to that side of Ennis’ writing abilities. He shows restraint dealing with these characters, while crafting a story around his encyclopedic knowledge of World War Two.
This being a first issue, it’s mostly setup… Dealing mainly with how the Shadow operates… Much like the old radio program– in that The Shadow is Lamont Cranston with “the power to cloud men’s minds” and other psychic powers. There is no Kent Allard as in the pulp era version. This is also not Walter B. Gibson’s version of The Shadow– who was more a creepy film noir master of disguise than mystical spymaster. Even though I’m a fan of the pulp version for how influential it was in the defining the Allard/Lamont relationship… I could see how this could be perceived as being too convoluted for a comic book.
That aside, Ennis brings the radio version of the Shadow to life surprisingly well– opening the story with some pulpy violence, showing the extent of The Shadow’s power… And closing the book with an exchange between Margo and Lamont, much like the old radio program. I would like to see the nature of their relationship defined (or at least see someone explain it better than how it was handled in the pulps). On the art side, Aaron Campbell’s simple line work uses light and shadow exceptionally well to match the tone and pacing of the book. The only quibble I have is that one of the panels is colored wrong, but that’s on colorist Carlos Lopez. Other than that, a surprisingly solid start to a new Shadow comic.
Up next, The Spider #1– written by David Liss with art by Colton Worley. I’ve only recently started reading Spider pulps. (By that I mean I’ve only read one part of a three-part story.) The Spider was born in the pulps– with no contradicting radio version and existed as a character to compete against The Shadow in sales. David Liss is an awarding historical/mystery novelist whose comic book work includes Marvel’s Black Panther and Mystery Men– which was an enjoyable read. (In fact, it’s the only Marvel collection I have bought in a year or so.) Like The Shadow’s first issue, The Spider #1 is mostly just setup. Unlike The Shadow, it’s also an introduction to The Spider’s supporting cast.
Not to draw too many comparisons to The Shadow, a not-so-new costume (inspired by The Spider’s old movie serials) is used. The book also differentiates itself by taking place in modern-day New York– in the midst of a crime wave caused by an economic down turn that’s very reminiscent of the 1930s depression. Because this is a more contemporary setting, Ram Singh gets upgraded from a creepy (and downright racist) man-servant to The Spider’s lawyer friend. Conversely, Nita Van Sloan’s character is downgraded in importance. She is no longer Wentworth’s fiance… She’s married to Stanley Kirkpatrick, the Police Commissioner.
I have only one way to describe how Richard Wentworth (The Spider) speaks and acts in this issue– as if Archer (from the FX animated television series) played it serious. That might be because he’s a brash young man– compared to The Shadow’s Lamont, who is a more refined older gentleman. A lot of these differences play out in the art as well. Colton Worley is a relative newcomer. I’ve seen samples of his work online… He’s a good painter but his use of Photoshop and cell shading on The Spider made me feel like I was looking at a stop-motion cartoon or video game cut scenes. For the first five pages he had a really good sense of excellent page layout, but the rest of his comic work left something to be desired.
Round Two Winner: The Spider #1. Wow, this was a tough match-up. The Shadow #1 is the radio program in comic book form– with some pulpy blood splatter thrown in for good measure. I could hear Orson Welles speaking Ennis’ lines. But Liss’ introduction of The Spider’s latest villain intrigues me… Even if it uses today’s hot commodity– zombies. As first issues go, I’d say The Spider does the best introducing its characters– but the art is a big hindrance for me. Despite the art, I’m going to go with The Spider #1. As much as I love The Shadow– The Spider’s comic feels more in tune with what I expect a pulp hero should be…. Fighting a one man war on crime, with a tremendous body count.
Some great matches. Such a blood bath, I’m going to let you duke it out in the comments to decide who should be crowned this Monkey Knife Fight’s Ultimate Champion. Are you more interested in Punk Rock Jesus… Or is The Spider’s pulpy resurrection more your thing?