Sunday, 27 March 2016

Lazarus Book 1: Family (#1-4)

"This is normal right?  To feel like this?" - Eve

Gotham Central was a fascinating book, a street level look at trying to be a normal cop in a city full of costumed and superpowered maniacs that was written by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, with the main artist being Michael Lark and which ran during the early to mid-noughties before ending with realignment of the Gotham PD in the wake of Infinite Crisis.  I'm kicking off with a mention of this series because for me it has proved the incentive to seek out work by all three of the main creatives on it, including mainstream stuff like Greg Rucka's Batwoman, and the creator owned stuff like Ed Brubaker's Scene Of The Crime (covered earlier this month pop pickers) in which he first teamed up with Michael Lark and this more recent series by Greg Rucka in which the artist is, oh will you look at that, Michael Lark again.  Lark as an artist has somehow snuck into my list of favourites without me realising it, it wasn't until I was reading book one of Lazarus that I realised how much I like his gritty and moody art and just how talented he is at coreographing combat, both gun battles and hand-to-hand fighting in ways that feel realistic, yet exciting at the same time.  He also draws really good women, which puts him ahead of about 90% of most comicbook artists. That's especially good as Lazarus is a science-fiction story about a virtually immortal warrior woman who suffers a lot of physical trauma in this first collection which in the wrong hands could feel "icky" but in his hands feels as matter-of-fact as Greg Rucka's sparse but full of promise world building of which she is part of.
Meet Eve.
The Lazarus of the title is a young woman called "Forever" or "Eve" for short.  She is genetically engineered to be able to take all kinds of horrendous physical punishment up to and including dying, before quickly recovering and coming back to life to fight on.  She is the youngest of five children of the Carlyle family, and acts as a general enforcer.  The setting has been sketched in fairly lightly in this first book, it appears to be a few decades in the future and some disaster seems to have thinned out the human race a bit.  Now the USA is divided into areas controlled by mafia-like families (each of whom seem to have a Lazarus of their own) and the population within it are either "serfs" who do the work or "waste" who are given what appears to be a subsistance existence and left to rot.  The emphasis in this book though is on the power-plays within the family which Eve becomes a pawn in, and the details of wider world at the moment takes a back seat to that.

The story begins with a dispassionate description of the mortal wounds inflicted upon Eve by three scavengers.  A voiceover asks her how long she was "out" (ie: dead).  "Maybe two minutes" she responds, she also says it hurts, "it's like I'm not in myself when it happens, like I'm outside watching myself through glass".

As she recounts this we see her heal up enough to stand and kill her attackers. Her questioner "James" who is her doctor asks her how it made her feel.  Eve doesn't want to talk about it.

Eve: "I killed them James.  I killed all three of them.  They only wanted something to eat".

James says the family provides food for all citizens, but these scavengers made the mistake of breaking into a "family residence" and they also tried to kill her.  Eve is downcast and asks if everyone feels like this when they have to kill someone.  James says "no", but he'll give her something to help with the bad feelings and he won't tell the rest of the family about her doubts, "I would never betray your confidence".
Eve avenges her own death.
Of course we then cut to Eve's older brother Jonah being told by James that Eve is asking some "problematic questions".  She needs someone to "bond" with.  "Show her some love you mean" says Jonah.  Eve then arrives at the facility he is waiting at by helicopter and when she apologises for being late he hugs her and says "I'm just glad you're OK."

A rival family called Morray launched an assault on the grain facility early that morning.  They collapsed the security grid and made for the seed banks but were stopped before they got to them.

There was no system fault so they were shut down not by sabotage or hacking but by someone from the inside betraying the family.  They took a Morray alive but she didn't survive the interrogation.  Eve thinks Jonah is jumping to conclusions about their being an insider, but he says they have to "set an example".
Jonah being a dick.
Eve knows what this means and what is expected of her.  All the senoir staff are gathered in the coutryard.  Jonah tells them if no one admits culpability all will die.  There is a pause then an older man speaks up and says it was him.  His daughter tries to stop him but he just says, "you let this be what this will be."

Eve takes him to one side to execute him.  She says she thinks he is lying and doesn't understand why he would throw his life away.  He says if she really knew about the value of family she'd understand.  She says she'll tell his daughter he loves her.  "Trust me.. she already knows" the man says.

Back with James, he is giving her another checkup and dosing her with something to make her less questioning.  He asks her again how she feels and looking sad she says "I feel fine."

We then move onto Eve coming out of the shower and her older sister Beth telling her to take her pills as part of her "maintenance" schedule.

Eve: "I hate it when you call it that..makes me feel like a machine."

Beth ignores her and subjects her to a check over, then tells her their father wants her in his study in five minutes for her report.
Eve given a check up.
The brothers Jonah and Steve are having an argument about whether they are now at war with Morray.  Steve wants to see what their father says first.  He darkly refers to Jonah and Johanna being up to something in L.A.  Before the fight can escalate their father comes in with Beth.  He asks why Johanna isn't there, Jonah says he thought she should stay at the Palisades residence in case Morray try something again.

Eve then gives her report on the Moray attack on the seed bank.  Losses were substantial but they were repelled.  The old man, Samuel Rosales confessed to disabling the security as an agent of Morray, but searching his quarters and belongings revealed no clue as to how he was recruited and how he communicated with Morray.

They discuss the fact they broke off trade with Morray five years ago and they are suffering from poor harvests and difficulty controlling their "waste" population.  Jonah wants to know what their reprisals will be, he wants to "go to war."

Their father is silent, then sends them all away bar Eve.  He says she doesn't believe Samuel's confession, and she says no she doesn't.  He demands to know why she executed him anyway, "did it feel good?  Did you like it? Did you want to see him bleed?"

Eve: "I had to!  Treason means death.  Jonah made me - he was going to execute everyone if the didn't get a confession!"

Her father sighs and calls Jonah foolish. "Five children and only of the is worth a damn". He tells her to come closer, he has some he needs her to do.
Their father and leader of the family.
Outside the room Jonah and Beth argue about Eve.  Jonah says she's "not even his real daughter".  At this Beth tells him to shut the fuck up.

Beth: "Do you know what happens if she learns what she really is?  The questions she'll ask?"

Jonah says they can "put her down" if she bugs out at the truth, then Beth and James play "hide the pipette" and make another one.  Beth slams him into the counter top and grabs a knife saying she'll flay him.  Steve breaks the fight up.

Eve then appears saying she and Jonah will be going back to L.A. which is still partly smashed up from an earthquake.  Jonah says no point in fixing up the bits the waste live in.  Jonah returns to the house to find Johanna in the bath and cleans his sisters back and gets all too creepy close with his sister.

Jonah and Johanna plot.
Eve refuses to tell them why she is there, but Jonah says he has a man called Mason following her.  He shadows Eve as she walks through the slums, but she gives him the slip and drives way out of the city.  Here she meets a handsome man with a katana backed up by soldiers and he says she is now a prisoner of Morray.

Eve is taken to a Morray family compound in Mexico.  The sergeant leading the soldiers demands she hand her weapons over.  She says no.  The katana-dude says she is a guest not a prisoner but the sergeant says "the capture of an identified enemy Lazarus is of the highest priority".  Eve hands over the gun but not her sword.
Joachim and the Morray soldiers.
When the sergeant pulls a gun on her she slices his hand off with one stroke.  Joachim the Lazarus with the katana then cuts off the sergeant's head saying he exceeeded his authority and he and Eve leave to get some refreshment.

Back in one of the Carlyle compounds, James monitors Eve's lifesigns and when Jonah demands to know where she is, says that his father told him to keep it secret from Jonah.  James then calls the father "Malcolm" and tells him Eve is in Morray territory and that Jonah was asking after her.

Eve and Joachim relax and he gives her some guava.  He recalls the last time he saw her, she was fourteen then, five years ago.  She says he was the first person like her she has met.

Eve: "I don't want to fight you.  I don't want to hurt you."

They share a silent moment, then a helicopter bringing Joachim's uncle Morray, the leader of the family arrives.
Joachim and Eve bond.
Back with Jonah and Johanna, Jonah is panicking about Eve being sent to parlay.  Johanna says they are on the brink of war with Morray and it will take "a breath to kiss the flames to life."  She says Eve can't report back to their father until she is back in their territory, so they will kill her and blame it on Morray.  If she is cut into enough pieces she can be killed.  So they arrange a hit squad to meet her when she returns.

Eve meets with Morray.  She is not there to declare war, she offers a deal.  Normalisation of trade, grain and seed shipments to resume immediately.  In return Morray will deliver some things called "Tarantula Class Interdictors" also they must cease all communications with Jonah, "whose treachery is known to us, as is your collusion with him".

Morray agrees to the terms, saying Jonah is "dead to him".  Joachim is sent to escort Eve back to Carlyle territory.  They drive up to the border and Joachim stops.  He'd like to share a drink of water and a sunset with her.  They relax, but then suddenly a missile hits them full on blowing them up.
Back with James, an alarm goes off showing her vitals crashing.  Jonah is trying to watch what is happening via a drone but the Morray jamming field is delaying the images.  Out in the desert the badly wounded Eve and Joachim start repairing themselves.  Some soldiers approach her and force her on her knees, one of them moves to cut her head off.

Meanwhile, realising Eve is not dead and things could be going pear-shaped fast, Johanna gets Mason to punch her in the face to make it look like Jonah did it.  Before she can be beheaded, Eve manages to fight off her attackers.  Beth admires how all the injections and modifications to Eve are working, James says "for the love of God Bethany! Someone is trying to kill your sister!"
Joachim and Eve make a badass team.
Eve is joined by Joachim and they make short work of the rest of the soldiers.  Angrily Jonah goes to find Johanna but Mason won't let him see her:

Mason: "Your sister says to tell you that if you start running right now.  She'll slow the Lazarus down, long enough to escape".

Alone together, Eve says to Joachim this was not an attack on Morray.  She lets him take her bike as his car got blown up as she plans on returning via the helicpoter the soldiers arrived in.  She and Joachim wish each other a slightly awkward good bye.  She returns to the compound and finds Jonah gone and Johanna badly beaten.

Mason tells her that Jonah has fled and Eve holds a pretending-to-be-upset Johanna about Jonah's betrayal.  Eve meets with her father and asks if she should chase after Johann, but Malcolm says "not at present."  He congratulates her on delivering the message to Morray and says the family will have great need of her in the coming months though doesn't elaborate further.

Later Eve returns to her quarters an discovers an anonymous email which says, "He is not your father. This is not your family".  And on that uncertain note this first volume and story arc ends.
If I were to sum this book up in one word it would be "intriguing".  It leaves you both satisfied and asking questions that I am sure will be answered further down the line.  Eve is a very interesting character, a young woman thrust into a pretty horrible situation where she faces serious injury and death regularly as well as having to take lives herself and we've seen how she has no one fighting her corner.  The only people so far to treat her decently have been her father and another Lazarus, her brothers and sisters just see her as an experiment that can be easily replaced if she gets too curious about things.  I look forward to exploring Eve's world further.  It goes without saying that the art is fantastic.  There is nothing tacky or explotative about Lark's rendering of the violence that Eve is subjected to or perpetrates. I took a risk on Lazarus as I liked the creative team behind its other work and it paid off, I am definitely following this series now.  Image have been really knocking them out of the park lately, some fantastic stuff coming from them. Expect more write-ups in the future.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Saga Book 3 (#13-18)

"It was starting to look like we'd overstayed our welcome" - Hazel

You're still not reading Saga?  What kind of a comics fan do you call yourself? Hah.  Well, here we are at volume 3 of writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples story of an alien couple, each from a race at war with the other, and their baby girl Hazel (who provides narration from some unpsecified point in the futre) as they attempt to evade beings from both their factions trying to kill or capture them.  The female is a winged alien from the planet of Landfall who is called Alana.  Her husband is Marko a horned alien from Landfall's moon Wreath.  Their war has spread throughout the galaxy and is fought mainly via proxy planets and armies made up of unlucky conscripts.  They currently travel via a rocketship made of wood which can evade detection and they have also gained a teenage girl ghost called Izabel who is Hazel's first babysitter.  In book two Marko's parents tracked them down, and his father died using his magic to get their ship out of danger.  Currently they are being looked for by Prince Robot IV of the Robot Kingdom who are affiliated with Landfall, and the assassin "The Will", who along with his familiar "Lying Cat" is working for Wreath and has gained two companions, Marko's ex-fiance Gwendolyn and a six year old Slave Girl they rescued from a brothel planet.  Alana wanted to go and visit an author whose book "A Nighttime Smoke" helped form her anti-war views, bonded her with Marko when he was her prisoner and which resulted in them going AWOL together.  Unfortunately Prince Robot IV had the same brainwave and book two ended with him having shot the author in the leg, while Alana, Marko, Marko's mum Klara, Izabel and Hazel hidden in another room.  Before we catch up with what happens next, we jump back a week to their initial arrival on the planet Quietus.

We start at a Landfallian medical centre.  The soldier whose hand Marko cut off in book one is talking to a pair of reporters.  He is mainly filling them and us in on the story between Marko and Alana.  He says no one believes him that they have a kid so he's gone to the tabloids.  The reporters are revealed as different aliens from him, with webbed feet and pointed ears.
Upsher and Doff
We return to the family on the wooden rocketship on its way to Quietus to see Oswald D. Heist, authour of "A Nighttime Smoke."  Marko is depressed about the death of his father in the previous book and has grown a beard of sorrow.  Alana gets up to see to Hazel when she is crying and finds Klara has changed her. 

Klara waves the book in her face and says "I've been reading this donkey shit you fed my son."  She wants to know why Alana is risking her family to go and see the author.  Alana thinks it's what's best for Hazel. She says Klara doesn't have to come if she thinks it's too dangerous but Klara says she is going nowhere, "I've done more than my share of outliving."

Meanwhile, The Will, Lying Cat, Gwen and Slave Girl have made an emergency landing on a verdant planet.  The Will is trying to sort out a repair service to come out and repair his ship after the beating it took in the previous book.  When Gwen demands to know why it isn't being seen to like now, The Will replies "because I'm out of their same day coverage zone".  He and Gwen nearly come to blows, but Slave Girl stops them fighting.
The Will et al  on a repair stop.
The wooden rocketship family finally arrive and land on the planet of Quietus.  Hazel narrates that she hasn't been back there in a while but:

Hazel: "Quietus was the first place my family ever laid down roots...I can still remember the way mom described the smell.  Like secondhand smoke from her first crush."

Izabel ventures out first, being dead not much can happen to her.  The ground is paved with skeletons, Klara puts one of the skulls up to her ear saying she thought she heard it say something and it bites her.  Latching on tightly.  Marko rushes to her aid.
Welcome to Quietus.
A large skeleton creature rises up and Alana swings a large club at it.  Then it's head is blasted off and they all turn to see D. Oswald Heist standing in his underpants and a robe, holding a gun and a bottle of booze, he asks if they are cunts coming to take back his advance. "No one makes a worse first impression that writers" narrates Hazel.

On the planet The Will is on, he is moping alone by the fire looking at an old photo of him and his dead lover "The Stalk" who was killed in book one by Prince Robot IV.  Suddenly she appears in front of him as says he should quit being an assassin and settle down on this paradise planet he is now on.
The imaginary Stalk plays matchmaker.
She also says he should get together with Gwen as it's obvious she is wet for him.  And also they should give Slave Girl a name.  She disappears when Gwen comes to find out who he was talking to and that he woke Slave Girl up.

The Will: "That's not her name.  Now on, we're calling her Sophie."

That's a great name, I heartily approve.  We return to Landfall, the two journalists - Upsher and Doff - have arrived at Alana's family home to interview them, although the woman who answers the door says the military have told them not to talk to the press.  They say it can be off the record, so she lets them in.

They initially mistake her for Alana's sister, but she is in fact her step-mother despite being Alana's age.  She married Alana's father after he and Alana's mother split up.   Her name is "Even" and she thinks she had a beneficial effect on Alana, although "she joined the armed forces a few months after I moved in."
Alana's step-mother.
Upsher asks if Alana associated with any "extremist organisations?"  Or that she has defected to Wreath.  Even says no, that's a joke, Alana "isn't a turncoat".  And they all pray for her safe return.  Hazel then narrates that her mother never came back to the planet of her birth.  Her new family, now on Quietus introduce themselves to Oswald.  When he sees a Landfallian and Wreathian together with a child he realises:

Oswald: "A Nighttime Smoke.  You read it.  You got it."

He is extremely happy at this turn of events.  They give him Hazel to hold and Alana says she is named after the librian who first recommended his work to her, "your stories literally saved my life.  Literally". 
Oswald meets Alana.
Overcome with emotion, Oswald vomits on Hazel.  Her "baptism" she sarcastically narrates.  Klara has had enough and say Oswald is a "pickled idiot" and they should leave.  Marko says they should at least stay long enough to treat her injured ear, so they all go to Oswald's lighthouse home.

While waiting for the repairman to come out and fix the ship, Gwen and The Will are "fishing" for flying sharks with his extendable sword-lance.  They down one and Sophie offers to cook it.  They send her back to the ship so Lying Cat can help with the shark coprse and Gwen says they need to heal her ability to track the translation rings Marko and Alana use.

The Will says he has his own network of informants and has put out a reward for any sightings of a wooden rocketship, so he doesn't break the N.D.A (Non-disclosure Agreement) the Wreathe high command have placed on the info that Marko and Alana have a kid. 
The Will makes his move.
Then he says to Gwen she can keep looking he wants to retire and stay on this planet.  He's not even bothered about get vengeance on Prince Robot IV anymore.  As he says all this The vision of The Stalk whispers suggestions in his ear.  She says this is the perfect time to kiss Gwen, so he does so.  After a long moment Gwen punches him.

Gwen: "Next time you touch me without asking, I punch your goddamn heart out." 

And she strides off, as The Stalk says salaciously "without asking?"  Back on Quietus the gang arrive at the top of the lighthouse into Oswald's study.  He tells Klara he has something that will heal her ear but will hurt.  She says she still has shrapnel in her ass from "The Battle of Cartwright". 

Oswald frowns and says that was where his first wife was killed.  She wasn't a soldier, just a street musician who was killed by an errant high explosive Wreath spell.  Klara sends Marko and Alana away so she and Oswald can talk privately.
Klara and Oswald start to bond.
She asks if his boy survived.  Oswald says when he was old enough he joined the armed forces and died after.  He says the loss of his son just about destroyed him but concerning his wife:

Oswald: "But if I am being honest nothing will ever hurt quite so deeply as the moment I heard the first person I ever really loved was gone."

He says he doesn't need to tell that to Klara, it's obvious she has lost someone she deeply loved.  "I wear it that plainly?" she asks. He says the rest of her days by and large will be shit.  Klara joins him in a drink and starts telling him her story of first meeting her husband.
Sophie and Lying Cat chill.
On the paradise planet, Sophie sits with Lying Cat, when she says she is dirty inside, Lying Cat says "LYING" and she smiles and cuddles up to her.` Gwen is trying to talk The Will back into looking for Marko et al.  He says he "forgot how closed minded you people are."  Gwen says she's had relationships with other species, but not with "our winged oppressors."  She also has no interest in being with him (Lying).

He just says she can hitch a ride with the repair crew when they leave and take Sophie and Lying Cat is she wants but he's staying put.  Then he gets a call, someone has a lead on the ship he's looking for.  But not the wooden rocket ship, The Stalk's ship that Prince Robot IV commandeered after he killed her.  He's refueling it and then heading to a planet called Quietus.
Alana's old commanding officer.
We are then introduced to a new character, Countess Robot X.  Upsher and Doff venture into a warzone to talk to her about Alana.  The Countess says this will all be deep background.  As her first commanding officer, she sent Alana to Cleave for disciplinary purposes, right? Asks Upsher.

Countess Robot X: "No, I had her transferred because she's a worthless cunt."

She was a turrent gunner on the Countesses' Vondertank.  She hesitated when Wreathian civilians were in the firing line.  She still dropped the bombs but the hesitation nearly cost lives on their side.  Upsher starts to ask if Alana wasn't kidnapped, but then is felled by a sniper bullet to the shoulder.  Doff fusses over him but Upsher calls him "honey" and says he'll be OK and this Alana story could be the big one.

At Oswald's lighthouse, Alana is doing the laundry.  Izabel bursts in and says she must come upstairs, Marko is laughing.  They are playing a version of pictionary which is part of a larger game called "Nun Tuj Nun".  Marko's dad loved the game.  Oswald is a collector of board games:

Oswald: "There are only three forms of high art.  The symphony, the illustrated childrens book and the board game."
Board games are serious business.
The visual round over, it's time for the arm wrestling one.  Meanwhile The Will's ship has been repaired.  Sophie offers one of the repairmen a shark flesh kebab which he accepts.  The Will then tells The Stalk vision he is done talking to her and tells Gwen he'll finish what they have started.  Sophie has wandered off somewhere so Gwen and Lying Cat go look for her.

The game on Quietus is getting serious.  Alana beats Klara at arm wrestling, now comes the Psych-out round.  Klara starts laying into Alana for "playing the domestic goddess" when she should be part of the workforce.  oswald agrees, saying they'll need money to keep moving and evading capture.  Alana says his book didn't say anything about "joining the bullshit ratrace".

She goes on to say that the rocketship provides for their every need, but Marko says Hazel can't grow up indoors all the time.  Alana, feeling bullied, runs out of the room closely followed by Marko.  Klara and Oswald grin, they won the Psych-out round.  Alana goes and sulks outside, when Marko appears she tells him to drop his trousers she wants to suck his cock.

Marko: "Something tells me once again you're using sex to avoid discussing an uncomfortable subject."

He says they don't have to be workers, they can be creators.  He says "we'll find a way to balance work and family and whatever else comes our way."
Alana contemplates the immediate future.
Watching them, Oswald says to Klara he has an idea about how Alana and Marko can make it, but he thinks it'll work better is they fool them into thinking it was their idea.

The Will gets an emergency transmission from the repair ship.  Turns out the one who ate the kebab started hallucinating and trying desperately to return to the planet.  They advise that if he ate any of the local cuisine they need to purge immediately as it appears it all contains a parasite that tricks the host into want to stay and become part of the planet's eco-system.  Then a zombie looking Sophie stabs The Will in the neck from behind, and The Stalk vision tells her to stand on his neck until he stops moving.
Sophie is tricked.
Back on Landfall, Special Agent Gale is being harrassed by Upsher and Doff.  They show him a picture of Alana wearing a wedding band which is a Wreathian tradition. Can he confirm it is her?  Gale says they need to spike the story now.  She isn't a deserter, she's a spy in deep cover.  When Upsher and Doff ask what she is doing, Gale says he can't say.  Only that "trillions of lives are at stake."

Upsher and Doff are somewhat dubious.  Gale says their planet "Jetsam" has suffered due to the Wreathians, and the place "still treats your faggots like crap, huh?"  He's pegged Upsher and Doff as a couple.  Openly gay men don't have much of a career on Jetsam, he says somewhat threateningly and that he can't force them not to run the story just that they'll consider all the consequences if they do. After they leave, Gale calls the alien who arranges the assassin jobs.  He wants Upsher and Doff dealt with, so the alien sends "The Brand".
Storytime on Quietus.
On Quietus, Oswald is reading Hazel a story.  Alana wonders why he hasn't written one. "Because it requires collaboration with an artist.  And artists frighten me" he says.  His second wife was an artist, now she does set design for "Open Ciruit" which appears to be somekind of pirate media station.  Oscar says he has an old unit upstairs in the guest room, "why don't you go break a few rules."

Gwen and Lying Cat are still looking for Sophie when a naked horned woman appears in front of Gwen.  She quickly asks Lying Cat if "the person who took my viginity is standing there."  A confused Lying Cat says "Lying".  Gwen realises they need to getback to the ship fast because of what The Will might be seeing.

Alana and Marko, using things that look like virtual reality headsets watch a stage production of a melodrama performed by a Circuit troupe.  When they take the headsets off, Alana admits she thought about auditioning for one of the troupes.  Marko says she really should.  Alana responds that the Circuit is made up of crooks and carnies, but Marko says better them than soldiers, and he wouldn't mind being the stay-at-home dad.
A possible career comes up.
Gwen and Lying Cat come across Sophie choking The Will to death and Lying Cat knocks her away, but Gwen stops Lying Cat from killing Sophie who she knocks out.  She tells Lying cat that they have to rush to Quietus as Marko knows combat medicine and could heal The Will with a spell.

Oswald and Klara think they have hooked Alana on the idea of joining the Circuit.  They chat for a bit then Oswald nips upstairs to fetch a book.  Izabel appears and says, "he's completely into you, you know."  Klara knows.  Izabel asks if she is into him.  Klara sys she lost her husband only a few weeks ago.

Izabel: "Life is stupidly short.  Why not enjoy the last act?"

Then Oswald rushes downstairs and tells them to hide, someone is approaching.  It is Prince Robot IV as we catch up finally with the ending of Book two.

Upsher and Doff are in bed together and Upsher says he thinks Alana and Marko have gone to see Oswald D. Heist because all their sources say she was obssessed with his books.  Doff is unsure, saying the paper won't be happy if they travel all the way to Quietus and just come back with a puff piece on a cult author.
Introducing "The Brand".
Then they realise someone is in the room with them.  The person fires a dart that hits each of them then reveals herself as "The Brand" with a large dog called "Sweet Thing".  The poison on the dart is called "Embargon".  They say a word about Alana now and they'll die.  Upsher asks why she didn't just kill them outright.

The Brand: "Because the only journalists that deserve killing are sports writers."

Also they were fair to her union last time they went on strike so she's given them a chance. They can still be reporters, just not of this story.  And with that, she leaves.

Back on Quietus, Izabel tells the others Prince Robot IV has shot Oswald in the kneecap.  She can't use her illusions on his race.  Klara wants to go and fight him, but Alana says they have a family to think of now.  Prince Robot IV inspects some of Oswald's news writings.  One of "your overlong polemics on pacifism" he asks.  Oswald says peace isn't the opposite of war, just a lull in the action.  Prince Robot IV demands a summary of what Oswald believes is "combat's antithesis".

Gwen and Lying Cat have also arrived on Quietus.  She decides the fact a "tubehead" is there, means that Marko is as well.  They move in closer.  The Will is lying on the floor of his ship, with Sophie tied up but now free of poison, close by.  He says with effort that it'll be "Honest Cat's" (which is what Sophie calls her) job to look out for Sophie now.  Sophie says the others are bringing someone who can heal him but he starts rambling about money much to her confusion.
Prince Robot IV has a raunchy flashback.
Klara and Izabel disappear while Marko and Alana argue.  Marko says he'd rather kill Hazel than let her fall into the hands of the Robot Kingdom.  Alana says that won't be happening. Oswald asks Prince Roboy IV if he has had any near death experiences.  Prince Robot IV says yes and they were disturbingly sexual.  He admits he was in an orgy with every man and woman he ever served with and it seemed like everything was as it should be.

Prince Robot IV: "Because the opposite of war... is fucking".

Then Klara appears armed with an axe and threatens him.  Oswald pleads with the Prince not to hurt her, but he blasts her in the stomach.  Oswald fires his gun at the Prince and injures him so badly he goes "offline".

Oswald rushes to Klara's side, she has broken a hip but the axe absorbed most of the blast. Then Gwen runs in and Oswald swings round pointing his gun at her, she reacts by spearing him through the head with The Will's extendable sword and kills him.  Klara yells in anguish and fires a spell blast at Gwen which she deflects.  Lying Cat then attacks Klara.  "Fuck" says Gwen as she surveys the scene, "Fuck."
Oswald is killed by Gwen.
Gwen tells Lying Cat to watch Klara and only kill her if she gives any trouble.  She goes upstairs.  Klara looks at Oswald's body and says "I've had enough!" and pokes a thumb in one of Lying Cat's eyes.  Izabel then appears and says to Lying Cat that Gwen had no right to execute a civilian in his home, "true or false?"  Lying Cat looks shamefaced and says nothing.  Then Izabel turns into a huge cat and tells Lying Cat she's a "useless runt of the litter!" And Lying Cat flees.  Prince Robot IV stands up behind Izabel.

Marko, Alana and Hazel are up on a high balcony.  Gwen appears and says to Marko, "you really did fuck one of these animals."  Then she asks about a healing spell for a jugular wound.

Gwen: "The man I love has been hurt and I need your help to make him whole again".

But Marko can't help, his magic only works on Wreathians.  Alana says there is a M.A.S.H unit in the next system, but Gwen just says coldly, "bitch. who told you to open your face?"
Prince Robot IV is not his old self.
Downstairs Prince Robot IV doesn't seem to be his old self.  He just asks if there is anything he can do to assist.  So Izabel asks him to take the unconcious Klara to safety as the room is now on fire.  He carries her outside then haltingly says there is somewhere he needs to be badly and walks away back to his ship.  Alana and Gwen meanwhile are arguing.  Gwen calls her a homewrecker.

Alana: "Marko never had a home with you, you delusional bitch."

Gwen fires the sword at her, but Marko pushes Alana and Hazel off the balcony.  Marko then says he's changed since he met Alana and she should just kill him.  "You broke my fucking heart" cries Gwen.  Then Alana flies up saying "you'll live" and zaps her with the stun gun.

Alana: "How did you know..?"

Marko: "What, that my wife can do anything?  Isn't it obvious?"

Alana, Marko, Klara, Izabel and Hazel depart Quietus, leaving Oswald "mixed amongst the ashes of his creation".
Alana being awesome as usual.
Upsher and Doff are looking for ways to cure themselves of the effects of Embargon.  Their editor pokes his head round the door and says there is a potential story in the disappearance of Prince Robot IV, but they decline as they know he is linked to Alana and thus too risky to cover.

The Brand visits The Will in the hopsital Gwen left him at.  He seems virtually braindead, she hugs him while Gwen, Lying Cat and Sophie look on from afar.  Hazel then narrates that "It would be a long time before we saw our original pursuers again".  They travel from planet to planet never settling anywhere for too long and the book ends with the reveal of Hazel now old enough to walk.
Hazel is now a toddler.
And so ends another fantastic installment of this epic space soap opera.  There's a real feeling of high stakes with Vaughn not afraid to make you fall in love with a character and then abruptly kill them off.  It leaves you thinking even Alana and Marko might not be safe and that makes you all the more caught up in desiring their well being because they are such a devoted couple.  I'm left hoping that Upsher and Doff can find a way to stay a part of the story because they seem like another interesting addition to the cast and I am curious to know more about The Brand and her relationship with The Will, who I also want to get better.  There's also the mystery of what's happened to the rebooted Prince Robot IV whose wife was expecting their first child when he was injured.  I haven't read volume four yet so I don't know if events during the time skip will be covered in any depth but it's going to be fun seeing how things have developed for the remaining cast.  As usual, Fiona Staples art remains a delight, and Vaughn simply has an extraordinary knack of making even mundane events such as playing a board game or reading to a child gripping stuff that advances the plot.  Roll on the next volume!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Punisher MAX Book 8: Widowmaker (#43-49)

"Cunts" - Jenny

With the end of the sixty issue run in sight, Ennis starts to take a long, hard look at just what choosing a life like The Punisher's can cost a person.  In this book he explores it via a surrogate, preparing the way for his delve into Frank's psyche proper in book nine.  Although there are still loose ends left over from the deaths of those involved in the Russian operation from book seven, this book returns to the mafia plotline begun in book one where Frank killed forty-two mafiosa and gutted their east coast operations.  This book looks at those left behind - the mafia widows plus the widow of the black gangster John James Toomey who Frank killed in the previous book.  They are going to attempt something their men never managed, which is to kill The Punisher.  However there is a wildcard in play in this book.  Someone with every reason to hate those women and who has been inspired by The Punisher to take revenge herself.  This is more her story than Frank's but by exploring via proxy we see just how much Frank had to sacrifice in his lifelong pursuit of revenge upon organised and disorganised crime.  Once again this is very dark and violent stuff and contains significant brutality inflicted upon women in case that triggers you or something.  Also there is a female-on-male rape sequence that is deeply uncomfortable (but it's meant to feel that way as the messed up main character's story reaches its emotional apotheosis).  The art is by Lan Medina and while it fits the styles so far, is somewhat indifferent and rough.  Luckily the writing is powerful enough for this not to really matter.

The story begins with Frank walking away from a criminal he has just shot and killed.  He contemplates all the horrific things he could have done to him like he did to the bad guys in Book 6 "The Slavers" (which I haven't covered as it's out of print and costs a mint).  He got information from the man about a kiddie porn ring and he is off to do something about it.
One way to pay your taxi fare.
We then shift to four women in a fancy house, the new arrival is blowing the taxi driver instead of paying the fare.  The older woman is called Annabella, she introduces the newly arrived Barbi to Bonnie, Lorraine and Shauna.  They sit and Annabelle says they are all widows, their men killed by The Punisher.

Annabella: "So what about us?  What about what happened to our families?  Is no one gonna be made to answer for that?"

Barbi interrupts saying "why is this person here?" pointing at Shuana.  She says this is family business.  Elsewhere in a bar, an attractive, short haired woman picks up a man by saying frankly, "do you want to fuck me?  Then let's go."

Back at Annabella's place, Barbi is still protesting the inclusion of Shauna, who threatens her with a razor blade.  Shauna is the widow of John James Toomey and has known and done work for Annabelle for a long time.  Annabella says they are going to study everything about The Punisher:

Annabella: "An' whenever we're through we're gonna do something a thousand men already failed at:  We're going to kill The Punisher."

The short haired woman is having sex with the man she picked up.  He reaches for her breasts (she still has her bra on) and she tells him not to touch her.  Then she punches him in the face and rains down blows upon him saying "I can't feel it.. you asshole.  I can't fucking feel it."  And she leaves him bloody and beaten in the bed.
Not sexy.
The five women recount how their men were killed.  Toomey was shot in a basement in the previous book.  Lorraines husband took a shotgun blast to the face.  Barbi's was caught up in the Nicky Cavella mess recounted in Book four and Bonnie's husband was burned up with a flamethrower.

Annabella says she had it the worst.  She lost her grandfather, father, husband and two sons in the massacre The Punisher unleashed on the mafia party at the start of book one.  She says they need to find a way to fight him.  We then return to the shorthaired woman who has photos of the five women taped to a mirror.  As she blankly regards her reflection we see she's had a double mastectomy.
Jenny and her hitlist.
Frank arrives at the home of the married couple who film the kiddie porn with their own kids.  He walks them down into the basement and kills them, then goes upstairs and regards the children.  He thinks the girl might make it.

Frank: "The boys looked like the damage was done.  I had a sinking feeling I'd be seeing them again in twenty years".

And if that doesn't sum up the sad bleakness of Frank's world I don't what will.  He waits for the police to arrive and slips out the back door.

We are then introduced to a new character, a cop called Paul Budiansky who is seeing a psychologist after killing a teenager engaged in a school shooting incident.  When she asks how he feels having shot a child he says when the kid pulled the trigger "he grew up goddamn fast".
Paul Budiansky.
The widows are sifting through all the information they have on The Punisher.  Annabella discovers Barbi can't read and calls her a liability.  But Barbi doesn't want to be shut out of their vengeance.  Shauna then says she can do something, there is a man she can sleep with to get them guns.  Barbi leaves and starts to express gratitude, Shauna smiles and says "Don't mean shit bitch."

Back with Paul and the psychologist says by not waiting for the tactical unit he put himself about "regular authority".  Paul turns the conversation around saying he speaks pretty fluent "passive-aggression". She wants to know what he thinks he'll achieve with that attitude.

He says he is here because his captain is pissed he didn't follow orders, he blocked his commendation, forbade him from talking to the press and then fucked him over by sending him for "mandatory trauma therapy".  He says she is gathering stories for her next "shitty psychology book" and he departs saying:

Paul: "Because for all your bullshit.  You're just another racist bitch."

The short haired woman is sitting outside a cafe, a man comes up to her saying he recognises her as "Jenny Cesare".  She says she isn't that person and because he seems like a nice guy he shouldn't be within a thousand miles of her.
Jenny out stalking her prey.
Paul Budiansky is at home soaking in the bath while his wife chats with him.  She is pissed at the treatment he's been subjected to.  He comments that a child porn ring was bought down the previous night, most likely by The Punisher.  He wonders how far away he is from him.  His wife assures he he is not even close.

The widows are out for a meal together, they believe they have found a way to defeat The Punisher.  Because of how violent he was towards the human traffickers in Book six, they realise he seems to have a weakness for avenging exploited women.  So if one of them poses as an unwilling sex worker they can lure him into a trap.  They all look at Bonnie to be the damsel in distress.
Jenny eavesdrops on the plan.
A convoy of mafia travels through some woods, suddenly some of the cars blow up, then the whole convoy goes up in flames and The Punisher comes striding out of the trees to mop up.  There is a flashback to the widows trying to figure out a target The Punisher will want to hit and how to get their damsel in distress in it without getting her killed.

Lorraine says she's had no luck finding things out.  Now their men are dead they've been frozen out of the workings of what's left of the mafia.  Barbi offers to fuck a man called "Tony Pizzo" and find out what he knows.

Back in the present, Frank finishes off what mafia escaped the explosions with masses of bullets.  A flashback again, to Barbi in bed with Tony. She flatters and sweet talks him and finally he tells her how much The Punisher's war is hurting them, but he and some men he can trust are going to go pick up a man called "Pat Migliorato" to help them out.

In the present, Pat is sufffering a severe case of glass embedded in his face and The Punisher puts him down.  Then he discovers Bonnie in one of the car trunks and she begs him not to kill her.  In the past, Barbi comes out to where the convoy is starting out and performs oral sex on Tony to distract him while the other widows hide Bonnie in the car trunk despite her uncertain protests.
The bait is proffered.
Bonnie once discovered, plays her part.  She tells Frank the men tossed her in the back like luggage and she works out of a house where there are more women like her forced into prostitution.  Frank asks where it is, she says she'll show him, she doesn't want to be left with all the corpses.  He leads her away and her nervousness is showing:

Frank: "Calm down.  Nobody dies that doesn't deserve to."

They drive to the house in question, he asked why it is unguarded and she says they are all paid up with the cops.  Inside are the rest of the widows, "holy shit, she actually pulled it off" one says.  And they get ready for him, tooled up with rifles and shotguns.

Frank starts to suspect this is a trap and he is about to leave when Shauna fires on him and hits him in the shoulder.  Before they can shoot him some more, Bonnie starts kicking him, blocking their shots.  Then the short haired woman appears and guts Bonnie with a knife and opens fire back on the other women with Frank's assault rifle.
Jenny defends Frank.
They duck and cover and she gets Frank up and helps him leave the scene, then the cops arrive.  The widows are interviewed by Paul Budiansky.  They concoct a story that Anabella was out checking a property that belong to Shauna's husband and the others were along to see if they wanted in on buying it.  When asked about the shooting, they blame gang bangers.  Shauna says, "Jus' the hood is all.  We go now?"

Paul and another cop check over the house and are curious as to why there are dropped weapons inside it. They also check over Bonnie's dead body and that she was killed by a knife wound.  The short haired woman helps Frank back to her place and he asks who she is, "your number one fan" she replies.
Jenny tends Franks wound.
Back at the house, Paul's captain has let all the women go, believing them to have nothing to do with the violence.  This annoys Paul who says they'll all be getting their story straight.  When his superior scoffs at the women having anything to do with the gun battle, Paul lists off just who their dead husbands are and this revelation embarrasses his captain.

The widows are back at Annabella's place removing and get rid of their clothes as a forensic counter measure.  Annabella says she knows who it was that killed Bonnie, it was her younger sister Jenny.  Who she asked Shauna to kill ten years ago.  Shauna insists she is dead.  Barbi asks if maybe Annabella has made a mistake.

Annabella: "I know what my own sister looks like!  I know it was her!  I know what we did to her.  I remember every last fucking thing!"
Annabella realises they are in big trouble.
They have her out there, the Punisher still alive and a cop who is going to "connect the dots".  So they need to get it together and make a new plan.  Back at Jenny's place, she tosses the photo of Bonnie in the bin.  Frank asks why she is helping him.  She kisses him and says:

Jenny: "You're the man who killed my husband."

We then are told the sad story of Jenny's marriage to a mafiosa called Tim.  After a fairytale courtship and wedding from the honeymoon onwards he started regularly beating and raping her.  After a year of that it wasn't enough and he began bringing home men and forcing her to have sex with them before kicking her around again.  She believed there was a hole deep inside him he tried to fill with evil, "but it was never enough".

Then one day, someone came along and gave Tim exactly what he needed, and we see Frank blowing his brains out.  "You did a wonderful thing that day" says Jenny to Frank.  He asks her that if her husband is dead, who is she still after?  She says it was the women she really blames.
Frank killing Tim.
We then cut to the women in question arguing if it was Jenny or not and if they managed to kill The Punisher.  Shauna is about to walk out when Barbi pleads with her to stay and figure things out with them.  Shauna finally admits she didn't actually deal with Jenny herself, she got two of Toomey's men to do it.  One of them is still alive so Annabella tells her to go and talk to him.

Paul Budiansky is back at home, he's got confirmation the dead woman was Bonnie, another mafia widow.  He's been left to work the case alone and his wife tells him to be careful.  Back with Jenny she says she chose to ignore where all the money was coming from, like all the mafia wives and girlfriends do.

Most of the men were bad boys.  Tim was different, his first wife had died in a car accident (actually she committed suicide) so there was a "kind of sadness about him".  The other women sold him to her as "the kind of man you could make a home with."

Jenny: "They made quite a team.  Bonnie with her huge wide innocent eyes.  Barbi being just outrageous. Lorraine never lost for a line.  And my big sister Anabella.  They told me everything I wanted to hear.  They sold me."

Jenny enjoying the mafia life.
Tim was a mafia superstar and needed a wife, the fact he wasn't right in the head was ignored. "The beast was fed its meat.  And those four bitches were my bridesmaids."  When the abuse started, Anabella was the worst, always stressing the value of family.  The four of them were there after every beating, rationalising it and taking her shopping.

Then one day she found out she had breast cancer, she felt like Tim's evil had infected her.  In great distress she went to Annabella's, who had Shauna round there at the same time.  Jenny freaked out saying she was dying and that she was going to tell the F.B.I everything she knew.  And Shauna brained her with a jug.

As she lay on the floor she heard Annabella and Shauna arguing about what to do with her.  Before she passed out she heard Shauna say she'd deal with it.  We then return to the present.  Shauna has found one of the men she ordered to kill Jenny.  Seems they crashed the car she was in and tired, the man threw Jenny off a railway bridge.  Jenny miraculously survived the fall onto a train and woke up some way away.
The night she "died".
She found people to teach her weapons handling because she was going to come back and get revenge even if she had to go through the whole Cesare family.  But when she returned, they were all dead courtesy of the Punisher and the women were widows now.  She admits to Frank that she likes to pick up men and see if she can feel anything when she has sex with them, but all they do is remind her of Tim.  Some things you can never recover from can you she says?  Frank agrees.

Paul Budiansky interviews the not so merry widows.  He is somewhat suspicious of the fact they claim not to know Bonnie nor that they have a very convincing reason for being at the house in the Bronx either.  He says he knows The Punisher is suspected of killing all their men and that one of the weapons found at the scene of the crime was most likely his.  He asks if they were taking a shot at The Punisher?  Annabella says that's ridiculous and tells him to leave.  He says he's going to ask around and when he confirms they knew Bonnie he's going to come back and arrest them.

Jenny is getting ready to take out the rest of the women.  She says the last man who looked at her ravaged body threw up but Frank didn't even blink. "I've seen scars before" he says. She says the stuff that happened with her husband and with his wife and kids has made them the same.  Then she admits the cancer is still inside her.
Paul and his wife are attacked.
Shauna returns to the others and they tell her about the interview with Paul.  Shauna says it's only a matter of time before he gets proof of his suspicions and she isn't going to jail.  She makes a call.  Paul is sitting with his wife Gina outside the hospital she works in sharing a coffee and chatting.  Then a man comes up and opens fire on them, he hits Gina several times and Paul, unharmed, unloads a full clip into him.  The paramedics come rushing out to help her.

The police captain arrives later, worried about the racial implications of the killing.  It's pointed out to him that Paul was defending his wife.  Paul is told by a doctor that though she was badly wounded, she'll survive and she was lucky in a way to be outside a hospital when it happened.  One of the senior cops shares a hip flask of booze with Paul and says they need details of all his open cases and who might be bearing a grudge.

The shooting is covered on TV and the watching Annabella goes absolutely berserk at Shauna for pulling such a stunt.  Barbi breaks up the fight and when things calm down Annabella says they'll have to leave the country.  Barbi says that Jenny is still out there, and "I don't think she's got our best interests at heart".  So what are they really going to do?
Jenny suits up.
Paul is phoned up and told the gang banger had links to Toomey.  He darkly reaches for his spare gun and leaves his home.  Jenny tells Frank she is going to "finish it" now but she wants to borrow his skull shirt to do it in.  She leaves saying could he wait as she has one last thing she wants to show him.  He agrees to stay until she comes back.

While he waits he watches a TV report about the shooting of Paul's wife and his retaliation.  He thinks that he doesn't have much choice about staying he's still too weak to make it out the door.

Frank: "The last battle would be hers alone.  All I could do was close my eyes... and imagine a world of hurt."

And he nods off.  In the end, the remaining women are easily dealt with.  Jenny guns down Shauna, Lorraine and Barbi, but has something special planned for her big sister.
Jenny's revenge.
Paul Budiansky arrives on the scene and discovers the three murdered women.  Then back with The Punisher, he wakes up and finds he's been cuffed to the bed.  Annabella is also there, tied to a chair. "I'll... I'll scream" she stutters.  Jenny looms out of the darkness armed with a baseball bat, "Yes you will" she says coldly.

She tells Frank she cuffed him in case he tried to stop her from doing what she has planned.  When he starts to say he wouldn't, Annabella hysterically asks what she is doing with the man who killed so many of their men and all the widows and orphans he left.

Jenny: "You're a believer to the end aren't you?"

Annabella: "I believe in family, Jenny.  Not getting in bed with the fuckin' devil!"

Jenny says it's a strange family that puts its members at risk by being criminals and leaves its orphans to grow up monsters when growing up with a daddy gives you a Tim.

Annabella says she was given no choice, Tim needed to be kept happy so their grandfather ordered Jenny be married to him.  Jenny says of course she has a choice, but:

Jenny: "You stay.  And you bitch about it.  And you enjoy the money."

But tonight she is going to show her where the money comes from and brutally beats her sisters face to a pulp until she is quite dead. 
Jenny punishes Annabella terminally.
Exhausted emotionally, Jenny says she knows now why Frank wears the skull shirt, the look in their eyes "when they saw what it was had come to get them".  She takes the sheet off his naked bottom half and climbs on top and basically starts to rape him saying she just wants... something.

And finally, she feels.

Jenny: "Aaaaahh!  It's too much... all the sadness, all the death, it's too much for anyone to carry with them.  Anyone but you."

And she takes his pistol and shoots herself in the head, slumping forward onto his chest, finally at peace.  Later Frank manages to find the gun and shoots off the cuff, cleans and covers Jenny then gets dressed and leaves.
Her revenge complete, Jenny has nothing left.
Outside he finds Paul Budiansky waiting, pointing a gun at him.  Paul demands to know if Annabella is in there.  Frank just walks into point blank range and says to him, "you want to be me?"  We then cut to Paul by his wife's bedside saying she was right, he is nothing like The Punisher.

Frank watches the body of Jenny being taken away, she's given him food for thought about how only he can deal with what he does.  And he flashes briefly back to another woman who died and all he could do was be there, O'Brien in the previous volume.

Frank: "Goodbye, I thought.  You strange, sad creature.  If I could I'd kill every single one of them. I'd wipe them out.  And you'd never have had to exist at all."
A haunted Frank leaves.
And that brings this book to a close.  Powerful stuff, I'm not ashamed to admit when Jenny killed herself I got very moist around the eyes.  Even if she is basically committing rape as she does so.  I know Frank wouldn't think of it that way, but if the genders were reversed and a man (or another woman) forced himself on a naked, cuffed and wounded woman it would be obvious what was happening so I have tried not to fall prey to the double-standard.  The concept of the widows coming up with a plan to take down The Punisher is an interesting one, and they come pretty close to pulling it off.  The utter hypocrisy of the mafia's idea of what makes a good family,(women sacrificed to keep psychopaths happy and their own women acting in collusion because the benefits of the life outweigh the negative ones) is exposed as just as repellent as all other aspects of organised crime.  Jenny, poor damaged Jenny as a sacrificial lamb cum avenging angel is a very compelling character, her suicide death once her mission was complete leaves one wondering if the same might hold true for Frank, except of course his mission will never end as his fears when checking out the kids in the kiddie porn ring are that he'll one day be dealing with them as criminals because he plans to be doing this the rest of his life.  This book wraps up the mafia plotline, all that is left now are the plot threads relating to the Russian mission in book three, join me in a couple of months for my look at that one.