Rude Chapbooks 10.17.11 | Hats Off to Ethan Rilly!

Our rude chapbookworm tips his topper to the capital cartoonist behind Pope Hats #2. Also lauded (provisionally) from among this week’s five new floppies is The Shade #1, and reviews of two anthologies and The Punisher #4 otherwise conclude the column’s first crotchety year.

At the risk of sounding a signally uncharitable note, its raison d’être constitutes the overarching artistic failing of The CBLDF Presents Liberty Annual 2011. To wit, the 48-page Image offering, edited by Bob Schreck and Greg Tumbarello, supports the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and makes no apologies about its polemics—and unrestrained polemic stances customarily breed comics at best trivial and at worst tedious. That said, the anthology starts strong, beyond a striking John Cassaday Uncle Sam cover, with an adroit Grendel four-pager from writer/artist Matt Wagner. Also strong: a three-page meditation on political correctness by writer/artist Carla Speed McNeil; an unassailably lovely and poetic seven-pager on gender orientation by writer Kazim Ali and artist Craig Thompson; and from writer Dara Naraghi (praised here three weeks past) with artist Christopher Mitten, another fascinating (three-page) glimpse into modern Iran. Whether the anthology’s cause and the merits of such contributions outweigh the demerits of a Greg Land X-pinup and some Dave Cooper visual gaucherie scripted by Kyle McCulloch will, of course, depend on the individual reader.
Miter, tiara, and zucchetto—these terms and perhaps others describe the papal headgear. It remains uncertain what, if anything, any of them has to do with writer/artist Ethan Rilly’s infant Adhouse Books series, but that uncertainty in no way lessens the appeal of Pope Hats #2. A black-and-white 40-pager whose debut, maddeningly, appeared two years ago, it opens with “White Noise Machine,” a 27-page extension of the quotidian misadventures of Toronto law clerk Frances “Franny” Scarland, her (shall we say) free-spirited B.F.F. and roomie Vickie, and one or the other’s kinda-beau Peter; the episode adds to the cast Franny’s new superior, legal rainmaker Marcel Castonguay, who “reads” like an outré, new-millennial take on Harold Gray’s “Daddy” Warbucks. Rounding out the issue and further showcasing Rilly’s lush line and assured compositions are “Gould Speaks,” a wry, 11-page bus travelogue that suggests that it, too, will progress serially, and a pair of wisely funny one-pagers (the first of which stars Franny as a tot and centers on her father’s shuddersome “work laugh”). Thoroughly delightful—and highly recommended.
Given his exemplary work with Ed Brubaker from 2003 to 2006 on Gotham Central, signing Greg Rucka to scribe the exploits of Marvel’s premier curbside vigilante should’ve ranked as a dunker. One monumental problem: the Ennis Factor. “Garth’s MAX run,” Rucka himself told Newsarama in March, “I think ‘definitive’ is not a bad word for it.” Quite. Furthermore, as illustrated by The Punisher #4, the latest issue of Rucka’s collaboration with artists Marco Checchetto and Matt Hollingsworth, his conception of Frank Castle feels anemic—all shell, no gunpowder. Rucka’s Punisher—by his own admission, nondefinitive and, thus, inferior—occupies far too much of the spotlight in the investigation of a nuptial massacre involving a U.S. Marine and shows the seasoned reader nothing new. Après Ennis, in fact, perhaps no Punisher-related series can soon achieve that feat. Arguably, Rucka could craft a far more intriguing narrative by Gotham Centralizing The Punisher: backgrounding the eponymous vigilante and foregrounding his supporting players, a Daily Bugle e-reporter and two N.Y.P.D. detectives, one of whom has a history with Castle.
The Shade #1, the non–“New 52” commencement of a 12-part DC series, prompts considerable caution, in all honesty. For some time now, with few exceptions, writer James Robinson has been inflicting on readers scripts wholly beneath him, small, nasty things populated by cardboard characters and infused with dime store nihilism. Happily, this launch, which stars the Byronic villain-turned-antihero from Robinson’s nonpareil Starman, revisits the lyric éclat of that landmark 1994–2001 series, as if the return to Opal City reminded Robinson of his lapidary potential. It opens serenely enough, with the Shade taking tea with Mikaal (the cobalt-skinned, alien Starman) and musing, “October brings melancholy.” After a troubling romantic interlude with his spunky lady love, it closes with a walk in the park that transforms into anything but—a terminal shocker that out-Darklons Jim Starlin’s Darklon the Mystic. Cully Hamner visualizes the action with his characteristic verve, with a constellation of stellar artists like Darwyn Cooke reportedly signed to succeed him—helping The Shade to earn a recommendation, albeit one issued with fingers crossed.
Beyond a criminally depraved cover from Rafael Grampa, who first blipped the “Rude Chapbooks” radar with Mesmo Delivery three years ago, The Unexpected #1 strongly supports the notion that Vertigo, for all its manifold virtues, simply cannot do anthologies, perhaps because, in that form, it lacks vision beyond that of network TV at its most hackneyed. Following a May science fictional offering with all the panache of warmed-over Gene Roddenberry, The Unexpected reads like lame Rod Serling, with one exception. Writer/artist Dave Gibbons contributes that exception, “The Great Karlini”; that eight-page opener generally recalls not so much Serling, even at his finest, as sterling Twilight Zone forebear John Collier. Nothing else—not even a Brian Wood dystopian eight-pager gracefully illustrated by Emily Carroll—even faintly approaches the excellence of Gibbons’ visual villanelle about a philandering escapologist. Moreover, two other tales in the 70-pager (the first from drearily inept writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Robbi Rodriguez, the second from writer Jeffrey Rotter and artist Lelio Bonaccorso) collapse beneath the weight of their own moralism. Pass. | Bryan A. Hollerbach
Click here for a preview of Pope Hats #2, courtesy of Adhouse Books.
Click here for a preview of The Shade #1, courtesy of Comic Book Resources.

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