True Tales of the Socially Retarded

*RIOT Comics + Culture is a very nice store, and Jason is a very nice guy. I just wish I could have thought of a better way to introduce myself, considering that we‘ve ‘talked’ online before. When I walked into the store I suppose I was expecting to say something along the lines of “Hello there, good sir! I hail from the Internet!” But I didn’t; I just sort of said “Hi,” and started looking at things because I couldn’t think of any non-awkward means of introducing myself. And then, once the opening moment had passed, I couldn’t think of anything good to fall back on. All the time I was cataloguing the store’s small but compelling inventory (very nice rack of minicomics!) and lovely red décor, I was trying to figure out what to say.

Jason! We’ve spoken across the computers!”

Hey Jason, remember leaving that electronic message in my online commenting section? Here I am!”

My name is Jog.”

I was leaning toward that last one, but even that seemed weirdly inappropriate for some reason. I don’t know why. By the time I got to the counter with my purchases I considered blurting out “Abhay Khosla recommended this book!” in a last-ditch effort to tie things together, but I wound up complimenting him on his store instead.

Ah well.

The Winter Men #1 (of 8)

Call me a slave to jejune personal preoccupations, but the first thing I thought when I put down this book is: “Wait; they’re saying ‘fuck’ in Wildstorm books now?!” This naturally triggered my recurring wonderment at how Alan Moore’s books at ABC kept getting their language censored, often despite the presence of obviously mature subject matter spread across assorted titles. I think it all comes down to the handy ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’ label, an ongoing pet peeve of Mr. Moore’s which never appeared on any ABC book to my knowledge. I’d hate to admit that the presence of a tiny label is what separates shit from $#!%, regardless of the creative team at work, but that’s what it’s sounding like to me.

But back to the issue at hand. It’s basically all of the usual action-stoked political intrigue clichés, redeemed through a pleasant execution. Which is to say that it’s very similar to the recent Smoke, though the particulars of said executions are quite distinct. Where Smoke muscled up its lonely-killer-on-a-mission skeleton with wry satire and droll wit, The Winter Men relies heavily on the atmosphere of an alternate contemporary Russia, complete with clipped, stylized dialogue (seemingly tuned to approximate an English translation), succinct rundowns of intelligence rivalries and organized crime structures, and plenty of general post-capitalist decay. Nothing struck me as glaringly out-of-place or artificial; I do believe writer Brett Lewis (creator of Bulletproof Monk, not that you‘d know it from the resultant movie adaptation’s credits) has done his homework to a sufficiently pleasing extent.

Good thing the writing’s got that going for it, since the plot is basically: ‘bitter old killer from back in the day is very hard-boiled and haunted by ghosts of the past and can’t get his life together and has woman troubles even though they all think he’s a stud anyway and he keeps getting pulled back into the game and this time he’s on a seemingly basic case that gets real nasty real quick and oh man there’s international intrigue and the rot just might go right to the top and let’s cross our fingers and hope that the big trouble is tied to our damaged hero’s prior life so his old teammates can help him out unless one of them is now bad which is always a possibility.’ Can’t get more textbook than that, my friends.

But it doesn’t really matter, since it’s a fun spin on old tricks. There’s dialogue like “Ah -- my favorite reformer! Where have you been, boy? -- knocking pears out of trees with your dick?” and some great details (a caption box translates a private personal protection service’s title as “Untouched Body” which I think is perfect). The whole thing is (naturally!) tied into an ongoing crisis of faith among former Cold Warriors, and you’d better bank on that the ocean-spanning story eventually reflecting the crawl of Westernization and the like. Plus, there’s a superhero angle, which at the moment feels like a sop to the ‘capes-or-nothing’ faction of the Direct Market, since the typical down and dirty thriller mechanisms appear to be functioning just fine without it; however, the probable ‘retired superheroes as a metaphor for a declined world superpower’ spin might have potential, and Lewis has proven himself to be fairly apt so far. I certainly enjoyed the notion of a sick infant gaining incredible strength through an unwitting Black Market sale of a metahuman liver.

The art is by the talented John Paul Leon, with colors via the redoubtable Dave Stewart, working in a flat palette of dull tones, all the better to match the weathered scenery. It’s a pretty dense, word-heavy issue, with large balloons and captions stamped over a wealth of small panels (the per-page average has to be five or six), but Leon manages some nice scenes, especially a perfectly-paced kidnapping scene, and a fine opening sequence, mixing vintage propaganda imagery with familiar superhero iconography, black-bar sloganeering ripping horizontally and vertically through pages, like the State’s own ribbon on a Cold War gift. And those black shadows and ink pools for eyes are very handsome against the thick-and-thin scenery, sometimes as midnight-scratched as the character designs, and sometimes deceptively clean-lined, filled with Stewart‘s solid colors. It’s like unnoticed age, if that makes any sense.

So yeah, nothing to set the card tower of action-thriller storytelling toppling down, but an entertaining, richly-detailed thing none the less. Recommended, or whatever it is they say.