A day in the life, out of the gulag.

The Winter Men #4 (of 6, I suppose)

I’d probably not have cared as much had the series not been as good as it is, but I’m really wondering what’s gone on behind the scenes with this book. You’ll note that the total issue count has been slashed by two, something that was long rumored and contradicted via solicitation, though I don’t believe there’s ever been an official announcement - I guess showing up on the racks with “…of 6” suddenly on the cover is press release enough. This isn’t the first bit of turbulence the book has encountered either - it was originally intended for release from Vertigo (under the slightly more compressed title The Wintermen) in August of 2003, having had a pair of pages show up in the old Vertigo X Anniversary Preview. Now it’s April of 2006, Wildstorm is releasing it, and the final two issues are still nowhere in sight as far as release dates go. Could there have been drastic story changes? Legal concerns? Editorial orders? I recall hearing from someone that artist John Paul Leon had completed a lot of art in advance, but I can’t recall where. It’s all very curious.

And it’s still very good. This might be the best issue of the series thus far, and certainly it’s a model of how to handle a nice standalone story in the middle of a larger plot - ongoing books, take note. It’s nothing innovative, not with that eminently familiar ‘day in the life’ structure and an ending you’ll see coming around page 6 - but I don’t think it’s even meant to be a surprise, the inevitability of the denouement as plain as the advertisements dotting the Russian landscape and the bottle of drink in protagonist Kris’ hand. DC/Marvel comics as a whole need more one-off stories concerning a main character who starts off the issue drinking, and just gets drunker and drunker as the pages pass by. Cleanly-told character-driven stories with an interesting point of view and plenty of sparkles of wit and lyricism are also welcome.

Most of the series’ overarching plot concerns arrived at a natural pausing point last issue, so something a little less involved can be expected - the issue’s helpfully titled Interlude: Citizen Soldiers, for those wondering why all the stuff with the super-soldiers and the rocket suits has kind of gone backstage. Instead, we follow Kris and his gangster friend Nikki through a 13 hour day in the book‘s alternate world Russia; Kris has cut a deal with a local judge to capture a suspect in a criminal matter, while Nikki is trying to scrounge up protection funds and keep the trains running on time in the face of ‘New-Mafiya’ incursions. But like most jobs, the two spend a lot of time hanging around, shooting the shit, and waiting for something interesting to happen.

And to them, nothing of particular interest really does happen, though their world is overloaded with death and poverty and urban decay, thus understandably skewing their viewpoint a bit. Writer Brett Lewis does the now-expected great job with characterization and (especially) dialogue - this is quite a wordy book, but Lewis has nailed the uniquely uneven cadence of these characters’ conversations, giving off the impression of an inspired translation from a foreign tongue. At times, the writer’s use of culture-specific slang seems a bit too showy - witness the opening barrage of references to “miniatures” and “potatoes” and the like - but more often he captures an appealing air of a different place, not through exotic sights and bizarre rituals but through simple human interaction, ongoing concerns regarding American influence (political and cultural) and privatization mixing with Leon’s scratchy snowscapes and cluttered rooms, and Dave Stewart’s muted colors.

The overarching plot does poke its head out occasionally; you still might feel a little adrift if this is your first issue, but the denseness of the storytelling that marked the first trio of chapters has lightened up a bit, with ongoing concerns relegated to passing comments and veiled references. It’s quite intuitively mixed into Kris and Nikki’s chats, just as Lewis occasionally drops a particularly obscure bit of wording - ‘leaks in the roof,’ for example - only to explain it later in the context of the day’s events. The reader is trusted to keep up. And they’re rewarded, though with better things than merely the suggestion of what might be the story’s endgame (especially since we’re now suddenly on the third-from-last issue) - we get Kris assaulting a parking meter with a bottle of drink, bellowing “To poetry!!” We get nearly wordless sequence of townsfolk trying to toss coins atop a statue of Lenin, and Nikki lighting up a Coca-Cola machine with an automatic weapon. We get gallons and gallons of booze, and old soldiers reminiscing about gunships powered by alcohol. We get Hollywood plotting insinuating itself in Nikki’s brain, even as he rips off the privatized power company on behalf of the little old ladies he’s extorting.

It’s disarming scraps of genre-flavored verse, and it’s something that dulls the concern of the project suddenly growing smaller - rocket armor doesn’t matter so much in issues like this.

The Punisher MAX #32

I continue to buy this title every month, though I don’t review it all that often - there’s not much to say most of the time, save for the book being extremely consistent in quality and dependable in lowdown entertainment, hardly intellectual but never treating its audience as dummies. That last part is what prompts me to cover this issue, though, since apparently writer Garth Ennis is planning to turn this storyline into 'The Punisher Kills Enron.'

Seriously. In this issue, Frank hears the confessions of a corporate go-getter he rescued from drug dealers in the issue prior. The lad is formerly of Dynaco, a big-time corporation that’s been attention major attention through its dramatic rise to the top of the energy industry, powered behind the scenes by its practice of basing corporate accounting on inflated profit expectations rather than actual monies coming in. Life was sweet, until the young fellow caught wind of a plot to engineer rolling blackouts in a power-starved state (Florida here) in order to drive up prices; he threatened to blow the whistle, and wound up in deep trouble. At first, Frank is nonplussed, but once he puzzles out how many street-level problems blackouts can cause, he decides to pack up and head down south to invade a big shareholders’ meeting.

So yeah, Enron is going to get shot, I guess. That’s pretty funny, particularly in that it seems positioned just in the right way so that the story is partially an exercise in poisonous nostalgia rather that some sort of tardy commentary on no longer current events. Certainly Ennis is having fun with boardroom and bedroom intrigue, with a dull as dirt second-in-command to the Dynaco chief falling into the sack with the old man’s trophy wife - oddly, the book does seem to be getting a bit more coy with the explicit content, half-hiding nudity while keeping the blood about on par with a Marvel Knights book. Still dirty words, though.

There’s also a whole bunch of racial stuff going on, which really isn’t that much of a surprise since the connections between streetwise crime and the less scruffy criminality of authority and ‘higher’ classes has been this book’s bread ‘n butter for quite a while now. But more in this storyline than ever there’s a pronounced reliance on the part of the book’s lily-white business villains on minority characters to get the dirty work done, from the Hispanic drug dealers of last issue to the black villain of the storyline’s title, Barracuda, whom in one sequence attacks a bling-encrusted gangster type, slaughtering his crew and revealing the man to be nothing but show. “Fool, turn off that bullshit,” Barracuda growls, referring to his prey’s choice in music, an anthem blaring to all the world:

Muthafuck all y’all
Muthafuck all y’all
Muthafuck all y’all

The entreatment falls on deaf ears, as the tune is silenced along with its listeners. That and the bit last issue with the drug dealers raping their upper-class quarry and laughing at him ("Man...! I try to do the right thing, and all I get is a bunch of spics fucking me up the ass.") make me wonder if Ennis is trying to say something here about American society. Or maybe he’s just having a louder laugh himself than usual - I got that feeling out of one of the closing images of this issue, as Frank relaxes on his flight perusing an issue of Autoloader magazine (*groan*) as the woman stuck sitting next to him gives him the evil eye from behind her “Barbara Trepedo” book. Who knows where it’s all going?