Time to purchase!

*IMPORTANT NOTICE: A new issue of Kevin Huizenga’s “Or Else” is out! Issue #2 of this Drawn and Quarterly production is basically a reprinting of “Gloriana”, Huizenga’s long-gone final issue (#14) of his minicomic series “Supermonster”: all 100 pages of it. It will feature new covers and a new center gatefold, although I don‘t believe any art has been redrawn, as Huizenga did for the “Supermonster“-culled material in “Or Else“ #1. Squarebound format. Only six bucks. It’s not in stores yet, but you can get it from the Catastrophe right now. I’ve not seen any of this material, so I’m very excited about this; 100 pages of Kevin H. does that to me.

*LESS IMPORTANT NOTICE: My brother informed me the other day that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman appeared to him in a dream and revealed that his next project will focus on a 19th century sword-swallower. I’m not using ‘appeared to him in a dream’ to indicate the presence of any authentic inside scoop or whatnot; I mean, he literally dreamt it, and felt the need to report this revelation to me. So I’ll just make it property of the Internet now.

Garth Ennis’ 303 #4 (of 6)

Well, this one leaves me in an interesting position. With the end of this issue I sort of know where writer Ennis is going with this story in a vague, big-picture fashion; I just don’t know what he plans to do once he’s there.

This issue begins the second half of the story, which is conveniently labeled “Part 2: Black Arrow”, a Tolkien reference. The scene has shifted to the US, though we’re still out in a desert, not the first bit of doubling to come. Here, it’s a dusty little industrial zone, where illegal immigrants work crushing hours for slave wages at a slaughterhouse called McHell (named for the popular restaurant it supplies), hopped up on drugs dealt by their boss, and prone to catastrophic injury in the jaws of killing blades. Our Russian Hero (also an illegal immigrant, you'll note) is staying quiet in a nearby Spanish-language shantytown, with a recent injury being treated by a noble doctor. The doctor's own right arm had been crippled in McHell, where his wife still works providing sexual favors to the manager in exchange for her relatives’ continued employment. Also on the scene is a major new character: Vietnam vet Sam Wallace, now a local lawman. He’s the Russian’s double, a fighter, a military man, and the Last Great American, as we’re told by the coroner, who’s apparently a certified Doctor of Exposition. Wallace keeps hauling in illegals, killed by the dangerous conditions of the slaughterhouse while in their management-provided, speed-fueled work state. But Wallace just can’t get the charges to stick. He’s also been depressed since his wife died in awful pain because they didn’t have access to affordable health care.

No, that last sentence isn’t a joke.

So let’s just say that if tomorrow the Eisners decide to debut a new category for Best Use of Subtlety, “Garth Ennis' 303” wouldn’t be an early front-runner. And yet, aside from that bit with the coroner, Ennis allows most of this stuff to be revealed without a lot of fuss or firework, even when the helpful omniscient narrator butts in to provide whatever the characters are thinking. The use of this tool distances, and makes the plot seem less shrill, more considered. The slimiest characters aren’t moustache-twirling; the plant manager comes off as kind of a tactless David Brent type, but it’s only through dispassionate revelation that his true cruelty is revealed. There’s nothing quite like last issue’s parade of vengeful Afghani women, still coated in the blood of their slaughtered children, smashing a US soldier’s head open with rocks. Here, the criticism is delivered in a more palatable fashion, by characters generally free of saintliness or venomous sneers (well, except for the crippled doctor). And future conflict is clearly set up: two military men without a proper war, hungry to fight for something true, on a collision course. How exactly this will play off the first half of the story remains to be seen; will the Spirit of America be saved? If bloody action by unkillable super-soldiers is the result, than this book might resemble Ennis’ “The Punisher: The End” most of all, acting as a gunpowder-burnt political fable, although this book will lack a canny utilization of a well-known Big Two icon’s character traits.

Jacen Burrows’ art remains quite nice, with far more distinctive character designs than he’d displayed in earlier issues (which leads me to believe that the sameness of the soldiers’ faces in Part One was intentionally used to establish a familial vibe), and some clean perspectives. I’ve heard complaints regarding the color work of Greg Waller (for Nimbus Studios), and I’ll readily concede that it’s quite texture-mad, filling in everything from wood-grain to blades of grass to strands of hair to the consistency of blood. The thing is, I don’t really notice this stuff until I look very closely, and even then it doesn’t bother me much; Waller knows how to manipulate the eye (well, my eye) so the page never looks cheap or amateurish. And it probably helps that when textures are used they’re used consistently; not too difficult a task considering the large amounts of accommodating white space Burrows uses in his black and white art. Waller’s also got a good sense for what pops on the page, and his palette is quite rich, especially considering all of the brown and gold demanded by the setting. But if you find such use of textures distracting, your mileage may vary, I admit.

And that old cliche about mileage goes for the book as a whole. I suspect some readers will find its critique of American injustice too broad, the deck stacked, the politics as exaggerated as the action of earlier issues, with guns blown right out of snipers’ hands with flawless aim. But Ennis’ drama still has me reading, if only to see where that old US spirit stands once we’ve reached the end, and which is the dragon to be slain, and who fires the Black Arrow.