grasping... skull...

*Man, I’ve got a headache. Today involved far too much thinking for my comfort.

*Good thing I’ve got this new column to post. Obviously, there’s some topics that you simply can’t not write about, and the particulars of dear old Steven King’s association with Marvel is plainly one of them. Hopefully I managed to get through the whole column successfully without letting on that I’ve never so much as glanced through a Dark Tower book. Did I mention my interest in actually reading this series lies almost entirely with Jae Lee? I think I have…

The Winter Men #3 (of 8)

Here’s the sort of issue that sends me scrambling for my longboxes; I tend to think I’m pretty good with retaining information as to what’s gone before in my favorite ongoing miniseries, but this one lost me in record time. I can only imagine what some curious browser, his or her attention piqued by word-of-mouth but unable to locate earlier issues, would possibly think about this - it’d be incomprehensible. Hell, I’ve got my back issues sitting right here and it still took some serious cross-referencing to puzzle out this latest chapter.

It’s a good puzzle to work through, though. Difficulties in re-acclimating one’s self to this story mostly rise from writer Brett Lewis’ ambitions; the inevitable collected edition of this thing will aim to put the ‘novel’ in graphic novel, with a large cast of characters, and intricate web of relationships and double-crosses, and gobs of background info on this alternate world’s covert history. There’s meaty stuff here: the decline of a superpower as evidenced through the devolution of state-controlled super-soldier programs into crime-controlled super-organ trafficking, the encroachment of Westernization in the post-Cold War environment as seen through the metaphor of a changing covert intelligence environment, the ties that bind friends from one government superceding their conflicting roles in the new politics, the recurring motif of ad hoc military might being bought with cash - a metaphor for capitalism, perhaps? There’s a ton of stuff on this book’s plate, and that’s not even covering its twisty thriller plot.

That plot, by the way, seems to largely come to an end this issue, which you’d think would be odd since we’re not even halfway through. Basically, our haggard protagonist Kris, having survived his ill-fated adventure in the US, teams up with his gangster friend Nikki (and, reluctantly, with career soldier Drost) to hire a crack team of killers (brilliant scene: Kris faces a wall of automatic weapons - “Christian or Muslim?” - and he pulls out a wad of bills - “Me--? I am tourist.”) to bust into a factory out in the middle of nowhere and recover a missing little girl and her very special organs. Along the way, Kris runs into that G.R.U. agent from issue #1, who’s apparently been chatting about the secret past of the Soviets (in a speech that deliberately mirrors the narration from the prologue in issue #1) to an American operative. We also learn a bit about Kris and Nikki and Drost and Nina the Bodyguard’s past, as mecha-suited rocket-powered soldiers called Red-11, designed as a paranoid counterpoint to the State’s super-soldiers, The Winter Men.

Oh, and the entire issue is structured around Kris testifying to a bunch of American and Russian officials, but he’s clearly not testifying about everything we see as readers, and certain political forces are bribing him to keep his mouth shut. More capital. And it's this material, the leaks in the dam, the information coming out, that I suspect will power much of the rest of the story.

All of this adds up to a gratifying new chapter in this rich bit of alternate world fantasy/sci-fi spy thriller comics. Once you’ve consulted your back-issues to figure out what the hell’s going on. It still looks great, John Paul Leon’s lines and Dave Stewart’s colors working in pallid concert; it’s often a low-key, minimal style, but there moments of grand action (often slyly comedic), and if anything in this book is never lacking in clarity it’s the visual storytelling.

But I don’t want to get too down on writer Lewis for respecting out intelligence. This is a demanding read, not in that it’s loaded with arcane symbols or impenetrable metaphors, but due to its rigorous narrative, its many characters, and its trust in the reader. That trust maybe has to extend to the reader delving through back-issues just to keep hold of the plot, but I don’t mind - this is the sort of comic that holds up on multiple re-readings, even if many of them are out of necessity.