“I’LL FUCK YOUR FAMILY!” “My family is well armed.”

*Upcoming Treats Dept: Apparently this was quietly semi-announced online about three or so weeks ago, but I just got the details in yesterday’s MAX Sampler from Marvel so it’s new to me: more Richard Corben, comin’ up!

Yes, apparently Marvel was happy enough with the recent Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allen Poe miniseries that they’ve given the ok to a second set of prose/poetry adaptations by Corben and Rich Margopoulos (and the elusive Rick Dahl?), Haunt of Horror: H.P. Lovecraft. No word on format, length, or even a tentative release date, but it’s happening.

Also announced in the Sampler, apparently for the first time - Punisher Special: Barracuda, a one-shot reteaming of writer Garth Ennis and artist Goran Parlov, chronicling the further adventures of the apparently not-dead title character from that recent storyline in the main book. No release date announced. Ennis’ Punisher one-shots tend to be my favorites…

The Winter Men #5 (of… er, 5 it looks like)

To Conclude In The Winter Men Special #1

That’s what it says on the final page of this comic, which I guess is also the final issue of the regular series, then. Just another strange chapter in the shadowy saga of The Winter Men, a miniseries originally set for release years ago under the Vertigo banner, then moved to Wildstorm for a 2004 debut, only to become utterly bogged down in delays. It didn’t set the charts on fire in terms of sales (issue #4 moved just over 7000 copies), and eventually found itself slashed down from an intended eight issues to six, then unexpectedly got built back up to eight again. Now apparently it’s over at five, save for a one-shot special of unknown length that’s plainly not going to be ready until sometime in 2007.

And as much as the conspiracy theorist and dreamer inside me presses my mind toward expecting all manner of curious secrets to have been lurking beyond the pages for these many several months, my realist side whispers that it’s maybe nothing more than an eccentric, more-demanding-than-average book having a hard go in the Big Two landscape; I mean, come on, it’s an character-driven action array of bleakly funny, dialogue-infatuated, local color-saturated anecdotes of contemporary urban Russia (albeit very lightly superhero-flavored), and shockingly it didn’t find the sailing very smooth. The delays, regardless of why they happened, also couldn’t have helped it build an audience, though it should be observed that the nearly half-year gap between issues #3 and #4 only resulted in a loss of about 1000 readers; the problem is, when you’re that close to the fringe, 1000 less copes really means something.

But god I can’t help dreaming, because Christ it’s a heartbreaker. The Winter Men is -- and since we’re still looking forward to that one-shot I’ll keep on referring to it in the present tense -- one of the very best things a DC studio is publishing; I just can’t help my compulsion toward romance. It’s the kind of stealthy, striking series that’ll be passed around by word-of-mouth, dug up in bargain bins, feted across the fandom conversations of years to come. “You remember Andy Helfer’s run on The Shadow? Man, you remember The Winter Men?

Ah hell. There I go again, wishing up a happy afterlife when the body’s not even dead.

As for the new issue we’ve got, well, some preliminary decomposition is perhaps evident. Even before you realize that you’re reading the last regular issue, you’ll likely get the sense that plotlines are being hustled into position for tying up. At one point Kris, our non-heroic private police specialist and former Rocket Spetsnaz, literally begins narrating the resolution of a seemingly major series mystery via parenthetical asides in caption boxes. In fact, over a quarter of this issue is virtually nonstop rapid-fire plot movement, with drugged-out confessions on one page, tanks smashing through walls two pages later, a daring escape by train two pages after that, followed immediately by a mass raid on the Mayor of Moscow’s own dining room in the middle of a party - it’s really rather fucking bananas in its drive to steamroll the story into fighting shape, yet writer Brett Lewis and artist John Paul Leon are so skilled that a barrage of sudden happenings seems like the most natural thing in the world for these characters and this story. Hell, maybe there's no rush at all, and the story’s all going according to plan. Parenthetical spoilers? That’s something Kris would do, after all.

The first half of the issue, while more subdued in its pace, isn’t quite placid either - Nikki the Gangster (and if you’ve forgotten the cast there’s no need to worry, since Lewis and Leon serve up a compact and often hilarious recap page - nothing like the protagonist's bare ass to set the stage for the comic) is getting very irritated that so-called Boy-Scouts, a klatch of former KGB men turned into an urban street gang, are assaulting his local Pepsi deliveries and transforming all his precious turf into Coke territory. Only fast action can save the day, and that means automatic weapons out the window of the red & blue delivery truck and bombs planted in "Koka Kola" headquarters. Yes, it’s an actual Cola War in a city where the pleasures of capitalistic decadence are in demand and the bloodletting of business is painfully literal; and it’s no joke - I’ve read about such soda skirmishes occurring in African nations as well.

Lewis occasionally wanders into preciousness with his social comment (juxtaposing Kris and Nikki’s violent antics with fitting passages from a franchise-building business handbook was a bit much), but his hand with dialogue and characterization is never less than deft. Even when he’s not tossing out excellent one-liners (“Your Russian sounds like road work.”), the simple cadence of the speech has a way of creeping into your head and infusing your reading experience with a heightened sense of human landscape; it’s truly a rare comic where dialogue alone -- and not I'm talking the content of the dialogue but the very tone of it -- can suggest a coherent, lively environment for characters to walk through, but here it is. As usual, there’s a ton of words on the page, but none of it feels excessive, even when coupled with the overdriving nature of the plot once things kick up; it’s a dense read (also in terms of panels, as many pages have six or more), but satisfying for its length.

Of course, there’s also John Paul Leon, his characters ranging from ravaged and bitten to sleek and light (I love the thick black lines and the simple features of the little Winter girl), and his action sequences quite fine. A two-page in-the-dark shootout expands its panel volumes to nine and twelve, tine slivers of blackness and dim shadow inserted between blasts of gunfire to suggest the tiny in between moments of chaos. Elsewhere, crowded images of urban warfare seem all the more visceral for the sheer amount of things on the page, boxes and signs and random vehicles and pedestrians giving off a real notion of the madness inherent to the story, as well as the primary characters' recklessness. As always, Dave Stewart's colors are subdued and fitting, his flesh tones in particular standing out for their vivid compliment to the book's setting. It really is all about the people.

Which is never more evident then in this issue's final four pages, a Christmas party for some of the cast and a wide variety of heretofore unseen characters. There's much drinking and gift-giving, and panels of characters knocking on the bathroom door and bits of little arguments between lovers, and chit-chat about art and revealing bits of personal business, and a nice closing bit of sex to bookend the naked ass on the recap page. It's a great bit of work, maybe the best the series has seen yet, so smooth in its execution it seems like the book may as well forget about the pop and superpowers and gunblasts and settle down for checking in with friends. That might be the point of the sequence after all. It's nearly the end of all things, and narrator Kris is chipped enough in the tooth to taunt us with it.

"That was a good night.

And wouldn't that have been a good ending?"