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“I’m Hip.” COMICS! Sometimes The Best Diet Is Revenge!

John Kane

Yes! Just in time for Christmas! Howard Victor Chaykin, Ken Bruzenak and Jesus Arbuto team up to present a breezy paced filthy mouthed corpse strewn comedy of bullshit and revenge in a book of which I said, “It’s okay, you know. I liked it. I’m not mad about it but I’m glad I have it.

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More incisive criticism, impotent invective against the new fangled medium of Television and a distinct lack of editing skills or even self awareness after the break!

MARKED MAN
Story and Art by Howard Victor Chaykin
Colours by Jesus Arbuto
Letters by Ken Bruzenak
Dark Horse Books, $14.99 (2012)
Previously serialised in DARK HORSE PRESENTS #1 – 8
MARKED MAN created by Chaykin, Arbuto & Bruzenak

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Mark LaFarge is so good at life he can lead two. The naughty one pays for the nice one but the price of Life is steep and the price of two is steeper still. When his world explodes and the only life he retains is his own LaFarge goes looking for payback. And payback for two lives is going to be a Bitch indeed.

Despite only just having been serialised in DARK HORSE PRESENTS and now available in 2012 via a tidy hardback form MARKED MAN harks back to projects being touted by HVC as imminent way back yonder in 2004. That would be around the time of CITY OF TOMORROW (2005) where, I think, and I take no pleasure in saying this, HVC’s allotted rope as The Prodigal Returned finally ran out. He went away, cogitated and on his return HVC was seen to be largely lending his art to other people’s scripts. This being something he had done only rarely (e.g. TOM STRONG #19) since AMERICAN FLAGG! It was in fact something he had expressed a dislike for but, hey, that’s what he did for a long spell until his cache rose again and projects he could both write and draw were greenlit. So, it’s kind of nice that he got round to MARKED MAN in the end. They call that surviving, babyface! K-Chow! K-Chow! And, yes, I am doing finger-guns at you. No extra charge.

Of course the reason HVC was The Prodigal returned was that he had gone away in the first place. Up until MIGHTY LOVE (2005) he was working mostly in Television. Television. Not my favourite thing, you’ll have gathered by now. HVC’s work from this period does seem somewhat cramped by TV friendly traits (the high concept! the small cast, the limited locations, the too neat plotting) while at the same time enlivened by the abrasive assholery endemic to HVC’s work; the very abrasive assholery which would be the first thing TV would stamp out. Oh, there’s someone at the back there shouting about The Wire and, yeah, The Wire was fine TV but most TV isn’t The Wire. Last night I watched some TV to see how TV MARKED MAN was.

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Chance favoured the idle and an episode of Criminal Minds uncoiled from my screen and into my eyes. I don’t know if you are familiar with this one; it’s an FBI Unit composed of about four or five people whose characters are basically the same elements of quirky and troubled but in different quantities. Genitals and skin colour are calculatedly diverse but of no actual importance. The whole charisma lacking crew revolve around a respected actor in a jumper that by virtue of its daring to be even the slightest bit tatty makes everything around it look as hollow and lifeless as the whole stultifying thing actually was. This episode was set in a real-life run down area of America, the name of which I missed because, er, my heart wasn’t really in it, y’know. Anyway there was this montage of poor people, mad people and poor mad people and mad poor people over which was some awful sub-Boss shit-rock (“Oh ain’t no jobs now the looms are rusty/computers makin’ cars/people makin’ trouble/no money or hope but gimme a grope/oh, let me stick by broken off key in your rusty lock, babe/Lovin’s what the poor got ‘stead o’money/and it’s the rich who are poor when I’m up you, babe“)…or something I don’t know. You know what I mean.

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And you do know what I mean because you’ve seen this show. Even if you haven’t seen this show you’ve seen this show. This was the one about the vet who is frightened by a loud noise while changing his tyre and goes to ground as the flashbacks take over reality and he finds he brought the war home with him. See you do know it. There’s even a bit where his sad (but well groomed) wife says “It’s been like living with a ghost.” Because he kept putting a sheet over his head and jumping out at her. No, because that’s what sad wives always say in this story. Yes he was traumatised by the death of a child over there. Yes, the FBI were talking him in when a child strayed into the paths of the guns. Yes, yes, he did end up dead. Because while this show would say it was tackling a very real issue in the end it didn’t know what to do with the mad poor bastard except kill him. But only in a way in which everyone kept their hands clean. Cowardly toss, I call it. So that’s TV; I can see why so many of our comic writers are so keen to work in it. It’s the creative opp…oh, give over.

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I’ll tell you this for true and proper, I’d rather have been reading MARKED MAN than watching Criminal Minds. That’s not because it’s HVC roaring like a lion or anything. No, it’s just GOOD! Sure all the characters are assholes but they all possess a profanity-rich patter which make them assholes pink with the healthy blood of life and puckered like rosebuds seeking a kiss. I wouldn’t really want to explain any of that before a jury so let’s just move on. Because MARKED MAN moves, yes, MARKED MAN has momentum. It might be that this momentum  costs MARKED MAN depth but I don’t think depth is what HVC’s going for here. It’s a fast’n’nasty crime caper about revenge, trust and taking responsibility for your actions. Refreshingly LaFarge doesn’t seek revenge because he feels wronged out of all proportion to his deeds, no, he accepts his portion of responsibility but he’s still going to leave hair on the walls. Accepting responsibility is one of the hallmarks of a HVC protagonist; they rarely do it easy but they always have to do it. Sometimes HVC refers to it as being forced to become a higher moral authority.

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This is a phrase I associate most with that time in the ‘80s when HVC’s heroes stopped smoking; a development the vigorous one claimed was due to his being responsible to a higher moral authority. Being a pretty spiritually barren kind of guy I’m not too sure what that means. What exactly is a higher moral authority to HVC? A rabbi on a step ladder? (Try the veal!) The point he was making was that if he no longer smoked he wasn’t going to portray that vile, stupid and stinky habit in a light of a heroic hue. There’s no no-smoker like an ex-smoker now, is there folks. I raise this because Agent Hecht, the lady FBI Agent and the closest to a heroic figure in this low down dirty tale, sure likes her gaspers. If there’s one thing HVC nails visually in this it’s the total body surrender to the sheer noxious pleasure of inhaling state sanctioned mustard gas. But if she smokes and isn’t exactly the hero(ine) what can this mean with regard to HVC and his higher moral authority? I’m not saying anyone’s been going for suspiciously short walks down the beach but I will point out that mints may make your breath kissy-fresh but they don’t stop your clothes smelling. Just throwing that out there.

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The other big thing MARKED MAN is about is the big thing most HVC stuff is about and that’s those evil rich old white dudes who summer in The Hamptons, wear v-neck, slacks and bass weejuns combos and mistake golf for anything other than a waste of time, life and acreage. Moral cripples is the usual term he affixes them with but he doesn’t do so here. They are though, very much so, and it’s their very moral lack that leads to them being unable to trust anyone that leads to their disastrous decision to clean up a mess; one that should have been left well enough alone. These are the kind of fun guys who all meet up at a boys only retreat to wear hoods, burn an effigy and chant Begone Dull Care. Which banging toon we will of course recall as being either the hidden track on Born This Way or a song which evolved from a French chanson prior to the reign of James II and is associated with West Yorkshire. I am originally from West Yorkshire but I don’t think we should read too much into this. Or should we? Anyway, these are rich white assholes who think no one can touch them and are thus the most deserving people in the world to be touched very hard indeed. Repeatedly and with great vigour.

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Overall then, the book has characters, momentum, villains, action, banter, ooh-la-la frisky woo-woo and at least one clever plot point but it also has a couple of creaky floorboards that stop it getting out of the house without a couple of stern looks as it shuts the door behind it. You may remember back when the sun was young I mentioned too-tight plotting and there’s some of that here. There’s a caesura of sorts at he midway point where things change and time passes off page. When the story picks up again it turns out that LaFarge has secretly been The Best At Computers Ever! He has in fact found out everything he needs to know about everyone involved (even the FBI Agent) necessary in order to do what he has to do. Look, I’ve played Left4Dead so I know computers are amazing but that amazing? Really? No. It’s probably a casualty of the length but it’s also likely that HVC doesn’t want to spend time on the boring stuff. And, y’know what, as a reader I don’t want him to either. LaFarge’s mad-IT skillz made me laugh but didn’t spoil the book. Because there were other things to enjoy which outweighed it. But if I hadn’t mentioned it this would have been dangerously close to one of those reviews that are never like this: “John Kane gives CrackPipe Avengers 5 Stars saying “although it tracked dogshit all across the carpet of my mind at least it didn’t get all the way into the kitchen…Another flawless triumph from The House I Want A Job At!” how could you doubt him!

Chief among the compensatory pleasures are the letterings of Ken Bruzenak. Ken Bruzenak, bless him, has just gone balls-out crazy on this lettering. Seriously, it’s like he did this the day after buying a new software app or something. It’s certainly not unobtrusive and I have to say I found it busy and distracting but that’s me. I do give Ken Bruzenak points on the ring tones though they are a twinkly humourous touch. It occurred to me that the letters might look better on a screen and that might be because that’s how this stuff’s put together now, on screens and stuff. Hitting you with the Tech-fu there! Both the lettering and colouring just seem really cold and glossy but then the paper they are on, as with most modern comics,  it occurs to me now is rather like a screen. It’s like someone from the future heard of paper and recreated it but there were no more trees so they substituted polymers and asbestos. It’s not like paper was when I was a lad, all soft and warm like mommy’s cuddles. Damn, maybe HVC’s moving into The Future smoother than I am. Ain’t that a kick in the nuts.

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MARKED MAN then, not that I’ve just realised I’ve got to be off now and have seriously shanked the structure on this thing but…MARKED MAN then is, I’m guessing, HVC’s later period art applied to his late-mid period writing. It’s got a TV feel but a quality TV feel I’d be okay having watched it on the box but I enjoyed reading it more. Because with comics, HVC comics in particular it’s the whole package I’m after. HVC’s well honed layouts, Bruzenak’s bedlam of letters and even Arbuto’s slightly chilly and certainly texturally busy colours. Hey, MARKED MAN was a GOOD! time.

So yeah,  I hope to be around before Christmas but I’m a bit sporadic at the moment, so maybe not. If I don’t see you have a jolly nice Christmas and I hope you get some COMICS!!!

6 Responses to “ “I’m Hip.” COMICS! Sometimes The Best Diet Is Revenge! ”

  1. John, I just need to say that I find your writing about comics substantially more entertaining than pretty much any actual comics I’ve read recently. Thank you, and keep it up!

  2. Ah, Criminal Minds, the show which should have been called Woman in Cages.

    You know, John, I also used to be a big fan of HVC, but I find it hard going nowadays. I used to follow writers back then, so after Flagg I watched his work on the Flash tv show which I liked, gave up on the dire Viper and never bothered with Mutant X, but always kept my eye open for new comics.

    But I was very disappointed with American Century which art never even came close to the needs of HVCs ambitious script, which had so much unfulfilled potential. Later I found his work in some Marvel comics where I had a hard time recognisizing his normally so distinctive style.

    But I always ask myself in this cases if it is me or is it the work? What has changed so much?

    Maybe I will Avengers 1959 a try, for old times sake :-) It should be an interesting counterpoint to Ennis’ new FuryMax.

  3. @James Morrison: You’re way too kind. This one was a bit lack lustre, I fear. I may well not deserve your praise but I’ll keep it anyway. I’m like that. Cheers to you, sir!

    @AndyD: I’ve never seen any HVC TV because that’s not what I’m after from HVC so I’m going to have to take your word on his shows. You’re right about the art letting down AC. The Severin and Pleece drawn issues worked really well though! I think it’s the work that’s changed not you AndyD. (Although I’m sure you have changed in the healthy and natural way human beings are supposed to! You know what I mean.) I really enjoyed AVENGERS 1959 myself,thrillingly daft stuff.

    Happy holidays!

  4. I agree with Mr. Morrison; I also enjoy these columns more than most of the comics I’ve read lately. I’m really looking forward to the next review on novels. You pick some really good ones!

  5. Thanks for the coverage of HVC’s work. I have been a fan of his for years. It is great to see his work being revisitted here. Also, I was wondering if you have been able to get a hold of the rest of Black Kiss 2. I have been enjoying it and look forward to reading your take on it. Keep up the good work, John. Love your coverage of Corben, as well.

  6. Well, I look like the rudest host of all hosts don’t I now!

    Sorry! But just in case…

    @Chris Hero: You are always too generous. Just to throw you off I’m going to focus on the Crabs novels by Guy N Smith from hereonin. ho ho! I may not even be joking either.

    @Sfrent: Thanks for that. I’m glad this stuff is of interest to HVC (and Corben) fans wherever they may be! I was hoping BK2 might be available over here in TPB but I can’t see any listings yet. I may crack and go Digital; I think that will get around the blockade. I guess they remove all the obscenity when they digitise it or something(?!?!). Glad you’re enjoying BK2 and thanks!

    And apologies for the late replies and I hope you both had a nice Holiday and a Happy New Year!

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