Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How Keanu Reeves made me a fan of the Punisher.

I had never really been a big Punisher fan before. As a younger kid I thought he was too gritty and scary, too adult for me to pick up and read. I stuck to reading Batman, X-Men, and any other comic book that had a Saturday morning cartoon equivalent on at the same time. As I got a little older, I was no longer intimidated by the Punisher, rather, I was unimpressed. "Big deal, he's an angry looking dude with guns and a skull on his shirt! If I want that I'll just watch an action movie!" Those were my feelings in a nutshell regarding the Punisher, and I still kept up with my X-titles and moved into the soon to become phenomenon Manga fandom. Then, it happened, a movie came out that started this whole change of events. That movie, was the Matrix. I'm not going to go into the Matrix too much here, (it was awesome of course) and it also made me a Keanu Reeves fan (snicker if you will, but he has some good flicks under his belt, dammit!). What does this have to do with Frank Castle(That's the Punisher's real name)you ask? Well, Keanu Reeves soon was in another action movie, Constantine, based on the seminal Vertigo series, John Constantine: Hellblazer. The movie was somewhat removed from it's original source material , as I later found out, but I checked it out as a Reeves fan, and I liked what I saw. So, like Batman the Animated Series and the X-Men animated series before it, the film Constantine prompted me to pick up some John Constantine: Hellblazer trades, and I found another series that I would become a life-long fan of. Amongst these trades, the work that stood out the most to me, and kept me coming back to those somewhat pricey Hellblazer trades, was the work of writer Garth Ennis and artist Steve Dillon.

When I think of Hellblazer, Ennis and Dillon's version is the clearest in my mind, the definitive version, like Warner brother's animated version of Batman from the animated series is my quintessential Batman. After I read all of the Ennis and Dillon Hellblazer I could get my hands on, I wanted more. That is when a friend of mine, in college, loaned me the first, and subsequent volumes, of Preacher. I was in heaven! Preacher had extreme violence, dark humor, and was just plain odd, and I love every single page of it. Ennis and Dillon are the perfect story telling combo, and I read through those 9 trades very quickly. This, my friends, is where Frank Castle comes back into the picture. After all that Preacher, my taste for Ennis and Dillon was not quite yet satiated, and that is when my Preacher connect got me my Ennis and Dillon re-up, in the form of The Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank trade paperback.

Welcome Back, Frank is written, as you can probably guess, by Garth Ennis. Pencils are by Steve Dillon, inks by Jimmy Palmiotti, with colors by Chris Sotomayor (As well as iconic covers by Tim Bradstreet). The Punisher finds himself back in New York City (after some weird storyline where he hunts demons for heaven or something) to renew his war on the crime that plagues the good people of NYC. The Punisher's war mainly focuses on the crime families, and in these issues specifically on the Gnucci family. The Punisher kills one Gnucci brother in a warehouse during a drug buy, and kills another in the city morgue, featuring a shoot out with corpses being used as human shields (The Punsher chooses a nice fat corpse, bullets don't pass through those as easily it seems). The next Gnucci brother is hogtied and gagged, and the Punisher hoists him up completely over his head, and throws him off of the top of the Empire State building. These actions start an all out war with the leader of the Gnucci gang, Ma. Throughout the trade the Punisher crosses paths with Daredevil (who he ties up and humiliates), some odd neighbors (an Obese man, a shut-in mousey woman who bakes extra cookies and pies for Frank, and a pierced punk "Spacker Dave") and has him being tracked by the two detectives with the worst luck in the police dept, a Russian monster of a hit man, and a fan club of violent vigilantes.

The thing that makes Welcome Back, Frank so good is that...well it is just damn funny, and damn entertaining. It fills the violence quotient you would expect from a Punisher comic, but it isn't the type of violence that makes you squirm. It had loads of dark humor (making an amputee funny? Who'da thunk it?!) and doesn't take itself too seriously, but isn't a complete write-off either. It is a nearly perfect piece of entertainment, it satisfies on every level I expect to be satisfied with while reading a comic. Dillon's drawing here is very strong, an interesting middle ground in between his slightly more detailed work he did in Hellblazer and Preacher, and his somewhat more simplified work he does in lets say, Punisher Max: Kingping. His comedic timing (if such a thing is possible in a comic, I just can't think of another way to describe it) is right on money. I cannot praise this book enough.

After Welcome Back, Frank I moved on in my reading. The Punisher came back into my life when a little movie came out called Punisher: War Zone. Ignore anything you hear from the critics, this is an extremely well crafted movie, completely over the top and violent. This re-ignited my interest in The Punisher, and I went to the stores and picked up some issues of a Marvel Knights series, Punisher versus Bullseye. This series was written by Daniel Way, with art duties taken up by Punisher familiar Steve Dillon. Dillon is the reason I bought these issues, at the time I hadn't read anything by Daniel Way, and I did not particularly like the cover. The issues I have read of this series, I love. Much like the Ennis Punisher issues, it is hysterically funny. A mobster who once had to cross dress to disguise himself and escape from the Punisher (inexplicably he still cross dresses to the current day, and is in hiding) and his dim witted nephew hire on Bullseye to take out Frank Castle. Whether or not this was a good plan remains to be seen, I have only 3 of the 5 issues, I missed out on the last two and have yet to find them.

Following these, I took another break from Punisher books, until I came across yet another Steve Dillon-pencilled Punisher run, Punisher Max #1. I believe it's a relaunch of the Punisher Max series, previously written by Garth Ennis. This run is penned by Jason Aaron, with pencils/inks by Steve Dillon, and colors by Matt Hollingsworth. Collected in the trade paperback Punisher Max: Kingpin, Aaron tells the tale of how the Kingpin came to be. It is like a modern revamp, the Punisher is already well established, and getting on in years. The Kingpin is merely a heavy,but has plans in motion to become the Kingpin of Crime in NYC.

This series is dark. Still funny, but much more gritty. Frank Castle is practically a monster, he tortures his prey before killing them with pincers and hack saws, and literally pours salt into their open wounds. The Punisher is at his height of ruthlessness here, at least compared to what else I have read of the character. He is headed down a dark, dark path, as is the future Kingpin of Crime, Wilson Fisk. Fisk has a family, and works to become the top crime boss to ensure his son does not have to endure the same hard life he had to live through. The Kingpin is also strong as an ox. He runs through walls as if they were made of paper and cardboard, and by squeezing both sides of one mug's head,he pops his eyes out of his sockets. The Unfortunate mobster wanders around with his eyes dangling out of his sockets, until he finally shoves them back in...only to be killed by the Punisher. Humor is still around though maybe a bit harder edged than Ennis's previous Punisher work. (The work Ennis does in his current series, The Boys, definitely has a much harder edge than anything I've read from him before. Perhaps this series is trying to emulate?) Did I mention there is also a Mennonite hit-man? Yeah you heard me.

Needless to say, the Kingpin ascends to the highest level of crime, and the Punisher remains a thorn in his side. He turns to the hit man Bullseye to try his hand at destroying Frank Castle, and these issues, in my humble opinion, is where this new MAX series gets going. Bullseye is, in a word FUCKING INSANE. Jason Aaron paints Bullseye as a ritualistic hit man, who must learn as much as he can about his target in order to eliminate them. This is a little more complicated than going to the library and looking at old newspapers, or using google. Bullseye tortures information out of known contacts. He visits sites in which castle has been know to live, and kill. He sleeps in mattresses the Punisher has slept in...naked. The Lengths Bullseye goes to familiarize himself with his target have to be seen to be believed. I cannot wait to see where Aaron goes from here. As for the artwork, Steve Dillon's style is a tad simplified here, I find the work he did in Welcome Back, Frank to be a bit more polished and appealing, but I still think this is exactly the kind of book he should be working on.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Film Strips: Fist of The North Star

I am a huge fan of the anime/manga franchise, Hokuto No Ken created by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara, known on American shores as Fist of the North Star, a martial arts acion series set in a post apocalyptic landscape. The animated film, directed by Toyoo Ashida, ranks amongst one of my favorite anime films. The mix of extreme violence, Mad Max style villains and tidbits of melodrama makes for some great entertainment. I had known for some time that a live action adaptation had been made, in America, which seemed to be a direct to dvd release. I did not recognize the vast majority of the cast, (save for Malcolm Macdowell and Chris Penn) and the movie looked low budget at best. This movie was undoubtedly bad...but I have Netflix so I took the plunge and watched it!

The "star" of the film is Kenshiro, the heir to Hokuto Shin Ken, a deadly martial art that strikes pressure points in the body and explodes from within. (this aspect is never explained in the film, I wonder if people who have no clue what Fist of the North Star is all about even know why people are exploding and such) Kenshiro is played by Gary Daniels, who has the physicality needed for the role, Daniels is one jacked mo-fo...but he has the acting range of a cinder block, his eyes constantly bulged in an expression of surprise. The Kenshiro in this film is a pained character, running from his fate to inherit the title of "Fist of the North Star". This differs from his portrayal in the comics, that Kenshiro is a man who has accepted his role as heir to Hokuto Shin Ken, and travels the barren wasteland that is now earth in search of Shin, the man who gave him seven wounds on his chest, in the shape of the big dipper, as well as kidnapping the woman he loves, Julia.

Shin, portrayed by Costas Mandylor, is the master of Nanto Seiken, a brother school to Hokuto Shin Ken. The schools are supposed to exist in balance, and never clash, but Shin crosses the line and kills the previous Fist of the North Star, Ryuken, played by Malcolm Macdowell. Madylor is not too notable as Shin, his best moment is the flashback scene in which he gives Kenshiro his scars. He is relegated in the rest of the film to trying to win the love of Julia, the woman he kidnapped from Kenshiro, and trying to create a new world order. It seems like the character with the most screen time is Chris Penn, who plays a character that is a Pastiche of two characters from the original, Jackal. (His appearance is that of Jagi, his name was taken from Jackal, a scheming enemy of Kenshiro in the comics) Chris Penn might just be the best actor in the film...but he is wasted with awful awful dialogue, and speech after silly speech about killing, without ever actually doing much besides beating a woman. Ken's long lost love is played by a japanese actress, Isako Washio. She does not have a great grasp of the english language, and I find it odd that in a film full of white men playing characters with names like Ryuken and Kenshiro, the one character named JULIA is played by a japanese woman. There are also a bunch of cowering innocents, most notable Ken's child companions from the comics, Bat (played by Ruffio from Hook) and Lin, who was mute in the comics, but in this version is blind instead...ok.

For a movie based off of a martial arts manga, there are not too many good fights. Gary Daniels is a martial artist first and foremost, an actor second....well maybe an actor third or fourth. The fights are shot too close, the action is hard to catch. The way Gary Daniels emulates Ken's Hundred crack fist of the North star is laughable, and he fails to utter the "A-Ta Ta Ta Ta!!!"s that Kenshiro shouts while he pokes the various pressure points on his enemies. When his enemies explode, which happens far too little, it's off screen. That is not what one expects in a Fist of the North Star film. The best parts of the movie are the costumes and the miniatures. The costuming is very faithful to the source material for the most part, Ken's costume is dead on, and in the flashback scenes Shin's boots match the kind he wore in the comics. Little touches like that redeem the film to a slight extent. Certain touches with the miniatures ring true as well, like the iconic shot of a skyscraper impaled with a battleship. Sadly, it is a bad indication when the most positive aspect of the movie are the miniatures and costumes...not that they aren't important!

The ultimate downfall of this film, besides the poor acting, writing, score, direction and fight choreography, is director Tony Randel's lack of understanding the overall story and characters of the original, and what viewers are expecting from a Fist of the North Star film. Instead of making a movie about a guy that can make other guys explode, and paying that forward as much as possible, he gives us a movie with lots of strange speeches, a lead character running from his destiny, as well as what the audience wants to see. The best way to watch this movie is to listen to the audio commentary track, featuring Gary Daniels and director Tony Randel. Gary Daniels comes across as a pretty nice guy, who has a great appreciation for the source material, and considerable knowledge on the subject as well. Tony Randel, on the other hand, comes across as more than a little embittered, seemingly making excuses for some of the short comings of the movie, and making outrageous comparisons to all sorts of art movements and films that have influenced him in the making of this picture...which only underline how bad this film is. He seems to want to prove that he actually made a great film...or if it did turn out poorly it is the fault of the source material or time constraints. In any event, this is a bad movie that could be fun to watch if you're a fan of the comic...but don't expect anything good!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Manga Monday: Golgo 13: Gravestone in Sicily

I have been picking up viz's somewhat recent volumes of Golgo 13, the decades old manga originated by Takao Saito. For those of you who don't know, Golgo 13 (also known as Duke Togo) is a world class hit man, with a perpetually expressionless face. He has big eyebrows and sideburns, and uses a sniper rifle to fulfill his contracts. He never misses his target, and charges top dollar for his "hits". Men fear him, women want him, and all he ever really has to say is "...".

Volume 8 in viz's 13 volume in total run entitled "Gravestone in Sicily" really appealed to me. The first story, titled merely Telepath features an event that happens once in a lifetime, like a first kiss or finding that one Bruce Willis who doesn't die in a catastrophic train crash...GOLGO 13 misses! It seems he was assigned a target that is the one man who can't be killed. Two elite hit men already attempted hits on this target, and died in the process. Duke comes out ahead in this respect at least, and survives his attempt, but is momentarily shaken by his failure. A woman is with the target, and looked directly at Golgo 13 before he pulled the if she knew he was there! Golgo suspects her as the reason for his missed shot, and begins to uncover a world of psychic spies. The woman has psychic powers, and was responsible for the dead hit men and Golgo's misfire. What depths of the human mind must Duke Togo trudge to overcome the powers of a telepath? Or does he already have the skills necessary?

Golgo 13 visits yoga masters and scientists specializing in brainwaves to try and train his mind to become undetectable, and both are shocked at Golgo's already considerable mastery of the's another common "MY GOD...WHO ARE YOU?" moment which happens in almost every Golgo 13 story...where someone realizes Golgo 13 is the ultimate warrior/ man. Despite Duke missing his shot at first, this story really illustrates the equation Golgo 13=Badass well.

The title story, Gravestone in Sicily, is a more godfather esque, traditional hit man story, involving Italian mobsters, priests and doves. I really dig the Chester-Gould esque criminals in this story, all of the character designs in this story are extremely appealing. There is a pretty fun twist at the close of this story as well. I would recommend picking up these volumes if you like James Bond or spy stories, and over the top manga. Part of my immense like of Golgo 13 is the over the top quality of the character, and this volume I think illustrates how over the top Golgo 13 can be, without a shred of irony.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Prison Pit

So it has been some time has it not? But here I go writing about them comics again...this time about Johnny Ryan's recent Prison Pit volume 1. I know next to nothing about Ryan's body of work, but this comic is at once compelling, disgusting, hilarious and strange. I think Ryan is calling forth some classic manga influence here, the opening page definitely reminds me of classic Osamu Tezuka, and the leisurely pace and quiet stretches definitely remind me of the manga works of a Tezuka or Ishinomori, or even Go Nagai. The extreme violence and sheer grossness definitely reminds me of Go Nagai in fact. There might be some more direct horror manga influences here, but I know next to nothing about horror manga so I won't comment.

The violence here is extreme, but I wouldn't call it gratuitous. The violence is necessary, this book IS the violence. Prison Pit is 120 pages of muscled monster men killing one another, and puking, and bleeding, and ejaculating. To go back to manga, and maybe more so anime, this book reminds me of what everyone THOUGHT anime was back in the 90's. Everyone thought all anime was back then was people killing one another in the most terrible ways possible. This comic is indeed that...but the way it is paced, drawn, inked....just by virtue of what Ryan has done here, at least to this reader makes it infinitely appealing. The ink work is deft, the scratchy clouds and looming dark mountains are just as interesting to look at as our underwear clad monster man ripping a prison guard's body in half and eating his organs.

I think the real star here is Ryan's storytelling...not that the "story" is anything too complicated. The way he paces each chapter, how he moves from scene to scene, is nothing short of compelling. I think this artful execution is what keeps me coming back to this volume, not being a fan of "gross out" type humor. (though I concede a love for ultra violent comics) This is definitely worth checking out. My SOLE qualm is that the binding on my copy seems a little iffy, but I treat my books with respect. Prison Pit is published by Fantagraphics, and is $12.99. Buy it.