The great artists create an oeuvre of theme over time. You step back, you look at so much of what they’ve done, and you realise they’ve been attacking an idea or a problem for years in a variety of ways and genres. Then you get to build contrast and connections between projects, and understand how the times reflect the work, and hopefully build a longform thesis about their work.
It recently struck me that Rick Remender has been building a mega-tome of noir built on the bad decisions of dumb/stupid/angry/confused/sad men. It’s rare the world conspires against Remender’s finest, but it is often these men pollute the surrounding environment with the toxicity they harbour inside. In the end, we see masculinity as a problem not a cure. In the end, it’s always about hard choices.
FEAR AGENT is the OG masterpiece for Remender in this vein. Drawing from years of ‘lads sci fi’ from vintage EC titles like WEIRD SCIENCE and WEIRD FANTASY, and classic Jack Davis/Wally Wood-style iconography of the square-jawed spacepack hero who solved problems and shot death rays in the future, Heath Huston is a lead character who encapsulates all the manly qualities men have. He drinks, he swears, he punches, he’s recalcitrant; he’s a loveable rogue, and he quotes Samuel Clemens constantly, to boot. He’s the epitome of the hardened male hero who is flawed but who still does good through gritted teeth.
And yet Huston so rarely feels like a hero. Not in any real heroic sense.
He’s dumb, brash, frustrating, and his past holds a multitude of sins where he’s been the problem in the equation. The biggest reveal of this is when we look into his past, when an alien invasion has hit Earth, and the consequences are bloody and violent, and Huston strikes back at the Dressite empire by going through a wormhole and delivering an explosive payload to their homeworld that decimates trillions of their kind. But instead of fighting the good fight, we come to see all he did was wipe out civilians and innocents, and children, who had nothing to do with the war as the Dressite military was already acting separately from their home world orders.
Heath Huston is an intergalactic terrorist, and that’s just one of his many problems. He’s estranged from his wife – because of course she wants distance from this fleshbomb of morose failure – and he starts to make time with a new lady, Mara. But it’s complicated. In fact, it’s downright hard work. And when he’s caught in a pressure locker situation where she wants to kill a man but Heath feels that might not be the finest tactic – despite his prior transgressions – her victim gets the jump and kills Mara right in Heath’s arms. And Heath damn well knows he let it happen. Why? Because he’s a piece of human shit, basically. It’s more complicated than that, human pieces of shit most often are, but at its core, Heath is walking rubbish. He’s refuse, he’s trash, and while he has his place and his purpose he’s mostly just stinking up the place.
It’s always fascinating to peer into what makes a man so hollow and Heath tells his ex, Charlotte, and we get to hear the ethos of the damned. Heath recounts a tale that gives him another jot of fighting spirit and the tl;dr of it is this:
A man lives a hectic modern lifestyle, works his ass off, is a walking ulcer with worry and stress and seemingly gets no rewards – the wife and son barely cast an eye his way, the wheel turns day in and out and he’s not getting off. So, eventually the man dies, and he’ll barely be missed, and so we place into context all that worry and stress because in the end, what the fuck does it matter? It’s a sad mindset to stumble upon but it has a nihilistic freedom to it that’s like a cool breeze across your face.
And it’s not like Heath isn’t cognisant of his mindset and worldview. At the end of a surprisingly successful mission, he lays back with a pretty lady and thinks, “Can’t remember the last time I felt this good. / Then again… / …I can’t remember the last time I’d done anything to give me reason to.”
And he hasn’t done much, but it’s nothing to fret about either. Because the world provides, the whole mess endures, and you make a blip on the landscape and try to have fun as you do it. So what if trillions of Dressites die because of your mistakes?
It should then go without saying that the whole series ends in death. Poignant, truthful, and completely sacrificial. In its own warped way. Heath faces his death, he chooses his death, and he likes to believe it’ll mean something. We would all like to think so. But sometimes death is just release, it’s just us finally accepting that we have to walk away from our mess. Death is the end and carry ourselves high or not, save the day or ruin it, it comes to us or we come to it and then that’s it. Our spiral has a finite end point and we disappear in that apex.
From this titanic creator owned effort at exploring such heady issues through sci fi, it seemed a perfect fit that Remender would go on to infuse such morality and social discussion into his cape comics at Marvel. First up would be the Punisher and it seems obvious but we get one hell of a level up.
Frank Castle watched his family die and so he spends the rest of his life fighting crime as the Punisher. It’s a simple and clear origin story. So where do you go from there? It’s clear the guy has chosen his path, he’s resigned to a lifetime of blood, and he’s a very noir character in this self-defeating sense of the term.
But there is always that one aspect that was not Frank’s choice, that was taken out of his hands, and that was the death of his family. The Hood, underground criminal scumbag, resurrects Frank’s family but he can’t accept it. He can’t accept that this version of them is real, but he also can’t accept what this would mean to him, what it would make him, and where it would take him. So he sets his newly returned family on fire and he stays the path.
Frank Castle will always be the Punisher. Until he dies. Which is the only way it ends. Proven by Remender shortly after this as Daken [Wolverine’s son] battles Castle, soundly defeats him, and then slices his body apart before decapitating him. In a world of titanic superpowers, of course Frank meets his end outmanned and cut to shit with his body dumped in an alleyway. Daken even comments on how Frank seems settled in this course. Possibly even relieved. Because walking the downward spiral is hard and long and reaching the destination is relief.
However, this is the Marvel Universe and death is never the end. And so we are blessed with pulp tales of the Franken-Castle for as long as it takes for the inevitable reboot to occur because in the Marvel U time is a flat circle, and you maybe hopefully pick up something new on each spin. When written by Remender, it’s usually a darker layer in which to trap your problems and hold them closer to your chest. Frank simply chooses to get straight back on that noir trail, killing criminals, fighting until he dies. Because true noir means you won’t even learn the lesson.
When given the opportunity to populate a new team for a new book titled UNCANNY X-FORCE, Remender grabbed his usual bag of tricks for compressing inner turmoil and giving it dwarf star matter. And let’s just pause to realise that Remender took an X-book, a book of mutants and spandex and all that fun crazy and turned it into a deep exploration of toxic relationships and noir spirals and what it takes to choose the worst things imaginable for perceived gain elsewhere while suffering insane internal blows to your soul.
And when I say he did this with an X-book, I mean he did this with Deadpool. And Wolverine, oh so well with Wolverine. And a guy with metal wings.
The central problem in the UXF world is the decaying [and I mean rotting] relationship between Archangel and Psylocke. But it’s also a team book, so the frame for further drama is there.
The hook comes in the resolution of the opening arc, THE APOCALYPSE SOLUTION. The team have stumbled across a new incarnation of Apocalypse and so they go in guns blazing. And they find their target. Who is indeed the reincarnation of one of the worst and most hostile X-villains of all time. But this time they’ve come early and he’s still a boy. So, what do you do?
If you know you’re a noir character, and you’re most likely actively choosing to go to hell, well, you shoot that kid square in the head. Which is exactly what team rogue Fantomex does, and the rest of the team vacillate in how to respond, but they all kinda let it happen and accept it once it’s done. It might weigh on their minds but it isn’t a stone cold deal breaker for them as a team.
Every single damn character in this book is broken.
And it seems the multi-arc mega-story is designed to see if the creators can get the characters to grind up their own broken pieces into dust. Except for Deadpool, who is insane, and so he’s given a redemption hero arc which is just smashingly on point.
Psylocke is forced to kill her love. Wolverine is forced to kill his son. Fantomex takes a cloned version of Apocalypse and tries to raise him in isolation to prove that nurture can overcome nature. That you can not choose a noir ending as much as you do choose one. So far, Fantomex’s experiment might be right but the kid, Evan, is still a kid and this means comics has a long time ahead of it to ruin his spirit, and you kind of know they will, and thus the noir prophecy will be fulfilled. This is a bold attempt to feel hopeful but in the end you can see Remender is leaving this ticking timebomb of noir and it’s almost certain to go off and we just have to wait long enough.
Having ‘choice’ be the driving narrative force in UXF means the way characters choose to dirty their hands holds even greater weight. These downfalls are all very conscious, and often justified by the person, but having a reason doesn’t mean you aren’t still falling and falling.
After bringing noir to the cape game, Remender returns it to its roots on the creator owned streets. In a bid to quit writing superheroes, Remender launched some new books at Image and two of them are still ongoing but strike a deep masculine noir vein through their troubled and problematic leads.
BLACK SCIENCE is a straight up homage to the old EC sci fi books of old, and it’s a great effort at doing just that. It posits a family, and some extras, jumping from dimension to dimension without control of where they’ll go or for how long. The fantastical high concept is superb as it means new locales, varied theatres of war, and a chance to shake things up in almost every way at least every arc.
But deep down, below the surface, BLACK SCIENCE is about responsibility, and male stupidity, infidelity, and the difficulty of family. In short, it’s brutally brilliant.
Grant McKay is a scientist who discovers a way to travel between dimensions. So of course he lets his kids anywhere near the device capable of such malarkey. This alone tells me he’s not serious about being a true man or any kind of hero. He’s careless and thoughtless and ultimately quite less of a person. And it’s nearly always because of his mistakes and faults.
The book’s narrative follows Grant, and his kids, his bodyguard, and a few other scientists attached to the project as well as their payrolling financial backer as they look to survive within each interdimensional stop. Yes, it’s like EC comics mashed up with SLIDERS – and, yes, that’s very very good as an outcome.
As the story unfolds, different characters step to the fore and we discover more about them. They become three-dimensional and we usually find new ways and reasons to care while also watching a handful of them die. The wanton death of characters is used to elicit response from readers very well in this book. You can never get comfortable and the excitement of this stems from the fact it’s often the characters making a poor, or noble, choice to end their own story so that those of others can continue in earnest.
At the centre, stands Grant and we see he’s a shitty parent, a failing scientist, and he’s been having an affair with one of his co-workers and it all comes to light as the story peels back. This unfortunate situation of the Pillar breaking and them all being sent hopping through time and space isn’t what has ruined his life. He was doing that just fine on his own well before this erratic and dangerous trip began. Grant could have been a plumber and he would have ruined everything he had amassed.
BLACK SCIENCE isn’t about this high concept sci fi insanity, it’s about what happens to the characters when placed inside this gonzo crucible. It’s about seeing exactly why they are choosing to walk down the path. Although there are many more attempts at redemption in this comic, and it perhaps could be a sign of Remender aging, maturing. Or it could just be the fact the series is ongoing and Remender wants to build things up before he starts tearing them down.
However, a comic certainly not stemming from mature age is DEADLY CLASS, wherein Marcus Lopez is a teenager in the 1980s who gains entry to a school for assassins. And yet we spend little time in the actual school, following the lessons, because it’s far more intriguing, and sometimes titillating, to watch teenagers skip class and do an assortment of dumb things. Especially when many of those things are orchestrating their very demise.
Remender has stated strongly that much of the story grows from anecdotes he journalled when he was a teen. This is real life true stories of how to be a shithead and not get further in life and then it’s just given the ever so slightly tweaked adjust to fit the hyped up murder of the book’s setting. Even though many readers have assumed some moments/scenarios are made up for the book, Remender has said in the back matter/letters pages that you’d be shocked at how many things/moments actually haven’t been changed. Which is scary and exhilarating when you think about it.
Every teenager’s life [well, maybe every male teenager’s] is a noir tale. They make the worst choices, they don’t care, and they all pretty much end up in a hellhole of their own design. But then they hit their twenties and redemption can be considered. Sometimes.
In DEADLY CLASS, Remender shows the internal workings that go about establishing deeply held beliefs and ways to self-sabotage. Marcus is a pissy little guy, and he’s just as passionately pissy about killing someone as he is about slaying the wrong dragon to get to the princess, if you feel me. Every decision in his life is the worst and the hardest because it maybe quite literally is, at that point in time. To look at adolescence through that lens, that noir breeding ground of hatred and stupidity is genius because noir is built from such an emotional base, and teenage emotions are like erratic bursts of light stemming from fourth dimensional flowers [they make no sense and are most likely dangerous to us all].
For my money, I think DEADLY CLASS is the best thing on the shelves at present, and I absolutely know the end of Marcus Lopez’s tale is going to tear a hole in space/time with the deep gravity of it all, and I know I’ll blame Marcus for every moment of it all.
Tracking the noir of Remender over the many years shows us an appreciation for aligning the right character for the piece, and how noir can appear in any setting or genre. It’s also endlessly fascinating to see how the broken characters often hide their noir behind male bravado, or the excuse that they’re doing something higher, like responsibility is an excuse to wear yourself out. There’s a terrible lesson to it all but rarely does Remender offer his stories and lead characters as templates for how to live your life. These are cautionary tales, about different men, at different ages, on different places, all facing the same problem. And all struggling with it.
But it’s the admission you have a problem that’s the first step. The overcoming of it comes later, and never without.