Action movies is an interesting genre, filled with their own set of charms and quirks. I like their blends of reality with dreamlike qualities. There’s so many fantastic action movies that manages to take their ridiculous premise as seriously as possible and make an earnest film out of it. The results are often fantastic. I remember being with a group of friends, we must have been 11 or 12 and we sat down to watch Predator for the first time. A bunch of over-the-top macho guys in a forest being ultimately decimated by a space hunter. It was a thrilling experience that masterfully blended that sense of otherworldliness, not just with the monster, but with the way the characters behaved with each other. Consider the scene where Schwarzenegger meets his former buddy Carl Weathers in an office. Their surreal machismo clashing completely with the world as we knew it. No one does a handshake/arm wrestling like that in real life, but we found that charming and surprisingly engaging. This simple and efficient action movie was engrossing and fun.
I remember experiencing that feeling again when a group of friends and I went to see The Raid 2: Berandal at the movie theater. It was a cheap Tuesday at the Rainbow cinema, a discount cinema offering movies later than regular theater but at a massive discounts, which tends to drive attendance up. The super cheap night tends to sellout as people who can’t get in their screening often picks another movie. So people who couldn’t go see 12 years a slave went to see The Raid 2. In spite of this tonal dissonance, the audience was captivated. The pure violence and excess was mesmerizing. I distinctly remember the prison riot sequence, when the protagonist essentially dislocate a guys legs at the knees, then later slides a knife downwards into another person’s calf, the gasps of terror and excitement was electrifying. To see action executed flawlessly was fascinating.
Revenger is an action comic set in the late 1980’s. In operates like an action movie showing up to dish out vigilante justice against a deserving group of violent evil-doers. While it is set in the 80’s and it has hints of 80’s nostalgia built into it, it condense the essence of grim and gritty late 80’s comics with action movie sensitivities into a very cohesive and satisfying read. I’m wouldn’t say it’s a complete nostalgia trip, but it evokes feelings of work made in the past, specifically that decades. There’s element of Death Wish, Terminator and Cobra all wrapped up in an exciting comic. I normally find nostalgia as a boring factor of engagement particularly the more traditional forms of nostalgia, peddled by corporations when a product like TMNT, Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Ghostbusters comes out. The attitude that permeates it is to simply show you what you’ve seen before in a new package. The content is irrelevant, as long as Peter Parker Spider-Man and a wookie are in it. I find that boring and seems to be particularly common in pop culture, this constant winking to the “fans”. I’m not sure I see it as a problem of fandom, more so than a problem of brand loyalty. It says Spider-Man, here’s my money. It says Star Wars, here’s my money. It’s the same problem with sports team fans, supporting a brand until the end no matter how well or how poorly they play.
See sports fans were really mad this summer when the Montreal Canadians traded P.K. Subban to another team. They were raging on talk radio, newspaper and every outlet available and it was in the news every day for about three months. The message was “We liked that guy, you should have kept him, we’re mad as hell”, but when ticket sales started, the message the fans sent was “here’s our money”. The team owners don’t care that people complained, they got paid regardless? They don’t care that they lose all the games this season. It won’t affect their revenues. People still follow “their” team through thick or thin, through bad times and better times.
For comics, it seems like it’s mostly through bad times and worse times. See I’m a fan of excellence, and mediocrity gives me rashes. When I read comic book, I want to read a good comic book. My point is that nostalgia is overrated. Some people understands that nostalgia is about feelings, it’s about that gut feeling you experienced when you first heard “Luke I am your father”. The smarter nostalgia peddlers understands that it’s not so much the sentence, or the way it was told that matters, but what brought you there. Luke wishes to save his friends above all and engage in a losing battle against a far stronger opponent who just dominates him. When Vader’s about to kill him, he shows mercy and Luke says no. That’s when that line comes into play, Luke’s an orphan, he wants to believe his parents were good people and yet, here he is, after he failed to save his friend, or himself it seems, that the final emotional blow lands. He takes the high road and jumps to his doom hoping for the best rather than concede the moral victory to Vader. That’s why this line matters. You can’t replicate the line without sounding like a complete buffoon, but you can replicate the buildup, the effects of layered storytelling. That’s what differentiates good nostalgia and lame nostalgia. Lame nostalgia gives you a wookie and forces your memory to have feeling. Good nostalgia gives you feelings and lets you sort it out.
Revenger is one of those fascinating tale of violence that uses past work to inform itself. It exudes an understanding of action out of every pore, every page. It evokes my nostalgic feeling of watching Predator or The Raid 2 in the best way possible. Revenger follows the tale of a tormented private eye, only known as Revenger, as she answers the call of a teenager is a small town in the midwest whose girlfriend has disappeared. Revenger appears to find the missing girl and quickly discover something far more insidious than she thought. A hotel, run by a violent mob is operating a slave cartel. Revenger gets beaten up, escapes, licks her wound and get back up to burn their whole organisation right down to the ground. It’s magnificent in its simplicity. Bad guy does something bad so we don’t like them, good guy shows up, good guy loses, good guy licks wounds, good guy returns and win. Forsman here rearrange tropes of the 80’s action cinema language to create an engaging tale. He has some visible influence (the comics work of Benjamin Marra, Michel Fiffe, the movies of John Carpenter, Terminator, Cobra) he distills to a handful of elements into his own creation.
Since Revenger is an action comic, I’ll reference another action comic who understood that very well. Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s Green Arrow New 52 run. At least at the start, there’s a real understanding of how urban action films worked. It understands action is built up from layers of narrative storytelling. Green Arrow is at the top of the world, both in business and his superheroing, then gets his ass kicked by someone much better than him and loses everything, he has to build himself back from the ground up and seek revenge by taking down that bad guy. Narrative buildup, setup, violent set piece, payoff. It’s not a terribly complicated structure, but it’s efficient.
I read this first collection at night in Niagara Falls, an arguably crumbling Canadian city. It’s tourist core was clean, new, artificial, complete with chains restaurant and Starbucks on every corner. The actual town is a different story, crumbling architecture and abandoned buildings everywhere. The tourist money being effectively funnelled right into the hands of a capitalistic superstructure. As I walked from Queen Street and Victoria avenue, I considered the themes of Revenger. While it is an action story at its core, it is also a story of inequalities, both racial and economical. Revenger herself is a black woman with a history of abuse that is frequently alluded to. But there’s also income inequalities that permeates the story. The father is offered money in exchange for her daughter, the helpful group of misfits are essentially a group of homeless skilled workers. Forsman could have been using the simple route of having just some rich dudes be the villain as was often the case in 80’s action movie “a la Hans Gruber or OCP senior president Dick Jones”, but instead he creates an organisation filled with what appears to be working class people just trying to get a paycheck and some nefarious figures at the top. He presents a system where violence and inequalities is rampant, devolving into chaotic violence. It’s not a treatise on inequalities, far from it, but it is aware that systemic inequalities creates tensions that can end in violence.
It was fascinating to see how Forsman used colours in this work. A spare palette of bold colours are on display on each page. A fight occurs early on where Revenger takes out a security guard. A panel has bold red covers the background with a handful of black horizontal lines has Revenger grabs his hair and propels him towards the wall, the second panel still red, now gives way to a yellow splatter emanating from his head crashing on the wall. It’s then followed by a reveal of Revenger noticing the security camera system the guard was watching, the colours switch to a dark green. These shifts happen frequently throughout the book. There’s another sequence later in the book where Revenger is propelled through a window and roll forward before coming to a stop on her knees. The background changes colour on each panels where the action took place. Yellow on the first one as the window breaks and she begins a front-roll on the ground. The second is orange as she is slowing down her roll and getting ready to stand back up again and the last one is red where she comes to a full stop, her left knee on the ground and her right foot anchored on the floor. The velocity of her action is reflected in the background colour. I’ve mostly seen Forsman’s work in black and white and here, we see him using colours to emphasize events happening both in the foreground, or the background, to emphasize movement. I think my initial reaction was thinking that the colour palette was spare, but I think the better word would be unencumbered. It takes what it needs and dispense with frivolity, much like it’s lead character.
Speaking of unencumbered, Forsman art in general here seems to forego background in favour of evocative colour. Near the end of the book, we’re seeing a man falls from a building and we’re seeing as his head is about to smash on the concrete street. The background here is simply a beige to indicate a building, a light grey indicating the sidewalk and a darker grey represents the street. Those three colours allow for some depth and also to focus the readers view on the man’s face as it smashes on the street in bloody details. This focus on colour rather than composing background is quite interesting. like the example above, Forsman never loses sight of perspective and depth by using colours. It also allows for a stripped down approach to each panels. The art focuses on the people rather than vistas. That doesn’t mean that backgrounds are non-existent, but when backgrounds are illustrated, it adds a sense of gravitas to the page. When Revenger is wounded and collapse in the street, we see a distant shot with building and streets where she is, adding depth and tension. Same for when she is brought to the father of the missing girls home to recuperate. The bright red colour mixed in with an increasing focus on the background details of the house makes for a surprisingly tense sequence.
While being a dark and violent tale, it has some moments of levity. Those moments are never jarring, but they add a lot of layers to an already heavy narrative. There’s a great moment early on, where Revenger figures out that the girl she is looking for is located at a hotel. She walks up to the reception and the clerk asks “can I help you?”. She punches him and says “no one can help me” alluding to her trouble past and current investigation. Or another moment when she meets the same reception clerk for another, even more violent confrontation. These moments are good at depicting the absurdity of the world our hero is inhabiting and it also reminds us that she is human, she is fallible and though.
One caveat for me would be in the story, the integration of a science-fiction element really diluted the effectiveness of the finale for me. The “villain is a robot” might be one of my least favourite tropes of 80’s action movies. From Terminator to Hands of Steel, I never found that concept to be particularly appealing. After having created a fairly grim look at American hegemony in freefall, critiquing police corruption and the failures of the American dream, Forsman integrate a USSR cyborg as a final video game boss for her character to go against. It does allow for great action and is a reminder of the late Cold War era madness, but it clashes with the world he built and the themes explored earlier, a dark and depressing look at the underbelly of an America that is corrupt and forgot about its vulnerable population. Good action sequence against a cyborg, but it doesn’t gel terribly well with the themes of the comic. On the other hand, 80’s action film were weird as hell, so who knows, maybe people like that and I just didn’t.
In addition to the comics itself, Forsman has an interesting method to distribute his comic. You can buy the issues digitally, buy the issues in print or buy it in print with extras (one has an added sketchbook, or a mini-armory comic for example). An issue was crowdfunded through Kickstarter. I’m wondering about how that affects readership. I like Forsman and Oily comics and found it exhausting to follow how these books comes out unless I actively pay attention to it. I thought the book I read was an ongoing issue, but it may have been a standalone book. A one-shot (via kickstarter) came out, then a new series Revenger & The Fog is out now. I find those experiments interesting. It has a very old-school feeling to it, it’s invisible, but if you scratch the surface, you realize it’s been there all along, that other comics like it have always excited, and that you can find them if you look for them.
I’m not sure what final words I can find for Revenger, It shares a space on my shelf right next to Michel Fiffe’s Copra, another of Bergen Street Press publication with which it shares similar sensitivities. It is not a revolutionary comic, nor did I find it to be excessively good in the way I’d say of, let’s say Aatmaja Pandya’s Phantom, is good. It is competent, well-done, and engaging. The type of comic I’d want to share with friends, the kind of comics I like to read and read about. It’s incredible that by virtue of being competent, it edges out pretty much every action comic I’ve seen come in at my local comic shop in years. It was a satisfying read, a fun thrill ride. I wouldn’t be upset if I never read any other Revenger comic, but since Forsman keeps making good, well-crafted comics with this character, I’m on board, you should jump in too.
Philippe Leblanc is a Canadian comics journalist. In his regular life, he improves Canadian medical education, and is the co-host of the Ottawa Comic Book Club. He reads alternative, indie and art comics at night and write about them for the Comics Beat.