New Monthly Comics: TEN GRAND by J. Michael Straczynski
In my previous two columns, I’ve talked about the advantages of having a “pull list” and buying comics on a monthly basis instead of merely waiting for a collection to come out as a trade edition. I also suggested a few titles that are good ones to start with right now since they are just beginning. In the first column on monthly comics, I recommended VELVET by Ed Brubaker and THE DREAM MERCHANT by Nathan Edmondson. In my second column, I recommended two comics in the new-and-improved Vertigo line of comics from DC: ASTRO CITY by Kurt Busiek and THE WAKE by Scott Snyder. This week and next week I’ll review briefly the first issues of a couple of new titles by J. Michael Straczynski, who is frequently referred to simply as JMS.
Both titles — TEN GRAND and SIDEKICK — come from Joe’s Comics in association with Image (so you’ll see both the Image and the Joe’s Comics icon on the cover). The philosophy behind Joe’s Comics is wonderfully sensible, but incredibly unusual in the world of comics.
What are the usual publishing practices of DC and Marvel to which JMS seems to most object? Basically, DC and Marvel will generally keep a title going no matter what, even if they may not have the best writer working on the title or may not have a good story idea. They just make sure the title keeps coming out like clockwork, month after month. Even if they have a good writer with good material, they often will still publish mediocre filler issues between those good story arcs.
As JMS states in “Joe’s Counter” — a letter to his readers at the end of his comics — “Joe’s Comics was created as a venue for experimentation and storytelling free from corporate agendas, crossover events and editorial edicts driven by quarterly profit-and-loss statements.” So, practically, what does that philosophy mean when it is put into action? Well, it means that when a new title starts, it will not automatically be expected to be an ongoing title or even be expected to be an arc with a regularly set number of issues: “Each arc will go the length it requires, no more, no less.” As JMS clarifies, though “most will go for 12 issues at a stretch,… others will go for 6 or 8 issues, depending on the needs of the story.” And once that arc is over, even if it has been a good run, JMS says, “we’ll let the title rest for two or three months while we recalibrate and decide if there’s another story to be told that’s worth your hard-earned bucks.”
That’s an impressive publishing philosophy, and because I’m so impressed, I’m encouraged to put Joe’s Comics on my pull-list. As I explained in my earlier column on buying individual issues, how well comics sell on a monthly basis — those monthly sales figures — are the most important numbers in the comic book industry. Therefore, I encourage you to buy monthly comics put out in smaller numbers by smaller publishers or perhaps even a little-known comic put out by DC and Marvel.
If you don’t support these writers and artists on a regular basis and sit around waiting for the trades, we’ll continue to see brilliant titles disappear because the monthly numbers falsely suggest a lack of interest. As I’ve said before, I’m still lamenting the loss of Jay Faerber‘s NEAR DEATH. You might want to buy the two volumes available in trade before they go out of print, particularly if you like Ed Brubaker’s noir comics like CRIMINAL, INCOGNITO, SLEEPER, SCENE OF THE CRIME, and FATALE. (Better yet, track down the individual copies of NEAR DEATH to read Faerber’s excellent “Under the Influence” essays on noir, essays not included in the trade editions.)
In fact, if you like Brubaker, not only will you probably like NEAR DEATH, you’ll probably like TEN GRAND. Let me make a few comparisons: Like Brubaker’s latest noir series, FATALE, TEN GRAND combines gritty noir, the occult, and horror. But the similarities shared by NEAR DEATH and TEN GRAND are even more interesting: Yes, both titles are in the noir style; but also, both are told in the first person, both come from the point-of-view of an assassin, and both feature an assassin who has crossed over to the next life and has had a vision — a vision of questionable reliability — that has led him to make an attempt at reform by using his skills to help people rather than killing for selfish monetary gain.
Still, I think there is one main difference that will make TEN GRAND appeal specifically to readers of fantasyliterature.com: While the assassin in NEAR DEATH has a vision of hell — specifically a vision of all the dead people he killed in his past — he doesn’t keep having visions of Hell. Other than the main character’s questioning a priest about the ethics of killing for a good cause, the comic stays focused on the earthly plane. But not TEN GRAND. What makes TEN GRAND so much fun is that it combines noir with demonology, assassins with angels. There’s no way to avoid a comparison to HELLBLAZER, but for some reason TEN GRAND doesn’t feel derivative of it at all.
Perhaps the reason it feels so unique is that the main character — Joe — is not a con-man like John Constantine. Even though the character is witty, he doesn’t have Constantine’s smirk. His life has gone horribly wrong, and he “lives” only with this small hope: of going through terrible pain for five minutes of happiness. Here’s the premise: Joe promises Laura — the love of his life — that he will do one more job, kill one more guy, and then retire. But the person he’s sent to kill happens to have some otherworldly connections in the theological basement. Before Joe shoots him, he commands a gathering of demons to “Kill him. And everyone near him.” And they do.
Once Joe and Laura are both dead and are sprawled grotesquely on the floor, an angel arrives and gives Joe an offer he can’t refuse: Go to hell and never see Laura again, or go to work in exchange for a small pittance. Joe’s new heavenly employer will give him work to do, and in exchange, the angel tells him, “If you die righteously, we’ll give you five minutes with [Laura]. Then resurrect you… And put you back to work again.” But he’s gotta feel that pain, she makes clear: “You’ll feel every inch of that pain, every wound, every death…. but for those five minutes you’ll be with her, until you’ve done enough to make up for your past actions.”
What kind of angel is this? What kind of GOD is this? The comic hints that Joe’s not entirely sure this angel is an angel or entirely sure that Laura is Laura. Is it all some demonic game? Is he merely being toyed with? How can he know? Or is JMS offering some theological commentary through the comic by having his narrator — in the presence of the angel — “remember that every time God needed somebody killed in the Bible, he sent an Angel”? He thinks he’s compatible with the angel because they are both in the same business — as assassins: “Maybe that’s why we get along. Professional courtesy. One enforcer to another.”
Speaking of angelic presences, this one is called forth by Joe while he’s in a gentleman’s club. The result of Joe’s drawing a sigil on a five-dollar bill? She ends up speaking through the naked woman on the dance pole — which is either really funny or highly offensive, depending on your point-of-view. If she’s really an angel of god, I suppose this scene leans towards blasphemy. If she’s a demon pretending to be an angel, then perhaps nobody’s going to be offended. The problem is there’s no way to know since I’m only talking about the first issue (there are only four issues out so far). But I bring this scene up to help you figure out whether this title will be to your taste.
In keeping with these demonic elements and with the fact that it’s a noir title as well, the comic is a dark one. Ben Templesmith’s art, of which I will include some examples, portrays a dark and dismal world. Frankly, I didn’t like his artwork the first time I saw it when I read Warren Ellis‘s noir comic FELL, but it was so perfect for that dark noir story, that I soon learned to appreciate and admire it. The mood of FELL and TEN GRAND is the same, so I think the right decision was made in having Templesmith work with JMS. Please take some time to look carefully at his art. He manages to find beauty within a bleak world, so at a first glance, it’s easy to miss that beauty. But it’s there. This comic is clearly not for everybody, but if it seems to appeal to you at all based on what I’ve said and the images, I think you’ll love it. It’s not just another run-of-the-mill series.
Next Week: J. Michael Straczynski’s SIDEKICK.