By Spencer Irwin and Mark Mitchell
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: A few weeks ago I covered Isola 1, a comic I praised for its subtlety and its trust and respect for its readers’ intelligence; there was very little hand-holding, exposition, or lore, and the issue was all the stronger for it. Rick Remender and Bengal are attempting something similar in the debut of their new Image series, Death or Glory, but it unfortunately doesn’t work quite as well. By the end of the issue — and especially on a second read — the story and structure, the characters and their relationships, they all snap together in a satisfying way, but I spent much of my first read puzzled; moreover, there’s still a few elements that don’t mesh even on that second time around.
For starters, there’s a moment where that subtle clarity Remender and Bengal are aiming for fails them entirely. After a cold open, the issue introduces readers to its protagonist, Glory Owen. A few pages later it cuts to a new scene, featuring a young woman in a bathtub.
It turns out that the young woman is also Glory, but it took me a while to figure that out for a few reasons. First of all, almost every page featuring Glory, both before and after, incorporates a running internal monologue (it turns out that this monologue is Glory speaking into a tape recorder, in case she doesn’t survive her heist. Interestingly, the monologue continues even after Glory hands her tape recorder over to a friend; this is never really explained), but this trademark characteristic notably vanishes in the bathtub scene. Without clothes and with her hair down, Glory is barely recognizable, and her skin is almost another color entirely. This can be chalked up to a difference in lighting — dark and shadowy in the garage, stark and fluorescent in the bathroom — but all these changes put together make for a jarring transition. Context from later in the issue makes it clear, in retrospect, that this is Glory, but on my first read I was thoroughly confused, thinking this woman was another character entirely and waiting for her to return, her significance to be explained.
That’s just one way in which this issue works better on a second read. I praise Remender and Bengal for aiming high and respecting their readers’ intelligence, and it’s easy and satisfying to figure out all the connections between their cast after finishing the issue, but that task can be needlessly difficult throughout the first read. For example, the issue opens by spending a few pages introducing and fleshing out characters who are quickly and unceremoniously killed off. That decision looms over the rest of the issue; every character introduced afterwards is brand new, so it’s hard to know which characters are important and which are just fodder, no matter how much attention they receive. It creates some unnecessary confusion.
(This is only tangentially related, but Glory’s backstory also feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity. The “off-the-grid” lifestyle she was raised in isn’t fleshed out much, and while I’m hoping it will play a more important role in the future, the ways in which it informs Glory in this issue — giving her and her father Red a supportive community and making it impossible for Glory to pay Red’s bills — certainly aren’t unique to that lifestyle. People with far more than Glory and Red are still drowning in medical bills and pushed to desperate measures; her story could be more powerful if it wasn’t so far removed from normal experiences.)
Bengal is a talented artist — just check out the perspective and detail he packs into those shots of Glory’s garage — but his work doesn’t always seem to strike the tone Remender is aiming for. There’s an elasticity and sense of exaggeration to his characters’ faces that sometimes undermines the emotion of a scene.
Take the fifth panel here. Curtis, the man with the mop, just watched his co-worker get frozen to death from the inside out, but his expression is almost comical, like a Muppet doing a double-take or something. Later in the issue, Glory sees her briefcase full of cash — a briefcase she nearly died to get, a briefcase she needs to save her father’s life — destroyed right in front of her eyes, but her expression is closer to Lucille Ball cringing because she just ruined Ricky’s show than it is to shock or horror. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Bengal’s faces are charming, but they were much better suited to his issues of Batgirl than they are the gritty, violent world of Death or Glory. They sell the stakes short.
Where this issue really comes together is in its last two pages, and that fantastic twist.
This is the kind of emotion Bengal needed to be wringing out of those earlier scenes I criticized — this page, even free of context, is practically a revelation — and Glory stumbling into a human trafficking ring complicates her already hopelessly-complicated predicament in an intriguing way. These two pages piqued my interest and made subsequent rereads of the issue much more engaging and rewarding, but I fear they may be too little too late. To be completely honest, if I was reading this issue for the first time without being assigned to write about it, I probably would’ve put it down long before I reached those final pages.
Mark, I guess it’s safe to say I have mixed feelings on this one; how about you? And although it’s not my fault in any way, shape, or form, I still kinda feel like I need to apologize for your having to read a comic that contains the word “cuck” spoken aloud multiple times. I think I may have thrown up a little in my mouth when I reached that point.
Mark: Yeah, the last two pages help end Death or Glory 1 on a bit of an upswing, but, man, this is a rough debut.
From the beginning, this issue is an uncomfortable pastiche of the Coen Brother’s 2007 No Country for Old Men and the basest instincts of Michael Bay. Death or Glory 1 takes most of its story points from No Country, and all of that film’s core elements are accounted for — Remender and Begal riff on Anton Chigurh and his infamous bolt pistol, the general country bumpkin milieu, and, of course, complications arising out of dirty money.
But woven in with that inherited grittiness is a particularly Michael Bay-ian contradiction; the issue simultaneously embraces-and-rejects its own juvenile pandering. To your point about the use of “cuck,” Spencer, it’s strange that Remender and Bengal clearly share our disdain for the word, putting it in the mouth of one of the worst characters, but they’re still eager to use it for effect — multiple times! That dichotomy raises the question: who is Death or Glory’s intended audience? Those who still find “cuck” or “retard” to be edgy use of language? But the creators clearly think those people are idiots. It’s a confusing, ugly look.
Also ugly are the panels lovingly rendered in Oglevision 3000, the most embarrassing of which is this moment where cowboy cop Virgil is entrusted with a briefcase full of dirty money by Toby’s…girlfriend?
Remender doesn’t find space to give this character a name, by the way.
Moments like these are embarassing failures of everyone involved with this book. There’s just no excuse for lazy, pointless tit shots in mainstream comics in 2018. Elevate yourselves.
In short, Death or Glory is ill conceived, a confused misfire from Remender and Bengal. Why write a book that appeals primarily to groups you’re exhausted by? And why debase yourself in the process?
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There was so much to like about this comic. There was so much to dislike about this comic. You’d swear it was written by Garth Ennis.
First: How can you even think about making a great comic with a full page ass licking joke on page one? That’s page one. “The girl you’re going out with licked my butt.”
You really have to have confidence in your story to have that as your opening.
Second: I don’t think you can have a character, even an ignorant one, use the word ‘cuck’ and have your work be taken seriously. There are so many other words. Maybe cuck-users would think it was ok, but then they might not understand the sheriff and the deputy(?) weren’t the good guys…
Third: The colors were outstanding. Brilliant. And I don’t like colors.
Fourth: The story itself was good. The dialog was clunky in a lot of places, but the story was interesting and engaging and I liked the lead character and the ending twist made me want to read issue two. So it did what an issue one should do, which was give an engaging story that was appealing to look at and make me want to read issue two.
But holy fuck what a terrible opening page.