On Wednesdays We Wear Ink: Read Rick Remender or I’ll Murder Your Cat. Maybe.
Posted on April 13, 2016
People ask me all the time, “What have you done to my cat?!?” Sometimes, after I’ve paid bail and moved to a new town, other people ask me, “Andy, what comics should I read?”
The answers to those questions are as follows: “I tried to make it into lots of smaller cats, like in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but it didn’t work right, and now my axe is dirty,” and “Anything with Rick Remender’s name on it!”
Rick Remender is a hardcore kid. He may be married with kids, 43 years old, and I have absolutely no idea if he still goes to shows, but he remains a hardcore kid. The immediacy, the honesty, and the often brutal intensity of hardcore punk screams out of every page of his work. In a comics marketplace awash with bloated books where very little happens, Rick’s work batters you around the head with rapid fire story beats and gnarly action; then, when you’re catching your breath, he’ll lay you out with an emotional punch you never saw coming. All of this is facilitated by the incredible artists he works with, some of the finest of their generation. When you pick up a Remender comic, you get your money’s worth.
While there’s a real variety to his body of work, Remender often returns to themes of depression, addiction, redemption and recovery. His heroes are rarely perfect. Half the time they’re the kind of selfish fuck-up you’d cross the street to avoid, lest you find yourself drowning in their personal whirlpool of shit, or worse, recognising yourself in them.
You can’t start a redemption arc with a protagonist who is busy buffing their halo, and you can’t recover unless you’re at a true low point. Rick isn’t afraid to take the reader down to those dark places, and really explore ideas of self-loathing, guilt, and despair. That’s why the emotional highs in his work are so powerful; because they are honest, they are earned, and they are dripping with that most valuable of commodities: truth.
If you see a comic with Rick Remender’s name on it, you should buy it on sight, but if you absolutely must have specific recommendations, here, in no particular order are my personal top five. Guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, or at the very least cough-sneeze all over the pages.
The Punisher: Franken-castle
The Punisher. He’s the most super-serious of super-serious superhero characters. Except he’s clearly not a superhero, or indeed a hero of any kind. That’s what makes him a compelling character, after all. He is still super-serious though, right? In Franken-castle, Remender and pals (chiefly Walking Dead co-creator and schlock-master supreme Tony Moore) kill off super-serious Frank, then have him stitched back together and reanimated by Morbius the Living Vampire, in a city full of ghouls, mummies, and other monsters, underneath New York. Seriously.
Franken-castle is a Clint Eastwood western filtered through early Misfits records, and the campier end of Hammer Horror. It’s goofy, fun, and oddly moving, and on its initial publication it royally pissed off a great many humourless fanboys who take any silliness in their spandex-clad-hunk comics as a personal affront to themselves, their sainted mothers, and their neckbeards. All the right people loved it, and all the right people hated it. You’ll love it, though, because you’re beautiful.
Heath Huston has a drinking problem. He also has a personal hygiene problem (this might have something to do with the drinking). His best (only) friend is his spaceship’s A.I., Annie, and that’s probably for the best. His planet has been annihilated, he’s lost his home, his family, and quite possibly his bladder control. The only way is up.
Fear Agent is a sprawling sci-fi adventure story, combining the breakneck action and frequent plot twists of the classic pulp tradition, and Remender’s trademark mix of foul-mouthed humour and disarming emotional honesty. It’s also dripping with Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) references, and every volume is named after a classic hardcore record. The artists on the thing are the stuff of dreams, with Tony Moore, Jerome Opeña, Francesco Francavilla, Eric Nguyen, and Kieron Dwyer all going ham on the crazy space-age visuals. To coin a phrase, it is relevant to my fucking interests.
Weighing it at 32 issues, it’s a big investment, and the final arc will you ugly cry, but don’t let that put you off. It’s a huge slice of pulp madness, full of aliens, empty whiskey bottles, and plenty of insight into just what it means to be human. You need it in your life.
I was always going to love Deadly Class. It’s about a group of variously damaged punk kids trying to survive high school, and not just any high school, but a secret underground (literally) school where the world’s deadliest killers send their children to learn the family business. In the ’80s. It is the screaming, pent-up anguish of Black Flag’s My War (the demo recordings with two guitars, not the weaksauce studio version), an exploration of the alienation, crushing heartbreaks, rage, and uncertainty of many teenagers’ lives. The project is also deeply personal to Remender, and the violence not entirely metaphorical, as explained in this excerpt from his afterword to the first collection, Reagan Youth:
‘Phoenix was a violent place in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and standing out in a city like that led to numerous beatings, stabbings, and shootings amongst my friends. I’ve seen a man shot in the head, I had a friend shot in the back while trying to flee a gunfight, had a friend overdose on heroin before he shot himself in the head, another was stabbed, and I was personally jumped and brutally beaten by gangbangers twice.
Violence was just something to got used to being around.’
It’s a perfect collaboration, with Wes Craig’s art and Lee Loughridge’s colours providing a perfectly realised world, selling every beat, every heart-shredding moment both viscerally and beautifully. It is, for my money, the best comic on the stands today, and I say this with the full knowledge that we are living through a golden age of creativity and quality across the medium. It’s that good.
Venom wasn’t my first exposure to Remender’s work, but it was definitely the first time his name really registered in my consciousness. Venom is a book about the famous symbiotic Spider-man antagonist, separated from its host and weaponised by the US military. And who do they choose to be the new host for this manipulative, homicidal, and primally addictive alien symbiote? Why its war hero, double amputee, recovering alcoholic, and founder of the Spider-man Fan Club, Flash Thompson.
What happens when you put a soldier with no legs and addiction problems in a sentient alien combat suit that allows him to walk, run, and serve his country again? Well, it doesn’t take a genius, does it?
Venom is at points a darkly funny and thrilling spy book, and at others a soul-destroying look at the realities of addiction; the bargaining, the compromises, the broken promises, and relationships destroyed. It will break you, but it’s worth it for the lessons it imparts.
The sun expanded, fundamentally changing the global climate, and leaving the Earth’s surface too hot to maintain human (or any other) life. Millennia later, the last remants of humanity eke out an existence in great domed cities on the ocean floor. In Low, we follow scientist Stel Caine as she fights to keep her family together and secure a future for her species in a brutal and unrelentingly hopeless world.
Stel’s optimism, and her steadfast, almost religious belief in the power of hope is at the absolute core of Low. While post-apocalyptic despair is very much within Remender’s wheelhouse, writing a protagonist who has such a fierce belief in hope, in positivity, in human resilience, is very much not. As Stel clings to her tiny flame of optimism against all odds, we are offered a new and vigorous examination of well-worn Remender themes, and it is magnificent to behold, not least because Greg Tocchini’s art is so bowel-quiveringly stunning on every single page.
Many Remender works have helped me to cope with, and better understand, my personal struggle with depression over the years, but of all of them, Low is the book that helps me handle my shit more than any other. I had the opportunity to tell Remender as much at last year’s Thought Bubble comics con in Leeds.
I was running the British Comics Awards table all weekend, and on each of the two days I had about an hour to walk the floor. On the Sunday, in one of the world’s finest comics conventions, surrounding by the cream of British and international comics talent, I spent the best part of that hour queueing up to get books signed by Remender, have a short chat, and tell him just how bloody important his work is to me.
It was totally worth it, too. Rick Remender will rip your heart out of your chest and bludgeon you about the face and neck with it. If you don’t own a heart of your own, one will be provided for you. When the ordeal is over, you will find yourself shocked, emotionally drained, and possibly aroused. There’s no shame in that. No shame at all. Now go and read his shit.
Rick Remender, I salute you.
Andy Waterfield is going to be 30 years old this year. He lives in London, doing his own washing and cooking and everything. He is on the British Comics Awards committee, presumably because he won some sort of competition. Other than that, he is basically a high-functioning (and super-hairy) eight year old, whose life is dominated by comics, stupid jokes, and stupider music. Follow his drivel on Twitter: @andywritesstuff