Phil Hester’s “The Wretch Volume One: Everyday Doomsday”

05 May

In the mysterious Wretch, Phil Hester has created a character that I love so much that I honestly don’t care what kind of story he appears in. A bad Wretch story excites me more than a good Spider-Man story: this kind of excitement about a character is something that I miss about being a teenager, when a Spawn comic book was all I needed to be happy about life (don’t judge me, I had a lot of angst back then). I stumbled upon the character’s Wikipedia entry a few weeks ago, and immediately ordered this book on Amazon, confident that I would enjoy it. And enjoy it I did, even if the actual stories in this first book were sometimes a bit of a mixed bag.

Wretch is a bandaged silhouette with huge white eyes (think Spider-Man’s symbiote costume with spiky hair), and his costume, which we never see all of, changes based on the needs of the story. His powers also change each issue, based on the rule of cool, and he never says a word in the entire comic. The stories all follow the same basic rhythm: a resident of the wonderfully named Glass City is threatened, either by supernatural forces or by more mundane threats like racism or domestic strife. The threat is introduced and plays itself out, and then the Wretch comes in and uses his strange magic to solve the problem. His solutions follow an odd, dreamlike logic of their own: in one story, the Wretch takes the wedding ring of a man who was murdered in the snow and builds a snowman, placing the wedding ring into the snowman’s chest cavity. The snowman melts back into the no-longer-dead murder victim, who may or may not have received supernatural powers from the ordeal. Stuff like that.

These unlimited “rule of cool” powers detract a little from the suspense of the stories, although I’m not sure if a book like this is really SUPPOSED to have suspense. I personally would have enjoyed a story or two where Wretch turned out to be helpless in the face of some tragedy, but maybe Hester was going for a 1940s Detective Comics-era vibe, where an omnipotent avenger goes about righting society’s wrongs and the payoff is in watching him do it. Hester certainly attempts to tackle the touchy social issues of the 90’s and early 00’s, even if I found some of the results a little preachy and simplistic. A racist father who hits his daughter and refers to black people as “colored” is certainly an easy villain, but that’s ALL he is. Another story brings up bulimia and suicide in the context of insecure teenagers being preyed upon by a conman, and while the results are certainly less corny than any of Marvel or DC’s attempts in this area, they are still corny (particularly when the kids “rise up” to say “We’re not afraid anymore”). On the other hand, a story about striking workers clashing with Mexican immigrants is handled quite well. Both “sides” are portrayed sympathetically, and the tale’s symbolic threat touches all the right emotional notes.

All this makes it sound like The Wretch is nothin’ but social consciousness and symbolism, and I don’t want to make it seem that way at ALL. It’s fun and imaginative, bursting with pulpy energy, and the stories move at a breakneck pace. The artsy comics I read are almost always slow and self-conscious, so I always love to read something that’s both artsy AND entertaining. I may complain about the very real cheesiness in some of Hester’s writing, but his stories come from a unique and creative place and he tells them unapologetically, and that kind of renders my complaint moot. I’d rather read Wretch than most of the stuff in the Best American Comics collections, for example.

Aside from all this, Wretch is like the coolest character ever. He’s the kind of superhero you want to get a tattoo of, the kind of malleable avatar who can be absolutely anything the author needs him to be without losing his iconic qualities. I have a real fascination with characters like this: the closest I’ve ever come to creating one is my take on Satan in [shamelessplug: The Lost Works of Georges Melies /endshamelessplug]. It’s harder than it looks, but these are the kinds of characters readers fall in love with. Wretch is a Ditko-style weirdo written with a nineties indie-comic sensibility. If you like comics, it’s a hidden gem.

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Posted by on May 5, 2012 in I Review Other Stuff


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