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Duet On ‘Solo’, Part Six: Jordi Bernet

Published between 2004 and 2006, Solo was a DC Comics anthology series with an innovative twist: each issue was created from the ground up by a single cartoonist and collaborators of his own choosing. Edited by DC’s head art director Mark Chiarello (Wednesday Comics, DC: The New Frontier), the series offered artists a platform to control their visions completely in the form of original stories, unfettered access to DC’s library of characters, and without regard to continuity or other publishing concerns that affect the creation of a typical DC superhero book. Although Solo spotlighted the work of such talented and popular creators as Darwyn Cooke, Tim Sale, Paul Pope and Michael Allred, the series was cancelled after just 12 issues.

Even in a time when the superhero comics were experimenting wildly with structure and style, Solo stood apart and remains one of the best and most interesting mainstream series to emerge from the early years of this century. In this installment of Duet on Solo, writers Sean Witzke and Matt Seneca take an extremely close look at the sixth issue of Solo, created by Jordi Bernet.Seam Witzke: Following a good run of solid American cartoonists, Solo #6 is the first foreign artist in the roster. Jordi Bernet’s career has been highlighted in most American readers’ eyes by his work on Torpedo and, subsequent to Solo, working with writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray on DC’s Jonah Hex series. Bernet’s Solo issue is also the first in the series to have actual black and white comics, something you’d have hoped would happen more often in these books. Then again it might have been one of the reasons Solo eventually got the axe.

Matt Seneca: It doesn’t look that strange given the career moves Bernet made after this comic came out (a semipermanent home on DC’s Jonah Hex book, where he’d consistently been the best among a rotating cast of very fine cartoonists), but I remember people being pretty weirded out by the selection of Jordi Bernet to draw any DC comic at all. Torpedo, the crime-noir book Alex Toth hand-picked Bernet as his successor on (!) gets the most nods over here, but in Europe Bernet’s far better known for Clara del Noche, a truly lowest-common denominator soft porn comic about an irrepressibly cheery street prostitute and her uncomfortably lecherous young son. It’s the kind of thing that makes Milo Manara look like an artist of refined tastes. Most of the other stuff Bernet’s done falls somewhere in between Clara and Torpedo: sexy crime or crimey sex comics that generally contain slapstick gags, lots of killing, and an uncomfortable amount of violence against women, whether implied or actually shown.

All this aside, he’s also a fantastic cartoonist. This issue is really the first time where the only clear line of reasoning for Chiarello’s hiring of an artist is pure ability, rather than any kind of proven affinity for doing comics in the DC style. It’s an encouraging step forward, even though Bernet ended up turning in an issue full of classically constructed genre shorts, including the by-now obligatory Batman story. That’s hardly a bad thing, however.

SW: Sadly, no Crimean sex comics. I think it’s telling that in interviews most of the other contributors singled this out as the best example of Solo, just because of the sheer cartooning talent on hand. I remember Chaykin especially loved this issue for what it was, which was a showcase for slinging ink around and not much else.

MS: This is a really beautiful comic. But I think it’s also the very first issue where every story hits, where everything at least holds the reader’s attention. It’s all pretty tried-and-true EC-type material (with the exception of the Batman comic, which is tried-and-true DC), but Bernet assembled a fine crew of craftsmen to write him some solid stories in this issue, too. Then again, it’s in large part his own ability with roughing out a compelling page, pacing comics that stay fresh all the way through, and never underfeeding the eyes even during passages of exposition that makes the issue such a good read. And of course, you could flip through the thing a functioning illiterate and still find a ton to please — there isn’t a drawing in here that isn’t gorgeous.

SW: The whole of the issue could have been on a golden age of television compilation. It feels less EC and more good ’50s television for me. The prison story is a hell of an Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Actually almost everything here — including the Batman story with its narration style — seems to be exactly set to that tone. And the guys here — Joe Kelly, Andrew Helfer, John Arcudi, Chuck Dixon, and the omnipresent-in-Solo Brian Azzarello — are the kinds of genre writers who understand how to be as clear as possible without ever falling into boring or clichéd traps. All of them have a really significant (and between them, consistent) sense of humor, which can’t be undersold when working with Bernet.

MS: Every one of these writers is a guy who’s got a long run of solidly constructed, highly competent genre comics under his belt, whatever his other sins may be. It’s a comic created entirely by people who know exactly what they’re doing and exactly how to do it effectively, which might rob it of some of the coincidental, fish-out-of-water transcendence of a few other issues, but as far as a showcase of pure craft this is probably the best of the bunch, a high-quality anthology of somewhat adventurous genre comics that doesn’t put a foot wrong.

SW: If there were a two-book set of Solo, this issue would be the most solid thing in that first trade paperback. I think the back half of this 12-issue series is weirder and less consistent, but without a doubt this issue is the best of the first half. I think out of that list of writers above, John Arcudi is probably the most consistently great, but his story here is probably the worst thing in the issue. Which is actually a positive, because at least it’s clever.

MS: The Arcudi story is a pretty straightforward shaggy-dog thing that places a vaguely contemporary, X-Files kind of plot against a Western setting. It’s even got a little of Clara del Noche’s kid-voyeur vibe, though I’m not sure how intentional that is. There is a really potent subtext, though, to a story about the child who sees the man her mother asks to move in after her father dies doing ugly and horrible things late at night. It’s enjoyably psychological. But Bernet really elevates a one-note story above its station here, with an average of about one completely indelible image per page — a boneless flesh-monster sneaking out the window of a ramshackle farmhouse, a kid whose slumber has just been disturbed, and a knee-slapper of a final image featuring the grotesquely comic spectacle of a man whose human skull has been replaced with a cow’s.

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SW: Its a “monster of the week” kind of thing, kind of an O Henry thing right now, where you could have a second act where someone goes out and hunts the monster, which I’m glad they didn’t do. The mother is kind of drawn throughout the thing as exaggeratedly angular and demure. I think Bernet was trying to lower the sexiness of his figures just a little for this one, considering how he draws women in the rest of the stories.

MS: Yeah, he has a thing throughout his work of depicting truly loving mothers in really inappropriate contexts, which just… I feel icky reading a lot of that stuff, but here it works to the story’s advantage simply by minimizing distraction. Speaking of flow, how well does he block this thing out, man? Every single panel in here has a through-line to the next, and every single figure is moving forward along the page. Compositionally, it’s flat-out amazing.

SW: Aside from the first page, it’s really consistent on the three-tier grid, with big images always along the bottom or top tier for punch. It’s got a beat, and those final images always hit.

MS: I see that big bottom tier in a desert setting and I immediately think Herriman, which I’m not sure was on Bernet’s mind, but the absurdity of the thing, the goofy flailing of it, has a bit of Herriman’s twinkle to it. Ahem. And now before I embarrass myself too thoroughly with overpraise, let’s move onto the Joe Kelly crime story, which is drawn in drop-dead gorgeous black and white… oh wait, I’m gonna start with the hyperbole again. Damn, these drawings are pretty.

SW: I was completely blown away by Joe Kelly being the dude that wrote this. I’ve always not rated that guy at all. I thought it was smarter than I’ve ever seen from him, with the device of an argument going on off-frame and the events of the story likely happening on television, playing off the image and the conversation at certain points.

MS: Well, I actually think this story is the weakest of the bunch. It’s really clever, but the main trope of it overpowers its readability. I read it as the images filling in everything that happened right before the conversation starts. We see a man flipping out and crushing a woman’s head in with a TV set during a vacation in Las Vegas, and then the conversation we’re reading is him coming home to his wife immediately afterwards. The trope’s a good one, and there are some low-rent Alan Moore moments where the perceived failings the wife points out in her husband are mirrored by if-you-only-knew drawings of what he’s been getting up to in her absence, but you only really figure out what the deal is by the end of the comic. Time and again I find myself just stranded reading this thing, not really attaching to either of the timelines in the story. It could be because the art in some of these panels is so great, though, that I just don’t want to take my eyes off it long enough to process what Kelly’s saying.

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SW: I don’t think it hinders readability, its not a Kevin Smith comic or anything, although rereading it I guess I missed that last panel’s joke entirely so I guess it does fudge readability. Still its not awful, I don’t think.

MS: No, at worst it’s a failed experiment with some great drawings, which is like 90 percent of what we refer to as “great comics” anyway. Not to say that this is that, but there’s a lot worse to read, and despite my looking on this as the worst story in the issue, I think it’s by far the most visually impressive. Bernet in black and white is just fantastic — the way he differentiates figures from ground without switching up his mark-making at all, the boldness of his brushstrokes, the grace of his long lines, the scree around the edges of his spotted blacks — this is comics you can drink with your eyes.

SW: I think he keeps the amount of black on the pages low until the last page, which is almost entirely in shadow, which is a nice, easy effect for the story’s end. What did you think of the prison story with Helfer?

MS: Best story in here, I think. It’s really fantastic, hard-bitten crime comics that goes way darker than that genre usually gets without hitting any of the cliché “we’re hardcore” signifiers. It’s really a story with no likable characters that stars a few men who nonetheless have made more just and honorable decisions than the others. Which is a great way to do a prison comic. I mean, good people definitely do end up stuck in that complex, but the “wrongly accused man in jail” story, or really any story about a completely good guy stuck in confinement, is just so overdone. Helfer writes a story about some dudes who might have killed for good reasons — noble ones, even — but are still fundamentally killers, and doesn’t give readers an easy moral out. There’s also some really memorable drawings in this thing. The first I think of when I think about this comic is the vigorously simplified panel of a dude getting his throat slashed with a straight razor, eyes bugging out, giant chink in his chicken neck, black ink spraying around everywhere. It’s a great cartoon on the darkest subject imaginable.

SW: I think it’s ironic that this story is the least sexy thing here and yet it’s far and away the best portion, keeping with Andy Helfer’s tastes which lean towards Cold War global politics jammed up against classical genre dynamics. That approach provides his work a kind of escape route from what’s usually the end result of those “hardcore” elements; instead he likes to place characters in positions where they are forced to develop into more interesting, more savage figures or die, either placed there by their own actions or by political machinations. In this case, all of these men have been brought there by both.

MS: That’s a great way of looking at it. There’s a big lean on the sympathies of American readers, too — we automatically root for the guys we’re told are “revolutionaries,” even though they’re locked up in jail and we see them just surrounded by death almost from panel one. The “bad guys,” by contrast, aren’t shown at all, an invisible, guaranteed presence. And actually, I just realized there are two great throat-slashing panels in here!

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SW: Throat-slashing with a straight razor is a great, consistent image of the Cuban revolution in fiction, too, so it’s got some resonance.

MS: And it’s another great Solo color job in a long line of the same by José Villarrubia, dark and muddy without ever hazing over with brown the way so many “gritty” mainstream comics do.

SW: This issue is probably the most solid yet, color-wise, and the first one without a huge, jarring moment that brings you out of it. This is the first one we don’t immediately have a complaint about, I think.

MS: I thought all the color in the Paul Pope issue was just fine, but yeah, more or less. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the color on the next story, which goes back to the Western well — Bernet’s American-comics forte, I suppose — for a pretty damn disturbing story of revenge and, um, giant bears.

SW: The story reads like a first run for his Jonah Hex books. The lead character even looks like Hex. That bear is great, isn’t it? Best cartooning in the whole thing is the bear up close.

MS: Yeah, for sure. Though on the last page, where it’s coming at the cowardly Indian guide, our Jonah Hex stand-in has conveniently trussed up for its delectation with a crazy near-smile on its face, like a methhead Yogi Bear, that’s pretty solidly fantastic too. It’s really scary stuff, actually, another story where the hero is far more reprehensible than the “villains,” who are just hungry and want to save their own skin, retrospectively. It’s the Captain Ahab story transposed onto a Western setting with all the psychological depth replaced by slasher-movie intensity — the audience stand-in whom the whole backstory gets told to actually runs away terrified at the end!

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SW: It swerved in a way I didn’t see coming at all, with him tied up like that, with the severed knees? I thought he was dead. But I guess Dixon’s probably the most consistent action writer in American comics, despite being awful at everything that isn’t action, so I should’ve expected it. The little things are great too. The ragged panel borders for the flashback work so well.

MS: Also definitely the most hardline EC pastiche in the issue — this story is like one of the really gory Jack Davis comics where everything goes up in explosions of gore at the end. I almost feel cheated that we don’t get a final page of just seven panels of the bear ripping that dude’s guts out, eating his face off. But c’est la vie, this is still a DC comic, even though Bernet and crew have managed to keep you from remembering that up to this point. But after this, here we go — back to heteronormative superhero comics with our old pal Batman to finish out!

SW: We end with a Batman and Poison Ivy story, which is exactly the same as any other Batman and Poison Ivy story. Really the only thing here that is new is how Bernet draws Ivy, which is probably why they hired the guy in the first place.

MS: Well, his opening shot of Gotham City’s iron girder skyline steps right up and goes toe to toe with Paul Pope’s opening shot of Gotham City’s iron girder skyline pretty effectively. But yeah, this is cliché Batman comics, pretty much. Look at him draw it, though! Poison Ivy in masturbation poses for a mere five bones, kids!

SW: It feels like a euro-porn version of the Jim Aparo Batman, especially the way Bernet draws Batman and Ivy interacting. It’s as if that’s the only DC stuff Bernet was actually familiar with (which, hey, is arguably a good way to be because Aparo Batman is the best). Those city shots remind me of ’70s Batman a whole lot. There are some really interesting layouts too.

MS: Yeah, some alternate-world ’70s version of the Batman TV show with Clint Eastwood having replaced Adam West a few years prior. There’s a ton of Kevin Nowlan to Bernet’s Batman too, which is cool. He gets at something with his rendition that I think Azzarello saw and used more explicitly down the line in his Joker graphic novel — the guy is a totally alien presence in Bernet’s visual world, the marks he uses to describe that particular figure don’t appear anywhere else, he’s this massive, hulking presence… truly uncanny.

SW: I didn’t catch Nowlan in there but I see it. That might just be the double-lighting, though.

MS: I’d also like to say that even though Azzarello does the most cliché Batman-Ivy story ever, he peels it back further than most have, really nailing the battered-woman aspect of Poison Ivy’s character, which has always been a hugely misogynistic construct. It’s a conduit for exploring a really dark side of the whole Batman idea, which goes way further into domination, BDSM sexuality than any of the crime fighting comics featuring nominally inhuman, super-powered characters. If they really wanted to make that new Batman movie go past the last one in terms of envelope-pushing darkness, I say they should have just put a 15-minute handicam scene of Batman beating Catwoman to within an inch of her life in there as the ending. Nobody would be able to film the character again!

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SW: Poison Ivy is a great stand-in for that kind of female villain for all of these stories, especially with Batman because his relationship with say, Catwoman, doesn’t as easily fit into that mold. The Ivy/Batman thing is less trod ground too. Even in Solo there’s weirdly a lot about Batman’s relationship to women, but it doesn’t get approached the way it is here.

MS: For me this is the first issue that really gels together as a whole comic, without the age-old anthology problem of a story or two that are clearly inferior to the rest. It’s weird because Chaykin’s issue was much the same — a collection of stories that are by their nature basically unobjectionable. Straight genre comics, competently drawn. I think maybe it’s the simplicity Bernet brings to his work that functions more effectively in this setting? Every moment feels of itself, not tied to anything else or working toward being anything but what it is. It’s mostly just “good cartooning” that pulls this one through so effectively, but hey, this is comics, what more do you really need?

SW: From here on out, that tried-and-true anthology format is thrown away by almost everyone, too, so it’s great to see it done well one last time before it gets weird.

MS: Next time: it gets weird.

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