Anyone looking at a copy of Benjamin Marra’s Terror Assaulter: OMWOT (One Man War on Terror) is forced to do some heavy categorizing. The cover features a guy in a suit, wearing sunglasses, and smoking a cigarette beheading a bad guy with a katana. The bad guy is armed with a gun and a chainsaw, built like the proverbial brick shithouse, and is dressed like an old He-Man figure: blue briefs and a belt, frilly boots, and a little cape. On a bed watching all this is a blonde woman in an evening gown with red high-heeled shoes. So what is this thing you’re looking at? Is it serious? Is it really a comic book about a simplistic good-versus-evil dynamic? But the art is so stiff and ridiculous. It’s a joke, right? Is it a funny joke or a bad joke? Is the whole comic going to be like this? What the hell is going on?
All of OMWOT is constructed like this. It’s a gaudy, relentless assault on the part of your brain that likes to file art away into simplistic categories. At first, the book seems like it’s going to be a so-bad-it’s-good joke about the childishness of violent popular entertainment. Terror Assaulter, or whatever our hero is called, walks into an office. “I’m here for the meeting,” he says to a secretary wearing a tight mini-skirt. She replies “Yes.” Then she says “Go right in.” He replies, “Thank you.” And then she says — you’ll never guess — “You’re welcome.” As he walks away, she says to herself, “Hm.” And then: “He’s handsome.”
So this is the idea, right? It’s a book filled with awkward dialogue and bad art that resembles what you’d find in a seventh grade boy’s notebook: breasts as drawn by someone who’s never seen naked breasts, stiff figures rendered by someone who has copied whole comic books repeatedly, and a viciously ugly color palette that looks like it was chosen from a dollar-store set of markers.
So just when you think you’ve got OMWOT figured out as a parody of adolescent power fantasies, it goes and gets weirder. Specifically, it turns very violent. Our “hero” gets into a fight with a bad guy. There’s a lot of kicking and punching and such. But then the Terror Assaulter picks up a machine gun and shoots the bad guy. And then he keeps shooting. And keeps shooting. “BRAP!” goes the sound effects. “BRAP!” And finally, “BRRAAP!!” (“THUP THUP THUP” go the bullets as they enter the corpse of the bad guy.) Finally, after one more “BRAP!” for good measure, Terror Assaulter walks away from the body, leaving the dead body there on the ground with steam pouring out of all the bullet holes with a “SSSS.” You haven’t seen this many bullets fired into a dead body since the ending of Inglorious Basterds. It gallops right over violence and slides into “defiling a corpse” territory. It’s honestly unsettling to read, a six-panel sequence that feels like a joke that turns a little cruel about a third of the way through.
And then the sex starts.
At first, the sex in OMWOT is strictly of the adolescent power-fantasy variety: a “beautiful” woman, her hair voluminous and her breasts like two spherical slabs of marble, begs for sex from the apathetic Terror Assaulter. Then it gets really graphic, from the veins on Terror Assaulter’s turgid penis to the graphic penetration shots. (“I’m inside you,” Terror Assaulter, ever the romantic, tells the woman as he slides inside her.) They shift through all the classic pornographic positions, and then Terror Assaulter leaves, because he’s, you know, a bad ass.
But that’s just the first third or so of the book. There’s more violence, and a lot more sex. Graphic sex. Homosexual sex. (“Work my dick like the plane control stick!” a man shouts at Terror Assaulter in the throes of passion as he simultaneously screws the man and crash-lands a hijacked 747.) Like the violence, the sex goes on too long and is way too detailed to be perceived as an innocent joke.
As I read OMWOT, I couldn’t help but read the text as a meta-fiction, to insert a fictional author between Benjamin Marra and the comic. I read OMWOT as less its own narrative and more a work of a fictional person, and with the idea that every exaggerated action told me something else about the fictional author. I imagined him as a grown man, like Henry Darger, who probably was victimized from a very young age and kept it compressed somewhere deep inside, where it began to rot his spirit from the inside out. I couldn’t help but read OMWOT as a desperate attempt from a damaged soul to do self-therapy, to put some demons to rest.
But there’s nothing really in the text to support that meta-author narrative. It’s likely that what I was doing was trying to make some sense out of the relentless comic-book dada, trying to find a pattern where only chaos existed. It’s quite possible that OMWOT isn’t interested in categorization, or explanation, or order. It might just be an exercise in nihilism and narrative chaos. And the thing is, no matter how you read it — as a narrative with more to deliver, as a satire of bad comics, as an exercise in emphasizing ugliness — OMWOT succeeds. It works on every level you try to categorize it under, because it feels, on some level, spiritually pure. It is what it is, because it’s devoted to telling its disturbing story of sex and violence with a completely straight face.
In theory, OMWOT has a lot in common with Punch to Kill, a new comic book by writers Kevin Clarke and Will Long and illustrated by Marc Palm. It’s a hyperviolent exercise in over-the-top genre excess, full of gaudiness and unbelievably action.
But those similarities are shallow. In reality, these two works are coming from entirely different places. For starters, while OMWOT is willfully hideous, Punch is, in spite of itself, an atttractive comic book. Palm, one of the organizers of the free Seattle comics newspaper Intruder, is a talented artist. While OMWOT features clumsy body language, the protagonist of Punch, a man locked in a room in a nondescript office building, moves like a real person (albeit a real person starring in a comic book about kung fu.) There’s one panel early on where our protagonist is running down a hallway. His hands are cuffed together, and he’s running as fast as he can. The pose that Palm catches him in, with one leg up high as he runs at a guard, is comically exaggerated, but it feels fluid, like a single frame pulled from an animated strip.
Which is not to say that Punch is about realism. If you have any doubts that you’re in the realm of hyperviolence, look no further than the splash page on the fourth page of the comic, when our protagonist grabs the heads of two men snorting cocaine and smashes them together into an explosion of bloody eyeballs and lightning.
Punch is much more straightforward than OMWOT. While OMWOT isn’t interested in following through on its action comic roots — plots are suggested and dropped on every other page — Punch reads like a real revenge comic. Our hero fights tougher and tougher foes until he finally takes on a demon monster. It’s a classic “boss”-style adventure, a video game level in comics form.
What you have with Punch is a proven comics talent having a hell of a lot of fun with the form by playing in genre. If you think of Punch as a modern version of Scott McCloud’s superhero comics pastiche Destroy, you’ll likely be pretty close to the intent. Palm includes a list of influences for the book including the comics of Geoff Darrow, Simon Bisley’s Lobo comics, and films The Raid and Dredd. This isn’t some artsy-fartsy commentary on genre. This is an artist trying his hand at a form he genuinely enjoys.
In a short column at the back of the book, Clarke says that Punch began as a movie idea that eventually migrated to comics. It was a smart move. Palm’s artwork does what millions of dollars of computer generated effects cannot: he sells the ridiculous violence and supernatural elements of the story by giving them a physics of their own, an internal set of laws that work on the comics page. To call Punch a ballet of violence would be to insult both ballet and violence. What it is, really, is an onslaught of violence, an attempt to celebrate comics by trying to break comics. What it is, is art.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant