Friendo #5 Review: Understand Me
Leo’s … alive. Or is he?
Story: Alex Paknadel
Art: Martin Simmonds
Colors: Dee Cuniffe
Letters: Taylor Esposito
Publisher: Vault Comics
Here we are, people. It’s the end of the line: the dream’s within Leo’s grasp, the bullets are in the chamber, the gasoline’s on the proverbial fire and the good shit I was talking about has turned into sublimely delightful, weird shit.
I was really hoping this book would get weirder. “But how is that possible?” you say, wrinkling your brow. Strap in, kiddos.
Issue #4 left off with Leo and Jerry on a mission: find Action Joe. The problem? He’s currently poisoning tribal groundwater in a desert pit somewhere, so it’s a bit of a tall order. And he’s full of bullets. And Jerry’s taking on more than just a life of his own. And Zajicek is pissed. And that action figure? The shining, disgusting and alluring symbol of all things to do with Leo’s existence? It might not be the exact savior we’re expecting, but it sure does have an impact.
It’s hard to talk too much about what Paknadel’s doing in this particular issue without delving in to spoilers, big or small, but he’s thrown out the map on this one and put a precise and elegant point on a real nightmare of a story. Zajicek’s straight out of an action film from the past few decades, with all the quirky bloodthirstiness that draw people to filmmakers like Tarantino and Ritchie and their shimmering, shallow ilk. He’s got a good deal of gravity on the page thanks to Paknadel and Simmonds partnering on his ghoulish nature, and he’s perhaps the most honest thing here. His purpose is clear, his humor grim and his final moment in Friendo fits the mold, so to speak. Cunniffe’s doing what he does best, with page after page of lovely juxtaposition of celluloid fever dreams and gore. Simmonds’ panel structures and layouts start to disintegrate a bit in a way that fits the story, and his art maintains all the good, clean and utterly disturbing visual flair this book’s known for. And to top it off we have Esposito at the top of his game guiding us through the madness with an expertly crafted, claustrophobic font and eerie borderless balloons.
As for Leo … there’s not much to say without venturing into spoilers save that he’s living proof that the tried, treasured, Hollywood-enforced moment of clarity upon which all classic and soothing narratives pivot isn’t the panacea we hope for. Smarter people than I have dug into why human beings create and consume art, but it’s my personal belief that at its root, it helps us order the chaos. The Western world places a lot of stock in the happy ending, or at the very least a sense of fulfillment that comes from narrative harmony. All the pieces in their place, all the motivations clear, all the tragedies voyeuristic, all the mysteries explained. The more recent trend of brutalism in storytelling is itself a salve, because if we can beat life to the punch by holding up its most virulent, disgusting and disappointed aspects, then we’ve won.
I call bullshit. Everything matters, because if it didn’t we wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t all be sitting in subliminal, writhing anxiety day-in and day-out as we’re bombarded with content. We make daily jokes about living a hellscape because we are, and all of our post-apocalyptic zombie stories or epics featuring Machiavellian psychopaths vying for power isn’t changing that. Our brains struggle to order what’s real and what isn’t because everything’s presented at warp speed, in hyperbolic language and with the bright, flashy ennui of a generation raised entirely in the digital sphere and a keen-edged marketing machine that’s absorbed nearly every instance of fringe expression. Some of my bitterness might come from realizing that the youth culture’s left me behind, but more of it comes from at least a lizard-brain-level awareness of the crawling, bloated erosion of meaning that’s consuming our minds, souls and bodies. Taking time to portray all of this (and more!) in Friendo in a way that’s not a circle-jerk of clever writing or flashy art takes courage, and Paknadel, Simmonds, Cunniffe and Esposito have it in spades.
Comics journalism and marketing proclaim almost every book that comes out as an epic achievement, and while I’d like to avoid hyperbole, the chances this team takes with this book are head and shoulders above what they’d need to accomplish to pull off a fine example of sequential storytelling. I’ve expounded at great length about my admiration for this book in concept and craft, grilled Alex Paknadel about the details, and all of this has reinforced my certainty that Friendo hits on something entirely universal, eerily modern and utterly unique.
I’ll leave you all with this: Friendo is a hell of a comic. It will grab you by the neck and force you to witness in ways I didn’t anticipate, and in the end there’s no easy resolution. Time marches on, sure, and one person can’t wage a war against culture, of course, and to every season, blah blah blah. But Paknadel, Simmonds, Cunniffe and Esposito have put together a story that doesn’t sit well, can’t be packaged or explained away, and defies catharsis on all levels.
Friendo #5 drops March 27th. Go get it.