A Short, Strange, Surprising Trip (a TPB review of Strange Girl)

A Short, Strange, Surprising Trip

{A Trade Paperback Review of Strange Girl Omnibus}

 

            The most interesting book I’ve read this year is Strange Girl.  It’s not a perfect book.  Author Rick Remender admits as much in his prologue when he describes some of the things he wished he’d done differently.  It’s flawed, but in interesting ways.  It’s thought provoking.  It’s personally revealing and engaging.  It’s funny.  It’s occasionally poignant.  It’s about the journey more than the destination, though the destination itself is fairly interesting.  It’s Strange Girl by Rick Remender and it’s unlike any book I’ve ever read. 

            Rick Remender first made a name for himself in the comic book industry while working in independent comics.  Some of his early work was brilliant like the frenetic Fear Agent.  Other series had interesting premises but poor execution such as the dreadful pirate-vampire title Sea of Red.  Remender’s indie work eventually got him noticed by Marvel Comics and he signed on as an exclusive writer at the “The House of Ideas” in 2009.  At Marvel, Remender was responsible for critically acclaimed series like Punisher War Journal, Uncanny X-Force and Uncanny Avengers.  With a new and much larger fan following, Rick Remender returned to indie comics in 2013.  He launched the brilliant Black Science, the disquieting Deadly Class, the luxurious Low and the tantalizing Tokyo Ghost.  Remender’s newfound popularity also ignited interest in his previous work, allowing his publishers to issue new collections of his earlier creator-owned series like Strange Girl.

            Strange Girl has a bumpy beginning.  The series follows Bethany Black, a free-spirited adolescent in conflict with her parent’s strict suburban fundamentalist way of life.  The first strange twist is that her parents are right.  The Rapture occurs in the middle of the opening chapter and Bethany is left alone in a new world overrun by demons.  The second chapter jumps forward ten years as Bethany has learned to make a life for herself in this new Hell-on-Earth.  She serves a demon overlord named Belial as a slave bartender.  However, Bethany isn’t content to be a slave and, in a second big twist in as many issues, she attempts to escape.  The escape is a fast-paced action affair that also sets up a new status quo: Bethany and her companion, a raunchy blue demon named Bloato, are on the lam across a demon-ruled America. 

At this point, Strange Girl finally hits its stride.  The first two chapters were fairly formulaic.  It’s not until the third chapter that Strange Girl develops its own personality.  We get a better sense of Bethany’s independence, skepticism, sarcasm and perseverance.  Plus, Bloato is endearing as a supporting character- witty, vulgar, and selfish, yet surprisingly devoted to Bethany.  Rick Remender is the first to admit that Strange Girl took some time to gel.  In his introduction, he confesses that he wasn’t happy with the series until the third issue.  Perhaps Strange Girl would have worked better if he had started the story in media res and then filled in the story with flashbacks.  In later chapters, Remender puts flashbacks to good use, depicting Bethany’s life before the Rapture as well as her early years learning to cope while slyly learning magic on the side. 

            From here on out, Strange Girl is a fascinating ride.  Bethany and Bloato’s trip across America allows Remender to examine old friends, new cults and warring factions.  He introduces more supporting characters: a childhood friend named Tim who’s been warped by this new world, a hulking soldier with a heart of gold named Mouse, and Bloato’s shifty daughters Hanta and Sil. 

            Yet Strange Girl is more than an adventure story in a dark and dangerous world.  It is also an examination of faith, doubt, fate and destiny.  From the beginning, Bethany Black has rejected her parents’ restrictive views on religion.  Yet now, she’s confronted with a world in which her parents were potentially right.  Bethany wrestles with the repercussions of the Rapture, arguing with other characters about the callous and capricious nature of God.  Remender does a great job of depicting various degrees of faith.  Mouse is a firm believer though his journey eventually leads him to a crisis of faith.  Bloato acknowledges the existence of God but doesn’t seem to be particularly perturbed by the whole thing (demons know who God is, even if they aren’t about to bow down).  Some of the religious leaders are manipulative and evil, yet other believers are sincere and hopeful.   

            It is this depiction of faith, in addition to the depth of characterization, that is the real strength of Strange Girl.  Rick Remender confesses in the introduction that Bethany’s spiritual struggles mirror his own.  Strange Girl is therefore a very personal story.  As a young man, Rick had difficulties with his mother’s extensive and strict Mormon family, and those difficulties are reflected in Strange Girl.  Yet Remender remains incredibly even-handed about people of faith, showing a range of religious attitudes that reflect the reality of life. 

I shared some of Rick’s struggles growing up but I ended up in a different place.  As a Protestant pastor, I appreciated Rick’s honest and nuanced depiction of faith.  I thought his depiction of God was particularly well done and I especially appreciated that Rick’s version of God discussed the ways in which doubt and faith work together.  Rick may not be a believer but he shows a deeper understanding of faith that many religious people I’ve encountered. 

As I mentioned at the outset, Strange Girl is an interesting book, but not a perfect one.  As much as I appreciate Strange Girl’s take on faith, some of the early conversations are long-winded and slow down the story too much.  As the series progresses, Remender finds a better balance between deep conversations and riveting action.  I was also disconcerted when Bloato was killed a third of the way into the volume.  I knew that the story wouldn’t be as entertaining without him and felt that Remender had erred.  However, Remender quickly rectified the mistake (and showed that it wasn’t a mistake after all) by having Bethany and her growing cast invade Hell to rescue Bloato.  

Strange Girl is a fascinating, complicated, funny, poignant, thought-provoking, personal story.  I sometimes wondered how much better the book could have been if Remender had waited to write it until he was a more developed author.  But then I realize that this was part of his development as a writer, and that the mistakes he makes along the way are as much a part of this book as his struggles with religion and his sense of humor

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Great review, Chris. This was the series that first made me notice Remender's work. I was reading it more or less as it came out--I think my collection is a combination of single issues and the original TPBs. I should find time to revisit it sometime.

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