Benjamin Marra makes some stinging satirical points in Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. – if you can wipe the tears of laughter from your eyes for long enough to find them.
Benjamin Marra first came to my attention through Blades and Lazers, his contribution to Secret Prison’s lovely little ‘Sacred Prism’ series of riso-printed zines. That sci-fi/fantasy romp, now being reprinted in an expanded oversized version, contained much of the aesthetic DNA that drives Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T.
That aesthetic can best be defined as an affectionate emulation of the sort of thing a 15-year-old headbanger might have lovingly rendered in the back of an exercise book in the 1980s, after watching one too many straight-to-video action flicks. (And that recognition is very much part of the joke.)
Our impassive protagonist – Codename “One-Man War on Terror” (O.M.W.O.T) – is part of the Terror Assaulters: “a super-secret team of U.S. foreign service agents committed to the protection of American interests overseas” established by George W Bush in the wake of 9/11.
And that’s about all the background we get. In contrast to the meticulous extrapolation of peers such as Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (Lazarus), Marra’s world-building is intentionally generic and lo-def. We don’t even have a ‘Basil Exposition’ character to set the scene for us.
Instead, we join O.M.W.O.T. in the thick of the action, on missions against such baldly defined antagonists as Drug Lord, the shadowy Internet Company and a gang of plane hijackers with the flimsiest of agendas.
The book is powered by Marra’s singular narrative style, pumped up on an attack dose of adolescent male power fantasies from The Punisher to Steven Seagal films to Streetfighter II. In story terms, that manifests itself in on-the-hoof, almost dreamlike plotting: O.M.W.O.T. finds himself lurching from one extreme situation of sex and/or violence to the next.
Marra then takes that studied naivety to the next level in his execution. His artwork has a knowingly wonky physicality to it that amplifies the ridiculousness (and humour) of the action.
That awkwardness is then stepped up a notch further by possibly his most trademark tic: regardless of the situation, his characters give an impassive and redundant “I attack you” commentary throughout, in a nod to an altogether more wordy and generally less sophisticated era of comic-book storytelling.
And that retro tone is reinforced by the book’s blunt four-colour palette, harking back to the days of newsprint and spinner racks.
Of course, beyond the OTT shenanigans, Marra raises a few thoughts on the pornography of violence (and its unhealthy relationship with sex) that seems to drive much of our popular culture.
By nudging the familiar tropes of male action heroes to the extreme, Marra highlights how unappealing much of that material has become (however much we might have lapped it up in our adolescence). The equation of violence and virility is brought into, um, particularly sharp focus: in his sexual encounters as much as in a firefight, O.M.W.O.T. is one man who never needs to stop to reload.
O.M.W.O.T.’s world is that of right-wing US network news: a black-and-white universe of murderously enforced ‘freedom’ in opposition to the vague but heinous monolith of ‘terror’. As we see when O.M.W.O.T. starts to pepper passengers indiscriminately during the hijacking, the two aren’t always distinguishable.
At the bottom line, though, the main effect that Marra’s book had on me, with its mix of ludicrous action and deadpan delivery, was to leave me laughing until I cried. (Although, admittedly, the extremity of the action depicted here won’t be to every reader’s taste.)
The notion of “turning something up to 11” has become a cliché these days, but that’s really what Benjamin Marra does here. Let’s just say… “I hope we haven’t seen the last of O.M.W.O.T..”
Benjamin Marra (W/A) • Fantagraphics Books, $14.99