Writers/Story: Brian Ball & Trent Luther
Art: Luigi Teruel
Featuring the Features of: Liz Finnegan
Publisher: Antarctic Press
Fair Warning: This one’s for the grownups.
Up for perusal this time around is the Rags trade paperback, which covers the seven issues (0-6) and first (and, sadly, last) arc of the book. As you may recall, Paul did a review of the first three issues and their prologue, back in 2018. You can read them here, here, here and here if you’d like. Worth the read, one, because Paul’s a helluva writer and has a unique perspective on this book, and two as a study in the evolution of a comic that started out as one thing and, as you’ll soon find, ended up as something else altogether.
I’ll admit I’ve come to the table a bit late on Rags. A year or so ago, Paul told me he had this book I had to read, that I had to look past the Zombie Tramp-style cover and give the thing a good going through. He was going to send me a pdf of the first issue (and may have even done so)…but then we got to talking about Terry Moore, and how there’s a similar vibe in Motor Girl and hey, did you hear Moore’s doing a universe-joining thing with all his titles and…well, things that shouldn’t have been, were forgotten.
To be fair, Paul tells me about A LOT of books that I really need to read. Usually, he’s right (he’s kind of like an annoying big brother that way), and on Rags, he utterly nailed it—much in the same way Ball, Luther and Teruel nail it in the book. I speak without hyperbole when I state that this may be the most important graphic novel published in 2019—that its presentation of combat-related PTSD offers a fantastic tool in understanding a vastly misunderstood illness which claims the life or livelihood of more servicemen and women daily.
And it started as a weekend side project, after a lot of Left 4 Dead 2, and even more drinking. It was supposed to be every bit the gag most people thought it was.
Regina Ragowski (no, “Rags” is not her nickname, it turns out; I suspect it’s the state her life is in) is having a crappy day. Like, really, really crappy. She’s in her birthday suit (other than a pair of service boots, so there’s that), in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. A while back (we find out later), she was beaten and nearly raped, and had what little she had remaining to her in the world, including her engagement ring, taken from her. Before that, she watched her fiancé being eaten alive, largely because she had a tantrum and threw a propane tank through the front windshield of their car. Because she has PTSD, is a Marine combat vet whose discharge was anything but voluntary, and accepts help (or even a kind word) about as well as a rabid Doberman accepts a tummy rub.
So yeah, bad day. You might go so far as to say shitty. And that’s just the start of things.
Hmm. Zombie apocalypse, athletic, large-breasted woman running through the streets of small-town California being all violent and sweary. Guns and violence and sex and boobs and monsters. Any warm-blooded pre-to-post-pubescent American male’s underwear-moistening dream, right?
Not by a long shot. At least, not if you’re paying attention. If that’s what this book is to you, please stop reading this, go on, and enjoy middle school. I hope it isn’t too hard on you, and that someone asks you to the Sadie Hawkins dance this winter. Now, go finish your homework or play with your Gameboy; the grownups are talking.
Rags might be among the most important books published this year, but the real tragedy is almost no one’s going to know it. Unfortunately, in an era where “zombie-porn” has actually become a thing (how messed up ARE we?!?), the majority of folk are going to glance at the titillating cover and interior art—and it is exactly that; as Paul’s said previously, Teruel’s mastery of the human form, in action or repose, is bordering on Frank Cho-level greatness—and either ogle it to the exclusion of anything else, or dismiss it as another Zombie Tramp knockoff. Or, the leftist social justice folks are going to jump all over the exploitation and racism and homophobia expressed in the book—and yep, they’re all there, too; more on that later—and revile the book as so much smut. Which is going to leave you, me, Paul and the 12 or 13 others among us who are going to see this book for what it actually is:
A richly-layered, unapologetically real, brutally honest and absolutely genuine treatise on combat-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from the perspective of a Marine experiencing it.
I want to be clear: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a soldier (and certainly not a Marine). I knew from my mid-teens I didn’t have the backbone for it. I graduated high school in 1990, in the midst of the first Desert Storm, and actually experienced significant anxiety (reasonable or not—but if there’s one thing anxiety is not, it’s reasonable) that I could end up being drafted. Obviously, that didn’t happen—to the benefit of all involved. What I am, however, when I’m not writing pithy and/or sappy (and generally Jim Zub-worshipping; sorry about that) comic reviews, is a Licensed Professional Counselor. I’ve run my own clinic, Therapy House, since 2003, and been in the field—treating, among other things, PTSD—since 1995.
So I don’t claim to know military life, its lingo and rituals and protocols, beyond what friends and family who have served have described to me, and I especially don’t know what it means to have been in combat and witnessed the kind of atrocity so many (including our main character) have, to live every day with the worry—no, the absolute knowledge—that death is waiting around every corner, in every child’s backpack. Nor do I know what it’s like to try to transition from that kind of experience back to some form of civilian life. But I do know what PTSD looks like.
And it looks a hell of a lot like Regina Ragowski.
Explosive anger, heightened reactivity, a tendency to push people away before they can get too close? Check. Constant hypervigilance, occasional to frequent visual and audio hallucinations, intrusive thoughts and memories? Check, check and check. Drug and alcohol abuse, provocative and self-sabotaging behavior, resulting in negative social and employment consequences? Uh, yeah. In spades.
I don’t know if Ball has experienced PTSD himself or simply did his research, but he marks every box: someone close to him has definitely been through it. Maybe several someones.
Having re-read Paul’s reviews, which he wrote as each issue was prepping for release, and juxtaposing them against my own impressions as and after I’d read the entire trade in whole, I believe Rags is a book that benefits from the trade format. Ball and Luther do an extraordinary job (perhaps unintentionally at first, given their original vision and impetus) of doing the slow build into the mind of Corporal Ragowski. The true and utter chaos of her experience become clear only over time, and their methods for expressing it, which Paul has elaborated on previously: the world, other than select “needful things” or aspects of potential connection in others being in grayscale, the full-color flashbacks, her escalating hostility juxtaposed with her overwhelming grief, the growing bond with Operator—the guy every other character describes as a complete a-hole. Reading this arc one issue at a time, weeks or months apart, doesn’t allow you the perspective absorbing it all at once will do. Given this perspective, you can really appreciate the emotional powerhouse, the utter bloodletting that Ball and Luther have created here.
Many people will (have!) read Operator’s abrasive lingo and beliefs, and focus on what a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, bullying jerk he is. And they’d be right…but would be just as guilty of snap judgment and misunderstanding as those who dismiss Ragowski’s nudity as simple titillation. The reality (again, as I understand it, not as I know it), is that there are two things a combat veteran can trust: their fellow soldiers, and hate—and not necessarily in that order. People die, or betray you: one, the other and sometimes both. A government will use you. Hate will never let you down, and never betray you.
Take a gander at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs some time, and tell me what you see there, at the bottom. Then sit and ponder for a moment why a combat vet might look at you like you’re from outer space when you tell them they ought to wear a skirt or a tie and play nice, obey social mores. Make friends.
So the combat vet with PTSD isn’t going to join “group therapy,” or ask for help. They’re not going to tell you they’re having a rough go of it, that they’re coming apart at the seams. They’re not going to take charity, and certainly aren’t going to seek it. They’re not going to trust some shrink to tell them how to live their lives. Not until and unless they are understood (and quite possibly not even then). THAT is what makes Rags so valuable.
Ok, I’m rambling. Suffice to say, Rags is an extraordinary book, deserving of your time and dime. Moreover, the men and women who have sacrificed their physical and psychological well-being to protect yours deserve the courtesy of your learning their perspective.
Read this book. Force yourself to look past the titillating art (difficult though that may be; Teruel truly is a master) and the zombies. Put yourself in the mind of Regina, and Operator. Don’t expect you’re going to understand all the lingo, or get all the in-jokes; be thankful that you don’t. Don’t feel as though you necessarily have to agree with their opinions, their beliefs—they’ll likely feel very foreign, even aberrant to you—but take a moment (or more) to view of the world through the eyes of a combat soldier.
Then maybe thank one.
It was with great disappointment that I received Paul’s report (now confirmed by The Man himself) that Brian Ball will not be returning for a second arc of Rags, that Team Rags is hanging up the pen and, disillusioned with the chaos of self-publishing a book while working full-time, going back to “normal life.” I hope this is a temporary state, that they’ve got other projects in the works and just need a break; otherwise, the comic industry is losing some real talent and a meaningful voice. Either way, I wish him well, and thank him—for his service, and for this book.
If you’re interested, digital copies of the entire run (and some cool swag) can be purchased from the creators themselves at https://new-age-ninja-corps.myshopify.com/ (the only hard copies of the uncensored trade were/will be published via the creators’ Patreon page, at https://www.patreon.com/ragszombie). Some back-issue copies of issues 1-4 are available via https://indyplanet.com/rags-mad-mori-2 or by emailing the creators at email@example.com. Other shirts and swag can also be purchased via their tee-public store, at https://www.teepublic.com/stores/rags?utm_campaign=3983&utm_medium=affiliate&utm_source=RAGS. Hard copies of censored back issues are available via the secondary market—look for them on eBay, or at cons. Given these guys have been hosed repeatedly by digital piracy, if you’ve got a spare coin to toss their way for a shirt or jpeg, please do so. They’ve certainly earned it.
Oh, and all the nudity? It’s a metaphor, you perv. Get over yourself.
Review by Andy Patch, thePullbox.com