If you’re the kind of person who is intrigued by a comic called Shirtless Bear-Fighter, you won’t be disappointed by the first issue of this new series from Image Comics. While we don’t meet the protagonist for several pages, the comic is exactly what you think it will be: a man, minus a shirt, fighting bears. It’s a story about the hubris of men, the hubris of bears, and being caught between those two races.
The comic opens in Major City, where we see a man working for animal control -- or “Puppy Prison” as it’s written on the side of his van. He’s singing out loud in public (awful) and has no respect for the animals he deals with (even worse), so of course he’s the first casualty. There’s a gorgeous splash page of him facing down a humongous bear with the tiniest possible can of bear spray. The art, by Nil Vendrell and Mike Spicer, elevate the bear from scary to terrifying, but it’s Dave Lanphear’s letters that make this animal control worker look pathetic in comparison. The “SSSSSSS” sound effect of the can’s spray, each letter growing smaller as it approaches the bear, shows just how ineffectual man can be in the face of nature.
Man vs. nature is one of the major themes of Shirtless Bear-Fighter, as you may have imagined. Nature’s next victims are two lovers picnicking in the woods. The woman, Sheila, is enjoying nature’s beauty, but her boyfriend Tom just wants to fool around in the forest. Jody LeHeup and Sebastian Girner are really good at writing jerks; this guy wants to “show these dumb animals how a man does it!” A bear shows up of course, because you can’t say things like that, and these fools clearly have never met a park ranger because they decide that running from the bear is the best course of action. (Pro tip: it’s not. Stand your ground, make yourself look large, talk to it, and back away slowly. Never run from a bear. They chase fleeing prey.)
It’s at this point that we meet our handsome, shirtless bear-fighter. Except he’s more than just shirtless, he’s totally naked. Vendrell handles this perfectly with the art, detailing this man’s broad shoulders, impossibly cut abdomen and burly arms, while pixelating his manhood. There’s a beautiful panel of the bear roaring in his face, jaw wide enough to envelop his entire head, while our shirtless bear-fighter just scowls back, jaw jutting out with confidence or stubbornness.
And then, he punches the bear.
The fight scene is nice and kinetic. There’s a panel in which our bear-fighter uses his opponent’s weight against him to slam this bear down -- big animals go down hard. The comic reads almost like a video game during these fights; the bear-fighter’s "Bear Punch!" move is named in the letters above him as he performs it, like he’s in Street Fighter or something. The colors are fairly subdued in Shirtless Bear-Fighter, but they pop in certain places, like the sound effects and our bear-fighter’s eyes.
The man is mysterious, and the mystery only deepens as we see FBI agents waiting for him back at his cabin. One agent clearly has a history with him (even though he still just calls our man “Shirtless”), and they’ve come to ask his help fighting that giant bear back in Major City. Who’s helping this giant bear? The Russians? The police, animal control, even the National Guard can’t handle it. They need the Shirtless Bear-Fighter. And he needs to punch some bears.
This comic is funny. Bizarre, but hilarious. The team takes full advantage of the visual gags that come with a big burly naked man, and there’s a pun in this issue that I’m ashamed to have read. Shirtless even has a bear-plane, because really, why not.
It’s campy and absurd, but anyone picking up a comic called Shirtless Bear Fighter knows exactly what they’re getting into. You won’t be disappointed.