There’s really nothing that can introduce this book.
The title says it all.
Co-written by Sebastian Girner and Jody LeHeup, the first issue of Shirtless Bear-Fighter! begins with a crazed mega-bear ravaging the citizens of Major City. When everyone from local police to the National Guard to pest control can’t contain it, the FBI head into “The Forest” to recruit the only man who can save the day – Shirtless, a wild man whose greatest skill is being able to fight bears in hand-to-paw combat.
Take a minute and let all of that sink in.
This book hews closer to the mania of a six year old boy than the straightforward, self-serious attitude many comics today take. If you enjoy the off-the-wall wackiness of a book like Axe Cop, then this is going to be your cup of tea. I mean, when the main character is offered a lifetime supply of pure maple syrup and flapjacks (NOT pancakes), travels in a Bear-Plane (made out of real bears), and spends most of the issue completely naked (with his junk being blurred for posterity’s sake), you know you’ve tapped into a certain kind of crazy.
This is, without a doubt, no traditional comic book, and that’s what makes it so damn enjoyable.
If anything, Shirtless Bear-Fighter! feels like a return to some of the storytelling tropes that populated the Golden Age of comics. There’s no attempts at telling a cohesive tale that would feel comfortable with some of the other books on the stands. Instead the reader is dropped straight into the action, expected to go along with the absurdity that plays out in front of them, before having the history of our hero detailed in narration midway through the issue. Similar to the first appearances of Superman and Batman, we don’t see the linear evolution of the character – we see the end result and need to catch up with the story as it moves along at a breakneck pace.
This may seem counter-intuitive to what I’ve written previously regarding other books, particularly of the superhero variety. I want things easily explained for new readers to digest as the action unfolds for long-time fans. But those books exist in the present age of comics, where we expect our stories to have some semblance of order, especially if they’re targeting a wide audience of readers. Shirtless Bear-Fighter! feels like it could have existed back in the 1940’s just as easily as it could exist now. There’s a power in that which shows the writing isn’t just goofy for the sake of goofiness. It also knows its target audience isn’t including every potential comic reader.
Despite what the surface reading shows, there are hints at a larger story at work. The writers detail some of Shirtless’ origin story – he was raised by bears and fought to protect “The Forest” from humans who would develop it – but hints of tragedy linger on the edges of what is said. There’s also the notion that Burke, the lead FBI agent on the case, is much older than he appears (although this might just be another comedic beat among dozens). It’s clear that the creative team has a larger story they’re looking to tell. It may not be a devilishly intricate story, but it doesn’t have to be.
Nil Vendrell, the artist that brings these zany ideas to life, has enough of a cartoonish style that it feels like Shirtless Bear-Fighter! could just as easily exist on Adult Swim (and maybe one day it will). When reading the first issue, the art reminded me a lot of Tradd Moore’s style on the three Luther Strode series (another book not unlike this one). It has almost a whimsical grittiness to it that feels difficult to characterize but aligns with the tone the book sets up. With another artist drawing the series, it might not be as energetically wild as the end product on the page is.
I could go on some more about the pros and cons of this book, but I think that by this point you’re either interested in the book or you’re completely turned off by it. It has that kind of setup that there really isn’t much in the way of a middle ground. I do hope that you’re like me and want some Shirtless Bear-Fighter! in your life. There’s nothing better than reading a book and grinning from ear to ear at how absurdly ridiculous (and low-key entertaining) it is.