Welcome to Postal Notes, a critical read through of the series “Postal.” This series of columns will be done in a mixture of essays and observations of various lengths. I will be using the seven core trade paperbacks that collect issues #1-25 and the various one shots for a total of 27 issues overall. In this column we’ll be working through the first trade, issues #1-4.The first four issues of “Postal” are on Comixology Unlimited.
Mark, the Naturally Super Natural, and Internal Monologue
Mark Shiffron, the lead of “Postal,” is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. As to the accuracy or authenticity of how Mark is depicted by the creative team in the book, I honestly don’t know. From the reading I’ve done from both various critics and the writers, it seems better than most, but the batting average wasn’t great in the first place. In the long run of “Postal,” over 27 issues, the creative team does a good job of not turning Mark into a stereotype. He is a fully developed character with desires. He changes over time. As a fictional character he is an effective one. That effectiveness doesn’t mean the creative team don’t straddle a tenuous line at times or fall into common tropes.
In an interview with Matt O’Keefe, writer Bryan Hill spoke on how he wanted to treat the character of Mark.
I didn’t want Mark to be like a character from Monk, where he walks into a room and sniffs the air and tells you who killed the person. I wanted to avoid the “autism as superpower” cliche that existed in entertainment. But I also didn’t want [Mark] to be a fragile, precious character, like Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man. I think it’s a brilliant movie, but that articulation sort of dominated how we dealt with people on the polemics of the behavioral spectrum. Either they were eternal children or some kind of Mr. Magoo-like super detective that could smell a fart and tell you what you were thinking.
By and large I think the team was largely effective at avoiding that cliché. What these first four issues make clear is that Mark is observant in an environment that disregards him. The writing team have various characters refer to Mark as a “retard” multiple times in the first issue, and doubt his basic ability to function. (I’d forgotten how rough the first issue or two of “Postal” was as the creative team lean into various stereotypes — there is literally a character named Big Injun — to quickly exposit character and emphasize the outlaw nature of Eden, WY. As with most things appearances can deceiving and Hawkins and Hill do a good job of expanding characters beyond their initial impressions.) His observations and reasoning aren’t depicted like the titular characters in recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations, where viewers are shown the equations being worked out in hypertime.
How, some of his observations and evidence is represented in this first collection, however, brushes on the supernatural due to the nature of comics as a medium. At the end of issue #3, Mark is beaten by his father’s acolytes and hung from a tree as part of a sadistic proving ritual. A few months later, Mark is healed and rounds up those who harmed him, with the help of Maggie, to ask for an apology. Before he calls the Mayor. When she arrives he explains how he rooted them out.
Mark: Laura Newman. I heard her voice. She laughed. She has a very distinct laugh. Pauly Noecker shuffles his left foot when he walks because of an injury. The heel of his left shoe was worn down. Alonzo –
Laura: Stop. Okay. Just stop.
Mark is observant, as he reminds them he delivers their mail. His methodology isn’t even that different from how he figured out Daniel Messersmith is making meth. What is different is how that information is or isn’t represented due to comics as a medium. In the first issue the creative team emphasize several time Messersmith’s crosshair tattoo. No such tells exists for Mark’s assaliants. We can’t hear what Laura Newman sounds like. Pauly Noecker isn’t around but for panels, which isn’t long enough to for a distinctive gate to develop. What we get are a group of masked and unmasked individuals who are largely anonymous. Mark’s reasoning provides the answer to the solution, but it also quickly handwaves it away to push things forward.Continued below
It is an interesting example of the creators purposefully withholding information from the reader, and with more time it’s doubtful we would’ve noticed on first brush anyway.
The creative team also use parts of the medium that do a good job of representing aspects of how Mark views things, through the use of internal monologue. The use of internal monologue is not limited too Mark, but creates an extra for that character specifically. As a narrative device internal monologue is very effective in comics, it allows for the writer to quickly exposit and hopefully synergistically pack panels with relevant information to get things going without building up pages and pages of context. With Mark, the script and Peteri’s lettering, create a physical manifestation on the page of the distance Mark feels when trying to process emotional stimuli and calibrate his response. A recurring point I’ve read, and one mentioned by Hawkins, is how people with Asperger’s have to concentrate and think through their actions, and how that concentration can create a distance when developing relationships with people around them.
This won’t be the only time we talk about Mark.
Dreams & Flashbacks
As a comic, “Postal” exists in a state of slightly heightened realism. The heavy emphasis on symbolism and classic framing found in Issac Goodhart’s line work nudges things into a more poetic realm. The narrative of “Postal” is infinitely more complicated but with the artistic use of Eden as a space, it doesn’t feel that out of step with Luchino Visconti foundational neorealist film Obsession. “Postal” drops this pulpy sense of reality several times in the first volume, in a series of dream like sequences and flashbacks. Their formal differences help to reinforce and distinguish them from narrative reality.
Over the course of these four issue the creative team work through two flashback sequences dealing with the histories of Laura Shiffron and Maggie. Unlike the pair of dreamy sequences with Mark, these flashbacks stick closer to Goodhart’s page designs in reality. Reality is distinguished by Goodhart through a strict use of paneling. Characters may exceed the confines of a panel but they do not exist without a panel to order it. It ties the character to a space, instead of dislocating them in the infinite nothingness of gutter space.
The flashbacks expand or bend the design rules that have been established. Laura’s talk about Mark’s father is two pages and a panel long, as part of the overall final sequence in issue #2. The rules bend on the very first page by framing the page around the tree Laura and Magnum hung his father from. The following page goes towards a more traditional design, but the context of the panels create the fluid sense of time as they echo various well known photographs of atrocities and lumps the monstrous and unseen figure of the Father in with them. Maggies flashback follows similar page design, with her story framed by a pair of dominating images: her fiancé being shredded by gunfire and her wails from a prison cell.
Colorist Betsy Gonia also helps to set these sequences apart. For Laura’s flashback, Gonia only uses shades of yellow against Goodhart’s inks. Even the brief mirrored panel in the present is overwhelmed by the yellow. The yellow echoes the nostalgia laden sepia tone, but everything is too clear. In Maggie’s Gonia ups the value on these pages giving everything a brighter more solid appearance, in contrast to the more washed out panels in reality that bookend the two page sequence.
Over the course of these four issues, Mark experiences two sequences that are treated as dreamlike. The first is at the start of issue #3, after being beaten and hung from a tree by his Father’s acolytes. While the flashbacks echoed Goodhart’s normal operating procedure, the design of this page flagrantly violates these modes. As he recovers in the hospital, Mark recalls a childhood activity, digging a hole and filling it back up. In this memory a group of children mock and throw rocks at him, causing him to hide in it, in the fetal position. As with previous flashback pages, Goodhart frames everything around a single large panel. The shift becomes more noticeable in how subsequent panels are arranged. Nothing on this page is square, orderly, the large framing panel bows in the middle. The main vertical panel bends and winds down the page leading the readers eye to the conclusion of the page. This vertical panel is flanked by panels shaped like a trapezoid and parallelogram.Continued below
With its curves and fluid time space, Mark’s recollections violate every formal rule Goodhart used to establish reality. Allowing it to be more easily read in the surrealist logic of dreams. For a series that makes gender roles in society a pretty clear reference point, it’s kind of funny how the arrangement of these 3 panels comes back as rough cartooned expression of male genitalia. That meta layer, however, fits the content of Mark’s dream and where he is at in the story. His mother never came for him to get him out of the hole, she isn’t caring in that way. And in that lack, despite the womb like state he is pictured in, he is being led towards a growing, potentially destructive, strain of masculinity that would burn it all down.
The second of Mark’s dream sequences is less surreal in page design, but makes up for it in content. Readers learn Mark had a dream about his father, the dragon, in the closing pages of issue #4. Goodhart imagines him more like the Devil Laura names him as, he certainly isn’t a Dragonborn from D&D. Once again perspective is used to magnify the sense of scale and size of this figure and obscure him. The sequence takes place on the penultimate page of the first collection and echoes the very start of the series. Like the first page of “Postal,” it’s a simple series of horizontal panels arranged in a vertically. Father Nixon talked about the fall of Eden as we were introduced to Eden, WY, now we see the Devil psychically within it. Mark stares at the Devil certain of what he could become, and waves at it. All the Devil does is smile back him.
Mark’s pair of lucid dream sequences revolve around his parents and highlight the distance from normal, or at least healthy, these relationships are. While Laura is more involved, she belittles him and sees him as something to manage like everything else in Eden. His Father is absent and wants to turn him into a weapon of vengeance upon his Mother. With these dreams, the creative team highlight how “Postal” is as much a battle for Eden as it is for Mark’s soul through the use of bold imagery.
Closed Loops, the Endings of Issues #1 and 2
“Postal” is rather coarse in these early issues as it uses stereotypes to quickly contextualize the various supporting character and show the outlaw nature of Eden, WY. As the series goes on and more pages add further context the earlier coarseness is sanded down. Content aside, “Postal” is an enjoyable read. Hawkins and Hill know when to land beats for impact, in this first issue the impact is felt in how they end chapters of this story.
First issues of a comic are hard, you have to cram a fair amount of information into 22 pages and make it enjoyable so people come back the next month. The first issue of “Postal,” overall, is solid. It gives you a good idea of who Mark Shiffron is and what he wants, and the plot for that issue is wrapped up. But there is still two and a third pages left and that’s when the creative team nails the ending, introducing the plot device that will kick off this collections worth of plot and the overarching plot for the series. What makes that issue feel like a complete episode isn’t the tease of more, it’s how Hill and Hawkins tie the tease into the issue overall through the use of internal monologue. Mark’s thoughts in those final pages tie back to the start of the issue, how there are 2,198 people in Eden and the metaphor for light. It closes the loop on the episode and allows that chapter of the story to feel complete in and of itself, and propel you right into the next one at the turn of the page.
The ending of issue #4, the final one in this collection, goes about things in a similar manner, but this time represent how much Mark has begun to change from the first issue. As he recalls a dream about his Father, he is taking on a new case as the towns new fixer. He may not know the correct maneuvers to make her feel better in the moment, instead he tells her how “I can do something no one else can.” He can fix her problem. That statement is an effective end cap that closes the loop on these first four issues of “Postal” and propels it into the next collection.Continued below
Percy Sledge – A Whiter Shade Of Pale
The first volume of “Postal” contains glimpses of in world FBI profiles, presumably written by Agent Simpson. These would be further expanded in a special “Postal FBI Dossier” issue, eventually collected in volume 2. We’ll talk about it more in the next post. There is also a brief history of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act aka RICO Act and Asperger’s Syndrome by Matt Hawkins.
A preview from the first issue of “The Tithe,” a church robbing crime book also set in the Edenverse, that would eventually crossover with “Postal” and “Think Tank” with the miniseries “Eden’s Fall.”