Some ideas are awesome. Some ideas are just plain dumb. Then there are rare finds that are awesomely dumb like Shirtless Bear-Fighter. Running for five issues in the latter half of 2017, this comic is the brainchild of writers Jody Leheup and Sebastian Girner as well as artist, Nil Vendrell and is one of the best comics I read last year.
The DNA of Shirtless Bear-Fighter lies in all the cheesy action movies, TV, and comics of the 80’s and early 90’s, especially those with ham-fisted environmental messages and the trend of the time of using oddball titles to grab attention such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The titular Shirtless Bear-Fighter is indeed a man sans shirt (and often pants) named Shirtless (because of course he is). Abandoned by his birth parents, raised by talking bears in “the forest”, and whose natural disposition is extremely pissed off, Shirtless is now on a mission to fight all bears due to a great tragedy in his past. When crazed bears begin to attack cities, FBI agents Burke and Silva seek out the reclusive Shirtless so that he can save the day by doing what he does best, punching bears in the face.
The plot here is total absurd nonsense that doesn’t stand up to much if any scrutiny, but then, it was never intended to. In a book that features things such as a hillbilly warlock that has magical bacon it is hard to argue that the creators thought the anyone should take this story seriously. The very media that inspired this comic was never known for its tight and coherent plotting and rather than try and hide this the writers instead chose to lean into this and purposefully made a story with crazy logic holes in it. It is clear in the dialogue that the writers aren’t being lazy, and the things that don’t make sense are there by design. From the first time we meet Shirtless as he walks out of the woods stark naked and performs a German suplex on an attacking bear the reader knows whether they are on board with the special brand of silliness in this comic or not.
As I said, the story doesn’t operate under any real logic, but there is an emotional logic at play here. Leheup and Girner were wise enough to stick true to the tropes of the characters you find in over the top action stories, but they injected easily understandable emotional beats for for those characters that lends a believability to them. Shirtless’ anger, resentment, and thirst for vengeance due to his exile and lost love while taken to the extreme for the sake of humor are such that the reader could see themselves acting in a somewhat similar fashion. Agent Silva’s lack of faith in herself, Agent Burke’s burnt-out world weariness, Brother Bear’s jealousy and hatred for Shirtless, Logger’s need to defeat Shirtless and the bears to validate his feelings of superiority, Mama and Poppa Bear’s conflicted nature about the dark roads both their sons went down and how they contributed to them, all of major characters here have some depth to them that the audience can get invested in.
Speaking of the female characters in this book, Agent Silva and Mama Bear in particular, they are easily the most level-headed and capable of all the characters. The best part is the comic never calls attention to it, they just are. They aren’t helpless damsels to save and do almost as much, if not more to help then their male companions in their quest. In a book as hyper-masculine as this it is encouraging to see well-rounded female characters that avoid being just props and at no point need to hide or push away their femininity.
Nil Vendrell’s art is a perfect fit for this book. It is cartoony enough to help sell the comedy, but also has a solid footing in classic action and superhero comics. The book is littered with visual gags which in the hands of a lesser artist might make things feel clunky or disjointed, but the action, drama and pacing is never interrupted by the jokes be they written or visual and vice versa. I really hope to see more of what this guy can do in the future.
What ultimately saves this comic from the garbage heap of properties that tried to do what the Turtles did is that this isn’t some cheap cash grab. Any comic fan knows that there are multiple comics published a year that have a flashy yet silly title and no real substance to back them up. Shirtless Bear-Fighter is a comic with wit and passion bursting across every page and at its core, the book has a lot of heart. In a book full of goofy action, bear puns and literal toilet humor it also manages to have compelling characters and when needed is able to hit the reader right in the feels. That is what makes this comic special.
The comic isn’t perfect, however. The main villain, Jaxxon Logger is a little too one note and the final confrontation is a letdown. Even though that is entirely intentional and the true battle against Brother Bear and Shirtless’ need for vengeance had already completed, being purposefully anticlimactic is still well, anticlimactic. The series could have used at least one more issue to round things out as the book feels a rushed towards the end. I believe the writers didn’t want to push their luck, fearing the audience would get the feeling the joke had run on too long, but this world and its characters are entertaining enough that they could have took some more time to pace out the ending and provide some more time for character moments to hit in a more organic fashion.
What is next for Shirtless Bear-Fighter remains up in the air. There is much more that could be done with these characters and the story does provide an opening for a sequel, and while I would be very excited to see that, if this is all we ever see of Shirtless and friends I would be okay with that too. The story does come to a natural conclusion and even though more could be done, it doesn’t need to be.
You can pick up the trade paperback collection for a song. aside from all the issues, the collection includes all the various covers which is a treat in and of itself. It is a quick and enjoyable read that lovers of action and the ridiculous need to pick up. I’ve found myself rereading it several times because I love it so much and every time I find new things to enjoy and appreciate. Seriously, if you have a few spare bucks lying around and you are looking for an injection of pure fun go and pick this book up. Highest recommendation.
Shirtless Bear-Fighter created by Jody Leheup, Sebastian Girner, and Nil Vendrell Pallach and is ©Fuzzy Wipes LLC
Published by Image Comics