Back in June, Shirtless Bear Fighter smashed its way onto my Local Comic Book Store’s “Pick of the Week” shelf and suplexed itself right into my heart. The absurdist tale of a brawny, bare-skinned brute physically subduing a rash of city-invading bears was stuffed to the (salmon) gills with ursine puns, penis jokes, and visual gags. Charmingly excessive, SBF delivered bear-als of self-aware satire and lampooned a bevy of action movie and comic book tropes. But it approached its nonsensical subject matter with a decided lack of irony, delivering its quips earnestly. It was inevitable that this brand of R-Rated Saturday Morning Cartoon comedy would be unbearable for some, and so artist Nil Vendrell and writers Jody Leheup and Sebastian Girner committed to cranking the goofiness up to eleven. They fully embraced the fact that readers who got on board with what they were doing would be unlikely to slight it for any lack of subtlety.
Despite my affection for Shirtless Bear Fighter, however, I also left the first issue questioning whether this was the sort of thing that could maintain its appeal throughout the entire run. Even at five issues, SBF was painting with a limited palette. To my mind, it faced two possible pitfalls: would the breakneck pace of its madcap panda-monium begin to grate by the end, or would the story settle into a more subdued state and risk compromising the very koala-ties that made it so captivating in the first place?
Issue five brings the miniseries to its expected conclusion, wrapping up the war between Shirtless and scatologically-obsessed supervillain Jaxson Logger. A full third of the final issue is given over to the “Final Boss Fight”, and, beyond the bear-acteristic sound effect gags peppered throughout by letterer Dave Lanphear, Vendrell largely plays it straight for the duration of the battle. As usual, he does a fantastic job of depicting the kinetics and impacts of a bloody brawl, but Shirtless simply demonstrating his pugilistic prowess isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Leheup and Girner have made a sincere attempt to give Shirtless a tragic back story over the series and an arc that’s coming to its climax in this confrontation, so I can appreciate the desire to portray the showdown as emotional and weighty. But, for a book that split my sides with its generous application of a nudity censoring blur, it spends a little too long in the realm of self-seriousness. And that’s really at the core of my quibbles with Shirtless Bear Fighter 5. When taken in its entirety, the five-issue run of Shirtless Bear Fighter is preposterous, hilarious fun. Unfortunately, the latter part of the series doesn’t quite attain the irreverent charm of its start.
If you’re reading issue five, then I’m pawsitive you’ve already bought a ticket for this ride. Luckily, Shirtless Bear Fighter 5 ends strong, and it’s clear that the creators are leaving the door open for a continuation. If our friendly neighborhood grizzly puncher pops up in another miniseries sometime in 2018, I’d be lying if I said that I wouldn’t add it to my pull list with bearly a second thought. But for the time being, five issues has sated my hunger for flapjacks and revenge. 3.5/5
Written by Jody Leheup and Sebastian Girner
Art by Nil Vendrell
Published by Image Comics