Horror Comics That Changed My Life #4

Classic literature has left a long legacy of prose and writings concerning the battle between heaven and hell that hails all the way back to the renaissance. The battle for earth and all of her souls was the source of prose by Milton, Bunyan and Shakespeare alike. By taking a sharply Jungian turn on this subject, Editor-in-chief at that time Tom Defalco and writer-Rafael Nieves launched the famed reboot of the classic Son of Satan title as “Hellstorm-Prince of Lies.”

This was 1993 and the current comic book explosion was at its very peak. Image Comics and Vertigo were absolutely killing. Dark Horse had come along and taken a gigantic chunk out of the market. Your regular costumed superheroes were considered passé by comic publishers and everybody was looking for that NEXT Alan Moore/Frank Miller. I think Marvel started to feel kind of left out of this new “Comics are good literature” idea that was taking over pop culture and college lectures worldwide.

So they hire Rafael Nieves to clean out all of the detritus and extra baggage that Damian Hellstrom was carrying around from years with The Defenders. He gave Damian back his Hellfire and trident by restoring the Darksoul. Mrs. Hellstrom, nee Patsy Walker (aka Hellcat), had been driven insane, slipping in and out of a coma and was now being nursed by Isaac the human gargoyle. Bust mostly we see that Damian had grown cynical of his costumed superhero ways and became dark, deep and brooding (no, I mean really…).

The second stage of this series sees writer Len Kaminski steer the plot into a strictly literate realm, illustrated over several issues as a loose retelling of “Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan. By the use of some Jungian devices, such as collective unconscious, Kaminski quite beautifully illustrated our spiritual crisis in modern western culture. Important questions were asked, like: Is homosexuality a sin? And: Is everyone able to surrender their ego in order to enter heaven/the great collective? Are angels really aliens and is the afterlife of heaven or hell a subconscious decision made long before ones death? This was not your everyday, run of the mill comics’ content for sure. This stuff was crucial at the time and after a few missteps, Kaminski had the book headed in a decidedly good direction.

Maybe this is why Marvel decided to shut him down? Maybe Marvel was afraid that this book might be too good? Perhaps the upper management at Marvel was sniffing glue? If they were so desperate to get into the “adult market” at the time, why did they move Kaminski over to “War Machine?” But the real question is, did they know what would happen when they handed the book over to a young British writer by the name of Warren Ellis?

With Damian Hellstrom fresh back from hell and a battle with his father Satan, Ellis dispensed with all of the Jungian drama and replaced it with some truly gothic sturm und drang. The evil undertones became overtones and Hellstorm began to really revel in his own sin and evil nature. Ellis simplified the plot and removed the effluvium that was littering the edges of this story. No more emotional heartrending over his role as a superhero. There was full acceptance of his role as the Son of Satan and the guilt had been removed.

This simple move made it possible for Ellis to explore the idea of good and evil and all the grey areas in between. The protagonist moved into a more active role as the agent of change that gave readers that action hit they so desire. As a result, the comic picked up the pace immediately by introducing a two issue mystery that brought in new characters. In addition, Ellis, in quite a humane maneuver, finally put down poor Patsy Hellstrom. I for one was happy to not have to see his wife rolling around in bed in a lunatic haze, issue after issue.

With the death of Hellcat, Damian was now able to slut around with whatever sexy occultist he chose without making the reader uncomfortable. The human gargoyle Isaac was revamped as well and became a more central player who acted as a separate conscious for a man without one of his own. But the best thing he did for me was the introduction of two concurrent themes: Demons who through jealousy of his lineage or by hubris crossed his path and a fight on Earth between Angels and the occultists who were devoted to protect her.

Underneath it all is Damian’s sister, Satana pulling the strings in an attempt to gain favor with their father. Sibling rivalry! Wow, all of this metaphysical fighting and violence is all about sibling rivalry. The simplicity of it is just one of those moments when you sit back with a smile on your face and say No Shit! This is the series that set Ellis up as one of the premier writers in the industry and at the ripe old age of 26! It was nice to see Marvel comics lose control for a short while and produce a book with teeth. Here’s to days long gone.

 

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Horror Comics That Changed My Life #2

Uzumaki

The day I discovered Pokari Sweat, my life got a whole lot better. I mean a tangerine flavored soda with bits of pulp? Really? Purely by accident too. Those crazy vending machines are everywhere on the streets of Japan. You put in your Yen and something cool happens, like a door opens and a train on a track comes out and goes in a circle or maybe a little cartoon plays when you buy something like shoes or a t-shirt, a bottle of whiskey or a sports drink. You can actually buy a pony keg of beer from a vending machine right there on the street in front of God and everyone else without first being “allowed to” or “OK’d by” anyone. Apparently Japan doesn’t have to safeguard their teen-agers from buying beer and then over-throwing the government like we do in the USA.

I still remember the smell of smoked eel permeating the air and thinking “Oh my God that smells HORRIBLE!” Until the day I actually ate some and then I couldn’t stop eating it like some crack-coated candy. Riding that heavy red rental bike around the streets of Japan, I discovered so many amazing things simply because they were packaged or presented in some truly wonderful ways that appealed to my comics/cartoon damaged brain.

If not for Kuru Kuru Sushi, I never would have even thought about trying sushi. The famed conveyor belt sushi bar chain restaurant makes eating sushi a nerdy event. Utilizing a large oval conveyor, sushi chefs stand in the middle and make sushi. Customers sit on chairs surrounding the outer edge.

The chefs place sushi on the conveyor on plates with a price tag stuck to the bottom and the sushi is allowed to make 3 rotations. You, the customer can then simply take it off and eat it, stacking your plates to total your bill. Each restaurant has a variation on the theme. Some have little boats with plates of sushi that go around in a large circular water-track, some have race cars and I have heard of one that has airplanes. It’s really a blast because you can request your favorite futomaki or nigirizushi and the chef places it on the opposite side of the conveyor and you sit and hope that nobody else takes it before it reaches you. The place is loud as hell and people are basically screaming at each other and just having a blast.

Aside from Japanese punk rock and amazing toys/replica guns that I couldn’t get enough of, I acquired a minor love for Manga. I’ll have to tell you, it really takes some getting used to. The books read in reverse, from right to left. If you open the cover facing right, you are looking at the last page. The dialogue and narration are all in kanji, which no freakin’ way I can read. But the art, now that’s different. Looking at the illustrations, I began to get a pretty good idea of what was happening in the stories just by following the art, so in the late 1980’s/early 90’s, when some smart people realized that a new market could emerge in America just by reversing the books and adding English lettering, I accepted western market Manga with open arms. This was when I was introduced to Japanese Horror Comic artist/writer, Junji Ito.

Set in the small town of Kurôzu-cho, Uzumaki is a manga comic that centers on spiral shapes appearing for no reason and driving people insane. In the 20 issues that were published by VIZ Entertainment, Junji Ito paints a world that is randomly sadistic. This overtly Japanese idea that evil in this world indiscriminately chooses victims is illustrated in many J-horror movie classics, like Ju On and Ringu. The theme of the spiral is somehow connected with the infinite and the life cycle and ensuring it continues and some deep stuff and some even deeper stuff and whatever… It is creepy and very good horror.

In each issue, the spiral shows up in some significant and individual way that has Kurôzu-cho and its citizens killing, committing suicide and terrorizing themselves and each other. Paired with the beautiful artwork of Jinji, these stories strike a delicious contraposition that keeps the reader in a state of imbalance; horror made of juxtaposition. The way we see the bizarre theme of spirals completely overwhelming its victims strikes a chord of hopelessness and despair in the gentle people of this small coastal town.

The creepy-factor of Uzumaki is brilliant. Very quickly into the first issue, you are given a pervasive feeling of impending evil that continues to grow, eventually reaching an insane climax. I enjoy reading this type literature, as opposed to the overtness of our western horror. It is also nice to read a story so cleanly manipulate its emotional tone without the use of any obvious devices. Don’t get me wrong, I love ALL horror and don’t prefer one sub-genre over another. Frankenstein, Swamp Thing, Morbius and Hellboy are still ultra-badass in my book, but it’s nice to go outside the box on occasion. It’s also nice to read a horror book that actually tries to scare you and Uzumaki may very well do that.

 

Horror Comics That Changed My Life #1

The Hands of Shang Chi Master of Kung Fu #19

This is the first instalment of a weekly column from resident HHC writer Jimmy Stetler.  The column will be called Horror Comics That Changed My Life, and if this episode of the column is any indication, it should be fun.

-Gabe

Hello fellow horror nerds. My name is Jimmy Stetler and I am a horror comicaholic (“HI JIMMY!”). In this column, I would like to display to you a journey of self-acceptance, a sort of counseling session, a confession as it were. For people like me there are no therapists, no 12-step meetings, no magic pill (well, except for the OCD, that is) and no government funded programs. The sound of my ex-wife still rings in my ears, “How many comic books did you buy this week? How old are you?” Did I mention she’s my ex-wife? You see where this is going…

As I am currently in my 50’s (early 50’s OK? I’m a young 50, very spry, crap, sorry…), I cut my teeth on Silver Age comics. It wasn’t until Bronze Age came around though, that I was old enough to appreciate what I was reading and learn to draw from Ditko and Kirby, the two greatest art teachers I have ever had. It wasn’t until then that I began to see comics as something other than Spiderman, Thor and FF. It was also at this time that horror fiction began to truly diversify through all available media. As a young boy my fascination with all the Universal monsters was unparalleled by anything else. I grew up loving those old monster flicks like Frankenstein and Dracula. The memory of building the entire series of Aurora Monster Models sticks with me fondly. Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a horror fan and comics and horror magazines always drew me in.

Reading Creepy and Vampirella (I still can’t believe my mother let me have these at such an early age) gave me the fix I needed until I was around 12 or 13. The day I walked into the 7-11 with my allowance money, intent on buying the new Aquaman, a Slurpee in a batting helmet and a Charleston Chew, I was completely oblivious that horror could come in a 25 cents comic book! Vampirella and Creepy were nearly three times that much (of course now that I think of it, they were loaded with content and the illustrations were by great artists the likes of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo).

At this time, Bruce Lee or as I knew him at that time “Kato,” was seriously threatening my Catholic God as preferred deity and the coolest show on TV was “Kung Fu.” Now here was this mysterious power that had arisen from the Far East, allowing mere mortals to achieve super powers. Apparently Stan Lee caught this trend early and out came The Hands of Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu. I was all over that. I mean, the second it hit the comic rack, it went straight into my collection. The memories I have of eating candy and drinking Slurpees, sitting on the curb in front of the 7-11 Store and reading comic books are so integral to my childhood that they seem to outlast most others.

This issue, #19 to be exact, was a real head turner, permanently changing the nature of the series and my personal comic buying habits. Up until now, the series was focused on Shang Chi, a kung fu master, seeking the destruction of his father Fu Manchu. In this issue, Marvel decided to help a stalling but promising character: Man-thing. The cover was an amazing piece of work from Jim Starlin that hung on my bedroom wall until I left for college. It was THAT important to me.
The story in this issue is almost an afterthought. I remember Shang Chi meeting a guy who was basically Kwai Chang Caine with a moustache and the two of them fighting the Man-thing. The point was this was the book that would have me fall so deeply in love with horror comics that eventually I would try to make it my profession. Swamp Thing and Man-thing are really the comic books that I can trace it all back to. Suddenly there were books where the hero was a monster and I could identify with that being a little monster myself. It is, in a way, one of the stepping stones for the modern anti-hero I mean, where would Hellboy or Frankenstein be without these guys?

So, thank you Bruce Lee and thank you Steve Englehart and Jim Starling, thank you Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Jerry Conway and Gray Morrow. This is ground zero for my lifelong obsession and I am putting the blame directly at your feet. Sorry…

js