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 #3

The Saga of the Swamp Thing issue #20

 It was 1984, Ronnie Raygun was the president and I was stationed at US Marine Corp Air Station Beaufort, South Cackalacky. My priorities had changed drastically since high school and two years of college. There were girls, of course, and beer (lots of beer) and then cars. That was about it. I mean, my testosterone pummeled brain just spun in circles trying to figure out a way of facilitating all three of these things at one time: Get beer, get girl, and get girl in backseat of car. Seemed like the hardest puzzle in the world for a young man with ADHD and an overactive libido.

Between thinking about girls and working through hangovers, it still amazes me to think that I could sit still long enough to read a 24 page comic. I remember that I used to smuggle comic books to work in the cargo pocket of my camouflage uniform and sit in the RIO cockpits of the F-4S Phantom fighter jets, pretending to repair radars while reading comic books. There was an intrinsic embarrassment of reading comics at my age around a bunch of jar-head Marines. It really wasn’t OK at that time for adults to be seen reading them; like a dirty secret that as it turns out, many, many adults were doing.

It seems looking back, that my emotional maturity didn’t begin until I left home for good and joined the Marine Corp. This began to change my taste in comic books and led me to what I recognized even then as “higher reading” in comics. With a small amount of fanfare and promotion, DC Comics hired a new British writer to take over Swamp Thing for issue #20. His name was Alan Moore and no casual comic reader knew who the heck this guy was. What we did know though, was this book, in one single issue, became really, really important.

Since its inception in 1971, the Len Wein creation was not much more than a DC version of Marvel’s Man Thing, with the same feeling and simple plot lines. It sort of fell into a corner of comic publishing that was a necessary evil; the corner where enough people (like me) would continually support creepy horror books of just about any kind. At about this age though, I kind of swore off Marvel and became a “DC guy.” And let’s be honest people, how many times have you gotten sick of the current truck load of dung being shoveled off on comic readers and in an act of pure desperation just chopped your pull down to one book? And when this happens how many times has that one book been a DC comic (Batman, Detective Comics has never left my pull)? Just sayin’…

In this comic, Alan Moore, singlehandedly changed the world of comic books perfectly and with grace. The depth, with which he wrote Swamp Thing for four wonderful years, is a present to those of us who continued to love this literary form through the nearly suicidal lack of effort from the big publishers of the day. Moore came along and waved his magic wand across the pages of this book and put us all in a spell which will never be broken. With subtext and imagery that went way over the heads of his readers, this bearded magician lovingly humored us with a morality play that addressed issues of true relevance: the interconnectivity of all living things, Man’s continual war with nature and the ability for love to transcend humanity.

In the early 80’s, Swamp Thing received a re-boot to coincide with Wes Craven’s movie of the same title. The writing was assigned to Martin Pasko whose star was on the rise as a writer in general and had to leave after issue #19 for other writing obligations. Enter the Wizard of Northampton.

In one single gesture, Moore swept aside Pasko’s entire story line and ret-conned this book into unknown territory. Several secrets of Swamp thing’s origins were revealed and the reader was introduced to “Parliament of Trees” and the dimension in which they live, known as “The Green.” It is then Moore pulls his craziest stunt and he has Sunderland Corporation (an absolutely horrifying villain) kill Alec Holland. Really, he killed the star of the comic book. Clean slate. Started literally from scratch and DC just stood by and let him go to it. I almost have to wonder if this was a book near its end and they just let this new British kid walk in and do whatever he wanted with it; save it, kill it, whatever.

Moore was then able to introduce us to a cast of characters that would leave an indelible mark across DC comics and heck, all comics in fact. By reviving some of DC’s best but then forgotten/abandoned magical characters (The Demon, Deadman and the Spectre to name a few); Moore began a tale that would develop into an existential masterpiece. If for no other reason we owe him a debt of gratitude, for it was in the pages of Swamp Thing that we were introduced to John Constantine.

The panel that has never left my head is the one where Abby sees an insect moving inside Swamp Thing’s arm and is repulsed, yet we see that she never stops loving Alec. This really still blows me away, the idea that the people we love can be revolting at times yet we never stop loving them, illustrated so perfectly in the small panels of a comic book. It also helped illustrate that Moore needed to remove Swamp Thing’s humanity in order to tell this tale. Alec Holland went from a man who was trying to regain his human form, to a man who was a self-acknowledged monster and no longer dreamed of being human but reveled in his disconnection from mankind. At times like these, Alan Moore began to show us the infinite possibilities of fictional story telling through the use of comic illustration.

So when we see images of Alan Moore and we think, “Wow, that guy looks crazy!,” in part we are correct. Moore is crazy in the best way possible: He’s a wizard!

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R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned #2 (December – 2012 – Dark Horse)

R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned #2

In this second issue of the 4 part mini-series, Ray and Crispin Mathers are on their way to Black Pool, a town that has gotten the attention of R.I.P.D. Writer Jeremy Barlow starts this one out with some action, as Roy Pulsifer tries to board a mysterious train, only to be attacked by a smoke demon in an attempt to stop them from going to Black Pool.

It is here that a religious struggle begins between the two. Crispin, the crusader, is firm in his belief of the Christian God he fights for but Roy presents a more egalitarian and agnostic ideal. His past transgressions seem to have tainted his zeal for religion. Still, in order to do this job, he must know that the crusader is at least partially correct in his beliefs and he just about says as much.

Artist Tony Parker goes to great lengths to illustrate the vast openness of the old west, with long horizons and impressive mountain scenes. The two are on horseback and this lends to some pretty spectacular vistas with wide open spaces in airy panels. I feel that the book could use a little more color. Kind of washed out and bland, Michelle Madsen’s color palette is out dated and stale.

When they finally reach Black Pool, Tony Parker changes gears to cramp the panels and give a sense of claustrophobia to the heroes. Black Pool turns out to be a strange and overly inviting town. The denizens all have an automaton-like way and every conversation ends with them urging the two up to the old mine. This is illustrated with strange angles of character interaction and reminiscent of the films of Sergio Leone. There is a nice little twist when Roy realizes that in order to be here among the living, he is in a different body.

It quickly becomes apparent to the pair that something odd is happening at the old mine and they set off to investigate. What they find there is something of ancient evil (no surprise here since we were told in issue 1 that the mine under Black Pool contained an ancient evil). It is here that Tony Parker shines. He pencils/inks some rather gruesome monsters that are saved for the end of the issue to keep you coming back.

Roy Pulsifer is an interesting character, plain spoken and tough like the movie cowboys we all love. There is a nice subtext happening here between Roy and Crispin that carries the otherwise lifeless plot (you see what I did there?) along in this horror comic.

R.I.P.D. – THE CITY OF THE DAMNED is available now from Dark Horse Comics.

Next Time: The Walking Dead #1

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Abe Sapien Dark and Terrible #1 (March – 2013 – Dark Horse)

Abe Sapien Dark and Terrible #1

Abe Sapien is on the run but from what? Upon awakening from a coma, Abe disappears, leaving the B.P.R.D. questioning his motives, in a time when they desperately need his help.
Thick with story, this 1 of 3 parts begins with a decidedly evil bang. In a satanic ritual that fails, it seems Hellboy: In Hell may actually be sweeping continuity since HB killed “you know who” in that series. Due to the disappearance and unknown whereabouts of Abe, Director Corrigan is having a meltdown amid the bureau’s apathy to the current situation of gigantic demons and crab men.
On a train, inside a boxcar, we find Abe and a small group of hobos. This is significant because of the clues dropped by these hobos about vampire fungus, crab men in Georgia and a strange growth on the arm of one.

Reminiscent of 70’s horror mags and comics, Sebastian Fiumara uses a distinctly retro style that keeps us consciously aware: this IS horror! It’s interesting as well, the layout of panels; from 4 to 8 panels per page, allowing for tons of content without cramping the art. This is not an easy thing to do and Fiumara is kind of showing off for our pleasure. I personally appreciate it.

I hate to sound like a broken record but I REALLY REALLY LIKE Dave Stewart! I literally want to eat this guy’s color palette. Dark in tone, the book is not victimized by muted colors. Instead, Stewart uses gradients to darken the rich colors he is so fond of using. It is very effective and keeps your eyes on the page. The wash-like effects he is creating are stunning and reminiscent of water colors or gouache.

With the launch of this mini-series, one question stands out to me: Is Abe running away from something or to something? Either way, the Abe Sapien character is undergoing some serious development and that makes me very happy.
With the ever-increasing popularity and expansion of the B.P.R.D., Abe looks to be a key figure, as well he should. Is he running to find out more of his past? Is he running away from something to be later revealed? Will I be able to make it until the next issue without completely obsessing? And what about that variant cover by Max Fiumara with Red riding a bat/bull demon thingy and attacking Abe with text that reads May 1982 Calcutta, India? Whaaaaa?

Abe Sapien is a mystery in the DH MIgnolaverse. There are a bunch of questions that beg to be answered and I have great hopes that at least some of them will be answered here.

Abe Sapien: Dark and Terrible issue #1 is available from Dark Horse Comics.

Next Time: The Last Zombie TPB

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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.

 

B.P.R.D.: Vampire #1 (March – 2013 – Dark Horse)

B. P. R. D.: Vampire #1

Mike Mignola might just be the busiest comic writer alive. His name is on no less than 4 titles from Dark Horse right now. It is increasingly apparent that he has become the face of Dark Horse and the evolution of B.P.R.D. from its humble Hellboy roots to a must-have in every horror buffs pull.

B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development) Vampire is a direct follow up to the series B.P.R.D.: 1948. It is post WWII and Professor Trevor Bruttenholm has moved the relatively new agency from a New Mexico air base to its eventual home at a mansion in Fairfield Connecticut. Hellboy is just a scrap of a lad at this point. The mythology and backstory of B.R.P.D is getting a serious fleshing out by Mignola and his mates Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá.

I really enjoy the way Mignola and DH present this property. B.P.R.D. became a monthly book after several mini-series but DH has never abandoned the idea of mini-series by doing spin-offs. I enjoy being able to obliquely re-enter the Mignolaverse occasionally, like visiting an old friend. It also keeps DH in my regular pull, which seems a lot smarter way of competing with the new 52 multi issue arc madness, currently clogging it up.

Along with this mini-series is a second publication, Abe Sapien which I am completely jazzed about picking up on Wednesday. Abe is hands down my favorite B.P.R.D./Hellboy character although Johann Krauss runs a very close second. Hopefully either Gabriel or I can squeeze out a review of it but just in case, you heard it here. We know, it’s AWESOME! (Yes we do!! -gl)

No surprises artistically, Moon and Bá are back and inking their cool style we expect from these books. The story here though, is Dave Stewart. Stewart has become one of the industry’s best colorists. Using a color palette that is more Mark Rothko than comic style, he paints these pages in an almost Mondrian-like way, using gradients to their fullest extent and blocking out complimentary colors for a visually pleasing feel. You can see the impact in the noted lack of dialogue throughout; very smart, very artistic and very pleasing to the eye.

In Vampire, we are getting a better look at minor character, Simon Anders. The writers give us some casual hints about his true nature, well, it is called Vampire and I’m only guessing here but… I am intrigued with the story though, it starts with a wooded scene involving a couple vampires (no duh!). The story is paced a lot slower than I would expect from an issue #1 with very little reveal. I have to say though; I am intrigued to see how it plays out and am anxious for issue #2. Mignola, Moon, Bá and Stewart are building a mood in which to tell their tale. My guess is it’s a vampire hunter’s tale and uh, yeah, give me lots of that please!

B.P.R.D Vampire issue #1 (of 5) is currently available from Dark Horse Comics.

Next Time:  Morbius: The Living Vampire #3

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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…

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