Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Horror Comics - 12/12/12

I'm biased of course, but I think it's an exciting time for horror comics. Dark Horse, in particular, has taken a chance this fall on some really unique stories.

Hellboy in Hell, art by Mike Mignola

Last week, Mike Mignola returned to the helm of Hellboy. It's been a while since he wrote, pencilled and inked a full miniseries revolving around his most famous creation and, according to editor Scott Allie, he's been working toward this for a long time. Hellboy in Hell #1 does what the best Mignola comics do: It surprises you. I don't know what I was expecting Hellboy to find in the underworld... but I'm pretty sure it didn't have anything to do with Charles Dickens or hand puppets. Once again, Mignola shows his eclectic literary influences, suggesting a series arc that will have more in common with Dante's intricate vision of Hell than with anything in modern-day horror.

The Conqueror Worm, art by Richard Corben
A few weeks ago, Dark Horse also published Richard Corben's The Conqueror Worm, a darkly comic morality play inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. Corben is a legend in the comics industry and a recent inductee into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame. He also has a long history with horror and with Poe, who he has adapted several times for recent issues of Dark Horse Presents. My first encounter with Corben's work was in the 1982 film HEAVY METAL. Remember the segment about the nerdy guy, voiced by John Candy, who becomes a muscle-bound He-man in a postapocalyptic world full of hideous monsters and buxom women? If so, then you know this guy has a wild sense of humor. That humor is on full display in The Conqueror Worm, which revolves around... more hand puppets! Naked, fornicating, murderous, worm-infested hand puppets! If that's your thing (you know who you are and I won't judge), the art is grand.

Poe also turns up (at least part of him does) in Baltimore: The Play, a recent one-shot from longtime collaborators Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden.  This one is a nod to "The Masque of the Red Death," and it's as solemn and as beautifully macabre as a horror comic can get.  Seriously, if you have any doubts about Dark Horse's loyalty to the horror genre, just compare this to the current Night of the Living Dead series from Avatar Press.  While Dark Horse creators have tried to capture the spirit of Poe, Avatar creators are simply exploiting Romero's public domain title.  I don't see even a glimmer of Romero's dark, satirical vision in Night of the Living Dead: Aftermath.  The comic is pure splatterpunk.  I'm not knocking splatterpunk and I'm not knocking the writers or the artists of Avatar's series, but I think the comic should have been called something else.  For honesty's sake.

Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities and the Orm of Loch Ness #3, art by Kyle Hotz
Equally interesting things are going on in Eric Powell's Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities and the Orm of Loch Ness.  I wrote enthusiastically about the first issue of this miniseries a few weeks ago, and I'm pleased to say that issues #2 and #3 (out today) are just as good.  The second issue introduces Dracula and his lusty brides, along with a running gag about Mormon fish monsters. The third issue is full-blown monster mash.  Imagine a spaghetti western by way of Hammer horror (later Hammer horror, when they started to get really weird).... Nah, forget it.  This comic is better.

Another title that manages to do something surprising with familiar horror elements is Ex Sanguine, a vampire-meets-serial killer miniseries by Tim Seeley with co-writer Joshua Scott Emmons. The end of issue #2 (out last month) suggested that there is more to this story than just a twisted romance.  Issue #3 (out today) delves into serial killer Ashley's backstory.  The way it humanizes her reminds me a lot of Seeley's excellent Hack/Slash: My First Nightmare miniseries.  The issue also features a few supporting characters in ways that open up the world of this story.  What happens next is anyone's guess, and that seems like a very good place to be at the mid-point of a mini-series.

Ex Sanguine #3, art by Tim Seeley

Ex Sanguine #3, art by Tim Seeley

I'm also completely hooked on the Paul Tobin / Juan Ferreyra miniseries Colder.  This is probably the most unique and literary comic I'm reading right now.  Like Ex Sanguine, the story revolves around two freakish characters -- but the freaks in Colder are not your usual horror movie monsters.  One of them is frozen (he makes Brad Pitt's stoner character in TRUE ROMANCE look animated), but he seems like a nice enough guy beneath the icy exterior.  The other one is an invisible soul-thief, with a wicked smile and limbs like Gumby.  Both of these characters, we're told, are batshit crazy.

Against all odds, issue #2 manages to trump issue #1 by giving us some startling glimpses into the otherworld that these two characters share in their darkest moments.  Ferrayra's art conveys a touch of madness by making key details stand apart from everything around them.  The effect is hauntingly beautiful.   If you pick up this issue, be sure to notice the shadows in the park scenes, the subtle mist in the "hungry world," the violent blurring effect that signals a character's transition between worlds, the soft fiery hue of Declan's shared flashback, the menacing glow of the burning asylum and the electric gateway that appears within it.  Every color choice, from Reece's yellow dress to the rainbow tendrils that Nimble Jack bleeds from his victims, enhances the surreal quality of an already compelling story.  At the end of the issue, Nimble Jack (the soul-thief) appears at his most vibrant in a scene that finally brings him together with his nemesis.  I can't wait to see what happens next.

Colder #2, art by Juan Ferreyra

Colder #2, art by Juan Ferreyra

This brings me to a comic I've been waiting to talk about for a long time.  It's called Final Night, and it not only brings together two rival publishers (IDW and Dark Horse) but also combines two of the most popular mythologies in horror comics today.  Where to begin...?

A few years ago, I was producing an unlikely episode of an unlikely TV series called Deadliest Warrior -- the episode pit vampires against zombies, and pretended to be scientific about the outcome.   I called on Steve Niles, creator of 30 Days of Night (the title that renewed my interest in horror comics), to represent the vampire side.  A year later, while I was writing Not Bad for a Human, I introduced Steve to Lance Henriksen.  It turned out that Steve's favorite vampire movie was NEAR DARK and Lance's favorite vampire movie was 30 DAYS OF NIGHT.  So they hit it off.  Steve introduced us to some of his friends in the comics community, including Tom Mandrake, and then offered to publish Not Bad for a Human under his Bloody Pulp imprint.  Long story short: Lance, Tom and I have our first comic book coming out today... the same day that Steve Niles pits his 30 Days of Night vampires up against his other name-brand creation, Cal McDonald.

I suppose this is my way of admitting I'm biased about Steve's work.  Nevertheless, I happen to think he's doing a lot of very interesting work lately.  He's got a new supernatural thriller called Lot 13 over at DC Comics.  The second issue came out a few weeks ago, and in my opinion it was better than the first.  I confess I had some reservations about the story initially, for one specific reason.  In my opinion, the best ghost stories hinge on the psychology of the main character(s).  They should constantly be asking, Are ghosts real?  From the very beginning, however, Lot 13 dismisses this question -- the ghosts in this story are real and they are fucking pissed.  These are not the kind of apparitions that appear briefly in your peripheral vision, or tickle your feet while you sleep.  These are in-your-face ugly demons that make the ghosts in THE SHINING look tame by comparison.  Niles knows the genre, so he's not pulling any punches.

Lot 13 #2, art by Glenn Fabry
While reading issue #2, I decided that the story works for me because of the artistic choices of Glenn Fabry and colors by Adam Brown.  In many of the panels, the background fades into darkness (often black, but sometimes an even more unsettling lifeless grey) in a way that is profoundly unsettling -- the way the "real world" would have to fall away if a person actually encountered ghosts like these.  The nightmarish drawings of the undead are enough to satisfy any horror fan, and the human characters are realistic enough to be sympathetic.  Given the level of intensity in this issue, I'm very curious to see issue #3. 

I'm even more impressed with Niles's latest collaboration with Bernie Wrightson, Frankenstein Alive, Alive!  A few weeks ago at Long Beach Comic Con, I had an opportunity to see some of Wrightson's original boards for issue #2 of this miniseries.  Words cannot describe my sense of awe.  Bernie humbly said that he can't do the minutiae as well as he used to, so he's adopted a slightly different style emphasizing water colors.  You can see the results in Frankenstein, as IDW has wisely opted to reproduce the graytones of his original work.  The textures are gorgeous, and the minutiae is still pretty damn staggering.  (I can't get over the roof on Dr. Ingles's house, to say nothing of the texture of the bones in his lab or the creases on the books in his library!)  Some of the panels are so detailed that the publisher has featured them in close-up at the back of the issue... evidence suggesting that Bernie Wrightson on his worst day would still be better than a lot of very fine artists on their best day.

Frankenstein, Alive Alive! #2, art by Bernie Wrightson (CLICK TO ZOOM IN)

Niles includes a bit more prose in issue #2 than he did in #1, and the writing makes it clear that he's not going to cater to the baser expectations of horror fans.  He's not attempting to mimic Mary Shelley's prose either -- simply conveying enough of the monster's tortured inner thoughts to create genuine pathos.  My biggest complaint about the issue is that it's not long enough, but that shortcoming is negated by the fact that this series is already living up to the high standards of timeless art, not just monthly thrills.

Final Night looks like it could also be one for the ages.  The first page expertly drops us right into the drug-addled mind of undead detective Cal McDonald.  Even if you've never read a Criminal Macabre story, this page will tell you what you need to know about him.  Cal is as wry as Phillip Marlowe and, in a world that's constantly throwing new types of larger-than-life monsters at him, that's really saying something.  On page 2, he meets Alice Blood, the heroine of the recent ongoing 30 Days series -- and the unfortunate soul who provoked onetime heroic vampire Eben Oleman into declaring war on the human race.  Right off the bat, their rapport is classic.  I suppose I shouldn't say any more than that... Let me just note that Niles is obviously very invested in bringing out the best in his characters before he has to say goodbye to one of them.  The final pages promise a truly EPIC battle ahead.  In fact, the very last panel filled me with the kind of geeky fanboy excitement usually reserved for the trailers for Hollywood's summer blockbusters. 

Final Night, art by Christopher Mitten

Like I said, it's an exciting time for horror comics.

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