Sunday, October 22, 2006

Comics: Come Hell and high water.

After years of sporadic and half-hearted attempts to convert their vast back catalogues into revenue, both DC and Marvel have hit upon a winning way to resell old stories. Marvel's Essential series and DC's Showcase series utilize a black and white, no-thrills format to get a crap-load of classic stories back into circulation cheaply and profitably. And it is working. Not only are the big two comic company's now cranking out phone-book style collections, Image is currently bringing Spawn back in to popular format. Word is that the popular Savage Dragon might get the same treatment soon.

All in all, this has been a boon for fans Silver Age horror titles. Marvel has re-issued its major horror series and DC has compiled its popular anthology series House of Mystery. But the impact of the series is being felt beyond the popularity of the reprints themselves. Fans snatching up these reprints have shown a surprising amount of love for properties that haven't seen the light of day in years. And here come the re-launches! At Marvel, it looks like the late 70s again: Luke Cage is a major hero, the blaxploitation –ish Misty Knight gets a book full of forgotten b-listers, Iron Fist is back, Moon Knight, Ghost Rider.

Perhaps the oddest of the Marvel revivals is newly launched Hellstorm: Son of Satan mini-series. At Marvel, during a brief moment in the 70s, Satanism was, for lack of a better word, hip. Satan himself made several appearances in titles like Tomb of Dracula and when he himself didn't appear he was serving as some hero's origin story (Ghost Rider) or showing up as some "not-really Satan but sort of" character (Mephisto, for example). Out of Marvel's short-lived infatuation with Satan came Daimon Hellstrom, a.k.a. Hellstorm, a brooding superhero whose powers came from his being the son of the Lord of Darkness himself. With his name swiped from the popular Omen series and his look swiped from Kirby's design for DC's The Demon, Hellstorm was not one of Marvel's most innovative creations. Still, he was remembered fondly, and with Marvel robbing graves in the Cemetery of Under-utilized Properties, it was only a matter of time before he was dug up and dusted off. (An alternate, unpowered, suck-job version Hellstorm appeared briefly in Marvel's series The Ultimates, but it was a completely different character there and more of a satire than a revival.)

Re-launched as a five-issue mini-series, the new Hellstorm hit the stands last week. The cover was promising: a painted image of our hero, rendered in washed out reds, oranges, and yellows, evoking Brandon Lee in The Crow. Sadly, even that slight promise is not lived up to. Hellstorm, originally a bit of a copy, is not so much re-invented and re-stolen. Now instead of being a visual rip-off of DCs Demon, his is a swipe of DC's John Constantine. The plot involves Hellstorm arriving in post-flood New Orleans (in one of Marvel's less tasteful editorial moves) to investigate some unsettling dreams he's had. The idea that clues to the future come to Hellstorm in his sleep is paradigmatic of the lazy way in which the plot builds. Hellstorm doesn't so much investigate events as he has visions, bumps into people who randomly tell him pertinent info, and accidentally stumbles across important doings. For example, while sitting in a bar, a random doctor comes up to him and says: "You're not from around here. You don't have the look. Listen: you're going to think this is crazy, but I'm pretty sure I saw a woman give birth to a kid who, a week later, could walk and turn into a bird." A clue! Another case solved by Daimon Hellstrom! The woman in question turns out to be an ancient Egyptian goddess and the world's going to end or something. Truth is, you'll have to tell me, because I'm not going to follow the series.

The art, while functional, is workman-like and pedestrian. Scenes of gore have haphazard red splashes about: blood as abstract impressionism. Bodies get torn and appear to be hollow or made of a solid and consistent red mass. People in Hellstorm's world are apparently made of red Play-Dough. Continuity from panel to panel is all cock-eyed: Was the floor covered in blood? Maybe? Who can remember all of these things?

Finally, the one thing worth checking out the comic for – a charming group of flesh-eating demons that disguise themselves as NOPD – seems weirdly distasteful and shows what a crap idea it was to stage the comic in New Orleans. Real disasters and comic book heroes are a lousy fit. I know that many people contributed to post-9/11 anthologies and whatnot – but real disasters just don't make sense in the world Marvel has created. Let's say, for example, the Katrina happened in the Marvel Universe. Such a massive disaster would have immediately sent heroes scrambling south to airlift the entire Astrodome out of the imperiled city. Even if they were late to the scene, somebody would whip up some time travel device or whatnot and save the day. We've seen Marvel's heroes go to greater lengths for considerably less. So, not only is it illogical, but as it is used in this comic, it is simply in poor taste. Either the flood is simply window dressing, in which case the demonic police and the allusions to the disaster are just for mood, or, even worse, they are going explain the narrative significance of the disaster (it will be the work of Satan to get Hellstorm to . . . who knows what, something bad, I guess, he's the devil after all), turning a real tragedy into a plot point in their exceedingly silly story.

Final call: avoid Hellstorm. If you want to check out a revival that is hitting all the right notes, I recommend Marvel's excellent Moon Knight re-launch or their top-notch Heroes for Hire, which brings back the fun of the kung-fu choppin', jive talkin' Marvel 70s. If you won't have anything but Hellstorm, check out the Essentials: Marvel Horror collection which reprints several of his original adventures.

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