I can’t tell you what’s the deal with Al Columbia. Maybe no one can.
He famously was going to take over from Bill Sienkiewicz on the Alan Moore-written Big Numbers comic nearly thirty years ago, but had a nervous breakdown (maybe), disappeared (sort of), and destroyed all of his finished art (almost certainly). His career in comics since then has been occasional, with short pieces in anthologies and other random appearances. As far as I’ve seen, this is his only book-length publication.
Pim & Francie: “The Golden Bear Days” came out just about a decade ago, collecting material about the title characters that Columbia had created over many years before that. It’s not a graphic novel.
It’s not a story of any kind. It’s a lot easier to list the things Pim & Francieisn’t than explain what it is: it doesn’t have any finished stories, any complete narratives, any obvious through-line.
There’s no explanation for the random artifacts in the book, but I like to think of it this way. Imagine there was an animation studio, back in the early days — late ’20s, early ’30s — more influenced by Grand Guignol than happy musical theatre. Imagine that their main characters were two child-sized figures, Pim and Francie. Imagine that unnamed studio generated a number of cartoons and comics stories about those characters, full of horrors and terrors. Imagine that work was suppressed, violently, and almost entirely destroyed. And imagine that someone — call him Al Columbia — assembled what was left three generations later, with haunting, tantalizing hints of the stories of Pim and Francie.
You can imagine a coffee-table book, telling the history of that studio, with scraps of memos and release dates for the material, wrapped up in a narrative explaining who the people behind Pim & Francie were and what they did. Columbia provides none of that here. All he gives us is the art: sketches, torn comics pages, random animation cells, model sheets, sketches for background art or covers, isolated vignettes, things that might be comics panels or might not. All of it is only barely in sequence, if at all. No stories are complete; no stories are explained; no stories are more than a handful of isolated moments.
Pim and Francie’s world is full of death and mayhem of all kinds: self-inflicted, since we see these “children” being horribly cruel to themselves and others; supernatural, with the child-snatching Cinnamon Jack and some kind of forest-dwelling demon-witch they call “grandma;” and just plain human, as in the knife-wielding Bloody Bloody Killer. Pim and Francie are occasionally perpetrators, often about to be victims, and regularly onlookers at something that is about to happen. The overall town is of ominousness and menace; this is a world stuffed top to bottom with horrible things, and there can be no end to them, no safe place for children…or for whatever Pim and Francie actually are. Sometimes they’re with what seem to be friendly, loving grandparents — but those are also clearly ineffectual and unable to protect the moppets from the horrors of the world.
Pim & Francie is a monument to something, but it’s hard to say what. It’s a window into an alternative world of entertainment, one more sadistic and cruel than our own, presented as torn pages, coffee-ring stained art, and random scraps. I don’t know if Columbia has an overall vision for this project: if there’s anything larger than a bunch of horrific and ominous moments. But the moments he has presented here are powerful, and the atmosphere is like no other book I know. And he’s a killer draftsman in that rubber-hose ’30s style. If all that intrigues you, you might as well check it out. There is nothing else like Pim & Francie.
I wouldn’t say that all of modern mainstream comics comes from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil and The Dark Knight was just as influential, alongside the Claremont X-Men and the event frenzy kick-started by the Wolfman/Perez Crisis. And there have certainly been major developments in the thirty years since then. But our modern adventure-story comics world was formed in those days of the mid-80s when the Direct Market was strong and growing, when the outside world was reading “comics are growing up” stories every few months (with new examples each time), and the expectations of both readers and publishers started to bend to shocking revelations and long story arcs and Worlds That Would Never Be the Same. And that world was strongly molded by Alan Moore, starting with Swamp Thing in late 1983.
Thirty-plus years later, those Moore stories are both shockingly modern and shockingly old-fashioned: cold-eyed about humanity and the place of superbeings alongside it, but utterly besotted with their own wordy narration. These are intensely told stories: Moore in the ’80s was the culmination of Silver Age style, all captions and explanations and background and atmosphere, cramming all of his ideas and poetic descriptions into each twenty-three page issue, exhausting every concept as soon as he introduced it.
Swamp Thing, the character, was a scientist named Alec Holland, working on a “bio-restorative formula” with his also-scientist wife in what looked like a barn deep in the Louisiana marshes. (This all made sense in the early 1970s, when ecology and back-to-the-land were huge.) The usual evil forces of international business sabotaged his work: his wife was killed and Alec, permeated with the formula and burning to death from an explosion, fell into the swamp. He arose, a few days later, as the slow-talking Swamp Thing, to stop those evil businessmen and battle weird menaces around the world for at least the duration of the early-70s horror boom. His first comics series ended after 24 issues of slowly dwindling sales and quickly increasing gimmicks to try to reverse the sales drop, and was revived about a decade later when a cheap movie adaptation came out. The same slow-death started setting in, with similar results, and the second series began to look like it would run only about as long as the first.
And then Alan Moore took over writing what was then Saga of the Swamp Thing from Martin Pasko with issue #20. His first outing was a clean-up effort, tying off “Loose Ends” from the Pasko run, like a concert pianist running a few scales to warm up before diving into the meat of the program. A month later, he delivered one of the most influential and iconic single issues of any comic, “The Anatomy Lesson,” where he carefully explained that Swamp Thing’s origin and explanation made no sense whatsoever, and started the path to what he declared was a better foundation for the character. (He was right, and he shouldn’t be blamed that a thousand others have tried to do the same thing to a thousand other characters since then, with not necessarily the same level of rigor or success.)
Before long, the title had simplified to Swamp Thing — the same as that original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson series a decade before — grown the tag-line “Sophisticated Suspense,” and quietly become the first Big Two comic to ditch the Comics Code seal. It was also a huge hit, both critically and commercially. By the time Moore ended his run on Swamp Thing with #64, almost four years later, the Crisis had come and gone, he was in the middle of Watchmen, and the landscape of American comics had been radically changed.
(As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that the editor on those early Moore Swamp Thing issues was Wein himself — it’s a fantastic example of a creator nurturing stories that reinterpret, even replace, the work he did earlier.)
That Swamp Thing run was one of the first to be collected in a comprehensive way soon after periodical publication, as the comics industry started to realize what the book industry had known for several generations: a creative property you can keep selling in a fixed form for years is vastly more valuable than creative properties that you need to refresh every month. The complete Alan Moore run is currently available as six trade paperbacks, under the overall title The Saga of the Swamp Thing, reprinting all forty-five issues with introductions by various people. (Not including Moore, though, as anyone who has heard about his contentious relationship with DC Comics since will expect.) If you’re looking for those books individually, have some links: one
The first thing to note is that the divisions between books generally make sense: they each collect eight issues, except Book Five has only six, and they tend to break at important moments. This is partially an artifact of comics-storytelling norms of the time: then, a three-issue story was an epic, and anything longer than that was remarkable. (Of course, subplots would run longer than that — I mentioned Claremont up top, and he’s one of the major originators of the throw-in-hints-of-the-next-four-stories-in-each-issue plotting style — but the actual conflict in any issue would be done within fifty or seventy pages nearly all the time.) But Swamp Thing also tended to run to story arcs, more and more as Moore wrote it; it’s one of the origins of that now-common structure. So it’s partially luck, partially planning, and partially the nature of these stories that makes them break down as cleanly as they do into volumes. It means that a reader can come to this series thirty years later — it’s now impossible to come to it any earlier, if you haven’t already — and take it one book at a time, as her interest is piqued. (Or you can run through all of them quickly, as I did.)
Book One leads off with #20, “Loose Ends” — not generally included in Swamp Thing reprints for the first decade or so, as DC presumably wanted to start with the bigger bang of “The Anatomy Lesson” — and runs through the continuation of that story with Jason Woodrue and then a three-part story featuring Jack Kirby’s The Demon. These are the foundational stories, in which Moore resets everything about the series: tone, cast, mood, atmosphere, even genre. (There were horror elements in the earlier stories, obviously, but Moore moved it definitively from “superhero story with horror villains” to “horror story with a muckmonster hero.”) The Woodrue story also has a nice cameo by the Justice League, cementing Swampy’s place in the “real” DC Universe. Swamp Thing, and the Vertigo imprint that eventually grew out of it, would have a complicated relationship with that continuity over the next few decades — as that continuity itself got more complex and self-referential, in part driven by the work Moore did here and other writers did in a similar vein — but, when it began, it was just the weird corner of the same universe.
Book Two is anchored by the return of Anton Arcane, Swampy’s greatest villain, who Moore made even more infernal as he threw Arcane into Hell and brought him (briefly) back. I’m not sure if this is the first time we get an extended look at DC Comics Hell — there were a bunch of vaguely Satanic comics in the ’70s, though mostly on the Marvel side — but Moore’s vision of Hell, as amplified and extended a few years later by Neil Gaiman in the early issues of Sandman, was the model for DC for a generation from this point. This second book also has the first visual breaks from the main look for the Moore run: the majority of the early Moore issues are pencilled by Stephen Bissette and inked by John Totleben, but they have a very detailed, intricate style and Swamp Thing also tended to have heavily designed pages — which all added up to mean that getting twenty-three pages done, at that level and in that style, tended to take longer than the month between issues. So this volume has two issues drawn by Shawn McManus: the first a coda to the storyline of the first volume, the second a homage to Walt Kelly’s Pogo. And another issue reprinted here brings back Cain and Abel, the mystery hosts from DC’s horror-anthology comics of the early ’70s, in a framing story drawn by Ron Randall to showcase the original short “Swamp Thing” comic by Wein and Wrightson that served as a tryout and model for the ’70s series.
Book Three is the bulk of the “American Gothic” storyline, introducing John Constantine — who has gone on to fame on his own, with a very long-running comic and a movie that was at least higher-budget than any of Swampy’s — and sending Swampy cross-country to see and confront growing horrors in the world: nuclear waste, racism, sexism, and (of course) aquatic vampires. Here the art continues to move around a small team: Rick Veitch pencils one issue (he also helped out on some pages in two issues in the first volume), Alfredo Alcala inks another, and Stan Woch pencils a third. The team is clearly moving resources around to maintain a consistent visual look and at the same time maintain that punishing monthly deadline. These stories are the heart of Swamp Thing as a horror comic: Moore is taking individual concerns of the then-modern world (mostly; the aquatic vampires aren’t particularly emblematic of anything) and showing how they can be twisted and made horrible.
Book Four finishes up “American Gothic,” which leads into the double whammy of Crisis and Swamp Thing‘s own fiftieth issue, which was explicitly positioned in the story as a crisis after the Infinite Earths one. (Evil South American wizards — the same ones mentioned in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which I coincidentally read recently — knew the whole “worlds will live, worlds will die” thing was coming, and planned to summon Primordial Darkness to take over Heaven in the tumult.) This is one of Moore’s largest-scale stories, and from that era when he aspired to write big superhero-universe crossovers: Watchmen started out that way, and the aborted Twilight of the Superheroes project from 1987 was an even bigger take on the same idea.So Swampy almost becomes a supporting character in his own book, with the Demon and the Phantom Stranger and Deadman and the Spectre and Dr. Fate and John Constantine with a roomfull of minor DC magicians all demanding their time in the spotlight. It does all come together, and tells a strong story — even if the ending is strangely muted, with characters explicitly saying things like:
Happened? Nothing has happened. Everything has happened. Can’t you feel it? Everywhere things look the same, but the feeling…the feeling is different.”
One can admire Moore’s writing and plotting and still think this is a remarkably deflating denouement.
Book Five is another group of transitional stories. First, because the art team switches to Veitch and Alcala, except for one issue in the middle drawn entirely by Totleben. And, more importantly, because it moves from the aftermath of the “spiritual Crisis” through the arrest and prosecution of Swampy’s girlfriend Abby in Gotham City — and Swampy’s subsequent assault on that city through a massive green-ification project — before Swampy sets off, unexpectedly and not by choice, on his next story arc. At the risk of spoiling thirty-five year old stories, he’s catapulted off into space, where he needs to learn how to modulate his wavelengths (more or less) to get back home.
And Book Six is when he does so. By this time, Moore was also working on Watchmen, and was getting to the point where he’d nearly said all he wanted to say with Swamp Thing. So this last volume has stories explicitly planned as transitions to the story-sequence that would follow: Rick Veitch would take over writing (on top of pencilling), and so he writes one story here. Bissette writes another, a sidebar set back on Earth, in which Abby is reunited, for one last time, with her ill-fated father. One issue has a quite experimental art style from Totleben, all chilly mecanico-organic forms, and the big conclusion is something of a jam issue, with art from nearly everyone who contributed to the Moore run: Bissette, original Saga penciller Tom Yeates, Veitch, and Alcala, under a Totleben cover.
It all ends on a happy note: Swampy is back where he belongs, having learned more about himself and the universe and having found something like peace. If the series had ended there, it would have been an ending — but popular comics didn’t end in 1987 just because they had a good place to do so.
Instead, the next month there was a Veitch-Alcala issue, launching a new plot arc. Veitch continued the concerns and manner of the Moore run — though with somewhat less of the overwrought narration, which was becoming outmoded even in the late ’80s — but ran afoul of DC brass a little over a year later, during a time-travel storyline that was to culminate with Swampy meeting a certain religious leader in Roman-occupied Palestine.
But that’s all another story: a story not collected in the books I’m writing about here, and in fact never collected, since it was cancelled and twisted and broken in the process.
Moore wrote forty-three issues of Swamp Thing over a four-year period, including at least three double-length issues (and, again, Veitch and Bissette also each contributed one script as part of the overall plot line). He worked with a team that ended up being fairly large — Bissette, Totleben, Veitch, and Alcala most of the time, McManus and Randall and Yeates and Dan Day stepping in here and there. But the whole thing does hang together — it’s not quite one story, but it’s a closely related cluster of stories, with consistent themes and concerns, that took a fairly conventional “weird hero” and turned him and his world into something new and strange in American comics.
Others have built on this foundation since then: most obviously, Neil Gaiman with Sandman, who got the luxury of a real ending and who was able to take a stronger hand at choosing art teams to go with specific story sequences. But Sandman could not have happened without the Moore Swamp Thing, as a thousand other comics could not have happened — all of Vertigo, for example, and most of what Image currently publishes, and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe, among many others.
Modern readers might find the Moore Swamp Thing much wordier than they expect: he was the last great Silver Age writer, a decade or two out of his time, when he wrote these comics. They’re all good words, deployed well and to strong effect — but we have to admit there are a lot of them. The coloring is also clearly ’80s vintage: very strong for its time, and pushing the limits of what could be done with newsstand comics in those days long before desktop publishing, but still clearly more limited and bold than what we’re used to today.
All those things are inherent in reading older stories. And all stories are “older” before too long. The strong stories are worth the effort — frankly, even new strong stories require some effort, since that’s one of the main things that makes them strong.
You should read the Alan Moore Swamp Thing, if you have any interest in comics or horror or superhero universes or ecology in literature or spirituality or transcendence. If you’re not interested in any of those things, well, it sounds like a dull life, but good luck with it.
When religious people talk about the dangers of pure scientism, they’re talking about Jimmy Yee. Maybe a bit about his creator, Jason Shiga, too.
But Yee is the poster boy for why believing in only what you can prove is really, really bad: he murders an appreciable fraction of the entire human race during this story, mostly because he sees no reason not to. And the only possible ethical justification is that, most of the time, he’s only killing himself.
Without getting into the traditional arguments against suicide, I think we can all agree that killing yourself is at the very least generally less bad than killing someone else. But what if every time you kill yourself, you also kill someone else by taking over their body?
Demon is a very Jason Shiga comic, which is to say it takes a particular premise and then inexorably rolls out all of the entirely logical consequences of that that premise, leaving human feeling (except for a certain glee in destruction and mayhem) entirely out of the equation. The worldview here is a kind of happy nihilism: nothing matters, everything is disposable, and that’s wonderful for our viewpoint character.
Or, to put it another way: Demon is Miracleman #15 from the viewpoint of Kid Miracleman, going on for several hundred years.
Actually, that’s another thing that’s annoyingly cartoony about Demon: it goes on for well over two hundred years, but society and technology don’t change in the slightest. Oops, that might be a spoiler.
I should probably explain all of those disjointed thoughts.
OK. This long, multi-volume graphic novel  opens with Jimmy Yee, in a cheap motel room. He hangs himself. He wakes up in bed in the same cheap motel room, and slits his wrists in the bathtub.
And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And kills himself with the gun he finds in a drawer.
And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And takes an overdose of pills.
And wakes up in the same cheap motel room. And runs out into traffic to be hit by a semi.
And wakes up in Intensive Care, with the truck driver’s daughter crying over him. And manages to go for several hours without killing himself.
Eventually, Yee figures it out: he’s a demon. (Why a “demon?” Metafictionally, for shock value on Shiga’s part. In-universe, it just seems to be the word Yee randomly fell upon to describe himself.) When he dies, he instantaneously takes over the body of whoever is closest to him. He wasn’t waking up in the same motel room — he was serially possessing, and then killing, every single person staying at that motel.
There are a few other rules to his demonic self — and it turns out to be a SFnal rather than fantasy explanation, as one would expect from Shiga — which come out in time. But that’s basically it: live forever, take over other bodies when you die, do whatever you want without consequences as long as you can find a way to kill yourself.
The Javert to Yee’s Valjean is “Agent Hunter, OSS,” part of a super-secret US government operation designed to control and utilize demons…of which Yee is the only one when the OSS finds him. (OK, it’s not quite that dumb, but it’s close — Shiga is rolling out complications at speed and not worrying a lot about how plausible any of them are.) As usual, Shiga is good on complications and logical extrapolation and sometimes shaky on worldbuilding — “but what if” is generally good enough for him.
Hunter wants to use Yee, and any other demons there may be — and Shiga isn’t going to let the opportunity to add more baroque complications pass him by — for a grandiose and supposedly humanitarian purpose. But, of course, to do that, he needs to set up fiendishly complicated control structures to keep Yee confined.
And it’s that fiendish complication, both of control and of breakthrough, that Shiga really cares about. Demon is not about what it’s like to live forever, to be be able to be anyone, it’s about how to do the seemingly impossible using just the demon ability. Even when having the demon ability would let one find more elegant and interesting ways to solve problems, Demon always comes down to “kill lots and lots of people, often but not always yourself repeatedly.” Yes, Yee does have his Sad Jaded Immortal moments, since those are required of any story like this, but at least Shiga gets them over with quickly.
What Shiga does take joy in is those complications, and the megadeath is really just a way of keeping score — for all the gore and horrible things here, Shiga’s cartoony art and relentless eye for a weirder, more complicated way to keep demons out or fight their way in is what makes it exciting and fun.
It’s a borderline sociopathic kind of fun, admittedly. But it is fun nonetheless.
I don’t think the ending entirely makes sense — Shiga makes one more twist on his demon concept, and I don’t see how that actually works — but he needed to do something like that, just to make an ending for this thing. It’s certainly as plausible as anything else in this crazy story.
Fort many, many readers, Demon will be too much. That may include a few of you who think it’ll be just fine — it’s the kind of story that just keeps going, and hits places you might not want to go with it. But it’s an interesting book by a great comics creator, and it’s in many ways the purest Shiga book yet. It is horrifying and laugh-out-loud funny and nutty and goofy and appalling in its inventiveness. It’s all Shiga, bless his heart.
 It was originally serialized as a webcomic, and then collected. In fact, it seems to still be available online
, though I think it’s not supposed to be.
Time never stops. And so the once-hot revisionist takes on a neglected character get neglected themselves, and re-emerge in a new format for something like an anniversary.
Or, maybe, y’know, Jonah Hex was always a quirky character, even in the context of Bronze Age western heroes — already pretty far out on the branch of quirky and unusual — beloved by a small cult rather than particularly popular at any time.
If you’re confused, here’s the short version of a typically long and convoluted comics history: Jonah Hex was a scarred Western hero in ’70s DC comics, jumped into a post-apocalyptic future for the ’80s because all the other cool kids were doing it, and has bumped around the fringes of various DC media properties since then, mostly back in Western mode as if Hex never happened. Some of the best stories about him were three mini-series in the ’90s, all from the same creative team: written by Western/horror/thriller/Texas novelist Joe R. Lansdale, penciled by Tim (Scout
, Grimjack) Truman, and inked by Sam Glanzman.
And, eventually, those three miniseries were all collected together, under the title of the third miniseries: Jonah Hex: Shadows West
(It can be surprising to realize that miniseries you missed “a few years ago” and still intend to check out is now just shy of twenty. Again, time never stops.)
The first Lansdale/Truman/Glanzman story was Two-Gun Mojo, which started out the “weird West” direction slowly — Lansdale has an introduction about that story where he points out that he thought Hex already was a character with a lot of supernatural stuff in his stories, but that when he went back to re-read the ’70s comics, that had all been in his head. Nearly everything in this tale of a traveling medicine man and his “zombie” freak show could be explained with comic-book rubber science — it doesn’t have to be supernatural. But it could be.
Two-Gun Mojo also immediately showcases just how much chaos and destruction surround Hex: he manages to escape, in the end, but he tends to be the only one who does. And it’s got Truman in the full flower of his mature style, full of little lines going everywhere and loving depictions of every millisecond of violence. (It’s a style that can’t be easy or quick, which may be why Truman tones it down by the third story, Shadows West.)
In the middle of the book is the quintessential modern Hex story, Riders of the Worm and Such, the one that also almost put a legal kibosh on the series and its creators. You see, Landsale wrote in a pair of evil, creepy brothers named Johnny and Edgar Autumn, and Truman drew them to somewhat resemble the actual Winter brothers. It may have been meant as a weird homage, but the Winters were not pleased, and sued to have the comics suppressed on defamation grounds.
(Pro tip: if you’re writing a real person into a story, even under a thin veil, make sure you have their approval if you want to make your fictional version cartoonishly evil. Saves a lot of time and aggravation.)
Riders starts from much the same place as Two-Gun — Hex is in a jam, with a bounty on his head, trying to get away — but quickly gets more baroque and clearly supernatural. Lansdale is at his best with the deeply weird, and Truman draws great monsters, which leads to great dialogue and action sequences.
Shadows West, the last of three stories, is shorter than the other two — only three issues rather than five. It also has that less-obsessively detailed Truman art style, which means Hex’s world doesn’t feel quite as real or lived-in. It’s supernatural almost from the beginning, and the plot is a little more simplistic and obvious — mostly an extended chase sequence. It’s still fun, and still the same kind of story as the first two, but there’s just less of it, in a whole lot of ways.
But the whole package is impressive: three big weird Western stories, four hundred pages, with one very distinctive lead character and a wickedly twisted take on the Old West. The world needs more weird comics; buy this one to encourage the world.
So the big Hellboy story is over — it’s been over longer than most people think, as I argued when I wrote about
the second volume of Hellboy in Hell. But Hellboy is still a valuable piece of intellectual property, with a potential movie reboot still kicking around in the background somewhere. So there has to be some Hellboy product coming out on a regular basis, to help keep the lights on at Dark Horse and to keep Mike Mignola busy.
Well, maybe that’s too cynical a view of things. Hellboy is an interesting, fun character, and his history contains vast swaths of space and time to throw additional stories into. It’s not impossible that Mignola and his collaborators are really, really enthusiastic about all of those possibilities and that Mignola is taking on such a large number of collaborators and doing a whole lot of unrelated one-off stories because that’s precisely what the Hellboy universe needs right at this moment. The world is vast; all things are possible. And it’s clear that Mignola and team are enjoying what they’re doing.
So what we have here is Hellboy and the B.P.R.D.: 1954
, containing four miscellaneous stories all taking place in that year and all written by Mignola with Chris Roberson, his current major writing collaborator (following John Arcudi). Two of the stories were two-issue mini-series, another was a single issue, and the fourth appeared in a giveaway comic for Free Comic Book Day in 2015.
(Similar volumes covering the years 1952
came out previously.)
The four stories are all entirely separate, which is nothing new for Hellboy: even now, probably a majority of the books featuring him are made up of miscellaneous tales of investigating (and then, inevitably, punching to death) some mysterious folkloric thing in some odd corner of the world. The best of the short pure-Mignola stories relied on folklore and atmosphere rather than tying everything into the standard Hellboy mythology, and it’s good to see that most of the stories here follow in that vein.
We lead off with a two-parter, “Black Sun,” drawn by Stephen Green in the traditional dark and moody style of other-hands Hellboy-universe stories. I tend to think of that look as being codified by Guy Davis in B.P.R.D., but a lot of people (the Fiumara brothers, Duncan Fegredo, Ben Stenbeck, Tyler Crook, James Harren, and even Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba) have worked in that vein on various Hellboy-related stories over the years and done good work. “Black Sun” features both Nazis and flying saucers, and is the most core-mythology of the stories here.
Moodiest (and probably best) is the single-issue story, “The Unreasoning Beast,” with art by Patric Reynolds. It has a monkey in it; I probably shouldn’t say more than that.
The other two-parter is “Ghost Moon,” set in Hong Kong. Brian Churilla draws this one, and I found the style to be brighter and more open than most Hellboy stuff. Some of that may be Dave Stewart’s colors, but he colors nearly everything in the Hellboy universe, so it must be a deliberate choice here. This is another story using real-world folklore, but I found it a little pat and obvious.
And last is the shortest piece, “The Mirror,” drawn by Richard Corben. Corben’s grotesques work pretty well for Hellboy, though I personally like his work best in small doses. This is more a vignette than a story, but it’s a nice vignette.
We all know that this book exists because a lot of us like Hellboy and want to keep reading stories about Hellboy, even when there’s no compelling in-story reason for those stories to continue. If that describes you, you’ll probably like this book: it does that Hellboy thing, in the extended-universe manner, and does it pretty well. But if you haven’t gotten into the Hellboy thing yet, go back to the pure Mignola stuff and start there.
Another day, another Hellboy spinoff. It’s not quite that frequent in the real world, but it certainly can seem that way. (And I did just talk about The Visitor: How and Why He Stayed yesterday.)
Rise of the Black Flame
is another unnecessary book, which fills in backstory that wasn’t required the first time around. Of course, all fiction is unnecessary if you think of things that way — but this is material that explains how one character got the beginning of another story when we already had “he was subsumed by some alien evil power,” and that was good enough.
Again, for me basically every single “mainstream” comic is totally unnecessary — who does Spider-Man fight this month? which character will have a shocking death touted in press releases three months ahead? does any of it track back to anything at all from the original creators? — so this is a very minor complaint. Rise of the Black Flame is more original than any Superman story from the past ten years, for example. But it’s still a sign of the rot at the heart of comics: this is a medium utterly speciated into the narrow niche of delivering exactly the same thing on a weekly basis to a purportedly adult audience.
So, yes: two British cops in Burma in the early 1920s follow the path of some kidnapped girls, learn of a shadowy evil cult next door in Siam, meet up with two female paranormal investigators — one of whom has a link to Sir Edward Grey of Witchfinder fame, to keep the world-building knitted together — and eventually find their way to the sinister temple crouching in the jungle where an aeons-old cult is ready to finally summon The Great Darkness. Do they manage to foil the incarnation of the being who later becomes a major antagonist to Hellboy? Of course they don’t — we already know that.
Christopher Mitten is another solid artist for theHellboy universe: he’s more towards the realistic side than creator Mike Mignola, with maybe some echoes of long-time B.P.R.D. artist Guy Davis. And Chris Roberson, the current major story collaborator with Mignola, knows this world about as well as anyone not in Mignola’s head can — it’s all smooth and well-told and connected.
But this is, in the end, another villain origin story. Those are never particularly necessary to begin with, and this one even less than usual. It has nice atmosphere and tells a solid adventure story, but it just takes us to the place we always knew it was going.
The world might not have expected a homage to The Fearless Vampire Hunters. The world may not have needed a homage to The Fearless Vampire Hunters. The world may not have wanted a homage to The Fearless Vampire Hunters. But the world got one.
Mike Mignola has been making comics about vampires (and similarly ghoulish monsters) and the people who stop them (most usually, with punches from a massively oversized red fist) for close to thirty years now. And I suppose he can’t be serious all the time.
Mr. Higgins Comes Home
is not entirely serious. It’s not entirely comic, either, but it falls more on the goofball side of the ledger than the creepy side. Some of that is due to artist Warwick Johnson-Cadwell, whose work is more stylized (in a way that feels European to me, like a Donjon volume) and who uses brighter colors than usual for a Mignola story. And some of that is due to the story itself, which is more matter-of-fact and less ominous than Mignola’s usual. This isn’t quite Mignola parodying himself, but it feels a little like the Wes Anderson version of Mignola: straight-faced but not quite right.
So we have Count Golga and his Countess, in their massive Carpathian castle on the eve of Walpurgis, when all of the vampires who are anyone will arrive for the big annual celebration. And we have the two vampire hunters, who do not look overly dangerous, just arriving in the local village for a bit of staking. Both are wary of the other; both think the other is a worth opponent. We the readers may feel otherwise.
And then there’s Mr. Higgins. He and his wife were previous victims of the Count: Mary became one of the usual blue-faced vampiresses, and her husband is distraught and wants revenge. He has become…something different, which we see as the book goes on. He does not really go home in the conventional sense in the course of this book, but, then again, didn’t a great man once said that we never could go home again? Maybe that explains it.
Mr. Higgins is pleasant and fun, but I can’t help but see it as another pierce of evidence that Mignola needs to do something else for a while. He’s been doing supernatural mystery, almost exclusively in the Hellboy-verse, since the early ’90s. I suggest that he needs to do something substantially different: a space epic, an espionage caper, a noir mystery. This particular well is not drawing like it used to.
It’s hard to describe why Don’t Breathe had me so consistently scared while I was watching it… it almost seems like dream logic at this point a couple days removed from viewing. There’s a very clever sequence where they just quietly show you the house that 85% of the movie is going to take place in, and they do it by just having the camera pass through the house. It goes down one hallway, up through the ceiling and through the second floor in a kind of transparent Chekhov’s single-family home kind of thing, and while I knew it was guaranteed nothing terrible would happen during this sequence I could barely look at the screen. The sense of menace during Don’t Breathe was so powerful and pervasive that even when the movie stumbled with character or an overly long climax I couldn’t look away.
I understand that characters in horror movies often have to be quick sketches to properly get to the action in the allotted runtime, but Don’t Breathe might be skimping on the characters a little too much. It’s hard to root for characters that are criminals, especially when the crime is robbing a blind man, so the film goes way over the top to try and give us characters we can try and root for. Rocky (Jane Levy) has an abusive mother so extreme that Eminem would find it a little far-fetched. She’s just robbing houses to save up enough money to take her little sister and move her to California and a new start. Alex (Dylan Minnette) is a thief but a very practical one with a strict code about what they steal to maximize safety and minimize legal risk. He robs people but he also refuses to consider moving away because he has to take care of his aging father. Money (Daniel Zovatto), Rocky’s boyfriend, is more of a cliché troublemaker and, well, they show him getting murdered in the trailer so he doesn’t last very long. They want us to think these people are ok even though they do bad things, and it didn’t work for me at all. It took so much more for me to view these kids as sympathetic characters.
They had to make the robbery victim so much worse to get me to root for those characters; to turn him from victim to monster, and they do it with relish and gusto. I’m getting in to some spoilers here so this is your opportunity to turn back and not know.
<clicks away to check email while spoilerphobes leave>
We find out early in the second act that our blind homeowner has a woman chained up in his basement— not just any woman but the woman who killed his daughter in a car accident. It flips the equation on us: sure these kids are thieves, but this guy is a kidnapper. Kidnapping is a worse crime than robbery, and so we have our proper good versus evil story restored to us. Much later in the film we discover that he had impregnated the kidnapped woman and plans to do the same to Rocky in a intensely uncomfortable artificial insemination scene. While being one of the grossest scenes I’ve ever seen committed to film, it was nice to see it done without emphasizing the sexual aspects of Rocky’s peril. We see her experience this horror through angles that accentuate that she’s helpless and terrified, but that don’t linger on her being exposed or whatever. (Her cut jeans do seem to magically fix themselves when she escapes and needs to run around more, but I’m willing to let that go for propriety and avoiding an NC-17 rating.)
When I saw the first trailer for Don’t Breathe, the one that focused heavily on the sequence with the lights out in the basement, I thought that someone had decided to make an entire movie out of the night vision sequence at the end of The Silence of the Lambs and how torturous that would be to watch. Instead I got the scariest movie I’ve seen so far this year, a frightening little gem that might not play fair the entire time (every blind person is not Daredevil) but delivers where it counts. We’re coming up on the big horror season (I could see having horror movies in this space for the next month looking at the calendar) and it’s exciting to see the gauntlet thrown down so convincingly ahead of the parade of remakes (Blair Witch) and hastily reskinned versions of Alien (Morgan) coming down the pipe.
This will be a bad review — not a negative one, since I enjoyed these books, and like the endlessly proliferating world of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy universe. No, this will be a poorly informed review, quick and slapdash and lazy, written more than two months after reading the books. But I’ve done a lot of them over the years — hey, I’m not getting paid here, so you get what you get — so I think I have a facility for doing quick superficial reviews that only mildly suck.
These three volumes reprint the first year and a half (roughly) of the ongoing Abe Sapien comic, spinning off from B.P.R.D. when Abe himself cut loose from that joint, in the wake of another transformation and driven by a niggling worry that he might be an Apocalypse Beast himself. (For a different apocalypse than Hellboy himself, but this universe is well-stocked with potential and actual apocalypses to choose from.)
And they remind me of nothing so much as ’70s Hulk comics: the mysterious stranger with dangerous powers wanders across the Southwest, encountering both good people and monsters. Admittedly, the landscape Abe encounters is vastly changed: the Frog War might have been “won,” more or less, but there are massive alien monsters scattered around the world, entire cities have been destroyed, and normal life is basically over.
(Parenthetically, I’ll repeat again what I said in my review of the last clutch of B.P.R.D. stories: Mignola and his collaborators here are writing stories set after industrial civilization has collapsed, but they don’t quite seem to realize that. There’s no way any contemporary supply chains are still operating, and I’d estimate several billion people have already died — or been transformed into monsters — by this point. Just getting enough food to eat should be the primary worry of everyone in this world; not getting eaten by a monster is now a luxury.)
Meanwhile — because it wouldn’t be the Hellboy universe without subplots — a mostly dead B.P.R.D. agent has been brought back by a necromancer with a fiendish plot that we don’t entirely understand yet. And the B.P.R.D. is chasing Abe in a way that alternates between friendly and not-so-much.
And along the way a bunch of people die, and so do a bunch of monsters. This is a nastier world than the pre-apocalypse status quo, even if there does seem to be a somewhat functional government and occasional new consumer goods when there really shouldn’t be. Abe is mostly moping through all of this, worried that he is an Apocalypse Beast but pretty sure he isn’t, but still wanting to figure out how he fits into this world and what he should be doing.
It’s an interesting storyline, running somewhere through the territory between horror and superheroes: Abe is strong and knowledgeable, but he and his friends have already failed to stop the end of the world. Even if I do think these series must eventually show the extinction of the last humans on earth, there’s plenty of time and narrative space until that point.
B.P.R.D.: Vampire (written by Mignola, Gabriel Ba, and Fabio Moon; art by Ba and Moon; colors by Stewart)
And this standalone story is a loose sequel to the 1946-1948 stories, focusing on one B.P.R.D. agent who was transformed into something more than human — and no prizes for guessing what.
I don’t think all of the middle has been filled in — this book covers a short time in the late ’40s, and that agent I don’t believe has showed up in any B.P.R.D. stories set any later in time than that — so I suspect this is Mignola throwing a ball up into the air and expecting to catch it much later, in some future B.P.R.D. story. (Or maybe there will be a direct sequel, which will end his story; it could go either way.)
So: moody, expressive art from Ba and Moon. Somewhat less dialogue than usual for a B.P.R.D. story, but still plenty of exposition. A conflicted hero and a mass of nasties. (I seem to be channeling Joe Bob Briggs here. I think there are a few breasts, actually. And plenty of blood.) This is a stylish, smart piece of a much larger story that pretty much stands on its own — if you want to sample Mignola without diving headfirst into the tangled mythology, this would be a very good choice.
Much like the slow moving menace that stalks its protagonists, It Follows had a slow, steady walk to being a cult horror hit. The kind of movie, if recent surprise successes in the genre are any indication, could lead to a rush of imitators looking to get a piece of quick horror cash. It Follows is refreshing in how different it is than the mainstream of the genre these days but it is also so arrestingly scary that it easily ranks among the least comfortable movie going experiences I’ve ever had. It’s also maddeningly opaque with how it dispenses exposition or even meaning to the events of the film.
Horror films in recent years have fallen in to a predictable pattern and I don’t just mean they’re overwhelmingly about demonic possession hitting young families. The way they choose to scare you always feels like the same jump scare. The music shifts to a faster tempo and the camera movements get slower and then something comes out of nowhere and is accompanied by a big string hit on the soundtrack. It’s effective but it’s boring and worse than that it’s obvious. I know nothing of consequence will happen in a movie like Annabelle until the last 10 minutes. It Follows has a different, more of a throwback, style of generating tension. They still kick the score in to high gear, they might even do it more but the tension comes from static shots, from first person perspectives of some flowers or the morning sky. Most of the time nothing happens and it doesn’t matter; I’m still zipping up my hoodie and looking at the ground. It gives all of the effect with none of the cheapness that comes with a cheap thrill for a child’s toy falling out of a closet. It feels more earned even if it might not actually be.
I hate when movies hold my hand too much, when they keep telling me things that would be so easy to show me. It Follows certainly doesn’t tell when it could show but also doesn’t tell when it refuses to show. There’s a very brief explanation of the rules for the monster in this film and then we never get any more information. We never get any why or any how. We’re just given a menace that slowly walks toward its victim and then kills them in a nondescript way that leaves a terribly mangled corpse. Then at the climax that stops and we get a suddenly much more clever whatever it is capable of evading the trap that our heroes have set with no indication that the trap would be successful. When the film ends, as all horror movies do, by teasing us with the possibility that the danger is still out there it isn’t the least bit surprising because I had no sense that this thing could be defeated as easily as they dispatch it in the previous scene. I was plenty scared in the moment but it’s the kind of movie that unravels as you pull at the threads in the hours and days that follow.
I want more horror movies to be like It Follows but I know that even by wishing that I am destroying the chances it will ever happen. Horror is so reactive I’m sure there have been dozens of conversations in Hollywood over the past month or so about how to capture this lightning in a bottle and get three movies just like it out by this time next year. None of them will get it right though, they’ll take the wrong things. Maybe one studio will think the secret is teenagers, or the speed of the ghost, or the techno-throwback music. The way studios saw Paranormal Activity and thought everyone wanted a bunch of found footage movies. What I want more of is the earnestness and the experimentation and even the flailing attempts at finding an underlying philosophy that give It Follows its charms. Oh well, see you all back here next year for a harsh review of Stuff Will Eventually Get You.