Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

31 October 2008

Essential Marvel Horror, v. 1

Collects: Ghost Rider #1-2, Marvel Spotlight #12-24, Son of Satan #1-8, Marvel Two-in-One #14, Marvel Team-Up #32 and 80-1, Vampire Tales #2-3, Haunt of Horror #2 and 4-5, Marvel Premiere #27, Marvel Preview #7 (1973-7, 1979)

Released: November 2006 (Marvel)

Format: 608 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 078512196x

Essential Marvel Horror, v. 1 gained its name, I was convinced when it was released, because Marvel was too squeamish to publish Essential Son of Satan (or Children of Satan).18

Marvel Horror features two protagonists: Daimon Hellstrom, Son of Satan, and his sister, Satana. Hellstrom, being a square who sides with “humanity” over “the forces of evil,” gets the bulk of the book, but his darker sister gets her share at the end. Unfortunately, the shift in tone and style between these two is likely to spin the reader’s head around like that girl’s in The Exorcist.

Essential Marvel Horror, v. 1 coverHellstrom is a rarity: an academic hero. (Ray Palmer is a professor; are there other superheroes who work for a university?) In his Marvel Spotlight series, he battles his father’s forces in St. Louis while being affiliated with Gateway University; in his Son of Satan series, he goes to work for the University of the District of Columbia. I prefer the Spotlight issues, written by Steve Gerber; they were consciously superheroic, with Hellstrom fighting a new supernatural menace each month and trying to keep the squares in St. Louis from learning about it. Why St. Louis? I don’t know, but it’s no goofier than fighting demons in New York City.

(Plus, Hellstrom transforms into his demonic alter ego by raising both hands with three fingers pointed upward, making the sign of his demonic trident. Yeah, right — laziest transformation ever.)

The eponymous title, which was mostly written by John Warner, seemed more crowded and more blatantly supernatural, treading ground already trammeled. Thematically, yes, it’s appropriate, but it’s less enjoyable, trying to tread the ground between the superheroes and Marvel horror mags.

And then there are issues of Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-in-One, the superheroist of the Marvel superhero comics. Hellstrom got his start in Ghost Rider, which wasn’t a straight superhero comic but was never incredibly far from it.

Gene Colan is perfect for this subject matter; unfortunately, he only does two issues. The other superhero artists … not so much. Not even one of my favorite superhero artists, Sal Buscema, really does the subject justice. On the other hand, they draw demons better than later artists, especially those involved in the Inferno crossover, who believed evil was best represented in Technicolor.

Satana, Daimon’s sister, was featured mainly in Marvel horror magazines. These stand out against the crowd; they are serious, drawn for a mature audience who doesn’t want to see superheroes. The plots are dark, and while they might not match the top of the horror market, they have a unified goal and show us the horror of a child of Satan gone wrong (or right, from Satan’s point of view). Not bound by the Comics Code or its usual kiddie audience, Marvel let the creators have free rein in subject matter and format, occasionally publishing illustrated texts that described Satana’s deeds.

I’m not entirely sure Chris Claremont, who wrote the bulk of the Satana stuff, was the right person for the job, for two reasons. One, his overwrought writing style, which was only beginning here, is more suited to the less serious and self-conscious superhero comics. And two, this is dangerous for him; Claremont loved writing powerful women, and in his later days, became obsessed with certain … well, let’s say tropes, because “fetishes” is a loaded word.

I won’t say the art in these issues are better, but I will say they are striking, while the Comics Code constrained the others so they were quite forgettable. Straying outside their usual bullpen for Satana’s stories, Marvel published contributions from international artists. Their work is moody, dark, vivid even in black and white. These issues really make the volume, and it’s a shame the rest of the book contrasts so sharply with it.

Since it’s Halloween, I’m legally required to answer this question: Is it scary? Well, the Hellstrom parts are decidedly not so. Marvel has neutered most of its dread evil Lords of the Afterlife and all of its demons so superheroes can fight them. The Satana parts? Let’s just say they feel nothing like a superhero story, with a definite sense that evil might win. That’s not enough to rescue the volume as a whole, however.

Rating: Angry pumpkin symbol Angry pumpkin symbol (2 of 5)

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