Halloween Scene: Vertigo Visions – Phantom Stranger

phantom stranger one shotOne of my favorite things about comics is when companies allow their characters to be experimented with in wild and different ways. It worked really well with Afterlife With Archie and was also a huge staple of DC’s Vertigo books for a while. Concepts like Sandman, Black Orchid and even Prez received more serious looks thanks to the imprint.

And so did the Phantom Stranger in this one shot, called Vertigo Visions – Phantom Strange written by one-time Vertigo editor Alisa Kwitney and drawn by Sandman Mystery Theatre and B.P.R.D. artist Guy Davis. I knew nothing about it, but Davis’ involvement was enough for me to spend a quarter on it.

As it turns out, this one-shot is worth far more than that. The story follows a woman named Naomi Walker who’s on her first day working in an asylum called Paradise Gardens. The more she gets used to the surroundings on her first night, however, the sooner she realizes that something is very wrong with the situation. As you and Naomi ease into the story, you know something is wrong, you just don’t know how wrong it really is until things pick up.

While Naomi is definitely the main character of this tale, it all revolves around the Phantom Stranger, or at least the two parts of him featured in the story. She’s the one who brings us into the mystifying action and is also the one who is truly in danger from the supernatural demonic threats hidden in Paradise Gardens.

I won’t go too much further into details, but really appreciated how this story takes your basic creepy asylum tale and then just goes nuts with it. At first it feels like something Vincent Price could have starred in but it turns into something more akin to Clive Barker’s dark and twisted worlds. Kwitney does more than impress as the story transforms into something horrendous and Naomi strives to survive it all and Davis’ artwork actually made my skin crawl a few times during my read through.

I will definitely keep this issue in my collection, most likely throwing it in a bag and board for easy storage on my trade shelves. It also reminded me that I have the VV issue starring Doctor Occult somewhere around here and will try to dig it out by the end of the month. If you see this issue around and like monstrous horror, grab it and give it a read.

Trade Post Quick Hits: Flex Mentallo, Severed, Justice Society Returns & Grayson

trade pile 8-26-15As you can see from the photo above, I’ve read a lot of random trades lately. Here are a few of them and my thoughts! Continue reading Trade Post Quick Hits: Flex Mentallo, Severed, Justice Society Returns & Grayson

The Trade Post: A Big Ol’ Pile Of Library Books

comic pileLongtime readers might remember a time when I was reading so many books a week that I would simply take pictures of them in a stack and do a quick hit kind of report on them. Well, I’m not knocking down nearly as many books these days, but I did read through a good number from the library and figured I’d return to that form for this post. Let’s hit it! Continue reading The Trade Post: A Big Ol’ Pile Of Library Books

Hellblazer Trade Post: Original Sins & The Devil You Know

john constantine hellblazer vol 1 original sins John Constantine, Hellblazer, Vol. 1: Original Sins (Vertigo/DC)
Written by Jamie Delano with Rick Veitch, drawn by John Ridgway, Brett Ewins, Jim McCarthy, Veitch & Tom Mandrake
Collects Hellblazer #1-9, Swamp Thing #76, 77

At the beginning of October I had two ideas that turned out to be pretty good ones: first, I should read some of the Hellblazer volumes I had sitting around and, second, I should see if anyone wanted to pay me money in conjunction with the first idea. As it turned out, I came up with an idea to run down John Constantine’s most dastardly moments from the early days of his solo series and it ran over on Topless Robot. It worked out well because of the premiere of Constantine on NBC, though I haven’t actually watched more than a few minutes of the show.

What I soon remembered after diving in to these books is something I noted when I reviewed Jamie Delano’s “The Fear Machine” arc as well as the more recent graphic novel Pandemonium and that is just how rich, robust and literary Delano’s text boxes are. Comics just don’t have that quality anymore and it took me a little while to adjust, but once I did, I realized I was reading something dark and special. As my list notes, Constantine makes some very difficult and awful decisions, but the more you read of him, the more you understand that no one else will make those choices and they weigh heavily on him.

Specifically speaking, this first batch of issues might seem like a series of one-offs, but they’re building off of themselves and each other leading towards the larger story coming to light in the next volume. The first two issues deal with an old friend accidentally unleashing a hunger god that leads John to NYC where he visits franchise stalwart Papa Midnite. From there you get a Yuppie-loving fart demon, a child murderer, a town that gets its boys back from Vietnam in a very unexpected way, a multi-armed soccer hooligan, a cyber mage, a deal with a demon, a terrible 35th birthday and a crossover with that other Vertigo mainstay Swamp Thing where the title character borrows John’s body to have sex with his lady Abby.

This volume is the perfect example of what Hellblazer was in its early days and not just because it’s the first. You get the sense of humor Delano instilled in the character as well as his intrinsically tragic nature. Plus, while you might not see them on the first read, there are a lot of seeds being planted that grow and bloom as the series progresses. I should note here that I haven’t read Constatine’s first appearances in Swamp Thing yet, so I’m sure some of that came from Alan Moore, but I credit Delano with creating something truly wonderful here in these issues.

john constantine hellblazer vol 2 the devil you know Hellblazer, Vol. 2: The Devil You Know (Vertigo/DC)
Written by Jamie Delano, drawn by Richard Piers Rayner, Mark Buckingham, Bryan Talbot, Dean Motter & David Lloyd
Collects Hellblazer #10-13, Hellblazer Annual #1, The Horrorist #1-2

After all the build-up in the previous volume, issues #10, 11 and 12 hit like an atom bomb. #10 features an issue-long astral plane trip while Swamp Thing’s using John’s body. #11 explains why Constantine’s been having such a rough time in one of the most disturbing comics I’ve ever read. By #12, everything comes to a head, characters come crashing together and Constantine comes up with a particularly devious way of dealing with his nemesis.

The last regular issue of this collection is one of the craziest, dream sequence things I’ve ever experienced in any medium. Set against the looming threat of atomic mishaps, John deals with everything he’s caused and gone through leading up to this point. It’s not the easiest thing to understand, but then again, neither is the annual which switches time between John looking for a tape of his band Mucus Membrane and a past/future version of himself intertwined with Arthurian legend. It’s a lot to take in. The book closes out with the mid-90s two issue mini The Horrorist which finds Constantine drawn to a woman from a photograph who is wreaking havoc across the country.

Altogether these first two volumes don’t just set up the groundwork for a series that would go on to last 300 issues, continue on in a different form in the New 52 and make the jump to the big and small screens. One of the things that surprised me most about these two books is that Constantine doesn’t use magic in the way you might expect having seen things like Harry Potter films. He knows all about demons and monsters and angels, but instead of casting spells, the action is far more physical and more in line with a detective story. I like that take because it grounds the supernatural elements which can be off-putting at times.

Before closing out I want to say a few things about covers. First off, the ones for these trades are amazing. Getting Jim Lee and John Cassaday to do these covers is ingenious because they might help bring in new readers, but also because the original series covers are pretty insane. I mean, just look at them. These might be the most surreal, difficult-to-describe covers I’ve ever seen. It’s actually kind of shocking that they were used to try and sell a book back in the day.

Casting Internets: My Halloween Writing

Hi All, you might have noticed that I haven’t posted much here on UnitedMonkee.com recently. That’s because I’ve been pretty darn busy between work and the home buying process (which officially ends today!). I pitched a lot of different Halloween-themed freelance ideas this month, many of which got picked up. Now that they’re finally coming out, I wanted to share them with you.

john dies at the end

 

I worked on two lists for Spinoff Online focusing on horror movies from this decade. I was super impressed with everything I saw. Hopefully I can get to a roundup post soon.

5 Recent Slasher Flicks to Take a Stab at For Halloween

5 Recent Indie Supernatural Horror Movies Worth Watching

 

legion of monsters

 

Over on Marvel.com, I write four Halloween Spooklights on various scary characters from the Marvel U:

Halloween Spooklight: Morbius

Halloween Spooklight: Dracula

Halloween Spooklight: Man-Thing

Halloween Spooklight: The Legion Of Monsters

 

Michael Myers Halloween

Finally, I did two lists for Topless Robot that took a lot of work (if reading comics and watching movies can be considered as such):

John Constantine’s 10 Nastiest Moments from the Early Days Of Hellblazer

Michael Myers’ 10 Craziest Kills From the Original Halloween Franchise

 

Grant Morrison Trade Post: Doom Patrol Vol. 1 Crawling From The Wreckage

Doom Patrol Vol 1 Crawling From The WreckageDoom Patrol Vol. 1: Crawling From The Wreckage (DC/Vertigo)
Written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Richard Case & Doug Braithwaite
Collects Doom Patrol #19-25

While reading Grant Morrison’s three volume run on Animal Man I remembered that I had another book of his from that era and figured it made sense to give it a look. Morrison took over Doom Patrol with #19 in 1989. He’d go on to have a much longer run on this book than Animal Man. And, I think it’s safe to say that this is one of his weirdest books right up there with Invisibles which I need to give another shot, though not in regards to the current mission of reading Morrison’s DCU-set comics.

In fact, I wasn’t even sure if Doom Patrol would count and, frankly, after giving this first collection of his run a read, I’d say it doesn’t. Sure these characters are part of the DCU, but aside from an appearance by Will Magnus, these issues are almost completely self contained. Of course, this does go back to one of the things I liked about Animal Man in that Morrison was able to tell his own story while also using pieces from the larger DC sandbox.

Before getting into the details of this particular comic, I must admit that I have very little experience with Doom Patrol. I’ve never read the original run that people seem to love so much and have only seen a few guest spots here and there and tried reading a few of the relaunches that came later on down the line, but never really had much to latch onto. Much like The Metal Men, they seemed like a team that writers were more interested in being nostalgic for than making great new stories for new readers. The key to the team always just seemed that these characters are WEEEEEEEEEIRD. I’ve since read that part of the appeal to the original run was basically the same as X-Men when it launched: shining the spotlight on people who feel out of synch with society and turning them into heroes.

Some of that comes across in these first issues from Morrison, but I’ve got to admit that, as a Doom Patrol newbie, I went through these issues mostly confused. I don’t even need to know what kind of wreckage these characters crawled through, but a simple run down of who’s who in the beginning of the collection would have been nice. As a longtime comic reader I knew who Robotman and The Chief were. I even have a tenuous handle on what’s up with Negative Man, but who are Joshua and Dorothy Spinner? This book won’t help you find out. In other words, it might be a little too in medias res for its own good. Part of the fault here lies on Morrison’s shoulders, but another part falls on the people who made this collection who should have done a better job of making it readable for anybody.

So, on to the actual story. Something bad happened to the team and now The Chief, their wheelchair-bound leader, is rebuilding the team, kinda. Robotman meets a woman called Crazy Jane who not only has multiple personalities, but a different power to go along with each of them. They wind up getting together with the rest of the group which now includes a Negative Man/Woman combo called Rebis and facing off against the truly terrifying Scissormen as well as Red Jack who both look they came out of the collective unconscious shared by Clive Barker and Tim Burton. They’re super creepy bad guys who help set the tone of this collection of issues if not the whole series.

Were I to judge this entire Doom Patrol run based on just this collection and nothing else, I’d probably say it’s not for me. In addition to the confusing story, the art is in that messy vein that comes to mind when I think of Vertigo books of this era. But, knowing that it’s Morrison and having just read through Animal Man which did a lot of interesting things with high concepts and long-form comic book storytelling I’m in for the rest of the run. I just need to get my hands on the books! In the meantime, I’m going to keep on keeping on with my more DCU-set Morrison comics. Up next we’ve got Aztek which he co-wrote with Mark Millar.

Grant Morrison Trade Post: Animal Man Volumes 1-3

animal man vol 1 morrison Animal Man (DC)
Written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chas Truog with Tom Grummett
Collects Animal Man #1-9

After reading Sin City: Booze, Broads and Bullets, I figured I’d stick with some my shelf for further reading selections and decided it’s time to give one of my favorite comics of all time another read. Like a lot of the more progressive comics I love, I discovered Grant Morrison’s Animal Man while interning or working at Wizard. I’d read a few Morrison comics before that, specifically JLA, but hadn’t gotten into his crazier stuff. Morrison has a reputation as being weird for weird’s sake, but I don’t think that’s the case. Sure, some of his stuff is just bonkers, but as far as I’m concerned he’s just trying to go to new places in the medium. I totally get it if that’s not for you, especially if you were a big time Animal Man fan before this run which took the character and did a lot of crazy stuff with him, but I dig it.

The run follows the adventures of Buddy Baker, a man who can copy the abilities of any animal in his immediate vicinity after an alien spaceship blew up in his face. At least, that’s how it works in the beginning. Buddy’s married, has two kids and doesn’t bother with a secret identity. He also develops into a vegetarian concerned with animal rights, which makes sense when you consider his power set.

The first four issues of the series mainly focus on Animal Man trying to figure out why B’Wanna Beast is running around making disturbing animal hybrids and wrecking STAR Labs facilities. These four issues really set the stage for the series as a whole in some respects. We see the relationship between Buddy and his wife Ellen which is super realistic and one of the best superhero relationships around. Meanwhile, Morrison puts Animal Man through some standard superhero paces — fighting another hero, meeting Superman, etc. — but he puts a different spin on them. Buddy can and does throw down, but he soon finds out that it’s not the only way to solve a problem which definitely carries throughout the series.

After that initial arc, we’re treated to a series of killer single issues. #5 takes a meta approach to Looney Tunes cartoons, #6 is one of (if not THE) best Invasion tie-in, #7 finds Buddy dealing with an old villain called The Red Mask, #8 has Mirror Master invading Buddy and Ellen’s home and #9 brings in Martian Manhunter and the JLI tech team to secure the house. #5-7 are actually three of my all time favorite single issues stories because of the unique ways they look at the material and superheroes in general.

On a quick note, I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but there’s a crowd-scene skater kid in #2 with an Anthrax T-shirt and then an issue or two later we find out that the scientists were experimenting with the drug of the same name. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but reading so many Morrison comics with little hints and nods like this have primed me to look for those kinds of connections which makes for a fun reading experience. I also noticed that Ellen’s drawing a spaceship heading towards a planet in #1 that I assume refers to something, but can’t figure out what. I thought it might have been from Invasion, but that doesn’t check out.

animal man origin of sepcies Animal Man: Origin Of Species (DC)
Written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chas Truog with Tom Grummett
Collects Animal Man #10-17, Secret Origins #39

One of the major aspects of Morrison’s run that a lot of people talk about is the meta nature of the story which ends with Animal Man actually meeting his writer, Morrison. The first volume doesn’t get into those ideas hardly at all, though #5 does prime that pump to an extent. All of that really starts coming to the surface in Origin Of Species which finds Buddy meeting the aliens who actually created him. Meanwhile, Dr. Hightwater and Psycho Pirate first enter the story, two characters who continue to break the fourth wall, revealing that some of these characters know that they are actually comic book characters. We also start seeing scenes that will make a lot more sense at the end of the next volume.

On the superhero side of things, Animal Man keeps meeting more heroesincluding Vixen, who he has a lot more in common with than just powers. A lot of this material was revisited in Dwayne McDuffie’s Justice League Of America volume called Second Coming. There’s also a pretty moving issue featuring future Aquaman co-star Dolphin and a few of the Sea Devils trying to put a stop to a gross dolphin killing ritual in Denmark. The abused animal stuff gets offset by a fun adventure with the Justice League Europe before getting back into some pretty awful things done to apes.

It’s interesting looking back at these comics from the 80s that tackled some of the real world’s horrors, especially as perpetrated on animals. These are the kinds of things you might have seen on Dateline or 20/20, but they weren’t in your comics until Morrison and creators like him went out on a limb with a potentially off-putting social perspective. They might be too in-your-face for some people and I don’t agree with everything presented in the issues, but I appreciate and respect him for going there and DC for allowing him to do these crazy things with their characters. At the same time I get that some readers just want to read about superheroes punching each other, so this probably isn’t the best comic for them.

animal man deus ex machina Animal Man: Deus Ex Machina (DC)
Written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chas Truog with Paris Cullins
Collects Animal Man #18-26

And then things get really weird. Buddy and Highwater take peyote in the desert. Characters die. Villains help heroes. Costumes change. Revenge is had. Time is traveled. Limbo is visited. And Grant Morrison has a chat with Animal Man. I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, but I will say that this comic is both one of my favorite regular-guy-as-superhero stories as well as the best commentary-on-comics books around. The whole last conversation between Buddy and Grant should be required reading for everyone who gets bent out of shape about their favorite characters getting turned into something they don’t like. In addition to all that it’s a wonderfully plotted, long-form story that has end-of-run elements seeded going way back. Plus, above all else, it actually makes me feel things when I read it, even this second time around.

The beauty of a story like this is that it came at a time when DC Comics was allowing their creators to not only take risks with long-lasting characters, but also tell wild stories that hadn’t been done before (at least in Corporate Comics). Basically, Morrison was allowed to tell the story he wanted to tell while utilizing elements of the larger universe when they made sense. Characters weren’t just showing up to show up or boost sales, but because they made sense. Heck, Morrison got to take this idea to even crazier levels by using The Psycho Pirate and Limbo as ways to play around with pre-Crisis and alternate reality versions of the DC characters.

A lot of people have noticed connections between Morrison’s DC works. There’s quite a few to be found in these pages. First off, Animal Man is the first place he wrote the Justice League specifically characters like Superman and Martian Manhunter who he would go on to pen later on. More obviously, he created this new version of Animal Man and then returned to the character with 52 almost two decades later. Morrison also dealt with multiple realities and whatnot in Final Crisis and Superman Beyond, which also featured Limbo, Merry Man and Ace The Bat Hound all of which appear in these books.

I enjoyed reading Animal Man so much this time around that I decided to do a long-term read/re-read of his other DC Comics work I have in my collection. I don’t have Arkham Asylum, Batman: Gothic or the third and fourth JLA deluxe books but I’ve got just about everything else. I’m not only looking forward to enjoying those stories again, but also getting a better feel for the connections.