Requiem Vampire Knight Tome 2: Dracula and The Vampires Ball

By Pat Mills & Ledroit (Panini Books UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-438-6

The second double compilation of Pat Mills and Olivier Ledroit’s darkly spectacular masterpiece of nihilistic anti-heroism intensifies the decadent horrors with the next two translated volumes that created such a storm when first released in France. Dracula and The Vampire Ball resumes the tale of Heinrich Augsburg, a Nazi soldier doomed to unlive his life as a vampire warrior in a macabre inverse world of evil, which began in Requiem Vampire Knight Tome 1: Resurrection and Danse Macabre.

Resurrection is a brooding, blood-drenched world of eternal strife and warfare: a grim, fantastic mirror of Earth with the seas and land-masses reversed, where time runs backwards, populated by all the worst sinners of Earth reincarnated as monsters of myth – a realm where the ranked dead expiate or exacerbate the sins of their former lives.

This tome further explores the deeds that brought Heinrich (now called Requiem) to the very apex of the hell-world’s hierarchy as a full knight at the court of Dracula, trapped in a spiral of bloodletting, debauchery and intrigue. His position is not secure. Not only has he earned the enmity of the treacherous faction of elite Nosferatu led by Lady Claudia Demona, Lord Mortis and Baron Samedi, but it appears that he may be a returned soul…

Long before Augsberg died on a frozen battlefield, killed by a Russian he was trying to rape, the Templar Heinrich Barbarossa had committed such atrocities in the name of Christianity that he was guaranteed a place in Dracula’s inner circle when he inevitably reached Resurrection. But soon this new Vampire Knight Thurim committed an unpardonable crime and was excised from the court and Resurrection itself.

But now Requiem, already plagued by memories of his doomed affair with the Jewess Rebecca, is the subject of dangerous talk. Far too many vampires are remarking how similar to the disgraced Thurim the newcomer seems…

And what’s worse for him is that as the interminable battles (incredibly realised by the epic mastery of Ledroit) with such foes as the Gods of Limbo, the arcane order of Archaeologists, Lamias, Werewolves, Ghouls and others, Requiem discovers that Rebecca too is on Resurrection and the only way she can find peace is to “expire” the one responsible for her being there…

Blending decadent, opulent, Machiavellian dalliance with the wildest dreams – and grim, black wit – of a new De Sade, the tensions of the palace even outstrip the constant eye-popping action on myriad battlefields, so this book ends far too quickly on yet another cliffhanger when Rebecca is first captured by the Vampires only to escape with the still besotted and now wildly off-reservation Requiem. And their headlong flight has catapulted the doomed ex-lovers straight into the mouth of a cosmic dragon storm…

Supplemented by a gallery of the artist’s series paintings this astonishing, captivating work for the Goth within is an adult fantasy fan’s darkest dream come true. More please and soon…

© 2000, 2001, 2009 Nickel, Mills, Ledroit. All rights Reserved.

Requiem Vampire Knight Tome 1: Resurrection and Danse Macabre

By Pat Mills & Ledroit (Panini Books UK)
ISBN: 978-1-84653-437-9

As is so often the case Europe is the last and most beneficial arena for the arts and untrammelled creativity, and none more so than comics and sequential narrative. For some reason the Continent cherishes the best of the world’s past as well as nurturing the fresh and new, without too much concern for historical bugbears of political correctness, gaffes and contemporary censoriousness – which is why so many British and American strip creators produce their best work there.

Perhaps it’s simply because they revere not revile popular arts as much as classical ones….

Requiem Vampire Knight is an impressive example of self-publishing done right, and happily with commensurate rewards. For years writer Pat Mills wanted to break into the European market and in 2000 he did so by setting up Nickel Editions with publisher Jacques Collin (whose Zenda Editions produced some of the nicest looking albums of the 1980s) and artist Olivier Ledroit who illustrated the first four books of the incredibly popular Chroniques de la Lune Noire (Black Moon Chronicles) for Zenda before the series transferred to Dargaud. Mills and Ledroit were already old comrades having previously worked on the impressive Sha.

Mills is well known to readers of this blog (see for example Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing and his incontestable masterpiece Charley’s War) but perhaps Ledroit is not so familiar. After studying Applied Arts he began his career as an illustrator for games magazines and broke into Bandes Dessinee (that’s comics to thee and me) in 1989 with the aforementioned Black Moon Chronicles, written by François Marcela Froideval.

Specialising in fantasy art Ledroit drew Thomas Mosdi’s Xoco (1994) before teaming with Pat Mills on the acerbic, futurist thriller Sha, set in an ultra-religious fascistic USA (1996-1999). His lush painterly style was adapted to fairytales in 2003 with L’Univers Féerique d’Olivier Ledroit, and he is credited as one of the founding fathers of the darkly baroque fantasy sub-genre BD Gothique.

From a financially shaky start Requiem Vampire Knight quickly proved that quality will always find an audience, and Nickel swiftly expanded whilst continuing the excessively adult adventures of deceased warrior Heinrich Augsburg. The series is released as annual albums, and has been serialized in Germany as Requiem Der Vampirritter, and in Heavy Metal in America (beginning in Volume 27 #1, March 2003).

Now Panini have brought this evocative series to Britain in superb oversized, A4 format, double-editions presenting two albums per volume beginning with Resurrection and Danse Macabre.

Heinrich is a German officer killed on the Eastern Front in 1944. As he died all he could think of was his guilt over a doomed affair with the Jewess Rebecca whom he chose not to save when the Gestapo came for her…

He awakens confused, with few memories intact, on the incredible blood-drenched world of Resurrection: a grim, fantastic mirror of Earth with the seas and land-masses reversed, populated by all the monsters of myth and where time runs backwards. In this Hell of constant warfare the sins committed on Earth determine your rank and form. Since Heinrich has been reborn as a Vampire, top of the slaughterers’ heap, his Earthly transgressions must have been truly unforgivable…

Soon he is sent for training and orientation, joining the Vampires Court of Dracula, where all the worst monsters of history rule, becoming embroiled in the eternal warfare and perpetual intrigues. But as time passes and he gets younger, he remembers more of his Earthly life and realises that he has been on Resurrection before… Moreover he has earned the particular enmity of a faction of utterly decadent elite Nosferatu ruled by the sadistic Lady Claudia Demona, Lord Mortis and Baron Samedi…

For any fan of Mills’ work there nothing truly new here to be shocked by, but the liberating license to explore his favourite themes guided only by his own conscience and creative integrity has resulted in a complex, intensely compelling mystery of revenge and regret on the most uncompromising of worlds where there is literally no justice and no good deed ever goes unpunished. Blending cosmic warfare with cynically sardonic deadpan humour, wrapped in the ludicrously OTT trappings of sadomasochistic fetishism, this is a truly epic saga of Gothic hopelessness perfect for the post-punk, post-revisionary, lavishly anti-reductionist fantasy fan. But it’s probably best if you don’t show your gran or the vicar…

The art is utterly astonishing. In places delightfully reminiscent of Philippe Druillet’s startlingly visual and deceptively vast panel-scapes from such lost masterpieces as Yragael: Urm (and there’s another one to chuck on the “must review soon” pile) as well the paradoxically nihilistic energy of such decadent Michael Moorcock civilisations as Granbretan or Melniboné, Ledroit has captured a truly unique scenario with his vibrant palette . Never has the horrific outer darkness been so colourfully captured and the sheer scope of the numerous monsters and spectacular battles is utterly eye-popping.

A grim and witty dream, this is a fabulously realized adult fantasy of blood and thunder that is enthralling and captivating: (Im)Pure Graphic Wonderment!

© 2000, 2001, 2009 Nickel, Mills, Ledroit. All rights Reserved.

Songs of the Black Würm Gism: the Starry Wisdom volume 2

By various, edited by DM Mitchell (Creation Oneiros)
ISBN: 978-902197-28-9

Although (somewhat aptly) borderline to my usual reviewing fare this intriguing and disturbingly adult collection of words and pictures is worth a brief mention, not only because of the stellar crew of contributors but also for the simple reason that it creatively honours the legacy of an author whose works shaped twentieth century horror writing and consequently greatly informed the comicbook continuities of many a publishing giant.

The Starry Wisdom was first published in1995 (with a revised edition in 2003, ISBN: 978-1-84068-087-4) and contained a number of tales inspired by the terrifying visions of H.P. Lovecraft. It included works by Ramsey Campbell, J.G. Ballard, Alan Moore, Brian Lumley and an unholy host of others. Now a second chilling and disturbing volume has been compiled featuring contributions from some of the world’s most individual horror writers and artists.

Enclosed within this tome are 22 features, essays, photo-spreads and stories from Grant Morrison, Aishling Morgan, Herzan Chimera & James Havoc, David Britton & Mike Butterworth, Jacques Dengue, Ian Miller, John Beal, DM Mitchell, Hank Kirton, Jacques Bertrand Houpinière, Frater Erich Zann, Alexandria D. Douros, David Conway, Kenji Siratori, The Reverend Paul Stevens, Claudia Bellocq, Joshua Hayes, Wakamatsu Yukio, Reza Negarestani, Alan Moore and even Lovecraft himself (!).

As you’d expect this is a chilling surreal exploration of the nastiest places in reality – and beyond – so it’s strictly one for grown-up and those minors so debauched and twisted that they are beyond the salvation of good and rational souls. Does that sound like anybody you know?

© 2009 DM Mitchell and individual creators. All rights reserved.

Dark Entries – a John Constantine Novel

By Ian Rankin & Werther Dell’edera (Vertigo Crime/Titan Books Edition)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-342-1

Award-winning – and officially honourable – crime writer Ian Rankin makes a remarkable debut as a graphic novelist in this superbly unsettling horror story starring the best anti-hero in the business. John Constantine, seedy modern magician and consummate bad seed. tends to bring out the best in his writers, and although the plot here is nothing new the treatment of the large cast of characters is a deft juggling act nicely handled, while the narrative set-pieces are gripping and stuffed with good old fashioned creepy tension.

Constantine has acquired a certain reputation in the right circles over the course of his life, so he’s not too suspicious when a sleazy TV producer offers him wads of cash to advise on the latest reality show Dark Entries (I have to admit I loathe the title) wherein six contestants are isolated in a rigged haunted house, competing for big prizes and fully expecting to be scared out of their wits.

Unfortunately what’s terrifying these housemates is nothing the producers and technicians devised but appears to be the real thing.

Quickly inserted into the show as a new contestant Constantine finds himself mired in a diabolical mystery involving the seemingly innocent competitors, and too late realises that he’s fallen for the oldest trap in the world. Stitched up like a kipper, his only chance is to free his companions before he can escape the house and the horrors that built it.

Sharp, gritty and deeply compelling this is a powerful recapitulation of classic horror and murder yarns complete with a sting-in-the tail that will leave the reader breathless and hungry for more.

Viscerally illustrated by Italian artist Werther Dell’edera this black and white hardback is similar in format to the old Paradox Press DC imprint to which gave us A History of Violence and Road to Perdition among other gritty adult thrills. Dark Entries is easily in the same class and would make any reader a very happy – if nervous – fan.

© 2009 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Rork 3: the Graveyard of Cathedrals/Starlight

By Andreas (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-150-6

To me a great comic strip begins with the simple line. The greatest drawing is always about the power of black against white. Colour enhances but it seldom creates. For my money, one of the best line artists in the business is the modern fantasist Andreas.

Andreas Martens is an incredibly versatile artist born in East Germany (from a time when that meant another country not a different location), trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf and the Saint-Luc Institute in Brussels. His work has appeared in Le 9e Rêve, and Tintin where in conjunction with his teacher Eddie Paape he created the seminal Udolfo.

Andreas has adapted the works of Francois Rivière (collected as Révélations Posthumes in 1980) and produced a graphic edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre for Je Bouquine. Among his many original efforts are Raffington Detective, Cyrrus, Arq and a host of others. All his works are steeped in classical style, draped in period glamour and drenched in visual tension. Many are thematically linked. But before all these he created one of the most stylish and memorable “challengers of The Unknown” in horror fiction with the introduction and continuing adventures of the enigmatic psychic savant Rork.

His pale and moody hero, (who debuted in Pilote in 1978) draws on the tone and sometimes content of dark-fantasists August Derleth, H. P. Lovecraft and especially the Carnacki stories of William Hope Hodgson; traveling the world and the great beyond unraveling great mysteries and discovering startling wonders not for fame or glory but because he must…

In the early 1990s Dark Horse Comics serialized his adventures in their superb anthology of European comics Cheval Noir, and those translations formed the basis of a little seen or remarked upon series of albums from NBM. This volume is a particular favourite of mine (even if the spine and binding are less than robust), featuring two tales in a continuing story arc as the ethereal knowledge-seeker is returned to Earth from a Transcendent Realm to intervene in the inevitably grisly fate of a scientific expedition in the wilds of Central America.

Douglas Holbein was obsessed with the story of The Chavesians, an order of architectural mystics declared heretical by the Spanish Inquisition and banished to the New World by Queen Isabella. The centuries-old sect, which built the great churches of Christendom, did not die in the harsh jungles, but continued the craft, erecting monolithic buildings in the lush wilderness, ever-seeking to learn the secrets of God through their vast stone Faith Machines.

Now Holbein’s team have found the site of the ‘Graveyard of Cathedrals’ they accidentally disrupt a centuries-old truce between the sect’s last adherents with potentially catastrophic consequences and only the reality-shocked Rork can save them…

Following his harrowing return Rork is summoned to the deserts of Mexico by mysterious means to aid an old friend atoning for her past sins in an isolated and ancient pueblo. Increasingly endangered by a jealous Medicine Man, the woman called Low Valley cares for the Indians of the settlement as she awaits a certain lunar conjunction. The swift-approaching night when ‘Starlight’ again rains down on the people promises – or perhaps warns of – radical transformation when the heavens flare again. But the impoverished and desperate people must be made to remember that not all change is good…

Exotic, chilling and lyrically beguiling, the classical mysticism and otherwordly dread of these tales is a continuously heady and captivating brew, especially with the intense, linear illustration and stark design of Andreas to mesmerize and shock your widened eyes. This series should be at the top of the publisher’s list of books to re-release…

© 1996 Le Lombard. English translation © 1992 Dark Horse.

Showcase Presents Phantom Stranger volume 2

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1722-8

By the end of 1972 the horror and mystery boom had stabilized into a key component of both DC and Marvel’s core output, with fantasy and sword and sorcery adventurers also scoring well with fans, but the glory days of huge comic-book print-runs were gone forever. However, although a depleted force, superhero comics did not disappear as some older heads suspected they might, and an initially unwieldy amalgam, the horror-hero, soon became a useful crossover sales tool.

Never as common as Marvel’s burgeoning pantheon of spooky crusaders, the most successful of the DC stalwarts were Swamp Thing and the 1950’s revival Phantom Stranger. This volume concludes his impressive second run of tales (see also Showcase Presents the Phantom Stranger volume 1 (ISBN: 978-1-4012-1088-5) and includes not only his crossover trips into the greater DC Universe, but also includes the rare final appearances that seemingly ended his career until revived in the post Crisis on Infinite Earths 1980s.

The monochrome magic begins with an impressive chiller from Bob Haney, Ross Andru and Mike Esposito that originally appeared in the Batman team-up vehicle the Brave and the Bold (#89, April/May 1970). ‘Arise Ye Ghosts of Gotham’ saw a religious sect return to the city that had driven them out two centuries previously, only to awaken the vengeful spirits of their banished ancestors until pacified by our initially squabbling heroes.

The Stranger’s return to Brave and the Bold (#98, October/November 1971), was a much more traditional tale, superbly crafted by Haney and Jim Aparo. ‘Mansion of the Misbegotten!’ was a twist-ridden mystery of demon-cults and possession that fully exploited the world-wide obsession with Satanism that began with Rosemary’s Baby and peaked with The Exorcist, as the Gotham Guardian found himself outwitted, outmatched and in dire need of assistance to foil a seemingly diabolical force threatening the life of his godson.

Following on is ‘A Stranger Walks Among Us!’ by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano, as the haunted hero saved Halloween and the World’s Greatest Superheroes from a magical murder plot and consequently joined the Justice League of America (in issue #103 of their own comic, December 1972).

From the same month the Stranger’s own solo adventures featured ‘Circle of Evil’ (Phantom Stranger #22) by Wein and Aparo, wherein the coalition of evil calling itself the Dark Circle initiated its master plan by attacking the hero through blind psychic – and nominal love-interest – Cassandra Craft, whilst Ghost-Breaker Dr. Thirteen exposed another hoary hoax in ‘Creatures of the Night’ by Steve Skeates and Tony DeZuniga. These counterpoints to eldritch adventure, although usually excellent, were rapidly reaching their sell-by date, and very soon Thirteen would be battling real monsters he couldn’t rationalize away…

‘Panic in the Night!’ from #23 saw the Stranger and Cassandra in Paris battling analogues of the Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame as they gathered an unlikely ally for their imminent final clash with the Dark Circle. However, great as this yarn is, the real gem is the back-up feature which transformed Terry Thirteen.

‘The Spawn of Frankenstein!’ saw the discovery of an ice-entombed man-monster lead to dark tragedy. When Victor Adams, a colleague of Dr. Thirteen, attempted to revive the beast it resulted in his death and Thirteen’s wife Marie being crippled and hurled into a coma. The vengeance-crazed Ghost-Breaker resolved to hunt down and destroy the unthinking monster, utterly unaware – and perhaps uncaring – that the beast was both rational and wholly innocent of any misdeed.

Written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by the unique talent of Michael Kaluta, this debut promised much, but the feature was plagued by inconsistency. Phantom Stranger #24 (March/April 1973) saw the epic conclusion of the long war against the Dark Circle as the hero and Cassandra battled the ‘Apocalypse!’ in the shadow of Mount Corcovado (that’s the one with the Jesus statue “Christo Redentor” overlooking Rio de Janeiro) with old foes Tannarak and Tala, Queen of Darkness along for the spectacular and long-overdue ride.’The Spawn of Frankenstein continued by Wolfman and Kaluta as the revived monster decided to revenge itself upon Victor Adams for dragging him back to cruel, unwanted life (by returning the favour…) by resurrecting the dead scientist in return…

A new tone and a resumption of episodic, supernatural triage marked issue #25 as the mysterious wanderer pitted himself against a voodoo cult in ‘Dance of the Serpent’ (by Wein – from an idea by Michael J Pellowski – and Aparo) whilst Kaluta ended his run on Frankenstein with another untitled tale wherein Rachel Adams (wife of the departed Doctor) was kidnapped by Satanists before being rescued by the monster; a tale that led into #26’s crossover ‘From Dust Thou Art…’ by Wein, Wolfman and Aparo, which teamed the monster and the Stranger against demons in need of earthly bodies.

The radical change was completed with the next issue as innovative horror-anthology artist Gerry Talaoc replaced the sleek, realistic Aparo (who moved on to the Brave and the Bold and a long career illustrating Batman), whilst journeyman mainstay Arnold Drake assumed the writer’s seat. Together they introduced another long-term nemesis for the Stranger in the deeply disturbed psychiatrist and parapsychologist ‘Dr. Zorn: Soul-Master!’

Eschewing the Gothic trappings that had carried the series thus far this driven meddler, callously warping his patients and performing illicit experiments for the US Military-Industrialist Complex, was a far more insidious and freshly contemporary threat in tune with the times. Thwarted but seldom defeated he returned to bedevil the Stranger many times.

Frankenstein was taken over by Steve Skeates and the legendary Bernard Baily (Golden Age co-creator of Hourman and the Spectre) and ‘The Terror and the Compassion’ saw the misunderstood beast stumble into a commune that was actually a demonic coven intent on blood sacrifice and raising the devil…

‘The Counterfeit Madman!’ by the new regular team saw the Stranger explore the mind of mad-dog killer Johnny Ganz. Was the young offender a true psychopath or a cunning crook pretending to be a multiple-personality sufferer? Was there another innocent victim trapped inside the killer’s skull with him? An element of moral ambiguity had been added by Drake that layered the later adventures with enticing and challenging dilemmas absent from most comic fiction and only matched by Steve Gerber’s challenging work on Man-Thing. The back-up,‘Night of the Snake God’ however, was a more traditional tale which continued the Spawn of Frankenstein’s battle against the hippie cult in a solid if undemanding manner.

Zorn returned to his unscrupulous scientific explorations of the supernatural in Phantom Stranger #29’s ‘The Devil Dolls of Dr. Z!’ whilst matters hardly progressed at all in ‘The Snake-God Revealed!’, which saw the Spawn of Frankenstein lose momentum – and story-space – as his strip was reduced to six pages. The next issue led with another contemporary terror in ‘The Children’s Crusade!’ as a modern Pied Piper seduces a town’s young into his charismatic cult whilst ‘Turn-about!’ concludes – and not before time – the exploits of the Spawn of Frankenstein.

Issue #31 (June-July 1974) is an exotic yarn dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam war as a disgraced US “general” smuggling drugs for a local warlord awakens a slumbering demon in ‘Sacred is the Monster Kang!’ The Stranger tales were usually 12 pages long at this period, but the back-up feature that originally filled up the comics – The Black Orchid – is not included in this volume.

Bill Draut, one of the Stranger’s earliest illustrators returned in #32’s ‘It Takes a Witch…!’ an old-fashioned spooky whodunit, whilst superstar-in-waiting Mike Grell illustrated another Dr. Zorn vehicle that guest-starred the ghost of Boston Brand. In ‘Deadman’s Bluff!’ the ghost’s protracted hunt for his murderer ended as usual in frustration, but an antagonistic partnership was established for the future…

Talaoc returned for ‘A Death in the Family!’ in #34 where a “clean” brother was compelled to assume control of the family’s business – running a crime mob. His guilt was further compounded when his dead sibling returned from the grave to give him a few pointers. Increasingly the Stranger was becoming a mere witness to supernatural events in his own series, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that this issue featured a return for the more hands-on Dr. Thirteen (wife Marie cured and both of them ignoring their brief stint of Frankensteinian tragedy). ‘…And the Dog Howls Through the Night!’ was another straightforward yet gripping adventure from Skeates and Tony Dezuniga, which I suspect had been waiting a few years in a drawer before publication.

‘The Demon Gate’ was the debut tale for writer David Michelinie who made the Stranger a target for the derivative Dr. Nathan Seine who wanted to siphon off the hero’s mystic energy and soul to cure his dying wife, and like ‘Crimson Gold’, a deadly African treasure hunt for Nazi treasure in #36, it briefly betokened a more active role for the immortal wanderer. Drake and Paul Levitz scripted ‘Images of the Dead’ in Phantom Stranger #37, another highly charged moral quandary wherein a young artist was forced to commit reprehensible crimes to earn money for his wife’s hospital bills…

Talaoc made way for fellow Philippino artist Fred Carrillo with issue #38 as Nathan Seine returned to extract a bitter revenge in Levitz’s ‘The Curse of the Stalking Skull’ and this new creative team brought back Boston Brand for ‘Death Calls Twice for a Deadman’ in a last-ditch effort to revive dwindling sales. Including the sometime Batman villain the Sensei signaled a belated return to the company’s over-arching continuity, but it was too little, too late.

Deadman also co-starred in #40’s ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind’ and #41’s concluding chapter (February-March 1976) ‘A Time for Endings’ as Dr. Seine tried to bring Elder Gods to Earth using the long-absent Cassandra Craft as a medium. With the tale’s finish the series ended and the Stranger all-but vanished until the winter of 1978 and a giant-sized tale from DC Super-Stars #18.

‘Phantom Stranger and Deadman’ (by Gerry Conway, Marty Pasko, Romeo Tanghal, Dick Giordano and Bob Layton) was an extended Halloween extravaganza as the mystic champions, with Dr. Thirteen and Tala in attendance, attempted to stamp out an infestation of demons that had infiltrated the comicbook Mecca of the season: Rutland, Vermont (long associated in both Marvel and DC titles as the only place to be on the Eve of All Hallows).

One final tale appeared a few months later in the 150th issue of House of Secrets (February-March 1978) as Conway and Talaoc related a generational tale of restless evil in ‘A God by any Other Name.’ The Stranger and Dr. Thirteen united to complete the work of Rabbi Samuel Shulman and Father John Christian who in the dire environs of London, 1892, joined spiritual forces to destroy the World’s first malignant machine intellect Molloch. But those Satanic Mills have a habit of being rebuilt by greedy men…

More than most the Phantom Stranger is a strong character and concept at the mercy of pitiless fashion. Revived at the end pf the 1960s on a wave of interest in the supernatural, and seemingly immune to harm, he struggled to find an audience in the general marketplace before direct sales techniques made publishing a less hit-or-miss proposition. Blessed with a vast cohort of talented creators, however, the stories themselves have proved to be of lasting quality, and would so easily transfer to today’s television screens that I wonder why they haven’t yet. Mystery, exotic locales, forbidden monsters spectacular effects and a cool hat: C’mon, you know you’d watch it…

But until then you’ll have to thrill and scare yourselves with these fantastic tales.

© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

House of Mystery: Room & Boredom

By Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham, Luca Rossi & various (Vertigo)
ISBN13: 978-1-84856-120-5

Re-imagined under the impressive Vertigo umbrella, one of DC’s most venerable titles returns as a tribute to Something Old cunningly disguised as Something New. Apart from a brief period in the Bat-crazed super-heroic mid-1960s when the Martian Manhunter and the ineffably quirky Dial H for Hero seized control, HoM was an anthology title that told tales of mystery and imagination in the tasteful, sedate manner of its parent company. It launched with a December 1951/January 1952 cover date and ran for 321 issues, finally folding in October 1983. When superheroes fell out of favour at the end of the 1960s, it became one of DC’s top selling titles.

At a place where realities meet – or at least overlap – a ramshackle house of indeterminate size, shape and age sometimes stands. In its own capacious grounds the unique structure offers a welcome to the star-crossed and time-lost souls of infinity. The lower floor has been converted into a welcoming hostelry.

Like the bar in “Cheers”, creatures from literally anywhere (many looking like characters out of the previous comic-book incarnation) drop in for a brew and a chinwag, often paying their way with a novel yarn, but for a select few such as the Bartender, the Poet, the Pirate and the Drama Queen the house is more like “Hotel California” – in that they can check out any time they like, but they can never leave…

Fig Keele is an architecture student with a problem and a history. Her home fell apart and two spectral, floating horrors started chasing her. Fleeing in panic she fortuitously found an entrance to the House, but now it won’t let her go. Surprisingly, she adapted pretty quickly to the inhabitants, but what really freaks her out is that the house speaks to her…

Writer Matthew Sturges, with sometime collaborator Bill Willingham, has managed the near-impossible task of combining the best elements of the old within this compellingly fresh horror yarn, and even concocted a cocktail of actual mysteries to keep the pot boiling away. Strikingly illustrated by Luca Rossi, who has incorporated a stylistic ghost of Bernie Wrightson into his artwork, the story of Fig and her fellow residents is punctuated by a series of very classy “pub-stories” illustrated by some of the industry’s best and brightest talents.

Those vignettes include two by Willingham; ‘The Hollows’, a disturbing love-story by Ross Campbell, and the delightfully far-fetched ‘In Too Deep’ from Jill Thompson, whilst Sturges scripted the remaining three ‘Spats and the Neck’ from Zachary Baldus, ‘Familiar’ by Steve Rolston and Jordan‘s Tale’ by Sean Murphy.

Collecting issue #1-5 of the Vertigo comic book, this is enchanting blend of ancient and modern, horror and comedy, mystery and adventure: it’s also a huge amount of fun for anyone old enough to handle a little sex and a smidgen of salty language whilst unraveling the intricacies of a great big, all-absorbing puzzle. Just remember once you’re in you might never want to come out…

© 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Stephen King’s Creepshow

By Stephen King & Berni Wrightson (Plume/NAL – Penguin)
ISBN13: 978-0452253803 Plume edition  ISBN13: 978-0452253803 Penguin edition

The EC comics of the Pre-code 1950s were possibly the most influential anthology strips of all time. The Crime, (anti-)War, Science Fiction and especially Horror tales that targeted mature readers before the term even existed, with sophisticated, cynical, sardonic and beautifully illustrated stories changed the lives of not only comics creators in waiting, laid the groundwork for the Underground Comix and counter-culture movements, but also spread far beyond the world of funny-book fans to influence novelists and film-makers.

In 1982 George A. Romero and Stephen King turned their fond childhood memories into another portmanteau film (Amicus Productions had already produced Tales from the Crypt in 1972 and The Vault of Horror the following year, directed by Freddie Francis and based on two paperback reprint collections issued in 1965) which used a horror comic-book as a maguffin and framing sequence for five darkly comedic tales of supernatural come-uppance’

To accompany the film comics star Berni Wrightson was commissioned to produce an actual graphic companion that delivered even more jolts than the surprise hit film. This volume, featuring some of the artist’s very best painted art, eschewed the framing sequence and plot bookends and simply presents the five component tales, complete with ghastly host narrator in all their gory glory beginning with ‘Father’s Day’. Written by King for the movie, it sees a murdered patriarch return to the bosom of his not-so loving family seven years after one of them murdered him…

‘The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill’ was adapted by the author from his previously published short-story “Weeds” and tells how a dim-wit hillbilly finds a meteor on his land. He thinks he’s found a means to financial security until the thing begins to mutate him… Famously King himself played the part of the bumpkin in the film (probably the inspiration for Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel on the Simpsons) – just as his son Jack played the kid who had his Creepshow comic confiscated.

‘The Crate’ was also a recycled yarn and detailed how a couple of college professor find an old packing case from an 1834 expedition to the Arctic in the college basement. Inside, still alive and very hungry is a slavering beast. Rather than academic kudos one of them thinks that it might be a foolproof way to rid himself of the harpy he married…

‘Something to Tide You Over’ wherein a cuckolded businessman suffers a grimly ironic fate after disposing of his wife and her lover is an original chiller as is ‘They’re Creeping up on You’ which closes the book on a truly creepy highpoint as a cleanliness obsessed millionaire determines to rid his apartment of bugs… at all costs!

Naturally these tales don’t have surprise endings – that’s not the point – but they are a delightfully gory and fun-filled tribute to spooky stories and the self-inflicted shocks of a misspent youth, lovingly crafted and perfectly rendered. Worth tracking down if you’re a comics connoisseur, and definitely an urgent candidate for a modern revival.
Text © 1982 Philtrum Corp. Illustrations ©1982 Laurel-Show, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

NEW, EXTENDED REVIEW Essential Monster of Frankenstein

By various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-1634-9

There’s a tremendous amount of value in these phone-book sized cheap’n’cheerful monochrome Essential editions. This particular collection reprints Marvel’s 1970’s interpretation of the Mary Shelly classic from a time when the censorious Comics Code Authority first loosened some of its strictures banning horror material from the pages of comics.

Much American comic art should only be seen in colour – that is after all how it was intended to be – but in this instance that moody black and white only serves to enhance the groundbreaking artwork of Mike Ploog. A young find who had worked with Will Eisner, Ploog illustrated Gary Friedrich’s pithy adaptation of the original novel before moving on to new ventures as the strip graduated to in-house originated material.

‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein!’ debuted with a January 1973 cover-date and introduced Robert Walton IV, great grandson of the sea-captain who had rescued scientist Victor Frankenstein from the polar Ice and was regaled with the incredible tale of “the Modern Prometheus”. Leading a band of rogues, cutthroats and sullen Inuit, Walton finds the fabled monster in 1898, interred in a block of ice, and brings it aboard his ice-breaker. He recounts the story to the fascinated cabin-boy unaware of the fear and discontent simmering below decks…

A bloody mutiny in a terrible storm opens the second issue as the burning ship founders. Meanwhile the flashbacked tale of the tragic Victor reaches the terrible moment when the monster demands a mate. The guilt-plagued scientist complies only to balk at the last and destroy his second creation. ‘Bride of the Monster!’ concludes with the creature’s fearsome vengeance on his creator paralleling the grim fate of the storm-tossed ship…

The Monster of Frankenstein #3, ‘The Monster’s Revenge!’ has the reawakened creature freed from its ice-tomb and hearing the continuation of his life-story from Walton’s lips as the last survivors struggle to find safety in the Arctic wastes. ‘Death of the Monster!’ (with inker John Verpoorten taking some of the deadline pressure off the hard-pressed Ploog) turns the tables as the monster reveals what happened after the polar showdown with its creator, which leads to a new beginning when Walton reveals that the Frankensteins were not all eradicated by the Monster’s campaign of vengeance. The blood-line continued…

A new direction began with issue #5 as ‘The Monster Walks Among Us!’. Making his way south the tragic creature arrived in a Scandinavian village in time to save a young woman from being burned at the stake on a blazing longboat, only to rediscover that when villagers pick up pitchforks and torches to go a-screamin’ and a-hollerin’ for blood, they usually have a good reason…

With issue #6 the comic-book renamed itself The Frankenstein Monster. The undying creature reached the village of Ingolstadt a century after it wreaked bloody vengeance on his creator’s loved ones. ‘…In Search of the Last Frankenstein!’ is a mini-classic of vintage horrors scripted as usual by Friedrich but plotted, pencilled and inked by Ploog who was reaching an early peak in his artistic career. It was also his last issue.

Ploog was followed by John Buscema and Bob Brown before Val Mayerik settled as regular artist and Friedrich gave way to Doug Moench, a writer once synonymous with Marvel’s horror line.

Issues #7, 8 and 9 bowed to the inevitable and pitted the Monster against Marvel’s top horror star (albeit 75-ish years prior to his contemporary adventures). Beginning with ‘The Fury of a Fiend!’, continuing in ‘My Name is… Dracula!’ and concluding with ‘The Vampire Killers!’, this is a classy tribute to the old Universal movies and then current Hammer Films in equal measure wherein the misunderstood misanthrope battled an undying evil for ungrateful humanity, consequently losing the power of speech; and becoming more monstrous in the process.

Produced by Friedrich, John Buscema and John Verpoorten these tales lacked the atmosphere of Ploog’s tenure, but the action was very much in the company’s house-style. With #10 (inked by Frank Giacoia and Mike Esposito) the creature finally found ‘The Last Frankenstein!’ much to his regret.

With number #11 (‘…And in the End…!?’ illustrated by Bob Brown & Vince Colletta) and #12’s ‘A Cold and Lasting Tomb’ by Doug Moench, Val Mayerik and Colletta) the Monster finished his historical adventures by falling into a glacial sea and froze into another block of ice only to be revived, Captain America-like, in modern times.

My only real quibble in a book that re-presents the entire 18-issue run of the comic, plus the crossover from Giant-Sized Werewolf #2 and all the strips from the adult-oriented horror magazines Legion of Monsters and Monsters Unleashed, is that a little more attention to publishing in chronological order might have made for a smoother read.

If you’re the type who prefers to experience his or her yarns in the proper sequence this is the stage where flipping to the back is necessary as the stories from those aforementioned Marvel magazines – which originally ran concurrently with the four-colour comic-book – can be found. Most of those adventures take place between pages 13 and 14 of The Frankenstein Monster #12!

Just reading the book however, the next thing you’ll find is a rather tame team-up/clash from Giant-Sized Werewolf #2 wherein ‘The Frankenstein Monster Meets Werewolf by Night’ (by Moench, Don Perlin and Colletta) collaterally quashing a band of run-of-the-mill West Coast Satanists in the process.

Issue #13 ‘All Pieces of Fear!’ (Moench, Mayerik and Jack Abel) shoe-horned the Monster into mid-1970s America in a tale heavy with irony as men acted like beasts and an obsessive father ignored his family whilst building his own abominations with the new science of cloning. With a hip young kid as a sidekick/spokesperson ‘Fury of the Night-Creature’ (with Dan Green inking) extended the saga by introducing I.C.O.N. (International Crime Organizations Nexus) yet another secret organisation intent on corporate conquest.

Issue #15 ‘Tactics of Death’ (with a young Klaus Janson on inks) briefly concluded the acronym agenda as the Monster and his companion Ralph mopped up the men in suits only to be shanghaied to Switzerland to meet the latest Last of the Frankensteins in ‘Code-name: Berserker!’ (with inks by Bob McLeod – who managed to handle the next issue too).

Veronica Frankenstein was still absorbed in the family business, but claims to be fixing her ancestors’ mistakes when those incorrigible I.C.O.N. bounders show up demanding her biological techniques in ‘A Phoenix Beserk!’. Beautifully inked by Mayerik and Dan Adkins, the last colour issue ended on a never-to-be completed cliffhanger (although scripter Bill Mantlo covered elements of the story in Iron Man a few years later) when the Monster and his new friend met ‘The Lady of the House’ – the utterly bonkers creature-crafter Victoria Von Frankenstein…

Perhaps the abrupt cancellation was a mercy-killing after all.

As I’ve laboriously stated above, the man-made monster also featured in a few mature reader magazines, beginning with Monsters Unleashed #2. ‘Frankenstein 1973’ (by Friedrich, Buscema and Syd Shores) relates how an obsessive young man found the Monster preserved as a carnival exhibit, but his jealous girlfriend revived it by trying to burn down the sideshow. The story continued in Monsters Unleashed #4 (by the same team and Golden-Age Great Win Mortimer). ‘The Classic Monster’ had a mad scientist actually put his brain in the monster’s skull but all was put right in #5’s ‘Once a Monster…’

Monsters Unleashed #6, by Moench and Mayerik, ‘…Always a Monster!’ wrapped up the introduction to today storyline with a good, old-fashioned Monster hunt, and lead directly to #7’s ‘A Tale of Two Monsters!’ a dark, socially relevant tale of the modern underclass, carried on in ‘Fever in the Freak House’ and concluded in #9’s ‘The Conscience of the Creature’.

The horror boom was fading by this time and Monsters Unleashed #10 was his last outing there, a superbly dark and sardonic Christmas offering complete with Elves, snow, terrorists and a Presidential assassination attempt. One final tale ‘The Monster and the Masque’ appeared in one-shot The Legion of Monsters, by Moench and Mayerik (whose painted wash-and-ink artwork for the magazine line was some of the best of his career) assisted here by Dan Adkins and Pablo Marcos. This bittersweet morality play saw the creature accidentally accepted at a fancy dress party which was ruined when a different sort of monster got carried away…

With additional pin-ups, cover illustrations and pertinent text pages from the Marvel Universe Handbook, this collection is great treat for fantasy and horror fans and should be a first choice for introducing civilians to the world of comics.
© 1973, 1974, 1975, 2004 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.


By Simon Revelstroke & Richard Corben (Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-56389-860-8

What’s better, the book or the movie?

This is a highly charged question with only one answer: “It depends.”

Adapting works from one medium to another is always contentious, and often ill-advised – but the only fair response has to be both highly personal and broadly irrelevant. Just because I don’t like the X-Men films doesn’t make them bad, just as my deep love and admiration for the works of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin doesn’t make me six years old (no matter how much I’d like it to be true!).

The real issue is whether an adaptation treats the original fairly or callously exploits it – and make no mistake: 99% of all reworkings are done with money in mind. Half of that other percent point is a genuine desire to proselytise: a mission to “bring the original to the masses” whilst the fractional remainder is an artist’s desire to interpret something that moved them in their own arena of expertise: I’ve wanted for years to adapt the Carnacki the Ghost-Breaker/Ghost-Finder short stories into graphic novel format…

The author of those tales, as well as the source material for this excellent graphic novel from underground comix legends Simon Revelstroke and Richard Corben, is the brilliant William Hope Hodgson. Son of a poor parson, he was born in 1877, and took to sea at 14. In 1899 to make a living he turned to photography and writing.

His stories are dark and moody explorations of terrors internal and ghastly, against a backdrop of eternal, malignant forces beyond human comprehension ever waiting to take the incautious, unwary or overly-inquisitive. As Alan Moore describes in his introduction Hodgson was the point-man for a new kind of story.

The gothic ghost-story writers and high fantasists of Victorian publishing gave way as the century turned to such cosmic horrorists as HP Lovecraft, Robert Bloch and even Clive Barker, and with such epics as The Night Land and The House on the Borderland, Hodgson lit the way. His too brief catalogue of works stands as a beacon of pervasive unease and outright terror and why he’s not a household name I simply can’t fathom. His career was cut tragically short as were so many others in the trenches of World War I.

Rather than religiously translate his masterpiece, Revelstroke and Corben have truncated and marginally updated the book, concentrating on what can actually be visualised – so much of Hodgson’s power comes from the ability to stir the subconscious brain – and in fairness can thus be called a companion rather than adaptation of the original text.

October, 1952: the rural hamlet of Kraighten in the Republic of Ireland. Two English students on a walking tour accidentally provoke the locals and must flee for their lives. They are chased to a ramshackle, desolate ruin on the edge of a crumbling abyss, a misty ravine which harks back to a long-forgotten time.

In the bracken they find an old journal. Scared and still hiding they begin to read the words of Byron Gault, who in 1816 moved himself, his sister Mary and his faithful hound into the infamous but irresistibly inexpensive old house. Of the horrors both physical and otherwise that attacked them and the incredible, infinity-spanning journey that resulted…

How this tale proceeds is a treat I’ll save for your own consumption. This adaptation was nominated for Best Graphic Novel of the Year by the International Horror Guild in 2003. It is not, can not, be the original book. So get both, read both and revel in what makes each unique to their own form, rather than where they can conveniently overlap and coincide.

© 2000 Simon Revelstroke and Richard Corben. All Rights Reserved.