Optic Verve Spooktacular 2003

This column is published for one reason and one reason only: my girl’s favorite holiday is Halloween.

Well, that and the fact that I’ve been looking for a reason to do a horror-themed column. Now, there are no ratings this time around because, frankly, I feel that if you were looking for a horror-themed book to read in honor of this Friday, you’d be well-served by any of the following three.

So drink some beer, dress up like a schoolgirl, watch Alien for the hundredth time; whatever it is you do on Halloween. But don’t forget to check out some of the books that the comics industry is releasing during what appears to be a resurgence of and creative renaissance in the horror genre.

Sword of Dracula #1
Image Comics — Jason Henderson (w); Greg Scott (a)

This book is not what I expected it to be.

The title, at least to me, immediately conjures thoughts of Tomb of Dracula, Marvel’s cult favorite from the ’70s (I believe). As a result, when I picked this book up, I was looking for something along those lines: melodramatic, traditional, Gothic horror stories. Instead, what Henderson and Scott have pulled together is a book about a secret (well, I assume) paramilitary organization, called the Polidorium, devoted to the pursuit and destruction of that most time-honored breed of the walking dead: the vampire.

Veronica Van Helsing (Ronnie for short), presumably a descendent of the legendary vampire hunter, leads her team of soldiers and tech specialists to a secluded portion of the Loire Valley in France. Following her intelligence briefings, her team pinpoints the location of a massive structure masked by a sort of biological cloaking device: Dracula’s castle. Firing static electrical charges into the air to disrupt the field of illusion, Van Helsing sends a daring commando forward to spray the front gates with an anticoagulant. And here Henderson pounds home the theme of the book: the centuries-old Count can do a wondrous variety of things with nothing more than blood, erecting an entire fortress through sheer force of will comprised of the sanguine liquid made solid. As the gates melt, Van Helsing and her team face wave after wave of Dracula’s thralls: demonic hounds, vampire infantry, ninjas (that’s right, I said ninjas) and finally, the enemy himself.

An eruption shaking the firmament around them, the Polidorium soldiers snap into action as the Count’s carriage springs forth in an attempt to make good his escape. But as the sun sets, the fight rapidly grinds to a standstill. Ronnie and her agents dispatch the undead by the truckload, but Dracula’s will is ever compelling another wave forward. Breaking the face-off wide open is the appearance of the Count, rising from the melted ruins of his conveyance to cut his way through the ranks of the Polidorium like a scythe through wheat, forging a sword of blood to assist in the slaughter. The entrance of Dracula into the fray turns the tide against Van Helsing, forcing the Polidorium’s forces into retreat. As they fall back, the venerable villain taunts Ronnie over her previous failures, pointing out that foreknowledge of his location is clearly no guarantee of his capture, gathering the remnants of entourage to him in laughing escape and throwing one more wave of mindless undead to crash against the Polidorium’s forces as a smokescreen for his retreat.

Binding their wounds and gathering their dead, Van Helsing and her decimated squad begin the trek back to base. Meanwhile, the issue closes with scenes from the Dead Sea, where marine biologists believe they have uncovered a way to make life in the poisonous waters viable. Undoubtedly, they’ll awaken something that requires the intervention of the Polidorium in the issues to come.

The story of Sword of Dracula itself is rather entertaining. It’s not whiny and self-indulgent, as stories involving nosferatu have a tendency to be. Dracula doesn’t spend time bemoaning the cruel fate that has led him to stalk the earth for centuries, compelled to kill by an unnatural hunger. Neither does one naïve woman fall prey to his animal charm, softening his hardened heart at the last minute nor one naïve man boldly brave his castle of horrors alone.

No, the end result is something more akin to Rainbow Six (or even B.P.R.D.) than the wisecracking, self-deprecating style of vampire stories that Buffy: The Vampire Slayer popularized. Sword of Dracula‘s cast is a team of veteran soldiers, hardened by the violence they’ve seen and wrought, but determined to see their mission accomplished no matter what the cost. Granted, the majority of their dialogue is consumed in talking smack to each other and their foes, but it flows; it never seems contrived or clichéd.

The only complaint that can reasonably be made against Sword of Dracula is in regards to the art. Greg Scott’s work is nice and in some panels, it really shines. The problem lies in inconsistency, in that some panels effectively illustrate the action, whereas others are muddy and indistinct. Frankly, I feel that Sword of Dracula is a book that could have benefited from being published in color (though I don’t blame the creators for doing it in black-and-white, given the cost of publishing four-color through Image), as the panels often seem simply overwhelmed by their own inks, the storytelling drowning in a sea of black.

In the end though, it’s a damned solid effort from the creators (which I assume is their first major work, at least). As first issues go, it’s a surprisingly entertaining one, managing to dive headlong into the action and yet still establish the combat in the context of the overarching storyline. I’m looking forward to the next issue already.

The Dark Horse Book of Hauntings
Dark Horse Comics — Various Creators (w/a)

This is a hard one to even attempt to review. Anthologies always are. I mean, do you take the time to summarize each and every story in the book? If you don’t, it’s a damned short write-up. “There are some ghost-related stories in the book. They’re pretty good.” What the hell kind of review is that? I’ll tell you: a crappy one. On the other hand, if I sit and tell you the gist of every story contained in Dark Horse’s Book of Hauntings, we’d be here overlong. So instead, I offer a few choice summaries, plus nothing more and nothing less than my honest recommendation.

The Book of Hauntings picks a nice story to open with, a tale called “Gone,” penned by Mike Richardson (Dark Horse’s publisher, so there’s a little self-interest in the order of the stories, I’m sure) and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. Therein, Mike and Jake, a pair of young boys, dare each other to enter an abandoned and condemned house. Putting a ten-dollar bet up to coax Mike inwards, Jake is outwitted when Mike tosses the ten-spot into the house through a crack in the boarded windows. With his only other choice being leaving the ten bucks behind, Jake summons his courage and crawls into the silent residence. Impatience turns to paranoia and paranoia turns to the very real fear that something might have gone wrong when time passes and still Jake does not return from his jaunt into the house. Mike returns with both his mother and Jake’s, who then phone the local police to help them investigate. Slowly but surely, every adult enters the house, but none return. Locked out of the car that he arrived in (the backseat of which contains his bike), Mike is faced with a hard decision: continue to wait outside in the deepening dark in the hope that someone familiar will emerge from the foreboding dwelling or enter himself and face the mute, dark unknown that has swallowed up both friend and family. Richardson and Russell close the story, after Mike makes his choice, with a panel that stood the hairs of my arms on end. Flat-out creepy.

So what else is here? Quite a bit, actually. How do you top a top-notch opening story like that? Well, for starters, there’s the only Hellboy story this year that features Mike Mignola’s pencils and that was worth the price of admission alone for me, a story in which our intrepid investigator gets caught in a time warp and witnesses the summoning of a demonic monkey. It’s over almost before it starts, but I’ll take Mignola Hellboy however I can get it.

The stories from there on out are varied in tone and quality. Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson turn in a lighthearted story about neighborhood dogs (and one neighborhood cat) investigating the haunting of their fellow’s doghouse, reminding me quite a bit of the Sandman story that dealt with the secret lives of cats. Scott Allie uses the hero from his recent Dark Horse mini-series, The Devil’s Footprints, for another fairly humorous story entitled “This Small Favor” and regarding an exorcism. The list goes on and on and includes a prose piece written by Perceval Landon and illustrated by Gary Gianni and an interview with a seance medium by Scott Allie.

In the end, I can’t recommend the book highly enough, as it offers a diverse spread of stories, all nonetheless connected to the anthology’s theme of hauntings (be it in a place, a thing, whatever) and all of above-average quality.

Frankenstein Mobster #1
Image Comics — Mark Wheatley (w/a)

One book that I just can’t get enough of is Eric Powell’s The Goon. The book is funny as hell (I mean, laugh out loud funny, seriously), but at the same time it’s also violent (how many books have characters that scream “Knife to the eye!” and then deliver it?) and sort of a horror book (The Goon kicks the crap out of zombies fairly regularly). But I think the main reason that I dig it so much is that it’s fairly unique, at least in relation to the general output of the comic book industry.

And after reading Frankenstein Mobster, I have one less reason to love The Goon.

But that’s OK, because this is a quality read too, it’s just a lot like The Goon.

Frankenstein Mobster is set in a sort of parallel Earth, apparently during the 1930s or so. Terri Todd arrives in Monstro City (I feel like I’m playing charades: “Sounds like… Astro City?”) to begin her new life as a detective for the city’s police department. The metropolis itself is unique in that not only is it a haven for immigrants from all over the world, but it also acts as a magnet for monsters. Quite literally, in fact, as the first piece of Todd’s supporting cast that we’re introduced to is Ozmed DuTrek, a mummified cab driver. Picking up Todd in the pouring rain at the Dead End Station (Dead End being the cleverly named portion of town where the monster immigrants tend to congregate), he regales her with a tale of woe, his beloved (and equally well-preserved) daughter having been kidnapped and held for ransom money by a rival (and normal) cab company. Todd reveals to DuTrek her occupation and begrudgingly offers her assistance in the matter of the rescue of his daughter. Over the course of her rescue attempt, it comes to light that Todd’s father and namesake, Terry Todd, was, prior to his untimely death, a figure of some renown in Monstro City, particularly amongst the less-mundane inhabitants. Known amongst the monsters of the city as the only cop that could be counted upon to do right by them, Terri’s father has left behind a legacy that the residents of the Dead End immediately expect to see her assume. And by the end of the issue, she’s given them good reason to do so, risking her own safety to save the life (or lack thereof) of Ozmed’s daughter.

Meanwhile, spliced between Terri’s scenes and used essentially as chapter breaks, are panels of a more gruesome bent. An unidentified woman sings the blues as she stitches together a patchwork corpse, clearly the Frankenstein Mobster of the title. It is this series of panels that provides as the plot twist for the issue, the hook to draw the reader back in next time. So while it’s slightly disappointing to find out that the titular character doesn’t technically make an appearance in the book and that the “twist” has been telegraphed by Wheatley from about a mile away (Terry Todd’s body is one of those being pieced together to make up the reanimated corpse), it’s reassuring to see that the set-up for the ongoing series looks promising. It’s not the most original plot twist, by any stretch of the imagination, but it seem like Wheatley could milk some genuinely entertaining stories from it.

And really, at the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for.

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