Happy (almost) Halloween!
I was pulled from my mother’s birthing bits feet first early one Halloween morning eons ago, clearly difficult even from the very start. This week I hope you’ll allow this Halloween baby an extra indulgence as I go all-horror with one of my favourite comics stories ever – the classic “Love and Death” from Saga of The Swamp Thing, present a webcomic displaying the ultimate in culinary nastiness, include the first ever episode of the Tales From The Crypt TV show and, for this week only, skip ahead in the Heavy Metal recaps to October 1979 for a self-contained, all-H.P. Lovecraft issue of HM.
So stock up on comics instead of candies this Halloween and feel free to share the seasonal joy and let me know some of your favourite ever horror comics!
COMIC OF THE WEEK : SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING BOOK TWO
By Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Alfredo Alcala & Friends
Published By DC Comics
Saga of The Swamp Thing #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” was Alan Moore’s total re-writing of Swamp Thing’s origin and may be the most famous story in the decades-long Swamp Thing mythos, but for my money, “Love and Death” is the best. Technically, the story, spanning Saga of The Swamp Thing #29-31 and Annual #2, along with its beautiful coda, issue 34 (“Rites of Spring,”) has no real title but collected and recollected across a variety of formats and editions over the years (Saga of The Swamp Thing Book 2 being the most recent), “Love and Death” is the most appropriate.
We open to find that Swamp Thing is now just Swamp Thing. Having learned that he never was Alec Holland, our sentient plant man ironically finds himself more in touch with nature than ever before, but stripped of all personal identity. Abby Cable, the great unrequited love of his life, is repairing her marriage and Swamp Thing’s buried the bones of the man he long thought he was. Abby’s disturbed, alcoholic husband, Matt, has a new job and has bought them a beautiful home, but Abby’s suspicious rather than relieved by this turn of good fortune and frequent flashes of insects and corpses and horrors from beyond greatly unsettle her.
Abby has good reason to be unsettled – her husband has been possessed by the spirit of her deceased, evil uncle Anton Arcane, Swamp Thing’s greatest enemy. Arcane orchestrated a jailbreak from hell for both himself and a number of murderers and evildoers and has taken up residency inside Matt Cable to orchestrate his horrific revenge. When Swamp Thing arrives at the Cable home to find Arcane/Cable in full horrific glory, vomiting out a torrent of flies, Swamp Thing also finds that Abby is dead and that Arcane has consigned her soul to hell.
So begins Swamp Thing’s journey to the underworld, releasing his consciousness from its elemental, plant-based cocoon and travelling “beyond life itself” to hell in order to free his love’s soul and return her to life. Along the way, he encounters dead enemies, old allies and new acquaintances drawn from the rich pantheon of DC’s supernatural stable, punches demons, has one more showdown with Arcane and rages against the judgement of God (via The Spectre) in order to bring Abby back to life.
It’s the most romantic thing ever.
December 1984’s Issue #31 was my very first issue of the series, given to me in 1987 by a school friend who found it at a local fete, and it changed my comics reading permanently and profoundly, acting as something of a gateway drug to the wider world of comics lying outside what I could find on the racks of the suburban newsagent. Little wonder it proved so formative – the world slowly going mad under the strain of Arcane’s release from hell and his corruptive powers, Swamp Thing cradling a dead Abby as he removes her from the tainted, demonic atmosphere of the Cables’ gothic New Orleans home, the look on Swamp Thing’s face as he is given a flicker of vain hope at Abby’s survival only to have it snatched away, Arcane-Matt’s grotesqueness, Matt’s final attempt at redemption and all those disgusting insects, it is – to my mind – a modern classic; creeping in its horror, crushing in its climax and pretty epic when you consider just how expertly all of that and more was pulled off in just twenty-four pages.
Frequent guest Rick Veitch (who would eventually helm the boom full-time, even succeeding Moore as scripter) fills in for regular penciller Stephen Bissette for this issue, with Bissette chafing against deadlines and getting a head start on the double-sized conclusion in Annual #2. It’s Totleben who proves to be the artistic glue of the team, however, inking both Bissette and Veitch with such cohesion and detail you’d likely never know two different pencillers worked on the overall story. The same cannot be said for Alfredo Alcala – a wonderful artist in his own right – whose heavy inks similarly dominate Bissette’s pencils in Issue #30 when Totleben needed a breather, making that particular issue his own. The work of both Totleben and Alcala over the course of this story are as sure a reminder as any of the power and influence a good inker has over the pencils they work on top of. Anyone cramming in some final Inktober lessons should study these comics well.
Featured in Annual #2, Bissette and Totleben’s hell is a filthy, disgusting landscape, a wasteland ripped from the Golden Age of Weird Fiction with insectoid horrors and hybrid demon creatures coloured in a fittingly nauseating palate of browns, purples and blues by Tatjana Wood. It’s a place of such unending horror that when a desperate, fraying Arcane asks Swamp Thing, “Huh-how many years have I buh-been here?” and is answered with “Since yesterday,” you may actually feel a stab of sympathy for Abby’s disgustingly vile uncle as he lets loose a shriek of total despair.
Bissette and Totleben draw with such confidence that they even give Jack Kirby’s Etrigan The Demon a cosmetic makeover. Their limber, feline Etrigan stands in stark contrast to the brick shithouse version envisioned by his creator, but he’s far scarier, squatting and drooling in the darkness before loosing a burst of flame from his mouth to incinerate some hell spawn far less powerful than he.
These are classic comics, filled with evil portends, undead villains, good men corrupted, monsters, demons and, of course, love and psychedelics. This is no mere “comic book death” stunt, it’s an organic result of the stories Moore was telling. This storyline shattered the final remnants of the “old” Swamp Thing, moving the character and his lover into ever denser, more sophisticated territory. If you’ve never read “Love and Death,” I urge you to and if you have them on your shelf already, give them a re-read as, like me, you might find them to be one of the absolute highlights of not only Moore, Bissette, Totleben and friends’ legendary run with this character, but also of ‘80s comics as a whole.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : FINAL MEAL
By Christopher Sebela and Zack Soto
The tale of a man whose palate craves not the varieties of the flavour spectrum, but the spice of cruelty itself, Final Meal builds with the inevitability that the title implies. However, with writing as strong as Sebela’s and art as moody and crisp as Soto’s, the almost anti-climactic nature of the story’s conclusion should not affect your overall reading pleasure.
Taken to a mysterious, exclusive restaurant to experience the ultimate in his cruelty “food fetish,” out narrator relates his strange journey all over the globe to find the food that has suffered the most in its preparation. Soto’s moody, lively cartooning brings to life the insanity and desperation of this character’s quest and his flesh-based meals are rendered with appropriate grotesqueness.
Liable to nudge guilty meat-eaters (like me) or lapsed vegetarians (again like me) further towards plant-based diets, Final Meal packs an EC-esque irony that’s just perfect for the season.
COUNTDOWN TO MOZ METAL: HEAVY METAL OCTOBER 1979
Yes, thanks to the magic of living in the present, we are fast-forwarding a year and a half this week to a special Halloween issue of Heavy Metal, the Lovecraft-inspired stand-alone issue published in October 1979. Normal service will resume next issue, as (among other things) Philippe Druillet’s “Urm The Mad” concludes, and if you think I’m done drooling over Druillet, you couldn’t be more wrong.
As usual, the October 1979 issue is beautiful to look at, playing host to a number of incredible European creators. Sadly, however, the substance just isn’t there overall, with most of the material ending up as either narrative throwaways or curios, Lovecraftian only in name rather than execution. The editorial notes the diversity of the stories within and wisely tries to offer some cohesion to the issue by suggesting the focus is on “two of HPL’s most characteristic obsessions…the fear of something huge and powerful that is outside but wants to get in and the awful attraction effected by dark and smelly holes. You witness, Dr. Freud.”
The absolute star of the show is Alberto Breccia, who skilfully and beautifully adapts HPL’s “The Dunwich Horror” with his none-more-black, charcoal-smeared art and heavy use of captioning. It’s a perfectly moody and evocative fit for HPL’s lengthy 1928 classic which, like last week’s Rat God by Richard Corben, moves the cosmic terror to a slightly more rural setting.
“Good day, Lovecraft, I am the President and I wish to hunt the Ktulu!” And with that goes any hopes that the mighty Moebius might take this assignment – to which he seems indelibly suited – with any seriousness. Instead, the artist delivers “Ktulu,” a story still stunning in its visuals even if it falters as an examination of the work of Lovecraft. This story of a group of politicians entering a “gigantic cavern,” interdimensional in nature, to hunt “Ktulu” like big game still carries that trademark Moebius dreaminess and gorgeousness, yet unfortunately it has not the space nor the seriousness of intent to follow up on just how cool that premise actually sounds. An Elder God safari hunt. I’d write the shit out of that. I suspect most of you would too.
Terrance Lindall’s “Xeno Meets Doctor Fear And Is Consumed” continues the surreal dreaminess established by Moebius, but similarly offers little and I’m actually beginning to wonder if it’s a page count restraint rather than an imaginative laxness that’s the issue here, for like “Ktulu,” “Xeno…” feels as though twenty-odd pages have been somehow hacked from it.
Alain Voss’ “The Thing,” is striking in its Rick Geary-goes-Pointillist inkiness. It captures the overwrought verbosity of much of Lovecraft, but pastiches it in this tale of an interdimensional portal accessed via catacomb…and telephone. It’s a pretty and enthusiastic piece though and ending with the madness that afflicts so many a Lovecraft protagonist who plunges into the unknown it gets the thumbs up for both being an attractive comic and actually meeting the brief somewhat.
All hail Druillet (again)! His “Excerpts From The Necronomicon” proves a highlight from the issue and thankfully at that, as HPL is one of Druillet’s most profound influences. Presented as though torn from the Necronomicon itself, Druillet’s inky, scratchy pages have the look of deliberate, spontaneous haste about them, the look of the work of a man detailing indescribable horror and sketching the creatures that lay beyond the realms of our perception. Perfect in their rushed, scrawled appeal, their indecipherable cursive script, they have the vague look of pages from the Necronomicon Ex Mortis; the book of the dead featured in the Evil Dead. Many more pages would’ve been appreciated, particularly as they were actually drawn but not included, such as:
While this issue is pretty hit and miss and as such will be a bit of disappointment for any serious Lovecraft fan, any doubts over whether or not it’s worth even the most cursory of flip-throughs should be dispelled with this, a Walt Simonson drawing of Cthulhu. Truly, I am your Halloween fairy:
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : TALES FROM THE CRYPT: THE MAN WHO WAS DEATH
Directed and co-written by The Warriors’ Walter Hill and acted with total relish by Sadler, “The Man Who Was Death” is a fine way to spend a lazy 25 Halloween minutes as you await potential trick or treaters.