Hello Legions of the Unspoken! We’re proud to once again be a part of the Super Blog Team Up, this time taking a look at Christmas stories! Dean and Emily set down and had a nice long chat about the 1991 Marvel Holiday Special! Take a listen, and then take a gander at what the other SBTU folks have cooked up for you during this special time of year!
Check Out the Other Players in the Super-Blog Team Up!
Greetings, Legions! As you may have noticed in the past, the Halloween season is one of our favorite times of year, for many reasons, but especially because it gives us an excuse to delve into some of the more horror-based titles of The Un-spook-en Dead-cade. (If there’s a better way to scare people than with bad puns, I don’t know what it is.) Just before Halloween, Dean Compton (this site’s proprietor) and I will be bringing you another edition of The Spoken Decade, where we’ll take a look at The Rise of the Midnight Sons. Right now I’ll be digging into one of the Midnight Sons better known members, your favorite dhampir and mine, Blade!
Blade, created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, first appeared in 1973 in Marvel’s The Tomb of Dracula. (I read some of The Tomb of Dracula, and when I first saw Marv Wolfman’s name, I thought they had given themselves spooky names, like the crew of The Simpsons on Treehouse of Horror episodes.) The character popped up in a number of other titles throughout the subsequent years, including Vampire Tales, Nightstalkers, and the aforementioned Midnight Sons, before getting his first solo title, Blade: The Vampire-Hunter, in 1994. The series ran for 10 issues, which were penciled by Doug Wheatley, and the first eight of which were written by Ian Edginton. (I tried to make up spooky versions of their names without success. Suggestions welcome.)
The series wastes no time not only in letting the reader know who the Big Bad is going to be but also in going straight for the Biggest Bad:
One of the best parts of any vampire property is seeing which parts of vampire mythology they use or discard, embrace or mock, and this title also wastes no time showing us what it looks like when Blade takes down a bloodsucker. I have mostly come across vampires either bursting into flames when destroyed or getting dusted like on Buffy, so I must say this is, hands down, the coolest visual representation of a vampire eating it that I have ever seen:
This image is the first part of a vision being had by one John Carik, former professor and current psych hospital patient covered in scarred sigils and marks known to the doctors as Bible John. He sees the fight to defeat Varnae, First Lord of the Vampires, which took the lives of Blade’s Nightstalker companions, Hannibal King and Frank Drake. John also sees Blade struggling under the weight of his survivors guilt, but what he sees next causes him to break out of the hospital to warn Blade — the return of….DRACULA! (I hope I’m not the only one who reads that name in their head in the bad Transylvanian accent every time. Also, never look up what real Transylvanian accents sound like because it is woefully and disappointingly NOTHING like what Count Chocula sounds like.)
After the deaths of his colleagues, Blade tries to make a new start in his old New York stomping grounds. We learn through some incredibly expository dialogue that Blade is hoping to make his new life a fairly normal one and that he is earning his keep by renovating the house his landlady, Julia Suarez, received from her ex-husband in the divorce settlement. Blade tells Julia he has no interest in talking to a reporter who calls asking about the Nightstalkers, or anyone else for that matter. He also decides to go by the name Hannibal Francis Blade to honor his fallen brothers.
This “normal” life lasts for about ten minutes till Bible John catches up to Blade, tells him he can’t deny his heritage, which he knows a surprising amount about, and gives him the not-as-cool-looking-as-it-sounds Witch Compass. The compass will point to negative energy, and Blade must not be as ready as he pretends for a quiet existence because all it takes for him to bust out the blades again is a twitch of the compass’s needle and the fact that Bible John DID know a thing or two about him.
The compass leads Blade to the lair of Aaron Thorne, the new leader of Lord Varnae’s secret cult, the Bad Seed. Thorne is hatching a plan to essentially enslave the entire country with a drug that has been mixed with his thralls’ blood. Once loyal to him, everyone will therefore also be loyal to Varnae, whom the Bad Seed intend to bring back to un-life. Blade is not the only one who might interfere with their plans, though, a fact Thorne discovers with his Necrotech program. (I’m just going to let him tell you about Necrotech, since there is no way I can improve on this explanation.
Blade, of course, does indeed interfere, and takes on Thorne, who wastes no time in telling Blade that he thinks he’s useless. Thorne gains the upper hand and mocks Blade with the idea that his anger and obsession have made him inhuman. And because the 90’s were a beautiful and strange time when a vampire comic could also have a touch of the TGIF sitcom, that accusation strikes a chord with Blade when he remembers what his landlady told him earlier: “It’s only human to grieve and be angry, but don’t let it eat you up.” Those simple words allow Blade to give focus to his anger and relieve Thorne of some of his own Lisa Frank cheetah spirit energy. In the process, Blade delivers some words that would stick with me if he were my sitcom friend (and are also good advice to anyone taking on a vampire): “A nice fat ego makes an easy target.”
Thorne’s minions do much of Blade’s work for him in destroying the drug blood farm (three words that feel weird to type in that order) when they shoot barrels full of chemicals they were explicitly told not to shoot. Blade accepts that he is still in this fight, but this time with a renewed perspective and on his own terms. Thorne is somewhat less pleased with the outcome of the fight and swears revenge on Blade. The reporter looking for Blade earlier goes looking for information on the Nightstalkers but finds more than she bargained for. In fact, she finds…DRACULA!
Thorne puts out the word that he is looking for Blade, who is fulfilling his domestic duties to Julia. Some bats show up on the search, and Blade is suddenly concerned about the fact that Thorne might have survived the explosion after all. He also laments that he may have doomed them both by not bringing his knives into the house as a concession to trying to live a normal life. (I’m not sure I understand his logic here, since it seems like the useful concession would be, you know, keeping the knives and NOT hunting vampires. Then people would just assume he is a mall ninja.) There is no reason to fear, though, as Julia saves the day again, this time with her mop instead of her wisdom. Bible John has the terrific timing to show up just then and warn Blade about his vision, and the two agree that together they will stop…DRACULA! before he can manifest.
Little do they know that he is already back, having turned the reporter into his thrall and using her to lure in her friend, a fellow reporter at the world’s sleaziest newspaper. Seriously, this place doesn’t really seem to be essential or even particularly important to the plot (at least for this story arc), but this is a 90’s comic site after all, and this newsroom is the 90’s-ist. I would love to watch the 90’s HBO sitcom based on this newspaper. It could come on after Arliss.
So Blade and Bible John follow the compass to the Body Hammer, but once they arrive, they realize they are too late to stop…DRACULA! He has already enthralled what seems to be the entire club, and they must fight their way through them all before getting to the big boss himself. Once again Blade gets mocked by a vampire for hunting vampires, a task they understandably don’t see the value of, despite the number of vampire asses it seems Blade has kicked. Blade tells…DRACULA! that he can’t kill him if he wants to know where his wife and son are, but…DRACULA! just finds that claim amusing, reasoning that he can turn Blade and have the information from him willingly.
This is as good a time as any to heap some praise on the artists of this book, who manage to create something that reminds me, in a good way, of things I already like but still has its own aesthetic. The fight scenes all have dynamism to them that I don’t always notice or appreciate in other comics, so in addition to looking beautiful, it was easier for someone like me, who doesn’t necessarily have the visual vocabulary that comes with a lifetime of reading comics, to follow what was actually going on. I have already mentioned penciler Doug Wheatley, but I want to make sure to mention colorist Tom Zuiko and inker Chris Ivy as well for helping to put together a comic I just really enjoyed looking at.
…DRACULA! goes for the bite and attempts to turn Blade, apparently having forgotten that he is a dhampir and can’t be turned. This lapse in memory confuses Blade, who wonders if something didn’t go according to plan when…DRACULA! was brought back. Since Blade is immune to the bite of a vampire, Bible John is next on the menu, but the sigils he has carved into his flesh protect him and burn…DRACULA! Meanwhile, Blade has received assistance from a strange source, Thorne’s crony Angel. Since Blade’s…blade was broken in the fight, Angel bestows a knife on him, and for a moment, it seems Blade is much invigorated and….DRACULA! more susceptible to harm. Thorne watches the wings, hoping his two enemies take each other out.
Blade quickly realizes he has been had and that the knife has put him under Thorne’s influence. He refuses to participate in the charade any longer and throws the knife at Thorne. The two vampires finally get around to paying attention to each other, and the bloodsucker brawl begins!
I suppose since I included two pages of a newspaper office, I should probably include at least that many of two vampires fighting each other.
While Thorne and…DRACULA! duke it out, Blade and Bible come up with a plan involving one of my least favorite vampire weaknesses, running water, but use it in a way I enjoy. Blade fights his way past Angel to the sprinkler release valve and douses the lot of them. Thorne thinks it’s some trick of…DRACULA!’s right up to the point that the water starts to burn him, and…DRACULA! mocks Thorne for not knowing his own weaknesses while he mildly smolders. Thorne calls for Angel to carry him away, foiled for the time being. Calling it a skirmish rather than a true battle…DRACULA! does his usual parlor trick of turning into mist once a fight has reached a standstill, and Blade tells him that he’ll be ready for him, any time, anywhere.
This first story arc does a pretty great of setting up a title, giving us plenty of potential for future conflict, interesting antagonists, and a solid supporting cast, including a super hardcore landlady. If all of those elements weren’t enough to keep me reading, this trip-tastic cover to Issue #4 might just do the trick.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Blade: The Vampire-Hunter! Join us next week for Rise of the Midnight Sons, and I scare up and down– er, swear…that I will do my best to keep the Halloween puns to a minimum.
What were your comics reading habits like in 1989? I was still in high school, but man — was I ever in the mood for something different. At that point, Watchmen was hardly the distant memory it seems today and the reverberations of what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had done were still being felt far and wide across the mainstream super-hero landscape. Yes, the superficial trappings of that already-seminal-by-then work had been effectively cheapened and co-opted by “The Big Two” almost across the board — most books were suddenly much “darker” and “more realistic” — but by and large it seemed like DC and Marvel were in the early stages of trying to figure out “okay, where do we go from here?” now that their entire formula had been so successfully deconstructed right in front of everyone.
I would argue, in fact, that they’re still trying to answer that question some three decades later. Grant Morrison was doing his level best to respond to it in Animal Man (and would soon do the same with Doom Patrol), while Neil Gaiman was successfully building upon the classical- literature foundations of Moore’s prose in the pages of The Sadman, but for the most part it seemed like no one was willing to pick up the gauntlet Moore and Gibbons had thrown down. Vertigo was still just a pipe dream in Karen Berger’s mind and the publishers still had nothing like a firm grasp on what a “mature readers” comic really meant even though they’d just published one that, essentially, blew the doors open and should have resulted in a veritable onslaught of genuinely good and interesting titles.
Rather than embrace this new reality fully, though, DC and Marvel opted to do what they pretty much always do — batten down the hatches, keep pumping out more of the exact same shit they’ve been doing for decades, and hope to dumb everybody back down to the point where predictable dross seems normal. Sadly, it worked — and it continues working to this day.
Fortunately, there was a burgeoning “alternative” comics scene that started to blossom in the early ’80s, thanks in large parts to the efforts of brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (and, early on, third sibling Mario) in the pages of their magnificent Love And Rockets, and these guys felt no need to tap into the current zeitgeist of superhero comics because, well — they just plain didn’t give a fuck. Soon, their ranks were buttressed by the likes of former Weirdo editor Peter Bagge, who unleashed his first “solo” series, Neat Stuff, in the middle part of the decade, and one Daniel Clowes, whose early “professional” work saw print in Weirdo (among other places —including, would’ja believe, Cracked, during the legendary editorship of Mort Todd). This new generation of “non-mainstream” cartoonists was far more influenced by the likes of Robert Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, as well as by Kim Deitch, Mary Fleener, S. Clay Wilson, and assorted other underground luminaries, than they were by, say, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, or any of the other (sorry, but it’s true) second-rate, highly-derivative superhero comics creators of their youth. You know who I’m talking about — the guys who drove the bus into the ditch that Moore and Gibbons had just tried to pull out of.
Weirdo gave these artists and others (like Clowes’ good friend, the criminally-underappreciated Rick Altergott) the chance to rub elbows, metaphorically speaking, with a number of the great just-referenced underground cartoonists of years past by putting all their work side-by-side in the same magazine, but by the late ’80s many were certainly looking to spread their own wings a bit further than a standard multi-creator anthology series would allow. The Bradley family had proven to be popular characters in Neat Stuff, and Bagge soon sent eldest brother Buddy off on his own to join (and in some cases to invent significant parts of) the nascent “Generation X” or “slacker” scene just underway in Seattle in his own solo book, Hate, while Clowes created Lloyd Llewellyn, a magazine-sized series starring a perpetually-disinterested, “too-cool-for-school,” proto-aging-hipster named — well, you guessed it.
It went just about nowhere. After seven issues its publisher, Fantagraphics Books (pretty much the “go-to” publishing house for independent cartoonists at the time, with Drawn + Quarterly still a few years away from bursting onto the scene), lowered the boom on poor old Lloyd citing poor sales, but head honchos Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, who had maintained a somewhat tight editorial control over the just-failed series, were amenable to giving their writer/artist more free reign with his next project. He’d played things their way and it didn’t work. What harm could there be in trying things his way this time?. Forget commercial considerations, Clowes figured, they’re hardly relevant in the world of marginally-selling indie comics, anyway (or at least they weren’t at the time). If he was only going to get one more crack at this whole thing,he was going to do what he really wanted to do .
What he really wanted to do, as it turns out, made its debut in Eightball #1, cover-dated August of 1989, and it was a book with no real set “format” — just a loose collection of stories that were in no way affiliated with each other apart from coming from the same mind and pencil (and, okay, pen). Clowes’ intentions were clear — he’d be making it up as he went along, following his own muse, and the publishers could either take it or leave it.
They took it, and we should all be damn glad they did. In the first issue alone we got the opening salvo of the surreal David Lynch-ian nightmare that was “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron,” we met uber-stereotypical “young hotshot” comics creator Dan Pussey (and his boss, an octogenarian sleazeball named Dr. Infinity who was obviously based on Stan Lee), we were treated to the Jack T. Chick-on-crack religious fanatacism of “Devil Doll?” (later reprinted in traditional tract format for inclusion inside a Jello Biafra spoken word album), and hey — Lloyd Llewellyn even made a brief return appearance to help bridge the gap.
It was amazing. It was astonishing. It was every other time-worn superlative my brain can’t think of right now. And you know what? It still is.
Oh, sure, Clowes didn’t invent the single-creator anthology by a long shot — there were, in fact, several others running at the time — but he absolutely got the balance exactly right here. The long-form narrative grounds the book and ensures readers will be back for more. The shorter works take aim at easy and popular targets (Christian fundamentalists, the comic book industry) with as much flair and panache as they do well-deserved venom. Toss in a couple of one-or-two-page gag strips to keep the old-school underground fans happy (I particularly loved the visual adaptations of interviews with nursing home patients that Clowes cobbled together from David Greenberger’s Duplex Planet ‘zine), and you’ve got a winner.
Okay, make that a modest winner. Eightball #1 wasn’t exactly the talk of the comics world when it hit, but it sold out its initial run of something like 5,000 copies and went back to press no less than five times. Good luck finding a first printing at anything like a reasonable price these days (still got mine! Hah!) No earth-shaking tremors reverberated out of it, by any means, but it definitely went some way towards cementing the idea that, while the mainstream was definitely moribund on the whole, there were interesting things happening in comics at the margins. And they were about to get exponentially more interesting pretty quickly.
I talked in our first segment about the four creative “phases” Eightball went through in its 15-year history, and “phase one” began right here. For lack of a better term we’ll call if the “Velvet Glove Phase,” and we’ll take a nice, long look at the story that was at the heart of it in our next segment. Hope to see you all back here then!