Comics, The Forsaken

The Forsaken: Satan’s Six (1993)

Let me begin by saying this:  Jack Kirby was a genius, in every sense of the word.

Vintage Kirby.

Kirby was also astonishingly prolific, having an entire portfolio of ideas from the ’70s and ’80s that were never truly completed, much less adopted into print.  Along came Topps Comics, a subsidiary of the trading card company of the same name and one of the practically countless companies that mushroomed in the comics boom of the early ’90s (and withered away in the crash of the late ’90s/early ’00s).  With an eye toward long-time readers of comics, Topps licensed some of Kirby’s old concepts to form the basis for the company’s very own “Kirbyverse.”  Granted most of the titles under the Kirbyverse umbrella would be written and drawn by people who were distinctly not Jack Kirby, who would pass away the year after “Satan’s Six” was published, but these were still concepts from the same mind that gave us the X-Men, the New Gods, the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Newsboy Legion, and Destroyer Duck.

One of those unused concepts that probably lied in a file cabinet in Kirby’s home for many years was “Satan’s Six,” which is a great title however you cut it.  Kirby had come up with the premise, most of the character concepts, and had even scripted and drew eight pages.  When Topps picked up the license, they had Tony Isabella (probably best known for his run on “Ghost Rider” and as the creator of DC Comics’ “Black Lightning”) write a script incorporating Kirby’s pages with art by John Cleary (who didn’t do much outside this series, except some work for Image Comics in the early-mid ’90s).  Whatever Kirby originally envisioned with this series, and info on what “The King” himself had in mind with “Satan’s Six” is surprisingly scarce, the published result was, in spite of the title, a light-hearted comedic romp, just about the adventures of a group of wayward souls trying to earn passage into Hell.

Topps certainly treated the comic like a fan’s dream event, having big names like Frank Miller, Terry Austin, and Steve Ditko ink single pages while the pages Kirby originally drew and scripted were included in full (albeit far from seamlessly).  But…did it merit such attention by so many greats?

I will say that, out of all of Kirby’s ideas brought to light by Topps, “Satan’s Six” is easily the most distinctive.  The eponymous six include five human souls from different locales and time periods – a narcissistic knight from King Arthur’s court, a dancer from a Babylonian temple, a Victorian mad scientist, a Zulu warrior disgraced for refusing to harm animals, and a hard-luck gambler from Prohibition-era America – who were all neither virtuous enough to ascend to Heaven or evil enough to be sentenced to Hell.  Desperate to end their time in eternity’s waiting room, they all demand entry into Hell at least.  A low-level manager of the Abyss finally relents and offers to let them into Hell if they return to Earth and help corrupt souls.  At the London nightclub they’re stationed at, they’re finally joined by their “sixth”, a demon with a fondness for heavy artillery  named Frightful.  Meanwhile the angel Priscilla, who has responsibilities over “comic book characters” (they’re real, except they’re not, but…oh, whatever) has plans to intervene and instead redeem the five, no matter what Frightful and his employers intend…

It’s a fun premise that takes a fairly dark concept – I mean, imagine a group of people so fed up with a bland, desolate afterlife they’re eager to go to Hell, and that same group who without hesitation sign up for a job of leading others into damnation – and builds a zany comedy from it.  It’s perfectly possible to have something light-hearted and militantly goofy from even the idea of eternal punishment – after all, Looney Toons had plenty of blunt references to the Devil and Hell – and in the grimdark, macho atmosphere of early ’90s comics “Satan’s Six” still stands out as a nice change of pace.  Also it is true that the comic was clearly written for diehard fans;  hell, the very first couple of pages include a rather touching tribute to Joe Shuster.

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So why was “Satan’s Six” a failure, destined only to be remembered by Kirby fans?

Well, there are plenty of theories.  One is that fans were willing to lay down money for something drawn and written by The King, but not old concepts of his handled totally by other people, no matter how well-known or talented in their own right.  Another is that Topps failed to stand out in a market that was already oversaturated and being dominated by newcomers like Image/Wildstorm and Valiant.  These are probably true, but for me…well, look at the page above and behold the teeth.  

I don’t get any delight from blaming the failure of a collaborative work on any single person, but John Cleary’s contribution is…to put it in polite academic-ese, problematic.  For starters, saying his style is somewhat influenced by Todd McFarlene is like saying that Oreo cookies are slightly derivative of Hydrox cookies (and no, it’s not the other way around).  Then there’s…the teeth.  But it’s not just the teeth, it’s that even when his characters are just talking they look like they’re screaming or at least they appear like they’re trying to hold a conversation in the middle of a bowel movement.

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Keep in mind, this is just during a normal conversation!

It’s not even so much the questionable art choices – after all, this is the era when Rob Liefeld became famous enough that Marvel was willing to hand most of its major properties over to the tender mercies of his pen – but what it’s up against.  Compare what’s above to something from Jack Kirby’s original pages:

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Put aside arguments about quality;  the styles are so different they don’t even seem to belong in the same galaxy, much less the same pages in the same comic.  Couldn’t they have hired an artist who would or could closely imitate Kirby’s style?  Would that have been so difficult?  It’s not like Jack Kirby was the single most influential comic book artist of all time.

To be more positive, Tony Isabella does what he can with what he has.   There are some good gags and one-liners, even if the jokes about Arthurian knight Brian’s megalomania make him out less to be a lovable oaf and more an unpleasant sociopath (much like latter-day Homer Simpson, actually) and the Babylonian dancer Dezira is a receptacle for dumb blonde jokes so ancient they probably were uttered in the comedy clubs of Babylon (although, Dezira’s existence notwithstanding, did the have blondes in Babylon?).  Honestly, at the risk of blaspheming the King, I think some of the key flaws from the writing front come straight from the original concept.  The protagonists really are terribly one-note – literally the only thing we learn about member Harrigan is that he was a gambler from the 1930s – and the subject matter is maybe treated too lightly even in the outlines.  Maybe it would have worked better in the ’70s when you had weird and PG-rated yet still edgy occult concepts like Marvel’s “Son of Satan”, and as far as I know maybe comics like that were the original inspiration, but in a grittier medium that had known the pitch-black comedy of Marshal Law and Milk & Cheese, a comic with a premise like this one demanded somewhat darker tones.

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Jack Kirby be with you, Satan’s Six. Even he couldn’t save you from being filtered through the warped sensibilities of ’90s comics.

Like I said, if you look at it from a certain angle or maybe while standing on your head it does look like an early satire of ’90s comics.  Brian the knight kind of does come across as a parody of the macho ’90s superhero.  But that might be reading too much into it, and the fact of the matter remains that even an industry veteran like Tony Isabella couldn’t figure out how to take a half-finished concept from Jack Kirby and make it into something that would fit into the medium as it stood in the ’90s and at the exact same time hearken back to the glory days of one of the greatest minds to work in comics and, honestly, any medium.

Oh well, at least the issue also has a “Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre” strip drawn by Steve Ditko.

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Comics

Why LGBT People (Should Have) Loved Purgatori

Since I’ve been running this blog for a while now, and since I’ve been (very slooooooooooowly but surely) experimenting with ways to add new multimedia angles to Trash Culture, I thought it would be fun and appropriate to revisit one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written:   “Why Did Women Love Lady Death?”

I keep coming back to Chaos! because…well, it actually always is a big nostalgia trip for me.  Believe it or not, flipping through my friend’s copy of Evil Ernie: Straight to Hell #3 or skimming over the latest issue of Chastity at the comic store really expanded my idea of what kind of stories the comics medium can tell.   Sure, like a good little comic book boy I mostly read from the Big Two, but there was something unpolished and deranged (and I mean that in the best possible way!) about Chaos! that fascinated me, even then.  Honestly, Chaos! really does embody the sort of works that I’m trying to analyze or poke fun at on this site, and the sort of appreciation I’m attempting to explain.  Seeing Lady Death just a few racks down from Superman actually did teach my young, naive self some interesting lessons that the medium could something other than black-and-white adventure tales.  Of course, you might say that I would have been better off inspired about the medium’s potential by something like Love and Rockets or Box Office Poison, but if that was the case then there would be a fairly good chance you wouldn’t be reading this right now.

Purgatori hasn’t fared as well as her eternal nemesis, Lady Death, after Chaos! was liquidated and its franchises auctioned off.  While Lady Death still as of this writing has her own series, Purgatori, as far as I can tell, has only been subjected to one revival attempt.  That was the ill-fated shot at a full-on Chaos! revival by Devil’s Due in 2005 and 2006, which was plotted and scripted by Robert Rodi of Loki and Codename: Knockout fame.  Why Purgatori didn’t carry over like Lady Death did is a question for the ages;  she certainly wasn’t the only Chaos! character to suffer that fate, despite there being more efforts to give Evil Ernie a decent post-Chaos! afterlife.   That’s kind of a shame, because frankly – and I write this without irony – Purgatori was one of the more interesting LGBT characters to come out of the ’90s.

Okay, okay, I know that simply by writing that sentence I caused a feminist blogger from Jezebel or DailyKos or whatever to reach for their keyboard in a rage without knowing why, but I mean it.  To get at my madness, I’m going to discuss Purgatori’s original origin story, as provided by our favorite creator and fetishist Brian Pulido, The Vampire’s Myth.

Now keep in mind I’m not defending it as some hidden, forgotten, progressive, feminist gem.  I’m not going to presume Pulido’s motives – maybe he made Purgatori a lesbian just to stoke (eeeew) his readers’ T&A fantasies, maybe he genuinely wanted to do something with a gay protagonist, maybe both (it is possible to want to do both, you know) – but Purgatori is definitely catering to what feminists call the “male gaze.”  I mean, check out this scene showing how Purgatori became a demon-vampire thing:

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The funny thing is that this really isn’t all that much more explicit than, say, an issue of “Green Lantern” or “X-Force.”

“You want your “male gaze”?  Chaos! has got yer “male gaze” right here!!!

If you’re offended, at least let me see if I can mitigate your offense with context.  If you’re having a considerably different reaction (or you’re offended and…intrigued at the same time), hey…we can wait.

Ready?

All right.  When we catch up with Purgatori, she had just been banished from Hell to Earth by Lady Death’s evil…well, evil-er alternate personality Lady Demon (just roll with it).  Weakened severely by her battle with Lady Death and finding that the blood of helpless standard-issue morals only barely keeps her alive, Purgatori goes to Alexandria to confront two vampires she created thousands of years ago, the “Coven of Ancients” (I know, with two vampires it doesn’t seem like much of a coven, does it?), Jade from China and Kabala from Nubia.  They want to kill Purgatori in revenge for cursing them with an immortal life sustained by committing atrocities;  the unflappable Purgatori just wants to drain them dry of their blood so she can get her full power back.  In what I genuinely think is a nice touch, Jade does freak out when she learns by telepathically scanning Purgatori’s memories (because in the Chaos! universe vampirism does also give you random superpowers, like in Twilight;  you heard it hear first, Stephanie Meier ripped off Brian Pulido!) since she learns that Hell is real, meaning that if she ever is destroyed her soul will be damned anyway.

It almost makes up for the horrific, agonizing historical inaccuracies (Alexandria was a city in Egypt centuries before Alexander the Great – you know, the guy it was named for – founded it?  China could send an emissary to Egypt in the second millennium BC?  And don’t get me started on the anachronistic costumes…).  Well…almost.  

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Say what you will, but at least they just want to kill each other for revenge or for survival, and they’re not at all fighting over a man.

That’s kind of the entire plot, but it turns out that it’s just a framing story for the real purpose of the series:  detailing Purgatori’s origin.  In a vague and completely historically accurate ancient Egypt (*cough*), a queen obsessed with achieving immortality through building an extravagant tomb falls in love with one of the slaves working on the tomb, Sakkara.  The queen takes her into her harem of women and even explicitly marries her.  Keep in mind that this was published in 1997, which makes for a weird little political message years before it really could be a political message.

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And yet this story has never been endorsed by GLAAD or the Human Rights Campaign…

What’s interesting is just how…marginal this scene and plot development are.  There’s no real political message here, or attempts to make a point about sexuality.  That’s something admittedly you’d expect from something published in the ’90s, when same-sex marriage was still very much a fringe issue in most circles, and like I hinted I really don’t think Brian Pulido was dropping any commentary on gay rights into his yarn about the origins of a mass murdering vampire.  From what I can tell, it’s just there to heighten the inevitable betrayal, but it’s still an interesting detail throw into a silly gorn-soaked comic from the mid-’90s.

But, yes, the queen does stab Sakkara in the back…more or less literally.  Like Bender learned in Futurama, the queen had to find out the hard way that slaves really don’t share their masters’ dreams of immortality.  Afraid of a revolt, the queen agrees to marry a powerful and popular general, who demands that she execute all the women in the harem, including Sakkara.  Narrowly escaping, Sakkara follows up on a rumor she had once heard about a vampire living on the outskirts of the city.  There she discovers an ancient Celtic vampire, Rath, and willingly gives herself over to him for the sake of freedom and revenge.  Rath is something of an Iron Age Libertarian and schemes to spread vampirism in order to “free” humanity from the tyranny of government and organized society, but even he doesn’t suspect that, in a plot twist that does help explain why I love Chaos! so much, Sakkara just happens to be part-fallen angel, turning her into a powerful vampire-demon hybrid.  As soon as she is able, Sakkara, who will go by the name Purgatori for…no particular reason (except that Brian Pulido liked the name, obviously), goes on the ultimate spurned lover rampage and  slaughters or vampirizes the queen’s wedding guests and imprisons the queen and her new husband in a sarcophagus…after turning them into starving newborn vampires.   In the present, Purgatori naturally overcomes her enemies, although Jade does escape to star in her own stories in the future.  Kabala isn’t so lucky.  Amusingly Purgatori considers letting Kabala burn to death in the sunlight, rather than letting her stay immortal and miserable, a sign that she’s “mellowed.”

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Now before I go any further I guess I should toss in something of a disclaimer about the sexy, half-naked elephant in the room.  Yes, Purgatori’s body and costume choices are really not realistic.  In fact, using the word, even following “not”, feels like a crime.  Yes, the mainstream comics medium is plagued by the presentation of women as purely sex objects for the male gaze (although it should be admitted that it also serves the gay-female gaze, albeit only incidentally).  And, yes, all this highlights broader issues with the presentation of female characters in comics that have very real repercussions for women trying to work in the medium or simply become regular readers.  But that’s not the kind of thing I’ll write about here, and there are already plenty of places to read up on these points.  Without claiming that Purgatori is an unjustly lost feminine heroine for the 21st century – although part of me is tempted to launch such an argument – I’m just a little interested in how gay readers can look at Purgatori and find her interesting from a female or LGBT perspective in spite of (or even along with) this T&A baggage.

Like I mentioned, Purgatori’s lesbian sexuality actually is, believe it or not, key to the plot.  Also Pulido, whatever you may say about his writing, genuinely is concerned with showing the reader that both the queen and Purgatori are in love.  It’s just that politics, the queen’s own psychotic need to insure that memories of her will endure no matter the cost in human suffering, and finally Purgatori’s sociopathic lust for revenge get in the way.  Now it is also used as an excuse to titillate – and how – but, to be honest, it could have been a lot worse.

Also it’s worth pointing out that there’s only one man in the story, Rath, who serves as anything resembling a straight, male love interest for Purgatori.  (The dialogue insists that Rath only wants to use Purgatori as his pawn in his crusade to destroy the very concept of organized society, but the idea that Rath also wants to sexually control Purgatori is not very subtle…even by Chaos! standards, which scares even me.)  She rejects Rath at several points in the story, and in their last encounter she spits in his face.  The story presents an interesting parallel.  On one side, there’s the queen and the general.  The queen betrays her deep and sincere love for the sake of political convenience and submits herself over to the total domination of a man she can’t even care about, sexually or romantically.  On the other side, Purgatori is faced with more or less the same situation with Rath, but she completely throws him off once she gets what she wants from him, and then brutally punishes the queen for making the easier choice.  Taking that view, a titillating story about lesbian vampires becomes a weird, wild parable about keeping out of the closet…or else your devastated lover might go insane with rage, turn you into a vampire, and leave you in the closet to become an eternally starving vampire (which, if you think about it, is as good a metaphor for desperate, closeted gays as any).

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Purgatori: she’s a strong, independent demon-vampire-thing and she don’t need no man!

Frankly, speaking as a LGBT reader myself, I had much the same reaction to the story as a few female readers of Lady Death had.  It’s frankly a little refreshing to have a character that’s of course not a bundle of stereotypes, but is also not at all saintly and  not written with a particular political or social agenda in mind.  It brings to my mind the film X-Files: I Want to Believe.  Not a terribly good movie by most standards, but it was worth remembering just for having a villainous, organ-stealing gay couple motivated by a potent mixture of desperation and love.  There are issues with the portrayal of those characters – for one thing, they’re never really given that level of character detail that helped make the better episodes of the X-Files TV series famous – but among certain Interwebs critics that shall remain nameless they tended to be seen as homophobic caricatures just because they happened to be gay and the villains.  So it goes with Purgatori.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a LGBT character who routinely goes on killing sprees, you know.   And there’s nothing wrong with admitting that it’s kind of awesome to have a – dare I say – role model like that.

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Now this is what I call a wish fulfillment fantasy.

First, Purgatori is a gay character whose sexuality isn’t her end-all and be-all.  Yes, I’m daring to say that Purgatori is, at least in that sense, a better written character than Jack from Will & Grace.  More importantly, when Purgatori’s sexuality does come to the fore, it’s treated in a way that, even in our more “enlightened” times, sets her apart.  Most depictions of LGBT sexuality are still painted with a tragic brush.  Same-sex love is very often shown in the shadow of social and religious oppression, or disapproving relatives, or the threat of violent bigotry.  If not that, then it’s shown in the light of some shallow parody of gleeful promiscuity (if you’re a gay male) or of blissful Amazonan domesticity (if you’re a lesbian).  Purgatori has no such hangups.  She exalts in her sexual desire and conquests, and acts in a way that’s very unlike a minority whose sexuality much more often means being persecuted than achieving power.   Is she, to use academic feminist speak, still just using sex as a tool to achieve superiority in systems of power that are traditionally patriarchal?  Sure, but that really shouldn’t make it any less satisfying.

In sum, Purgatori can offer a different kind of release for LGBT readers.  Like Lady Death presenting a female heroine who completely shattered the old concepts that a female heroine must be nurturing and gently benevolent and set fire to the shards, Purgatori is the LGBT hero who is anything but a victim – and if she ever is, it’s only temporary, and we can rest assured she will strike back at her foes not through letter-writing campaigns or an invitation to a nice expensive dinner (which one gay rights organization did with a homophobic singer some years back), but through a vengeance that could make war veterans retch.  Further she easily translates sex to power, a privilege so many LGBT people don’t have, or at least don’t feel that we have.  So why didn’t she resonate with LGBT readers the same way that Lady Death did with female comics readers?  I honestly can’t even make a guess, although I am willing to entertain the possibility that she came too soon.  At a time when the gay rights movement seems to be enjoying some successes but nonetheless seems to have lost its bite, a busty, nearly naked vampire-demon-thing might have been the very thing the gay rights movement needs today in 2013.

Well, I can dream anyway…

…Oh, did I mention that at one point Purgatori wrestles with a couple of vampire-tigers with giant bat wings?  So why do I have to keep having to explain to people my love for Chaos! Comics?

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Comics, Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Chaos! Comics Did A 9/11 Tribute Comic

My dear readers, I have failed you.

When I first (literally) stumbled across the fact that Chaos! Comics did a 9/11 tribute comic, I was thrilled, like a conquistador who accidentally discovered El Dorado.  But my initial excitement did not account for the fact that, well, riffing on a 9/11 tribute comic would be…difficult.  And that’s despite the fact that the cover itself pushes the laws of female human anatomy to the limits.

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Don’t get me wrong; it is amazing that this exists, although maybe not for the reasons you might assume.  Perhaps the first thing that will strike comics fans is that it’s actually written by Brian Augustyn of The Flash fame, who did a lot of work for Chaos! Comics in its last years.  The second thing is that this isn’t Chaos! in its wild, gory glory.  This is well after the flagship characters of Lady Death and Chastity have been toned down and made less…well, sociopath-y.  Lady Death isn’t even at this moment in continuity her normal white-skinned, ruling-Hell self, but was at the time a sword-wielding vigilante on the streets of New York (it’s…a long story, naturally).

Still, it’s not enough to riff on, despite my initial excitement.  Really, no matter who publishes it, 9/11 tributes – or tributes to any recent tragedy – are snark-proof.

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Its snark-immunity does not just derive from the fact that I’m an American and this is about the 9/11 attacks, although I have to admit that’s part of it.  No, it’s also that there really isn’t much to say, because frankly it takes conscious effort to botch these things.  Things like this are propaganda in the not-that-bad, pre-Goebbels sense, and as such there’s a definite, fairly simple way of doing them.  That’s not to say that they’re easy to write, per se, just that there’s a formula that’s carved in stone, and even more so than what you might expect in some genre fiction.  Start with some everyday characters right at the center of the tragedy, stir in some moral observations but do not under any circumstances make any references to politics, and show the main protagonists pitching in to help survivors without bringing in the baggage of their own personal stories, and voila, you have a tribute to a contemporary tragedy.

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Just as it’s very hard to screw up such a tribute, it’s also extremely difficult to make these types of stories great.  This is mostly for the same basic reason.  Genuinely the only way to make a 9/11 tribute really memorable for good or bad reasons is to break with the formula and bring in something that has the potential to offend a lot of people.  That’s not what Chaos! Comics’ Unity does, in spite of its publisher’s reputation.

I guess if you just automatically object to having characters like Bad Kitty running around the site of a national tragedy, you might find it offensive, but honestly is it really worse than having Spider-Man or Green Lantern at the site of 9/11?  Especially because here Bad Kitty, as well as Lady Death and Chastity, are portrayed as heroically as they are?  We exist in a pop culture-saturated world, and if you think there’s something wrong about having comic book superheroes meditate on the collapse of the twin towers, well, the argument was made and lost decades ago the second Donald Duck showed Americans what working for the Nazis was like.

Honestly, if you can get past the fact that both Chastity and Lady Death show up to 9/11 in respectable catsuits, the whole affair is (perhaps disappointingly) tasteful and even fairly well done in some respects.  Sure, like with most straightforward propaganda there’s plenty of cheese to be had, like Lady Death assuring the reader that the terrorists are in Hell while the victims are all in paradise, as well as this…

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…but there are a couple of nice touches as well.  The “ordinary person” character, an eastern European immigrant who wants to try to find her husband who was in one of the Towers for a job interview, isn’t overshadowed by the chestier heroines.  Also there’s a scene where a Sikh taxi driver tries to offer his help and ends up being attacked (and rescued by Lady Death, of course). Yes, it’s pretty – to quote TV Tropes – “anvilicious”, but it is an important point to make, especially considering the real life attacks on Sikhs and Muslims following the attacks. All in all, the comic really isn’t that bad for what it is, and on the whole isn’t much worse (or really better) than the Marvel and DC tributes.

For me at least, to get at the whole reason this comic is so noteworthy and strange is you’d have to know a little about Chaos!’s history.  See, in 1999 Chaos! rebooted its own continuity through a story called “Armageddon”, although essentially most of the characters retained their own personal histories and memories.  The reboot coincided with Lady Death becoming more of a traditional (if still hard-edged) heroine, so we get a Lady Death who empathizes with the lives lost and even holds up an American flag while giving an inspirational monologue.

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Although the world has been rebooted, she is for all intents and purposes the same character who turned a child abuse victim into an undead serial killer, Evil Ernie, and sent him on a mission to wipe out the entire human race.  In one Evil Ernie story, back way before the “gentler and softer” Chaos! Comics, this is what happens to New York:

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That’s just before we learn that for half a year Evil Ernie has been single-handedly killing everyone in Manhattan who survived the satellite he sent crashing into the city.  Oh, and he’s the protagonist of his series.  Old school Chaos! did not screw around.  And, of course, Lady Death is all but directly responsible.  That’s why I was more than a little amused to see this comic, although I guess it would have been much worse if we’d seen Ernie and his zombie friends rescue 9/11 survivors.

Still, if you’re a scholar of Chaos! Comics like I am, it’s the weirdness of Doctor Doom and Magneto rescuing 9/11 survivors in Marvel’s own 9/11 tribute, but times at least 7,500.

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Comics

Vampirella vs. Lady Death

Like any good nerd, I do love to shell out the bucks for a good intercompany crossover.  It makes the fans happy by putting together characters who could only logically meet in fan fiction, and it makes the shareholders happy by getting your own competitor to actually promote your product (and vice versa).  Even better, usually (emphasis on usually) writers and editors have just enough sense to make such crossovers delightfully thematic.  Thus we have Batman Versus The Punisher, Green Lantern/Silver Surfer, Captain America Meets Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS…oh, oops, that’s my own fan fiction, at least until the glorious day a DC editor’s car breaks down outside my apartment.  Anyway, one of the more obscure but just as theme-appropriate intercompany crossovers was the not one, but two Vampirella vs. Lady Death series.

Scene may or may not represent what actually occurs in the comics.

Today I’m going to discuss the second crossover between the two characters, Vampirella vs. Lady Death.  Given my own neurotic obsession with doing things in order, normally I would have written up the first crossover, but…honestly, it was so dull I couldn’t think of anything to say about it.  Not to say that the second crossover is that much better, but…hey, it’s got Nazis!  With all that aside, I give you Vampirella vs. Lady Death or, as I like to call it, Boobs vs. Tits!

I’ve already talked about Lady Death  and my love for Chaos! Comics that breaks through the borders of ironic and comes back around again.  So let me introduce Vampirella.

Vampirella is one of those odd characters that you can’t really describe as “obscure”, but at the same time has a cult following that’s not all that visible.  In fact, today she’s probably less known as an icon of comics horror and more as the reason why Roger Daltry’s career hit a nadir so low that the world’s most brilliant mathematicians still struggle to calculate it.  But there’s much more to the character than just one infamously terrible straight-to-video movie.  If you can get past that Vampirella was originally more of a damsel in distress (despite being the title character) than the kick-ass “bad girl” heroine later writers turned her into, her original ’60s comic series published by Warren is for the most part an underappreciated gem, merging horror, sci-fi, and pure camp in a way that for some reason could only really be done in the 1960s.  There are good points after her character was revived in the ’90s by Harris, and in fact her gory, skimpy adventures were presented by big names in the comic industry like Kurt Busiek, Adam Hughes, Amanda Conner, Grant Morrison, and Mark Millar.  To be honest, I haven’t read much Vampirella aside from some of the original ’60s comics, but I do plan to actually review some of the ’90s comics in this space sooner or later.  Also it’s worth mentioning that even though Harris gave up on comics years ago Dynamite Comics got the rights and is currently publishing Vampirella comics.  I haven’t read Dynamite’s Vampirella either, but regardless I do encourage you to check them out for yourself.  The thought of a comics industry without a property as flagrantly campy as Vampirella depresses me to no end…

…but not as much as this crossover ended up depressing me.

Sure, it starts off promisingly.  There’s plenty of fetish fuel in that one image alone, and they’ve already got characters’ logos showing up in dialogue balloons, which is one of my favorite little things about comics.  Also I have to admit that the premise seems absolutely perfect and even kind of gutsy.  Dr. Midwinter, a mad scientist/neo-Nazi cult leader/immortal occultist, has entered an alliance with Lady Death based on the promise of the immortal life of Vampirella’s friend, Pantha.  With Lady Death’s help, he plans to start a (never described) cataclysm that would kill everyone not of “Aryan” descent, but only after Vampirella and her lover, Dixie, are lured to Dr. Midwinter’s stronghold and destroyed.  All well and good, but  four pages and the writer screws up even Lady Death’s continuity.  I’ll probably be the first and last person in the entire history of the Internet to complain about someone mishandling Chaos! Comics continuity, but by 2000 when this was published Lady Death had been softened up a bit in her own universe.  She was the “avatar of death” by this time, which the crossover does get right, but she also no longer wanted or needed to wipe out the human race in order to escape from Hell, like in her earlier stories.  Yet that’s pretty much her motive here.  Come on, comic, it’s important to get these points correct.

Actually, it is pretty important, since it calls attention to one of the crossover’s biggest plotholes.  Lady Death flat-out tells Midwinter she wants to wipe out humanity (although she also says just two pages later that she’s just under orders from Death itself, but whatever).   The story never spells out exactly how Midwinter expects to kill the “blood enemies of the master race”, except that his plan depends on Lady Death’s powers.  Now if Lady Death has access to that kind of power, and it’s exactly what she wants, what’s stopping her?  Why does she need Midwinter’s help or Pantha’s soul at all?  And how would she be able to pull it off anyway?  Before she needed the help of an undead mass murdering teenager;  in fact, that was the entire point of her character originally.  I know I’m nitpicking, and you can’t expect an intricate, airtight plot from something like this, except…we’re just a few pages in!   At least save the plot holes the size of Vampirella’s breasts until the halfway point.

Anyway, Vampirella and Dixie conquer the neo-Nazi horde with bloody gusto.  That’s to be expected, along with the occasional gorn shot…

What I wasn’t quite expecting was that these comics would have more one-liners than a Freddy Krueger impersonator convention.  Sure, it’s in character for Vampirella, but…the Nazi mad scientist?  Lady Death too?

VAMPIRELLA AND LADY DEATH:  “Save the innuendo, creep!  You’re a cliche away from going down on death!”

“An interesting choice of words, Vampirella, but I’ll decide who gets intimate with death tonight!”

MIDWINTER:  “I’m sorry, Sigrid.  Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s no substitute when you’re really thirsty!”  (Said after Midwinter without remorse shoots his niece to death when Dixie takes her hostage;  is “half-a-dimensional villain” a term?)

MIDWINTER:  “Trust me, I’m a doctor!  But perhaps you’d value a second opinion!”

VAMPIRELLA:  “You sound disappointed!  Who were you expecting?  Eva Braun?”

Far be it from me, a lowly Internet pop culture reviewer, to impart lessons on someone who has actually gotten something published professionally, but here’s a general pro-tip about writing adventure stories that I learned from the screenwriter of Batman Forever.  If you have a wise-cracking protagonist, generally you should set them up with other characters and/or against villains who can be the straight men.  Otherwise you just might end up with a story where everyone seems to be channeling Mr. Freeze from Batman & Robin.  The weirdest thing is that, while Lady Death actually starts acting more like Lady Death by the second issue, Dr. Midwinter is the worst offender.  It really makes you wonder if it was driven insane because he was very traumatized by the stereotype that Nazis don’t have a sense of humor.

Well, Lady Death defeats Vampirella with the Spear of Longinus – which Midwinter has, as all Nazis in these types of stories do – and with more than a little help from the fact that Vampirella thought it would be a good idea to drink the blood of someone who proudly announces she’s the “avatar of death” every ten minutes.

So the first issue ends with Vampirella dying – definitively, no fooling, dying.  How’s she going to get out of this one?!

Well…the story continues in the regular Vampirella series, which I didn’t read.  Luckily (?) for me, the second and final issue of the crossover has a three-page info dump summing up what happened.  Her soul was sent back to 1969, and ended up in her own past body, and she managed to get the Pantha of the past and Pendragon (another Vampirella supporting character) to help send her soul back to the present, and the spear magically heals her even though it was just used to kill her, and there’s something about a Satanic biker gang.  Eh, I’ve read over the exposition explosion five times and it still doesn’t make sense, so let’s just say “she passed out and got better.”

Vampirella isn’t the only one who’s gone through a traumatic experience between issues.  Lady Death has had something of a personality transfusion.  Not only is she no longer cracking innuendos and one-liners, but she’s not talking about killing the entire human race anymore and acting more like the hard-edged but basically quasi-benevolent Amazon she was over in her own stories at this time.  Instead she talks more about her “warrior code” – it’s the discerning writer’s tactic for getting a villainous character to act in a way that benefits the protagonist for no logical reason!   Oh, and of course she turns against Midwinter, because…I have no idea.  It’s implied that Lady Death takes her job as death’s avatar so seriously she feels personally offended by immortals walking around, which is an idea I kind of like, but she just completely drops the whole “killing billions of people in one night” thing she was so thrilled about just last issue.

Lady Death and Vampirella do get into another fight, which this time Vampirella wins.  But after that it’s basically your standard issue “heroes team up to fight a villain” story, which is…such a waste.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just not the target audience for this comic.  Forget the storytelling, the plot, characterization, the dialogue.  There’s one just as crucial aspect to this crossover that I just can’t appreciate…

Being a trash culture archaeologist serious about the many academic aspects of his work, I actually conducted a study with five heterosexual men as my subjects.  Carefully selected from a pool down the hall from my day job office, I queried them using techniques perfected by the nation’s foremost sociological and psychological authorities.

The results surprised me.  Despite the…ah, lack of realism in the characters’ erotic features, the participants in the study both overall gave an average rating to the erotic appeal of the comics, despite the gore, torture, and Holocaust elements.  At the same time, one of the respondents did give highly negative ratings overall.  Two interesting comments (all of which can be seen below) were “I don’t see the comics as lesbian positive!” (it’s easy to see why the comics didn’t win any GLAAD awards) and “The Internet has forever skewed my perception of erotic” (tell me about it).

So since the response to the special qualities of the comics wasn’t overwhelming, I guess maybe I’m not that out of touch after all.  This is especially true for the second issue, which traps to wrap up the story with not a homoerotic wrestling battle between Vampirella and Lady Death in a pool of Aryan blood, but actual pathos.  Midwinter manages to kill Dixie.  Vampirella pleads with Lady Death to bring her back to life, but Lady Death states that Dixie’s death was inevitable and instead invites Vampirella to take a bloody reprisal from Midwinter, who is then hurled off a tower and impaled by a gloating Lady Death who promises that in the afterlife he’ll learn the true meaning of torture and evil (she got as fed up with his one-liners as I did, I assume).  Thus our story – and the ’90s run of Vampirella – ends with Vampirella mourning Dixie and angrily renouncing her life of selfless heroism, while Lady Death fulfills her promise to Vampirella that she would conduct Dixie’s soul to the afterlife.

Thus the ’90s Vampirella ends not with a whimper, but a bad intercompany crossover.

Well, okay, this might say more about the kind of radioactive junk I expose myself to, but…honestly I wouldn’t describe this as terrible.  The art is decent with some nice touches, like Vampirella coming armed with grenades that have phrases like “Hi there!” etched on them.  And while the dialogue is a bland mush of cliches and there’s more plot hole than plot, it’s still not aggressively bad and completely a Script-o-Matic affair like so many low-tier superhero comics from the ’90s comics boom.

What makes it a bad read isn’t so much what Vampirella vs. Lady Death is but what it might have been.  Maybe the writer wasn’t really to blame and was under a mandate to portray Lady Death sympathetically, but letting the plot turn into the typical “protagonists fight then team up” affair really kills the story, brings it back to life, and drives a stake through the heart.  Now by most standards it probably wouldn’t have been a lot better, but at least it would have been more fun if it had been a real versus story.  Just have the Nazis working on some mystical means to destroy all non-Germanic people, but Lady Death betrays them and hijacks their experiment  in order to destroy the entire human race, forcing Vampirella to race against the clock or even team up with the Nazis instead to stop her.

It’s possible the scriptwriter felt obligated, officially or otherwise, to make Lady Death a more straightforward protagonist.  And admittedly, like I complained about before, it would have been more accurate to her portrayal over in Chaos! at the time.  Still, Lady Death began as someone who wanted to condemn the entire human race to an apocalypse at the hands of a zombie plague – not a plague of mindless zombies, but of zombies that get marching orders from a sadistic serial killer – just out of a desire for revenge for things done to her by people dead for centuries and so she could beat a curse preventing her from returning to Earth. With all that, it’s pretty safe to make her a bona fide villain.

Alas, it was not to be.  The whole thing has just put me off of intercompany crossovers.  If they can waste so many seemingly obvious ideas, and adhere so strictly to formula, then why not just stick to fan fiction?  What’s the point?

Dammit! Okay, I give up.  Take my money!

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Comics, Cultural Trends

Why Did Women Love Lady Death?

Ah, Chaos! Comics (the exclamation point is mandatory), you couldn’t go through the racks of a comic shop in the ’90s without running into them, even though their comics were the most blatant celebration of ultraviolence and big boobs imaginable. Of course, if you’ve been following this blog, you should know that I have a nostalgia for them that, like with many things, pushes the boundaries of ironic. Basically Chaos! is exactly what would happen if your high school Magic the Gathering partners who were death metal fans got their own comics company, and you can’t tell me there isn’t something downright magical about that.  And you don’t get more magical than a character like Lady Death.

The embodiment of writer Brian Pulido’s fetishes and less than orthodox ideas about female empowerment, Lady Death epitomized, if not largely kicked off, the “Bad Girl” craze of the ’90s. A generously endowed woman who slaughtered her enemies and even those who just mildly irritated her, Lady Death was almost designed to be the patron saint of “sex n’ violence.” Her origin story, which had her burned alive by medieval villagers who held her responsible for the crimes of her Satanist father and which saw her eventually lead a coup against Satan himself, didn’t end with her becoming a hero pledged to defend the helpless. Instead, cursed to remain in Hell as long as one person remains alive, she expedited the process herself by setting out to wipe out the human race. When we’re first introduced to her, she’s doing so by seducing a telepathic child abuse victim in his dreams, goading him into becoming a serial killer, and manipulating a high-tech attempt to mentally cure him in order to turn him undead and thus initiate a zombie apocalypse. Really, in her first appearances Lady Death made Doctor Doom look bush league.

At first only appearing as a deus ex apocalypse and a fetish fuel attendant in the Evil Ernie comics, Lady Death ultimately got her own stories and became Chaos!’s most popular flagship character. Her stories tended to be over-the-top dark fantasy, a weird combo of Heavy Metal and vintage Thor comics, especially once it was “revealed” that not only was her father a demonic sorcerer, but through her dead angelic mother she was related to Valkyries. For the most part, she spent time ending up in vaguely defined faux-medieval settings, fighting evil scantily clad women who made her the protagonist by default. Especially in the early days, Lady Death did have a harder edge than most of the “Bad Girl” characters out there, but beyond that there wasn’t all that much that made her stand out from other big-chested, bad-ass female warriors taken right out of somebody’s experimental Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Despite the (justified) complaints of characters like Lady Death being used just to tantalize an ever shrinking pool of male readers, Lady Death had a sizable female following. According to Mike Sterling of Progressive Ruin fame, “I would say a good half of our regular Lady Death customers during the character’s peak were women.” Back in the ’90s, Gail Simone noted, “At the store I shop at, I’m told Lady Death is very popular with female readers.  It’s a bit scary, but that’s probably a good sign.  Somehow.”

Gail Simone probably wasn’t the only one reticent about the fact.  So, why was Lady Death so popular among women?  Let’s ask an actual woman who reads comics, Lauren Martella:

“I read a fair amount [of Lady Death], I’m sure at least three trades worth- I think one could lump Witchblade and a bunch of Image babes in this category. But Lady Death is a cut above- I think it has to do with the fact that in our age group, many of us were living in a post-Watchman/Frank Miller world were sexuality was present in comics, but often it means a complicated or even subjugated history for women that usually meant they were sexual, but free of real agency. Hookers or rape and whatnot. And then there’s characterizations that basically bench ladies: being a love interest or the dreaded side effect of Claremont writing: crisis of self confidence i.e. whining for five pages about being a superhero instead of punching everything. The latter is perfectly fine in the right doses and in context for both genders, but there’s only so many kick ass ladies to go around.

Lady Death was all boobs killing things. And a goddess. And it was terribly written. It just didn’t give a fuck. It was melodramatic in a guilty pleasure type of way, but violent in a fashion that I don’t think we quite appreciate women really enjoying. Sometimes a lady wants to imagine she has Triple D Boobs, can pull off a string bikini and a broadsword and will kill everybody who stands in her way. In an odd way I think it relates to porn enjoyment: they say women prefer erotica and men prefer visual (porn films/images of whatever you like naked, you know the deal). I think it bears out – I’ve talked to dudes who outright dismiss erotica as having as much of an effect as straight up porn, but that dismisses another level beyond the visual that is stimulative to the experience. In relation to Lady Death: you can look at the book and think this is a crap comic with a chick in possession of huge bazongas killing stuff, but it misses levels of enjoyment that women are capable of extracting from them and the power of escapism even in forms so tacky.”

Lauren sums it up nicely, especially by pointing out that Lady Death’s character arcs don’t revolve around a guy. Changing times really have toughened up characters like Lois Lane and Sue Storm, but no matter how independent writers depict them as they still can’t quite shake the fact that they were created (and continue to be used) as foils and romantic interests for male characters. While Lady Death does have a romance with super-zombie Evil Ernie (who, I’m sure coincidentally, resembles Brian Pulido), she definitely does have her own adventures, her own cast, and her own corner of her fictional universe.

It’s also useful to compare Lady Death to another female pop culture icon from the ’90s, Xena the Warrior Princess. Although just the title “Lady Death” does have more cache than “Warrior Princess,” they’re both prime examples of female characters who are sexual but are also assertive and powerful in multiple ways. In other words, being sexual in a feminine way doesn’t contradict being able to kick ass. This is something that’s more rare, particularly in comics, than you might think; look at Wonder Woman and the various (arguably unsuccessful) attempts to make romance and sex more of a part of her character. It’s not a perfect parallel; let’s just say that compared to Xena Lady Death’s sexuality is, um, overstated. But still it is refreshing to have a violent and domineering female character whose sexuality isn’t muted or whose traditionally “feminine” qualities aren’t set up to balance out her cynicism or capacity for mayhem. At the very least, Lady Death helpfully reminds us that it’s not helpful or wise to tell entire groups what they should or shouldn’t be offended by.

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