Friday, 31 October 2014

Essential Marvel Horror volume 2

Essential Marvel Horror volume 2 is another example of the anthology Essential, this time collecting tales of a diverse set of characters and presenting them by character instead of chronology. We get the adventures of the Living Mummy, Brother Voodoo, Gabriel the Devil-Hunter, Golem, Mordred the Mystic and the Scarecrow. These come from Supernatural Thrillers #5 & #7-15, Strange Tales #169-174 & #176-177, Tales of the Zombie #2, #6 & #10, Marvel Team-Up #24, Haunt of Horror #2-5, Monsters Unleashed #11, Marvel Two-in-One #11, #18 & #33, Marvel Chillers #1-2, Dead of Night #11 and Marvel Spotlight #26. That's a lot of issues with a lot of characters and lots of creators so given the anthology nature of this volume I'll list the creators for each character individually. And there are labels posts for characters and creators 1 and 2.

The volume kicks off with the Living Mummy from Supernatural Thrillers #5 & 7-15. The writing is initially by Steve Gerber and then Tony Isabella before being finished off by John Warner, with plot contributions by Len Wein and Val Mayerik. Mayerik is the main artist on the feature with individual issues drawn by Rich Buckler and Tom Sutton. Supernatural Thrillers had initially adapted various famous horror stories but also ran a one-off original piece featuring an immortal mummy and overall only lasted six issues. It was then revived nearly a year later starring the Mummy with the cover of issue #7 proclaiming that he was back by popular demand. However it's very clear that there was no initial plan for the character who is originally introduced mainly in Egypt (although the opening scene is in the Gaza Strip, then under Israeli occupation) but then transported to New York when the feature becomes ongoing, only to almost immediately be returned to Egypt for the rest of the run. One side effect is that any plan to have guest appearances by the wider Marvel universe is set aside, bar a single appearance by the Living Pharaoh.

However there's a strong sense of history to the lead, established upfront as we learn he was N'Kantu, the chieftain of an African tribe known as the Swarili in ancient times. They were conquered and enslaved by the Egyptians under forgotten Pharaoh Aram-Set, but N'Kantu led a rebellion that freed the slaves and killed N'Kantu. However he was captured by the priest Nephrus who used a potion to paralyse him and then performed a transfusion that replaced his blood with a fluid that made him immortal. N'Kantu then spent three thousand years entombed until the paralysing potion wore off. This origin is quite dark for the time but gives a strong sense of history and tragedy as N'Kantu slowly comes to terms with being exiled from his home by the millenniums and completely unable to return home. In the present day he is drawn to Egyptologist Alexi Skarab, a descendent of Nephrus, who shares a psychic bond with the mummy enabling the two to communicate. Skarab, his two assistants, Janice Carr and Ron McAllister, and thieves Dan "the Asp" Harper and Miles Olddan form a small supporting cast for an epic involving a search for and struggle over a Ruby Scarab of immense power sought by the Elementals - four beings Magnum, Zephyr, Hellfire and Hydron with powers based on earth, air, fire and water respectively. Zephyr initially takes control of the Mummy to find the Scarab but when N'Kantu breaks free the other Elementals turn on her, leading to a prolonged struggle in which modern day Egypt is conquered. It's easy to see the roots of this story - the lead character seems to have been inspired by the contemporary fad for zombies since the end result is once again a living corpse wandering the Earth, unable to communicate substantially with other people and for a period being controlled by the magic of a woman. However the main elements are drawn from Egyptian history and mythology, with some brief acknowledgement of the modern day political turmoil in the Middle East, and the result is a good little epic that doesn't feel too forced or take the lead out of his natural environment. N'Kantu may be one of many horror characters who is unable to converse with those around him but he is able to think, understand and recall and the result is a noble being both in flashbacks and the present day.

Next we have the tales of Brother Voodoo (who gets the cover) from Strange Tales #169-173, Tales of the Zombie #6 & #10 plus an introductory text feature from issue #2, and Marvel Team-Up #24. The Strange Tales and Marvel Team-Up issues are all written by Len Wein who also plots the first Tales of the Zombie story which is scripted by Doug Moench who writes the second. The art on Strange Tales and the first Tales of the Zombie is by Gene Colan, the second by Tony DeZuniga and the Marvel Team-Up by Jim Mooney. The introduction feature is written by Tony Isabella and drawn by John Romita. It's clear Marvel had big hopes for this series, launching it in a monthly series and even reviving the "Strange Tales" name. (Though it's slightly odd to see "Fantastic First Issue!" on issue #169.) But the insurance policy of being able to keep the title and replace the strip proved wise as by issue #171 it was bimonthly and then Brother Voodoo was dropped after only five issues. It's possible the strip ended prematurely for non-sales reasons. Issue #173 ends on a cliffhanger with a caption stating that the story will be concluded in Tales of the Zombie and its place here will be taken by the Man-Wolf. As we'll see the slot was in fact filled by the Golem, which was so rushed issue #175 had to be a general reprint issue and the Man-Wolf instead appeared in Creatures on the Loose. The fact the Brother Voodoo story was concluded in a magazine suggests that there were problems with the Comics Code Authority over the portrayal of some of the voodoo elements in the series.

When I first encountered Brother Voodoo in the pages of Marvel Team-Up I did a double take as the character seemed rather stereotyped. His solo adventures show a more rounded character with a determination to avoid stock tropes so we get Jericho Drumm, a psychiatrist, who returns to Haiti and has to take on the role of his dead brother Daniel - with Daniel's spirit co-inhabiting him. Brother Voodoo shows some efforts to get away from being a black Doctor Strange - he may have a manservant, Bambu, and a mansion but he's a much more physical character. He faces a string of foes, all voodoo inspired but with some superhero twists, including a man claiming to be Damballah the Serpent God who has killed Daniel, and another impersonating Baron Samedi but actually an agent working with AIM. Baron Samedi is an understandably popular villain in voodoo fiction but to find him with a secret layer beneath a cemetery on a Caribbean island just a few months after the release of Live and Let Die does show a degree of unoriginality. A fight with the Cult of Dark Lord introduces potential romantic interest Loralee Tate, a nurse, and her father, local police chief Samuel Tate, but once again the foe is illusionary with the "Black Talon" another man in a suit, here being manipulated by his mother, Mama Limbo. The final solo story is more overtly magical, with Dramabu the Death-Lord raising the dead as "zuvembies" on Haiti, including Brother Voodoo's mentor, Papa Jambo. The team-up with Spider-Man brings a different twist on foe types as they tackle Moondog the Malicious, a spirit currently possessing the body of an accountant.

Overall this strip is a bit hit and miss. It would be churlish to pick on Brother Voodoo for being a product of riding on the latest cultural fad even though this one is now more forgotten than most. And there's a clear attempt to establish a status quo for ongoing adventures in and around New Orleans but it never quite gets there. The problem is there are a lot of overt voodoo concepts in these tales, whether set in Haiti or New Orleans or even a pursuit to New York, and at times it can be a little hard to following if terms like "loa" and "houngan" aren't fully explained - the Marvel Team-Up does a good job at this but the solo stories less so. Otherwise the stories feel rather run of the mill and not as spectacular as they were built up to be.

Third up in this volume is Gabriel the Devil-Hunter from Haunt of Horror #2-5 and Monsters Unleashed #11. Everything is written by Dough Moench with the art handled by Billy Graham, Pablo Marcos and Sonny Trinidad. This is another character whose creation rode the wave of a fad - in this case The Exorcist movie. Information about Gabriel is only slowly revealed and it's not even clear if that is his first or last name. The final story - presumably rescued when the original series was cancelled - fleshes out the background of how a scholar found his wife Andrea dead, seemingly at her own hand, and turned to the priesthood only to be subject to a possession but he drove the demon out with force of will, burning a crucifix mark onto his own chest. Now working as an exorcist from the thirteenth floor of the Empire State Building and accompanied by his mysterious assistant Desaida, Gabriel faces a succession of possessions and drives out the demons, with repeated signs this is part of a greater struggle as the demons know Gabriel. The Devil-Hunter is no pure priest, having turned his back on the Roman Catholic Church and at times turns to drink. Desaida is another source of mystery until it's revealed she is possessed by the spirit of Andrea. At the end Andrea's death certificate spontaneously combusts and Gabriel accepts Desaida as his wife. All in all this is a rather slight series, with the mysterious elements cleared up rapidly when Marvel's black and white horror magazines started ending in close succession though it's good to see a creator getting a chance to control the revelations in time. The settings are mixed with exorcisms in homes, churches, cemeteries and even at Stonehenge (although Sonny Trinidad clearly had no idea what it looks like). But the whole genre just isn't one that appeals much and this strip doesn't reach too well beyond it.

The fourth lead character is the Golem from Strange Tales #174 & #176-177 and Marvel Two-in-One #11. The first Strange Tales issue is written by Len Wein and drawn by John Buscema, and the other two are by Mike Friedrich and Tony DeZuniga with the Marvel Two-in-One by Bill Mantlo and Bob Brown. The Golem is a creature taken from Jewish folklore with this particular representative being the one created by Judah Loew Ben Bezalel in 16th century Prague. The stone monster saved many people from oppression and tyranny before going immobile in the desert. In the present day he is rediscovered by archaeologist Abraham Adamson, his nephew Jason, niece Rebecca and Rebecca's fiancé Wayne Logan. When a group of bandits steal from the campaign, killing Abraham in the process, the Goldman comes to life, seemingly animated by Abraham's spirit. The rest of the strip sees the Golem accompanying the three survivors back to New York, saving them from danger and facing off a series of demons sent by Kaballa the Unclean who desires the Golem's power. The strip soon came to an end with the story becoming one of many to be wrapped up in a team-up with the Thing. All in all there's not much to this strip or character at all. There's an attempt to flesh out the mythology of the stone creatures and show how they can be killed, but the main character has neither the ability to converse with others nor the stature and charisma of other silent monsters and so isn't that interesting. Nor are the supporting cast. This leaves the piece as a curiosity that fortunately doesn't outstay it's welcome.

The penultimate strip in the volume is Mordred the Mystic from Marvel Chillers #1-2 and Marvel Two-in-One #33. The two Marvel Chillers issues are written by Bill Mantlo and the sole Marvel Two-in-One by Marv Wolfman with art by Yong Montano & Ed Hannigan, Sonny Trinidad & John Byrne and Ron Wilson respectively. This is a very slight series, telling how a sorcerer’s apprentice at the time of Camelot had rejected being assigned to the unseen Merlin, who had reportedly turned bad, and instead sought dark magic to overthrow the wizard. However it threw him into suspended animation until found in the twentieth century. The rest of the series is a mixture of fights with various magic and demonic beings including the strange "the Other" and four representatives of the elements, and a culture clash battle with a stereotyped cliché pretending to be the Metropolitan police in some Hollywood executive's idea of London. There's clear potential for this character, and also a sub-plot laid of a romantic triangle involving him and the two archaeologists who found him, but the strip is over before it's really begun and the practical implementation is nothing to write home about. Yong Monano's art is particularly fine though, with the lengthy flashback to the days of Camelot having a real olde worlde feel. The story is nominally wrapped up in Marvel Two-in-One in what is also the conclusion of the first Spider-Woman epic, but all we get is a battle with the elemental demons sent by the wicked Merlin rather than an actual showdown.

The final character highlighted is the Scarecrow from Dead of Night #11, Marvel Spotlight #26 and Marvel Two-in-One #18. The first two are written by Scott Edelman and the third by Bill Mantlo with Edelman co-plotting. The art on the three issues is by Rico Rival, Ruben Yandoc and Ron Wilson respectively. The letters page for Dead of Night #11 is reproduced and it's an essay by Scott Edelman outlining early ideas for the character and the various titles he was considered for. This is frankly a highly confusing series with key mysteries never resolved. The Scarecrow seems to inhabit a painting and comes to life when attempts are made to steal said painting by agents of the demon Kalumai. The painting is obtained by collector Jess Duncan, with multiple hints of a connection between the Scarecrow and Duncan's brother Dave Monroe. Beyond that we have multiple fights, an attempt to sacrifice Duncan's romantic interest art critic Harmony Maxwell, and no actual origin. The Marvel Two-in-One issue reveals that the painting is an portal to a dimension where Kalumai is trapped with the Scarecrow as gatekeeper but the other questions are left unresolved and the painting seemingly destroyed. All in all this is easily the worst of the six different characters' appearances collected here but fortunately it doesn't outstay its welcome.

Of the different characters it's the Living Mummy which works the best, having a clearly defined character and soon finding a strong direction. The Brother Voodoo tales are so-so but the rest of the volume is really a demonstration as to why these characters never took off and I wonder how Marvel Two-in-One readers felt about that series being so often used to wrap-up such obscure properties. However the general concept of this book is a good idea. There have been many short-lived characters and series that are too short to collect in a standard continuous run edition and here is a way to rescue them. The idea could be carried forward to other features - there have probably been enough short-lived series and limited series featuring various Avengers that would allow for multiple volumes bringing them altogether. However it's unfortunate that the title "Essential Marvel Horror" had previously been used for what was really "Essential Children of Satan" as there's no real direct connection between the two volumes and separate titles would have been better, though this one is far more deserving of the general "Marvel Horror" label.

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