Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
As with Garth Ennis’s Hellblazer, these are comics that are not truly great, but they are really fascinating. Call them the ur-Ellis comics, as you’ll see. And, of course, SPOILERS are all over these posts!
Hellstorm: Prince of Lies/Druid by Warren Ellis (writer), Leonardo Manco (artist, issues #12-13, 15-16, 18-21, issues #1-4), Peter Gross (artist, issue #14), Derek Yanigher (artist, issue #17), Martin Chaplin (artist/letterer of “Fur Bible” in issues #20-21), Richard Starkings (letterer, issue #12, 14), Jonathan Babcock (letterer, issue #13, 15-21, issues #1-4), D’Israeli (colorist, issue #12, issues #1-4), Ariane (colorist, issue #13-16, 18-19, 21), Steve Buccellato (colorist, issue #17), Kevin Tinsley (colorist, issue #20), and Ashley Underwood (colorist, “Fur Bible”).
Marvel, 14 issues (#12-21 of Hellstorm, #1-4 of Druid), cover dated March-December 1994 (Hellstorm) and May-August 1995 (Druid).
Hellstorm: Prince of Lies is not Warren Ellis’s first comics work, nor is it his first Marvel work, but it is his first mainstream ongoing, and as such, is an interesting look at a young Ellis who had not yet become supremely confident in his writing abilities (although the cockiness is there) and was still experimenting with certain ideas. These are flawed comics, but they’re not only fascinating to read because of Ellis’s involvement, they’re an interesting indicator of what Marvel was willing to publish in 1994, when Vertigo had proven there was market for these kinds of comics and Marvel wanted to see if they could crack it like Alan Moore and Swamp Thing had done a decade before. The failure of this comic, as well as many of the other creepy Marvel books at this time (plus Marvel’s bankruptcy), seemed to push Marvel away from attempting more “mature” fare and back to their traditional superheroes. It would be some time before they tried again, with a bit more success. So this comic, for all its faults, came along at a very fluctuating and fascinating time in Marvel history, and that helps make it a Comic You Should Own.
The first thing we notice about this comic is that Ellis brings up ideas that he uses in later books. Frankly, I’m amazed that I’ve never seen this mentioned when people discuss Ellis’s work. I assume some people have read these comics and so they’re aware of it. Issue #12 ends with Satana in “the Body Orchard,” the name of which (but not the function) Ellis uses later in a Strange Killings mini-series. In issue #14, we’re introduced to Jakita Wegener. She’s nothing like Jakita Wagner, but Ellis liked the name so much he used it again later. In issue #17, Daimon Hellstorm shows up at a bar near a nuclear test site in Nevada. There people can have a last drink before getting themselves strapped to a nuclear bomb, which destroys their soul. Sound familiar? Dr. Stephen Loss is one of Ellis’s “century people” who was born (well, created) in 1899 (implying he was born in 1900) and is scheduled to die at the end of 1999. And the “Tunguska event” features prominently in Druid, as it does later in Ultimate Nightmare (in very different ways, of course, but it’s still a major plot point).
That’s not to say re-using ideas or concepts invalidates the later works. All of those later comics are superior to Hellstorm, after all (except possibly Ultimate Nightmare). I just find it interesting that I’ve never read anyone bringing these things up before, and I think it’s worthwhile to point it out. It’s another reason why this is such a compelling work, because Ellis is obviously working stuff out here. The poor sales of the book helped, I’m sure, because he simply threw anything he could think of into the mix and didn’t worry about it. When you have comics that nobody reads, there’s far less pressure on the writer and artist and it gives them room to innovate. It’s amazing reading these comics for the first time today, 14 years later, when Ellis’s tics have become calcified. They’re all here in embryonic form, but despite the horror of this comic, you get the feeling that Ellis is having a lot more fun with this book than he does in a lot of his more recent work. I’m not saying he doesn’t enjoy writing Astonishing X-Men or anything else he churns out for Marvel, but in the past few years, it seems like he’s become “Warren Ellis,” and everyone knows what they’re going to get from “Warren Ellis,” and he doesn’t disappoint. Even though I read this with the full knowledge of what he would write in the next decade, this feels fresher, as if Ellis just couldn’t wait to write the next sentence of his twisted epic.
This comic, like Moore’s Swamp Thing, Gaiman’s Sandman (well, the early issues), and Morrison’s Doom Patrol, takes full advantage of the fact that it takes place in a shared universe with superheroes. There’s a lot to be said for the Vertigo model, which allows creators the freedom to do whatever the hell they want without worrying about whether Superman is going to show up to save the day. It’s certainly given us some great comics. But it’s still fascinating to read a comic book by a very good writer who is writing something beyond the norm but which still takes place in a shared superhero universe. Hellstorm and Druid fit into that model. This is a horror comic, and is therefore an uneasy fit in the gaudy, sunny superhero world of the regular Marvel U. But like those examples above, Ellis makes it work. The saddest plot in this book is the tragic fate of Patsy Walker, who is Daimon Hellstorm’s wife. Patsy went to Hell with Daimon and watched him battle his father, Satan (who is revealed later to not actually be Satan), which drove her insane. Patsy yearns for death, and she gains it from a mysterious stranger who dresses like a superhero but who has no face. This stranger, called Deathurge, kills Patsy in issue #14, but that’s not the end of her saga. She starts contacting Stephen Loss from beyond the grave, but it’s not pleasant for Daimon to hear. When she was in Hell, she realized that the good man Daimon once was is no more, but she had saved his life anyway. She tells Daimon that she could come back from death, but she doesn’t want to with a “creature” like her husband in the world. Patsy, of course, is Hellcat, the superheroine. This is a character created in a romance comic in 1944, for crying out loud, and who later was integrated into the Marvel Universe in a Fantastic Four Annual. Yet Ellis drives her insane, kills her, and sends her to Hell. This version of Patsy is a far cry from the the 1970s version who was a member of the Defenders or the one who is currently being written by Kathryn Immonen, but technically, it’s the same character. What makes Ellis’s use of her so interesting is that later writers (Steve Englehart, to be exact) incorporated this creepy story into her history. The tragedy of Patsy’s tale is heightened because she’s right about Daimon – in issue #13, he meets Jaine Cutter in San Francicso, and he quickly has sex with her in the basement of his mansion, with his insane wife in the bedroom upstairs. Patsy dies soon afterward, but the way Ellis writes Daimon and Jaine, it’s obvious that even if Patsy had been hale and hearty Daimon would have cheated on her (in issue #17, which takes place before Patsy goes insane, it’s pretty obvious Daimon was sleeping around with other women). The evil of Daimon is central to the comic, and it’s highlighted best with Daimon’s treatment of his wife.
Similarly, Ellis makes great use of Dr. Druid. Anthony Ludgate is a Lee/Kirby creation from before Fantastic Four #1. He was a minor figure in the Marvel Universe, usually a good guy but often mind-controlled by villains. Ellis makes the most of his somewhat pathetic history, both by going against it and making him dangerous for perhaps the first time in his fictional history and then by showing that even with a makeover, he’s still pathetic. Plot-wise, Druid is rather slight, but Ellis makes Ludgate a fascinating character who simply can’t escape what he was. He’s completely set up and controlled, just like he was in earlier scenarios. Ellis doesn’t completely divorce him from his past, and it’s just another reason why setting this in the actual Marvel Universe gives it a slight edge. We can read this with no knowledge of the characters’ previous histories, but the fact that Ellis builds on what came before is a nice touch. It also lets Ellis make minor observations about superheroes, like when Jaine asks Daimon if all the murder will attract their attention. Daimon says, “Don’t be stupid. It’s got to be about four A. M. Do you really think Captain America stays up past midnight?” He probably drinks warm milk and is in bed by ten!
If we return to the common Ellis themes and ideas, the most prevalent in his comics writing is the use of a fairly typical protagonist. Pre-Hellstorm, he began this process with Lazarus Churchyard (a comic worth your time to read), but Lazarus is bit nicer throughout and a bit more pathetic than the average Ellis protagonist. With Hellstorm, he began molding the “Ellis protagonist” a bit more. Daimon is a bastard not only because he cheats on the wife he caused to go insane. He doesn’t stop much evil unless it adversely affects him. He treats the people in his life poorly, from his demon servant Isaac, who cares for Patsy and tolerates Daimon, to Anton Devine, the most famous Satanist in America. It’s not like Ellis makes the other major characters in the comic pathetic – Devine is a bit of comic relief, but he’s not a sad-sack character, while Isaac might be the most sympathetic character in the book (Patsy doesn’t count, as she haunts the book more than stars in it). Daimon does help save the world in Druid, but again, it’s largely self-serving. The failure of Hellstorm can be traced to the lack of the fully-realized “Ellis protagonist” – Daimon fails as a main character because he’s too villainous. There’s nothing all that redeeming about him until his final appearance, in Druid #4, when he explains that he set Druid up because he knew Ludgate would try to destroy the Dry Academy. The Dry Academy protects the world from seeing what it really looks like, and Druid wants to tear that veil away. This would not benefit Daimon, so he destroys Ludgate. This lack of redeeming characteristics makes Daimon a failed attempt by Ellis of creating a protagonist who appears to be a bastard but is really a sentimental good guy. Readers, if they were even aware of Hellstorm: Prince of Lies (sales suggest otherwise), could find little to like in the main character. In the short term, Daimon’s amorality makes for compelling reading. But as Ellis gets further into the story, we want to connect with a main character. Daimon and Jaine just aren’t sympathetic enough. Ellis would soon get it right, to the point that now he should move past the “Ellis protagonist” and try something different, but this embryonic version is fascinating.
Ellis moved closer to his kind of protagonist with Anthony Ludgate, who is far more pathetic than Hellstorm but also more sympathetic. Ludgate bargains for new powers after Daimon appears in issue #1 and beats the snot out of him, and becomes supremely powerful. When he learns of the Dry Academy, which exists in Tunguska and sustains the spell that hides the true nature of the world, he becomes angry at the blasphemy, believing the world is as the Celtic gods made it. Ellis does something very interesting in this mini-series that shows how he is maturing as a writer – he seems to give Druid a total makeover, and the reader roots for Ludgate as he navigates through the series. We’re not sure what will happen when he defeats the Dry Academy, but Druid makes the reader feel that it is blasphemous, and the lies should be stripped away. Then, when Ludgate thinks he’s won, Daimon shows up to tell him that it was a trap. In a few pages, Druid goes from all-powerful to a sad, dying man, and Ellis writes this scene brilliantly, as we feel Ludgate’s horror at what he’s done and his disappointment at recognizing his utter failure. When Daimon puts him out of his misery, we don’t necessarily pity him, but we understand his Icarus-like fall for what it is: A man trying for the best but failing because it’s not in his nature to be the best. What is interesting about Ludgate is that his arc is also another “Ellis-ism”: The man who wants to find out the truth of the world, and what the consequences of that are. Ellis likes to write characters who strip away the lies that society is built on and give power back to the common people, and what’s fascinating about Druid is that, unlike much of Ellis’s work, this isn’t a good thing. In one way or another, Ellis often writes comics in which the hidden world is far more marvelous than the world we see, and people just need to open their eyes to it; he also likes to write comics in which the “Ellis protagonist” rips away the veil and exposes the corruption underneath, healing a fractured society. Anthony Ludgate finds the hidden world, but it’s neither marvelous nor does exposing its corruption heal anything. Reading this fresh would have been disturbing enough, but given what we know about future Ellis comics, it makes Druid all the more interesting.
The plots of Hellstorm circle around Daimon’s attempts to bring Satanic activities under his aegis after, it’s revealed in issue #16, he has killed his father and taken over Hell and are somewhat standard for horror comics, redeemed by Ellis’s writing style. The plot of Druid, as we see above, is a bit more cerebral, but still adheres to a standard horror story arc. Ellis and Manco make these books greater than they ought to be, as Ellis is immature but still able to build a sense of dread, and Manco makes all the creepiness, from the top-hatted Bailiff to the reborn Druid, more grounded than a lot of artists can. This is highlighted when the guest artists show up, as Yanigher, Gross, and Chaplin have different styles but similar weaknesses – their styles are too clean to really convey the gritty horror of Hellstorm’s world (Gross comes close, but not as well as Manco does). The plots, ultimately, are incidental, as Ellis is far more concerned with digging into the psyche of Daimon Hellstorm and Anthony Ludgate to examine their power and how they use it. The men are two sides of a coin, in that they both have supernatural powers, but one is born to use it and the other is unable to come to terms with having so much. This is why these two books are linked – Druid is not a narrative sequel to Hellstorm, but it is a thematic one. In the first series, we see a man gaining great power and using it (selfishly, but luckily that coincides with the good of the planet). In the second series, we see a man gaining great power and squandering it because he uses it selfishly. It’s an interesting contrast that Ellis sets up.
The truncated nature of Hellstorm is frustrating, as the book got cancelled before Ellis could do too much with it, but it may have gone off the rails unless he made his main character more sympathetic. Despite the flaws of these two series, they’re worth a look. It’s fascinating to read these comics with the full knowledge of what Ellis became later in his career, especially as we can track his progress here. These 14 issues aren’t completely great comics, but they are much more interesting than a lot of what was coming out of Marvel in the mid-1990s. They might be Comics You Should Own more for their potential, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t entertaining on their own. Reading them for the first time today, however, gives them a depth and breadth that was probably lacking when they first came out. They show a master of the form working on a lot of different ideas, and it’s fun to consider how far Ellis has come as well as how much he’s stayed the same.
I’m not terribly surprised that none of these comics have ever been collected in a trade paperback, but they shouldn’t be too hard to find. It’s not like there’s a huge demand for them. Or maybe there is. Either way, it’s fun digging through the back issue boxes or scouring the on-line sites for them! And I’m sure you want to check out the archive of Comics You Should Own. I need to update some of the links, but most of them work!
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