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Comics You Should Own – Hellstorm #12-21 and Druid #1-4

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!

18 Comments

I read these when they were coming out, and at the time, they seemed great ,but ignored. I’ll grant that they’re not as good as much of his later stuff, but really some of the most effective horror comics of the era. I liked Hellstorm BECAUSE it was a largely unapologetic look at a bastard. The sympathetic protagonist is overrated. Just make him an interesting bastard, and you’ve done your job, and the ending of Druid is probably unlike anything in a comic until that time and still, sadly, sort of the definitive take on the character for me. I’ll agree that these runs are not as good as Planetary or Transmet or the true Ellis greatness, but they’re still far more moody and atmospheric, putting them, in my heart, above most of his mainstream superhero work, for all their faults (with the possible exception of Nextwave, but apples to oranges and all that).

And yes, for the next ten years I had sort of a Didn’t-I-read-that-in? moment during many future plots. But hey, that’s the advantage of having unbelievably low sales on your early stuff!

This seems more like “Comics You Should Check Out, If It’s Convenient”.

For more proto-Ellisness, you should check out his run on Doom 2099. There’s not much else about it to recommend, IIRC.

Roquefort Raider

October 28, 2008 at 2:36 pm

I read a few Hellstorm issues and I guess Ellis fans would indeed find something to like in them. IMHO, they suffer from the flaws I often see in the writer’s approach when he uses creations that aren’t his own : no interest in established characterization, lots of gratuitous violence and death, and a tendency to turn everyone into a cynical bastard (with a trenchcoat if at all possible). Gimme the cheesy and colorful Steve Gerber Son of Satan any day!

Because I’ve always had a soft spot for the Son of Satan character, stretching back to his 1973 debut, I of course bought the new Hellstorm: Prince of Lies series when it premiered. At first, Len Kaminski seemed to be setting up Daimon to be a John Constantine type, ponytail, trenchcoat and all- but really didn’t take it anywhere- I was about to drop the book, but when Ellis came along his stuff was a lot more to my liking, like the work that Moore and Gaiman were doing at DC, and I liked it enough to keep buying, and I’m glad I did. I consider Ellis’ Hellstorm and Druid two of the few worthwhile titles that Marvel published in the 1990′s.

Daimon may not have been especially sympathetic (perhaps Jagger could have worked some up, I don’t know), but he was charismatic, and that went a long way with me. Ellis’ ideas were so fresh, especially considering the rest of Marvel’s output back then, that it was amazing- and remember, we look at it now with a decade plus of hindsight. As I understand it, Ellis was just preparing a long, multi-part epic when news of the book’s cancellation reached him, so he just tied it all up in one issue, bang-bang-bang, and pulled it off surprisingly well, I thought!

Druid, too, was intended to be an ongoing but was soon truncated into a 4-issue mini, and it shows.

These were among my first non-super-hero comics, and they blew me away. I had never read anything as raw, edgy, and disturbing as Ellis’ early work, and Manco was the perfect horror artist. I bought every comic either of them contributed to for several years. Flaws and all, these comics remain favorites.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

October 28, 2008 at 11:45 pm

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.

Yup, it sure was good when he wrote that way.
He seemed to lose it for me right around the moment the ink dried on the DC exclusive contract – not because he ‘sold out’ or any such thing, it’s just that around then his work lost something.
Apparat and Fell are the only recent works that have felt as exciting for me (possibly because in both times he was trying something new), and perhaps Desolation Jones (although ironically I like that so much because of how polished and in control of the medium he was with that one).
I have a similar thing with Neil Gaiman – I really like his work, but I don’t enjoy it as much as I did before he was NEIL GAIMAN.
Although he has a much stronger voice, and his stories are probably better crafted now, his first short story collection ‘Smoke And Mirrors’ is much better, in my opinion, than his most recent one, ‘Fragile Things’.
Smoke And Mirrors was Gaiman trying different genres, taking more risks etc.
The stories were more raw, and were better for it.

Perhaps it’s like rock stars where the latter albums may be technically better, but you struggle to compete with the rawness and energy of their early music.

Either way, Ellis has slipped from a must buy whatever the cost writer, to one whose projects I’ll get if the concept interests me.

Actually, I think it WAS his first Marvel work. Ellis is one of the writers who kept me reading thoughout the 1990′s. His work was bold and fresh. Here’s a factoid: Marvel was going to put out an adult line MUCH earlier, but the new owners who bought Marvel cancelled all adult lines. This deprived the world of Satana, a sequel of sorts to Hellstorm. I read a few sample pages Ellis had on his old website years ago. It was great, and kept the mood of Hellstorm.

As much as I loved the Ellis work on Hellstorm, I think his predecessors – Raphael Neives and Len Kaminski – ALSO did incredible work on the title, particularly Kaminski. I loved the whole series so much that I got it (plus Druid) hard bound into a huge hardcover omnibus. For a book with three writers in 21 issues, the series flows pretty seamlessly.

Should be noted…in fact underlined…that your entire review of Druid is based on a misconception on your part.

It wasn’t a mini-series.

It was a regular series that was canceled before issue #1 came out, as part of the same sweep that took out Chaykin’s Fury of SHIELD and, IIRC, Skrull Kill Krew.

It wasn’t going to end with Hellstrom zapping Druid…that was thrown in to tidy the lose ends.

I get that, Scavenger, but it doesn’t change the fact that Ellis wrote it the way it was published. I can’t guess what he wanted to do with the character, and I think it’s fascinating that the series wraps up the way it does, given that Dr. Druid was somewhat pathetic to begin with. It’s a misconception, sure, but the fact remains that the ending of Druid is a good take on the character.

Stupid Marvel and its cancellation policies!

FunkyGreenJerusalem

October 29, 2008 at 4:31 pm

This deprived the world of Satana, a sequel of sorts to Hellstorm. I read a few sample pages Ellis had on his old website years ago. It was great, and kept the mood of Hellstorm.

Well, Ellis had written or plotted the first issue, I believe, and mapped out the rest, and he then took that to Avatar and turned it into Strange Kiss.
It was interesting at the time, as Marvel were going to use his plot and have, I believe, John Ostrander write the Satanna series.
However, Ellis issued a press release telling the story – so that he wasn’t accused of plagiarism – and Marvel decided not to go ahead.
It’s a shame, I remember Ellis saying he was actually quite interested in seeing where his ideas went compared to Ostrander’s.
Would of been interesting seeing two very different, but very good writers, starting from the same point (I think the first issues were going to be very similar) and going on from there.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

November 2, 2008 at 7:23 pm

Got Ellis’ Aetheral Mechanics over the weekend, and it was pretty good, if a little familiar feeling.
Some recycled ideas in there, but it can be overlooked for the joy of a steampunk Sherlock Holmes.

I was also thinking about it the other day, and I’m really annoyed DC scrapped the issue that led to him leaving Hellblazer – he was setting it up to be a run that rivaled Ennis’ on the book.
Does anyone know where the scrapped issue is available online?
I remember that it was at the time it got canceled, but I never got around to reading it.

Personally I think you don’t give Hellstorm enough credit. I can’t think of a horror story from before Hellstorm that had somebody usurp, Satan. Afterwards there were plenty with Ghost Rider and then Spawn. Hellstorm was the first far as I know. Plus the Armorer storyline will always stick out in my head as utterly original. Prince of Lies is definetely one of the best ongoing comics ever, IMO.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

November 26, 2008 at 6:37 pm

I can’t think of a horror story from before Hellstorm that had somebody usurp, Satan.

I’m pretty sure it had already happened in the DCU… can’t remember where, possibly in Swamp Thing, but at the start of The Sandman, satan has been replaced and has to share the duties of running hell with two other demons.

just bought these on ebay. thanks for the heads up. the screen shots clinched it for me.

greg, thanks for all these great analyses. they’re a great boon to me trying to catch up with all the comics i missed out on when i gave up on comics from the late 80s until about two years ago. my ebay addiction is very healthy thanks to your good self!

the last comics i ever bought were,i think, cerebus during mothers & daughters and love and rockets at around issue 36. had to give them all up to save money for university. i couldn’t justify spending £1.75 on twenty pages of talking heads in cerebus. – even though it was enthralling.

[i come back and an ordinary marvel/dc comic is £3.50!]

based upon your recommendations, i now own complete runs of: the heckler, the extremist, hellstorm, atlantis chronicles, alias, dr. fate, arrowsmith, doom patrol, enigma, flex mentallo, four women, planetary, morrisson’s animal man, and have started collecting the hulk visionaries tpbs.

my favourite so far would be the heckler. a really serious funny comic. and jessica jones rivals maggie as the best female character i’ve read in comics.

here’s some suggestions from me for series that deserve the greg burgas treatment:

moonshadow [would love to know your thoughts on this, my favourite comic series], ‘mazing man, journey, all of p craig russell’s opera adaptations & the night music series, simonson’s thor, cerebus, timespirits, stray bullets, strange embrace, madman, yotsuba!, lone wolf & cub, blade of the immortal, plannettes, eden….aaarghh!! there’s too much and my ceiling’s going to fall in with the weight of it all!!

ps. any chance of getting some of the archive links to work again?

Hanif: I will be updating the dead links pretty soon. They were originally posted on another site, and their archives disappeared, so I only have the posts as Word documents. Over the next few months I’ll get them posted here, and then they’ll never go away! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!

I’m certainly glad you like what I’ve recommended. It’s hard to find stuff that’s worth it, especially if you’ve been out of comics for a while, so I’m glad I can help.

Those are some good choices – the ones I’ve read, of course! It will be a while for some of them, because I do these in alphabetical order, and I’m going through my back issues before starting on the ones I have exclusively in trade. Luckily, that means I’ll never run out of posts! But those are some good choices …

Hi,
Yes I allways remember those comics, great Ellis’, and Manco was the perfect horror artist, I was looking for Manco original art for years and at last I got two GREAT original splash pages from Hellstorm you can see them at: http://www.comicartfans.com/my/GalleryRoom.asp?GSub=47527, I put them for sale but I’ll sell only the first one I’ll receive an offer and the other will go to my private collection.
It’s incredible to see the pages, there is some crazy madnees on them…

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