Into the back issue box #51
Today: Classic creators! But will it result in a classic comic? You be the judge!
(Or, Today: A comic that Greg Hatcher probably loves. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
It’s a new year, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop linking to the ground rules for these posts! They’re still relevant in a new decade!
Today’s selection is Night Force (volume 2) #12 (“Mark of the Beast Chapter 2: … Greater Than the Sum!”). It’s written (and edited) by Marvelous Marv Wolfman, penciled by Jumpin’ Gene Colan, inked by Boring Bob Smith, lettered by Terrific Todd Klein, and colored by Michele “Nepotism Rox!” Wolfman. It was published by DC Comics, with a cover date of July 1983.
We begin in 1934, at a carnival. Don’t you know that all people did back in the Thirties was watch dime movies and visit the circus? Wolfman is here to edumacate you! A man with a Julius Caesar haircut and a beard but no moustache (’cause that’s how the ladies like it!) and a redheaded woman are the stars of the book, apparently. The woman’s name is “Vanessa” and the man is a baron … or at least Vanessa calls him one. She thinks the carnival feels evil and wants to go away. She probably had one too many corn dogs! The baron, however, says they’re committed. But … to what?????
The baron explains that they’re meeting their “foes” at the circus, and that they’re a group of businessmen who are financing Hitler’s rise to power. Vanessa thinks that’s terrible, but the baron reminds her that in 1934, Hitler had just started being a dick, although from what we find out about the businessmen, it’s safe to say they’d finance him no matter what they knew about him. The baron senses something wrong about the group, so he brought Vanessa, with her “psychic link with evil,” to suss out what’s going on. Boy, that would suck, to have a psychic link with evil. Imagine hearing Dick Cheney in your head all the time!* Vanessa suddenly begins to feel the pain of evil as the businessmen stroll up. That can’t be good. One of them sense that there’s something “different” about the girl, but they brush it off. The baron takes them to a secluded spot and tells them that “von Papen” needs more money to finance Hitler, but they claim they don’t know what he’s talking about. (“Von Papen” is Franz von Papen, who led the group of politicians who helped get Hitler into power in the foolish belief they could control him. Yeah, that didn’t work out too well.) Before the dance of denial can begin, Vanessa goes into convulsions of fear because the big bad guy has suddenly showed up – some dude in a turban and robes who calls himself “Alphus Omega.” When Vanessa calls to the baron, Alphus tells him his deception has been uncovered. Alphus and the six businessmen join hands and turn into … well, I’d be all dramatic, but this was back in the day when scenes from comics were actually depicted on covers, so if I tell you they turn into an orange seven-headed lion/dragon thing with crowns on each head, you probably won’t be surprised. Still, Colan does a nice job with the spread:
* Or, if you’re T., Nancy Pelosi. I’m equal-opportunity around here!
The baron and Vanessa run for “the portal” with the thing hot on their heels. The lion/dragon carves a path of carnage through the unsuspecting carnival-goers as the baron and Vanessa enter a tent. The creature breathes fire on the tent and turns away, satisfied that its enemies are dead. But what ho! the baron and Vanessa are back in 1983, safe and sound. Phew! On this page, by the way, we learn that Vanessa is a “Van Helsing” – that’s handy to know! The baron apologizes for getting her involved in the case, and she tells him she just wants to go back to “Jack,” because she loves him so much. The baron does some explicating about why he took the case and how he wishes he could remember where he saw the creature before (I’ll give him a hint – it had “666″ on each forehead!). He finally decides to ask Vanessa for a favor, and we switch to Maine, where she and Jack head toward a house precariously placed on a cliff. We learn something crucial about the baron – he doesn’t leave his house. Odd. Anyway, she and Jack enter the house to search it while, back in Georgetown (site of the baron’s house), he digs through an attic looking for something. Finally he finds it … a Bible. Well, I guess that’s important, because it’s obviously an illustrated Bible, as he finds a picture of the beast in it. That’s certainly handy! And it looks exactly like what they saw! Also handy! He finds it, of course, in Revelations, and wonders what the Beast of the Apocalypse has to do with … Hitler? Really, Baron?
Back in Maine, Jack is jealous that Vanessa always talks about the baron, but that bit of characterization has to wait, because Vanessa picks up a “strange, eerie sensation” from behind a wall, which moves to reveal a pathway. Vanessa gets freaked out, but before they can leave, figures appear on the steps and tell Vanessa they remember her and now she will suffer for what she did. They leap at her, but then it’s back to Georgetown! Merlin, the baron’s cat (which is spotted strangely like the Beast), communicates to him that Vanessa and Jack are in trouble, and we see the ghostly figures smashing those two through a window onto a balcony. Oh dear! The baron enters a room and summons … a black woman in a wheelchair named “Katina.” He tells her he needs her powers to save Vanessa and Jack. The man pushing the chair, who is called Gowon and is apparently Katina’s son, scolds him for not caring about his agents, and we learn that Merlin was once Katina’s pet. I’m not sure how that’s relevant, but maybe it will be so later. The baron begs for her help, and she levitates out of her chair and strange light flows from her body. She knows that he’s seen the Beast and tells him she warned him about it. She tells him that they must join together for her to learn the truth, and after a big explosion of light, she returns to her chair and yells at him for sending them to their deaths. He begs her again for help, which ends the issue. It’s kind of a weird place to finish, but okay.
So that’s Night Force #12. It’s kind of an odd book. Obviously, it looks superb. Colan is a wonderful artist, and he does a nice job with layouts and design in this book, using bigger gutters on some pages to allow Klein to put some of the lettering in them. It’s a neat trick that works pretty well. And his illustrating is great as usual. Wolfman knows how to tell a story, and this one works pretty well, but it’s interesting to read a story from the early 1980s that feels so much like a story from today. This is very much a “middle of a storyline” issue, to the extent that Wolfman doesn’t even really tell us why the baron is investigating this. The fact that a woman told him her house was haunted doesn’t explain why businessmen who support Nazism can turn into the Beast of the Apocalypse, after all. I imagine it’s explained in earlier issues, but it’s interesting that Wolfman doesn’t recap too much. A first-time reader wouldn’t have any problem figuring out what’s going on in this particular issue, but we don’t get any idea of the bigger story at work. Plus, we get two truncated plot threads – the events in 1934 take up the first 10 pages, obviously building on the previous issue, and then we’re back in the present. Vanessa and Jack’s trip to the Maine house is cut short for dramatic purposes, while Katina shows up at the end and it feels like we’re supposed to know who she is. Wolfman gives us some clues as to her identity and purpose, but then the book ends, and it’s obviously setting up the next issue. For a long-time comic book reader, this kind of “middling” storytelling isn’t a big deal – we’ve come to expect each issue as a chapter of a whole – but I wonder how interested in picking up the next issue a first-timer would be. It’s tough to figure out Wolfman’s through-line from just this issue, and I wonder if a bit more recap might have made it more clear why we should care about this story. It’s a nice-looking comic with some interesting ideas, but I’m not sure it’s good enough to lure someone back. I could be wrong.
I’m sure we have readers out there who know what happened with this story arc. Come on, Other Greg, how did it end? This is totally in your wheelhouse, isn’t it?