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Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. This month I will be doing theme weeks (more or less), with each week devoted to a single writer. This quasi-week: Warren Ellis. Today’s page is from Strange Kiss #2, which was published by Avatar and is cover dated January 2000. Enjoy!
Back in the 1990s, Avatar almost exclusively published porn comics, and everyone except yours truly ignored it. I was buying the Faust spin-offs, which at that time were published by Avatar, and while I still love the regular series (although I can’t defend it, because it’s kind of trashy, to put it mildly), the spin-offs were absolutely dreadful. I did see a lot of the advertisements in the back for all of Avatar’s output, though, and I always wondered what the comics looked like. I still don’t know, because I never bought them.
Then, in the late 1990s (’98/’99 or so), Avatar somehow got Warren Ellis to write horror comics for them. I don’t know how it happened, and I’m not that keen to find out. Somehow, Ellis – who was close, if not already at, superstar level – decided that Avatar was the place to be so he could scratch his horror itch. And so Strange Kiss was born, and in the years since, Avatar has moved from porn to publishing absolutely depraved comics by some top creators whose weirdest ideas would make the most hardened Vertigo reader blanch. And Ellis keeps writing stories for the publisher. It’s a win-win!
Strange Kiss introduced the world to William Gravel, who is what John Constantine would be if John Constantine weren’t such a pussy (basically). But Gravel isn’t on this page, so let’s consider how Ellis writes this page and see what’s what. Dr. Hunt helpfully identifies herself, and we can infer that she’s probably a medical examiner/coroner based on the fact that she has a dead body in front of her and she doesn’t look in too much of a hurry. Ellis makes sure that the bombshell is at the bottom right – over a hundred baby lizards out of someone’s asshole would be quite a phenomenon, to be sure. As we’ve seen already this mini-week, Ellis is very good at leading the reader to these horrific-yet-somehow-casual statements that almost demand that we read on. You may be sickened, but can’t you be intrigued as well? This also helps you determine if you actually want to turn the page – Ellis doesn’t try to fool anyone, as he lets us know right away that this is going to be an extremely unpleasant comic book. (Even though it’s, you know, also awesome.)
Mike Wolfer is a good artist for this brand of horror, because he draws in a fairly mundane style that helps establish this firmly in the “real world,” but he’s also able to do horrific violence very well. The establishing shot of the telephone and Dr. Hunt standing talking into the receiver is a good way to ground the book, because it’s so very normal. Wolfer does a nice job with Hunt’s expression in the fourth panel, showing that she’s under some stress and whatever Shane is saying isn’t helping. In the final panel, Wolfer does a good job hinting at the creepiness to come – the woman on the slab is disfigured, but it’s not too obvious how terrible the disfigurement really is. Obviously, if we’ve read the first issue, we know, but a new reader can see that something is going on and the woman isn’t a “regular” corpse, but Wolfer does a good job not giving too much away, building the horror slightly before Ellis asks him to unleash it in full (which, boy howdy, does he).
Whatever you think of Ellis’s horror stuff from Avatar (which runs hot and cold, to be sure), he does know how to hook you, doesn’t he? But what about a whole other genre? How’s he do with that? We’ll see tomorrow! In the meantime, there’s a whole grip of archives to go through!
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