February 5, 2013

Cheap Thrills -- HELL #1

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin

Random Pulls from the Bargain Bin
In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult. Thank goodness for the local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore! Each week Daniel Elkin randomly grabs a comic from the bargain bin (for 50 cents) to see what kind of bang he can get for his two-bits. These are those tales.
January 2, 2013 – paid 50 cents for:
Published by: Rocket Comics
Written by: Brian Augustyn
Pencils by: Todd Demong
Inks by: Tim Kane
Colors by: Studio F
Letters by: Sno Cone
July of 2003 was nearly a decade ago, but the echoes of its bloodlust still reverberate in the ether. In July of 2003, in Meridian, Mississippi, a Lockheed Martin factory worker gunned down 13 of his coworkers. In Santa Monica, California an 86-year-old man hit the accelerator instead of the brake and mowed down pedestrians at a Farmer's Market killing 10 and injuring 50. In Iraq, photos of the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein were widely distributed to a cheering populace. In Paris, one of the top floors of the Eiffel Tower suddenly erupted into flames.
After an extensive investigation, the BBC conclusively announced that there was no monster in Loch Ness.
Nike bought Converse.
Bob Hope, Buddy Ebsen and Barry White all died in July 2003.
Probably the only thing that wasn't marked by savagery during this month was MSNBC, which fired talk show host Michael Savage for telling a caller that he “should only get AIDS and die.”
All this bloodshed and horror might have caused the average thinking person to wonder whether or not the world had begun a slow descent into hell. To punctuate and capitalize on this sentiment, Rocket Comics (a Dark Horse Comics imprint) took this moment to publish the first issue of a comic book called Hell. Instead of adding to the horror of the times, though, Hell gave us something far more interesting. But not interesting enough, it appears, to save it from its resting place in the bargain bin.
Hell begins with a flashback – Ten Years Ago Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, Roughly Three Hundred Miles Due East of the Bahamas
Through the conceit of perforated pages, we are told about an island called Eden where something called Project Chimera went “magnificently awry” and whatever creatures had been created there went into open rebellion.
I love the dynamism of Demong's art. I love his inventive use of the panel concept, adding depth and all the “feels” by breaking the constrictions inherent in the layouts. As blocky as his lines are and as thick as his ink is, there is all kinds of good shit going on here. Also, notice the nametag on the soldier’s arm – Rollins – this will come into play later.
The flashback ends with an explanation that after 18 years on the island, everyone that could of had escaped through some sort of teleportation gate, which was subsequently destroyed, leaving Eden to return to the jungle” but “remain a laboratory for the military scientists who were responsible for its creation.
The comic then informs its readers that another temporal shift has occurred, “Ten Years Later,” to Baltimore, Maryland.
One quick note about the usage of time in this book: If we open up to a text box telling us that it is “Ten Years Ago” and then, the comic subsequently tells us when that scene is over it is “Ten Years Later,” I have to ask when is the present in this book? When I read these two time signposts, I get stuck in the middle and I'm really looking at a twenty-year time span. But then again, I'm just overthinking this, aren't I? Too much time in my head, I guess. I blame the House Republicans and their obstructionist ways. See what you've done to me, Boehner!!!
Anyway, back to Hell. As I said, the action in the book is now taking place in Baltimore, specifically, the Maryland State Psychiatric Hospital. Here we find a young man, a boy really, named Corey. Corey is talking to his mother about his after-school job and living at his Aunt Del's house. Mom's not responding, though. A matter of fact, Mom's not doing much of anything because mom's in a kinda of psychotic vegetative state (and I'm not talking about Texas). Mom went silent ten years ago when her husband disappeared. Her husband was Tom Rollins, the soldier being attacked by the mutant gorilla in the previous pages. Corey is his son (see, I told you to pay attention).
Another quick note about this comic: Like the subject of the last Cheap Thrills column, Jon Sable FreelanceHell also revels in the use of the color brown. This earns it a quarter of a billion brownie points in my book. I like brown. A lot.
The next page is where things really start to take off in this book, both in terms of story and Demong's art. Take a look at what Demong does with panels on this page.
I love how he plays with time and space and motion here. Not only is it brilliant (and brown), but it also demonstrates a real trust in the reader to decode the progression. It's pretty amazing stuff. This one page alone could be used by scholars and wonks as they try to describe to cynics and meatheads the unique properties of the comic book medium when dealing with these issues. You really don't get THIS type of relationship between artist and audience anywhere else.
Anyway.... That dude at the bottom of the page? Turns out he's a former US Army soldier who disappeared around the same time as Corey's dad did. He tells Corey that his father is still alive “in HELL”!
Wait ... still alive in hell?
Great, now I'm all up in Albino Blues Man Heaven. I need to get back to Hell.
And the brown.
The dude who accosts Corey about his dad suddenly tells him that some mysterious “they” are out to get him and bolts down the road. A couple of beats pass in which the dude starts to question his own sanity, and then – THWAMMP -- he gets mowed down by a big, black, brand new Cadillac (“Balls to you, daddy”).
Then, it's “Days Later” and Corey is leaving his school when he is accosted by Special Agent Wing and Special Agent Hawkes (heh) from the FBI who show him a picture of the kooky dude who got run down.
Apparently the kooky dude's name was Harold Schaller and he had Corey Rollins' name written on a slip of paper in his pocket.
The fact that it only took the FBI a couple of days to find Corey is pretty impressive.
Hawkes and Wing want to question Corey about his involvement with Schaller, and they make some vague accusations about Corey knowing the whereabouts of his father (who has been classified as AWOL). In a tooth-grinding huff, Corey skateboards away, incensed by the callousness of Hawkes and Wing's implications.
Corey heads to his after-school gig. He's a delivery guy. I can't figure out what he's actually delivering (it seems kinda shady to me – but that might just be me overthinking things once more, I guess – thanks again, Boehner), but whatever he's delivering, he gets to do it riding his skateboard.
As Corey heads out, he notices that he is being followed by a big, black, brand new Cadillac (“Hey, come here Daddy. I ain't never coming back”). At this realization, Corey picks up speed. So does the Caddy. Six panels of skateboard chase ensue. This results in the Caddy crashing and flipping, a guy in a black suit making a phone call about “the package” being “unavoidably rerouted”, and a shot of Corey making a panicked phone call to Special Agent Wing telling her that “someone just tried to kill me”.
Pretty exciting stuff.
Things in this book are moving along at a pretty good, albeit predictable pace. I'm kinda digging Hell.
The comic then cuts to Agents Hawkes and Wing talking about how all these soldiers who were classified as AWOL are suddenly showing up dead and trying to figure out how the piece that Corey represents fits into this puzzle. Agent Hawkes then holds up a finger and gives the old whispered, “Hold it, we've got company” line. Turns out Corey has tracked THEM down. Corey says, “What I'm used to is the government lies and does whatever it wants. Figure if I want the TRUTH, I have to find it myself.”
Boy's got balls (Daddy).
As Corey and Hawkes start to argue, Agent Wing gets to her own version of the “We've got company” thing. This time the company consists of four square headed gents in black turtlenecks walking towards them... menacingly.
There's a “Stop or We Shoot” followed by a BLAM BLAM and a TWAPP SPAK THUTCH FAP, but the squareheads keep coming.
Bullets don't stop them, but “blunt force trauma seems to work.
Once again, notice the great use of panels by Demong. This dude's got the chops, I'm telling you.
Anyway, apparently blunt force trauma doesn't work well enough because some other dude shows up and points a gun to Corey's head, telling Hawkes and Wing to surrender. They do. I guess if they hadn't, we wouldn't have much of a comic book left.
Anyway, this new dude takes Corey, Hawkes, and Wing to his car. It turns out that the three of them “have an appointment.” The appointment is with this guy with a beard and a lab coat who tells Corey that he has no idea what has happened to his father and then bring him to THE MOLECULAR TRANSMITTER!
That is one sweet ZHWEEEEEEEEEEE--!
The lab coat bearded guy tells Corey, Hawkes, and Wing that the MOLECULAR TRANSMITTER can take them anywhere in a blink of an eye and it will take them “directly to ALL the answers” they seek.
Some dudes toss our heroes into the MOLECULAR TRANSMITTER.
There is a ZZZRAAPPP-P-P!
And then there's this:
Now that's a setup and a cliffhanger and a tease and a seven course meal and a rocket launch and a DAAAANNG do I want me some more Hell.
Bring me more Hell! More Hell, I say!
But there was only a little more Hell to be had. Apparently Hell only lasted for four issues. I don't know if it wrapped up or was abruptly canceled or what happened, but whatever it was, it was a damn shame. There were some pretty cool things going on in Hell, if you ask me.
From my research, it seemed like there were a lot of delays between issues which may have been the issue. I also found out that Skottie Young's name was once attached to this title as the artistwhich would have transmuted this book into something completely different, I think (maybe less brown). I can't really tell what Dark Horse ever did with their Rocket Comics imprint, even. I fail as a researcher. Damn you, Boehner!
But regardless, if issue one of Hell was any indication as to the quality of the entire project, then I am utterly horrified that it disappeared and even more saddened that it ended up in the bargain bin.
Then again, the bargain bin is a strange place. It is the depository of both detritus and dreams. It is a place where books like Hell and Sylvia Faust and Along the Canadian co-mingle with books like Illiad II and Ogre. It is a stewpot of the creative juices and chalice of our collective unconscious. The bargain bin, in many ways, can be seen as a metaphor for all of our hopes for the future and regrets in our past.
Then again, maybe I'm overthinking again (Boehner!).
I'll end this column the way I tend to end these columns. I'll stop excessive thoughts on this matter and just ask myself the simple question, ”Was Hell #1 worth the fifty cents I paid for it?”
My answer? Hell yeah.
Oh, and fuck you, John Boehner.
See you next time.

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