Sunday, October 6, 2013

Satan's Six #1-4 review

*Spoilers*

  When most fans think of a comic book series created by a past-his-prime Jack Kirby that was narrated by a mentor character, focused on demons from Hell, starred a ‘hero’ who had once held ties to King Arthur’s court and which featured appearances by three horror icons, they think of The Demon.
When most people think of a comic book series launched between 1991 and 1994 by a non-big two company featuring a hero who died and made a deal with the Devil, had artwork by Todd McFarlane and another artist trying to ape his style, they think of Spawn.
 
 I, however think of…

 Well, okay, I have to admit I would also probably think of those two series. Yet, believe it or not, there was another comic book series that fit all of those criteria: Satan’s Six, published by Topps comics in 1993.
 Now, at first glance, Satan’s Six looks exactly like the sort of bad 90’s comic it has become fashionable to mock these days; It’s a mini-series, it’s loaded with cheap gimmicks and superfluous back-ups, each issue is cunningly designed to be a collector’s item and comes pollybagged with trading cards, the art is hideously exaggerated, the whole concept shamelessly piggybacks upon another creator’s work and exaggerates his involvement, the title sounds like it could have come from any other series of the time trying desperately to sound dark and badass, the protagonists are the kind of people who would be villains in any other series, and the fourth issue features a truly pathetic marketing gimmick/crossover (which is probably the single thing this series is most remembered for).
  And yet, there’s something genuinely compelling about Satan’s Six.

  Although usually classified as a superhero series, Satan’s Six could best be described as a comedy series about wannabe supervillains. The premise involved five long dead human sinners trapped in purgatory. After centuries, they become fed up with the monotony of it all and are willing to do anything to get out, even if it means working for Satan. Led by a demon named Frightful (Kirby had to justify the “six” title), the group goes to Earth to find people who are at a crossroads between good and evil, and attempt to sway them to evil so that they can collect their souls. Problem is, all of the members are either too noble, too stupid or a mixture of both to do anything truly evil, and as a result, they end up saving the person in question’s soul.

 You gotta admit, coming from Kirby, that’s a pretty unique (and dark) concept!
  Thing is though, Kirby never quite developed the idea aside from a few sketches and some pages. Thus, in 1993, when Topps was launching a line of comics based off of discarded 70’s Kirby concepts, Satan’s Six was one of those which got dusted off. As a marketing gimmick for the first issue, Kirby’s eight surviving pages were used (with the rest of the comic being drawn by John Cleary), but inked by several famous comic book artists, notably Todd McFarlane and the much ballyhooed Mike Royer.

 That sounds like a pretty ingenious way to utilize what little work Kirby did, while also being able to honestly use his name to plug the comic. Plus, considering the God-like reverence for Kirby, surely the attempts by writer Tony Isabella and artist John Cleary to create a story out of his few scattershot pages would be done respectfully while making an effort to have the new pages blend seamlessly with them.
 Thing is, this is what Cleary’s artwork looks like:
 I’m pretty sure that’s what Todd McFarlane sees whenever he looks at his own comics after dropping acid.
 But art aside, it’s the story which really matters, right? Well, Isabella’s approach to storytelling and incorporating Kirby’s art is…unusual to say the least. The main crux of that problem revolved around the “host” character of the series; Pristine. Pristine was a character Kirby himself originated for the series, and whom Isabella uses to narrate the stories in a manner similar to Merlin in early issues of The Demon.

 Pristine is an angel with a creepy smile, who get this, is the guardian angel of comic books! And breaking the fourth wall obnoxiously is her specialty:
No wonder most comics fans are atheists
 Oh, and look who drops by!
 That isn’t going to date this comic at all.
  And here’s how she introduces the portion drawn by Kirby:
 Really? You’re going to have her comment on the stylistic difference within the story itself? That’s, that’s just…well, it’s definitely not the kind of humor you’d expect to see for a series like this. Why not just tell the story without having to comment on the art differences with all of this meta shit? It results in a very disjointed read at times, and it gets worse in the following issues, with key moments that should have been shown being told to us by Pristine.

  Anyway, let’s meet our main character:
 This is Brian Bluedragon, an arrogant wannabe knight who talks like an over-the-top parody of Thor, with a little bit of Groo thrown in. Back in the (olden) day(s), Brian enthusiastically offered his services to King Arthur, who wasn’t as enthusiastic, for the simple reason that Brian is a complete and utter moron with no impulse control:
Brian naturally takes this rejection with humility and dignity, showing what a mistake Arthur had made:
 
Naturally, our hero becomes easy prey for Satan, who immediately appears and offers him a contract.
 Oops. Well, who didn’t see that coming? (Except for Brian, obviously). However, since he never really committed any serious crimes, he ends up in Limbo instead.

 Brian spends the next few centuries either trying to escape from Limbo, or offering his services to Satan. After a heated battle, it becomes apparent that the demon who runs this particular branch of hell; Odious Kamodius (Now there’s a name for a Fourth World villain if I’ve ever heard one) finds Bluedragon just as insufferable as King Arthur did, so he offers him the bargain to collect souls on Earth. He also offers it to four others:
 Dezira; a whore of Babylon who wanted to be a seductress, but ended up getting seduced by the Devil. She becomes the butt of every dumb blonde joke conceivable for the duration of the series (“Thinking always makes my head hurt”). Kirby’s notes say he patterned her after Goldie Hawn. I don’t see it, personally.
“Hard-Luck” Harrigan; a Chicago gangster whom Isabella never quite decides what decade he was from (It’s specifically stated he was from the 1920’s, but other things in the series seem to suggest he was around during the 30’s and 40’s).
 Kuga, an African warrior who posed as a fierce lion slayer, but was really an animal lover, unfortunately, the lions didn’t return his affection, resulting in his death (A scene we sadly don’t get to see. I for one, love seeing animal rights supporters get mauled).
 Doctor Mordius; a mad scientist from the Victorian era. Unlike the others, he really does seem to be evil, but his experiments foul themselves up so badly he never accomplishes anything. A running joke is that his Mr. Hyde potion always ends up turning him into something silly.
 Then there’s the demon Frightful, who is supposed to be the “team” leader. He doesn’t get to do much other than function as a typical “gruff but loveable sergeant” type of character, and is always getting mad that his evil schemes result in him and his team doing good.
 Of course, if the team itself doesn’t fail, Pristine intends to foil their schemes herself and lead them all on the path to Heaven. As we’ll see, she’s not exactly the nicest angel around.
  The Six also have a headquarters; “Club Inferno”, a nightclub which (and this is a pretty cool idea) can manifest itself wherever the team has a mission, and looks different to each person based on their personality, even the Six themselves:
Oh my god, a Stevenson reference!

Oh, and as you may have noticed in the previous scan, the team has to wear these silly looking red uniforms with wings on them and a ‘6’ symbol. Now to be fair, Kirby’s notes seem to indicate this is how he wanted it since he drew Brian wearing one, but honestly they just look unnecessary. All of the characters are distinct looking as it is, coming from different eras and countries. Look at the cover gallery at the Grand Comics Database and you’ll notice how none of the covers featured the uniforms.

  The first issue is really just set-up, and sadly, that set-up isn’t spent allowing us to get to know the characters, assuming we’ll learn about them from materials like the cards. The Six are all a fairly stock bunch of archetypes, true, but that’s no excuse to not develop them. Also, there are a few discrepancies from Kirby’s notes and how the characters are portrayed. Harrigan is a wimpy looking, freckle-faced weasely-type in Kirby’s notes, but the actual stories make him a more thuggish kind of character, and he doesn’t have freckles except in the trading card. The name of the team’s HQ was also going to be called “The Groovy Ghoul”. Mordius is also described in Kirby’s notes as being a very evil man whose experiments would repulse mass murderers. The way Mordius and his experiments are utilized in the comic itself though…well, just wait ‘till I discuss the third issue.
 The second issue actually does a better job establishing the premise than the first, and is in some ways the best of the run.
 Here, Frightful tries to collect the soul of a disgraced archaeologist named Jacob Simon (I wonder what two creators that name could be a reference to...), who discovered a jungle temple devoted to a fly-like creature called Kalazzar, as well as a bizarre cocoon within. The evil Kalazzar had ravaged the earth in centuries past, before being banished to limbo. Legend said that Kalazzar would someday be reborn in the cocoon, and that time was drawing near. Simon’s discovery, sadly, was denounced as a fraud by his colleagues, and to make matters worse, the cocoon was confiscated and placed inside a wing of the museum devoted to hoaxes. A vengeful Simon took refuge in Club Inferno, and thus fell into Frightful’s clutches and prepared to sell his soul in exchange for a spell that would give him power over Kalazzar.
But rather than use Kalazzar for revenge against his colleagues, Simon’s real reason for desiring control over the monster was the far nobler goal of keeping Kalazzar from ravaging the earth. He then recited the spell. By the way, check out the words (Read them backwards):
 Like most deals with demons, the spell ended up going up horrifically wrong. Simon had no control over Kalazzar, and the creature was now ready to destroy the earth. It would seem Frightful had succeeded, with Simon having sold his soul for nothing and summoned a monster that would kill millions.
With Simon damned and the earth doomed, Bluedragon and the others had certainly earned their place in Hell, except…
 They then attacked Kalazzar, realizing how evil he was after he attacked the elderly Simon and the team’s pet hellhound Fury (Don’t worry about me not introducing him, Isabella didn’t bother to do that either. He just sort of appears). Ooh. Not the kind of behavior becoming for a bunch of would-be demons.

 Unfortunately, even Kuga and Bluedragon’s might proved no match for Kalazzar. Fearful that the two might die (again) and earn a place in Heaven, Frightful was goaded by Pristine into helping them.
  Simon then hit upon the idea of destroying Kalazzar after Harrigan referred to Kalazzar as a bug, and the two then ran off to find the materials they needed…at the local supermarket. Dezira decided to distract Kalazzar in the meantime by doing this:
 Harrigan and Simon then returned with their secret weapon (dozens of bug spray cans) and using a special invention of Mordius’s, they were able to spray Kalazzar out of existence.
 Simon’s heroic actions were observed by security guards, who offered to testify at his trial, and even though Frightful ended up pissed off that he’d ended up doing a good deed, the rest of the team celebrated.
 I call this the best story of the run because it allowed all of the characters to shine, fleshed out all of their personalities better, utilized Pristine in a clever way by having her interact with the characters in the story, and managed to tell both a fun action story involving a Lovecraftian monster and the compelling tale of Professor Simon’s redemption. And hey, killing a giant bug with dozens of Raid cans? That’s exactly the sort of ending Kirby and Stan Lee would have used in one of their pre-FF monster comics.
  The next two issues though, were definitely not something you would have expected Kirby to have come up with. Remember how I said The Demon featured appearances by three horror icons and Satan’s Six did too? Well, sorta. The Demon featured thinly altered versions of The Wolfman ( “The Howler”), The Phantom of the Opera ( “The Phantom of the Sewers”) and Frankenstein and his Monster ( “Baron Von Evilstein”). Satan’s Six trumped The Demon one better by using actual characters rather than expies.

 The ‘villain’ of Satan’s Six #3 was none other than Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame! Considering that Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t really a horror novel despite being considered as such, you might find that puzzling.
 But even more puzzling is who else guest-starred in the issue, and unlike Quasi, he’s not a public domain character, he’s a real person:
 Yes, indeed, that’s Lloyd Kaufman; president of Troma films and the man who gave us such timeless masterpieces like The Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke ‘em High and…not much else. But hey, you gotta give the man credit for running one of the premiere factories of sleazy horror/comedy movies in an era when “studios of horror” were long gone. I gotta admit that’s not a bad caricature of him from back when he had a beard:
 The issue began with a distraught Kaufman walking around Hollywood, angry that his action star had decided to become a showgirl (???) and was desperate to find someone to star in his new movie, The Ugly Annihilator (Ha Ha). He was just about to get one.
 It seems that the smog in LA is so strong it can rip holes in the fabric of time and space, including purgatory, and there had been several break-outs:
 One of them was none other than Quasimodo, who it turns out, had been Dezira’s boyfriend when she was in Purgatory, and now he was desperate to have her back since she was one of the only people to have ever truly shown him kindness. Running around Hollywood and desperate to find some way of contacting Dezira, he ended up falling right into Kaufman’s clutches:
 Meanwhile, the Six were commissioned to capture Quasimodo, but upon learning of Dezira’s history with their new target, Bluedragon threw a jealous fit, prompting him to crash the premiere of Quasimodo and Kaufman’s new collaboration, acting like a complete asshole (So much for all of his nobility that we saw last issue, eh?).
 Mordius tried to join the fray by drinking one of his potions and…I’m just going to post these panels:
Well, I’ll admit, I’ve never seen anything quite like that happen in any other comics.
 
  The brawl was interrupted by Pristine, who told Quasimodo that his love for Dezira had earned him his way out of limbo, and he was free to enter Heaven.
 But first, this surprisingly touching reunion ensued:
 Wow. Isabella actually gave some dimension to this one-note dumb blonde character and rang some real pathos out of it.
 Pristine then offered to take Quasimodo to Heaven, this was his response:
 Well hey, I can’t blame the guy. Showbiz is showbiz.

  This was a pretty funny issue, and managed to satirize Hollywood and Hunchback of Notre Dame pretty awesomely. I mean, if you think about it, a guy like Quasimodo, who spent his entire life ringing giant church bells and leaping from rafter to rafter, probably would be pretty ripped. Action star ripped. Using an independent direct-to-video filmmaker like Kaufman for a satire on big budget action films is kinda weird, but perhaps Isabella meant to satirize Kaufman’s attempt to break Troma into the mainstream with things like a Toxic Avenger cartoon series.

 As fun as Satan’s Six vs. Quasimodo was, nothing compared to the promise of who would be the team’s next opponent in the fourth and final issue: Jason Voorhees.
 Topps was publishing a comic book adaptation of the film Jason Goes to Hell, so with the rights to America’s favorite masked mongoloid, it seemed logical to have him cross over with Satan’s Six. Topps promoted the shit out of the crossover:
 It was all set to go, hundreds of people who had probably never read the previous three issues, as well as a few people who probably didn’t read comics whatsoever, picked this issue up:
 The issue began with our heroes getting bitched out by Kamodius for failing to do anything evil. Thus, he felt he’d hire a new recruit, someone who could definitely get the job done:
Too bad Jason doesn’t take orders from anyone, even demons like Kamodius:
 
 Now THAT is how you introduce a horror villain into what is basically a humor comic. Play up the reactions of the humorous characters to the horror character (“Goalie or weirdo, it matters not”), but let the horror character stay horrific. Also, I’m digging the combination of Jason’s Goes to Hell mask with his clothes from Part 3 and The Final Chapter.
  The rest of the issue focused on the team’s attempt to sway Jason’s nemesis Tommy Jarvis to evil, and what followed was a surprisingly funny and poignant story about obsession, revenge and forgiveness, with plenty of room for gore, along with cameos by the ghosts of Jason’s past victims.

  At least, that’s the rest of the issue that I made up in my head. Here’s what actually happens in the comic:
 
  Fuck.
 
  You.

  The actual story involved the team being sent to collect the soul of John Gavin, a 20’s mobster who sold his soul for money and power along with a prolonged lifespan, all of which would end on his 100th birthday, which was now. With Gavin being a pretty open and shut case of a man whose debt was due, the team was eager to go and face him.
 Big problem though, Gavin had once been Hard-Luck Harrigan’s best friend…until he had seemingly abandoned Harrigan while running from some rival mobsters. Much like Dezira and Quasimodo’s reunion, this led to a surprisingly touching scene, revealing that Gavin had been traumatized by Harrigan’s murder at the hand of rival mobsters and had spent his newly charmed life devoting himself to being the best man he could possibly be:
 The series then ended on a note of hope, after Harrigan manipulated things so Gavin could escape his contract.

  All well and good, but shit, couldn’t they have at least had Jason go after Gavin and then have Harrigan fight him off?

 Satan’s Six, as you can see, was a very flawed series with humor that didn’t always work, featured artwork that was as far away from Kirby as possible and riddled with 90’s excesses, and the framing device with Pristine, while occasionally funny and providing a much-needed info dump, ruined some potentially compelling scenes. The crossovers were also unnecessary.
  But at the same time, focusing on humor rather than action gave the book a unique feel among the “Kirbyverse” comics, and while Cleary’s art may not have fit with Kirby’s, his exaggerated, cartoony figures did show that he was aware he was working on a humor comic. Also, although the characters may not have received the right level of development or background (We never found out how Mordius or Dezira died for example), at least they all had a chance to shine, even the seemingly one-note Dezira and Harrigan. I also find it interesting how Kuga, although he could easily have been a stereotype, was shown to be a fierce and noble warrior whose one flaw was lying about his lion-killing prowess, and that was only because he was an animal lover. I have to give Isabella props for making the most sympathetic member of the team a minority. Portraying Frightful as a working stiff and Pristine as a manipulative and spiteful character also reversed the usual angel-demon dynamic in an interesting way.
 I also have to admit, the explanation for why so many people were trapped in purgatory awaiting judgment was hilarious:
  You can also see in the characters the influence of Kirby’s long career. Brian Bluedragon looks like a refugee from Asgard, Dezira and Kuga could easily have been members of the Forever People, Harrigan looks like a Newsboy Legion villain, Mordius seems to have stepped out of a story from Black Magic, and Frightful looks like a rejected Tales to Astonish monster.

 Also, for a series starring a bunch of sinners training to become demons, the whole series had an underlying sweetness to it, a hope for redemption. In an era of gritty anti-heroes, that has to count for something.
  So while it may not be what I’d call a good series, Satan’s Six is one with its heart in the right place. Besides, any comic which offers up a premise this crazy, along with such spectacles like Todd McFarlane and Frank Miller inking Kirby along with guest appearances by Lloyd Kaufman, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jason Voorhees, is worth checking out at least once. With the issues all going for fairly cheap online (take a guess which issue is usually the most expensive) and in back issue bins, what do you have to lose? Anyway, it’s always a fun read around October.

 By the way, here are the cards:

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