Sunday, April 22, 2012

Wednesday Is Hack/Slash: First Cut For All I Care #143

The following stories were collected in the 2005 trade paperback First Cut, which included a foreword by Craig Thompson. However, I read these stories in the Hack/Slash Omnibus, which does not reprint that text piece. Meanwhile, First Cut does not reprint Hack/Slash/Evil Ernie, which the Omnibus does. Got it?

Hack/Slash ("Euthanized," 2004)
Hack/Slash: Girls Gone Dead
Hack/Slash: Comic Book Carnage
Hack/Slash/Evil Ernie

Hack/Slash (Devil's Due Publishing, 2004, $4.95)
Back in the early '90s, James Hudnall had a series set up at Harris called Twister about a serial killer who hunted other serial killers. I don't think it got past a one shot, and I never read it myself, but I liked the premise. Dexter got a lot more mileage out of it, and it was brought to mind when I first saw the solicit for Hack/Slash. I wanted to try it, but I hadn't seen much out of Devil's Due that impressed me, the price was prohibitive, and I just wasn't confident that the book wouldn't suck. It's a shame, because this first story, commonly referred to as "Euthanized," was already firing on all cylinders.

The lead character of Cassie Hack is introduced in a brief recounting of her origin reminiscent of how books like the Marvel Age Annual used to do it, and better than those too broad double-page takes seen more recently in DC books. Aside from being a social outcast with a smart mouth and lethal skills, you don't get much else about Cassie from this tale, but that's all you need. There's just enough background on Hack and her partner Vlad for the reader to feel oriented, and the rest of the book is about the done-in-one story.

The conceit of the series is that Cassie and Vlad will run around battling thinly-disguised analogues for famous movie monsters. Rather than short-change a Jason or a Freddy in an extra length special with so much needing to be established, writer/creator Tim Seeley smartly plays with a familiar but less trod threat, the reanimated critters of Stephen King's Pet Sematary. The lowered stakes allow Cassie and Vlad to show off their hacking and slashing abilities, but the less centralized threat also forces them to work through a mystery and means to deactivate the reanimating force. That means a second origin for the menace itself, so that the one book really offers through interrelated tales for maximum value. There's no room for meandering or unnecessary characters, so the book hits the ground running and never stops through to the closing. The attractive art of Stefano Caselli is given a painterly quality by colorist Sunder Raj, upping the production quality overall. This was an excellent introduction that makes me regret not sampling Hack/Slash back when I initially felt the twitch.

Hack/Slash: Girls Gone Dead (DDP, 2004, $4.95)
I was surprised to see a second special offered so soon after the first, and was conflicted by the novelty and LCD pandering that was association with Girls Gone Wild. Unfamiliar as I was with Seeley, I couldn't tell if it was a smart play or an attempt to cash in through titillation. Having finally read it, I was surprised what an entertaining and valid continuation of the trajectory of the "pilot" this was. Besides finding a new path to the bacchanalian excesses of '80s slasher films, Girls introduces a great threat, the plot is potent, and Cassie has an arc within the special that illuminates her core issues. While I preferred the visceral art of the premiere, new artist Federica Manfredi has a smooth style that sells the inherent sex appeal of the subject matter. Colorists David Amici and company also deserve commendation for giving the story a cinematic sheen with animation cell elements and "movie lighting." No sophomore slump here.

Hack/Slash: Comic Book Carnage (DDP, 2005, $4.95)
I don't watch TV anymore, so I don't know if this is still a thing, but they used to do special location shooting episodes as a ratings event. The Facts of Life girls go to France, the Brady Bunch visit a dude ranch; that sort of thing. In my experience, these typically extra length episodes were always among the worst in the series. Plot went out the window in favor taking advantage of the scenery, and I suspect everyone in the crew were treating the affair as a working vacation besides. It was most prevalent in sitcoms, which would throw out the laugh track (along with all but the easiest, lamest gags) and leave the audience just sitting there groaning.

While Comic Book Carnage isn't that bad, it suffers from a lack of comparative goodness when read alongside other Hack/Slash tales. See, the comic book characters go to a comic book convention where they meet the kind of people who read their comics, allowing them to cross-promote other then-current Devil's Due Productions. For instance, remember their short-lived super-hero line? Probably not. There are also a lot of moments where you're wincing as flatly characterized (in script and art) real life comic professionals making stiff walk-on appearances before being imperiled in a fairly unappealing manner. Steve Niles and Robert Kirkman are still relevant, but its weird how the story spends so much time with Scottie Young of all people, and its just sad that I had to google Messy Stench to find out if she was an actual entity (only just barely.)

All the con bits are nails on a chalkboard, but the basics of the story are okay. Cassie and Vlad are cool, when they're not bending over for the comicon stuff, and the villain continues the trend of analogues for classic '80s movie monsters in an amusing (not especially) subtextual fashion. When not drawing likenesses, Federica Manfredi's art is solid. Things could have been a lot worse, and the good points make it a passable read, but it hurts to see such a misstep after two superior entries.

Hack/Slash: The Final Revenge of Evil Ernie (DDP, 2005, $4.95)
One month in 1991, I was looking for something different to read. At the suggestion of my comic book dealer, I tried Eternity Comics' Evil Ernie #1. Ernest Fairchild was an abused kid who became an undead master of zombies. To appease his love Lady Death, he vowed to kill everyone on Earth. The creator was clearly a fan of '70s Marvel and horror movies, so it was easy to draw parallels between their relationship and that of Thanos to Death, not to mention the adversarial psychiatrist Dr. Leonard Price being a beefed up Sam Loomis. The book wasn't my bag, so I resold it, but I continued to follow the character's publishing history as he went from a minor indie to one of the central books in the CHAOS! Comics line. It amused me that the gratuitous T&A supporting character ended up dominating the line, especially since Ernie seemed somewhat like a writer proxy, which explains why the character's story remained the backbone of the line until its demise.

The property was resurrected in this one-shot special, in which Ernie revives in a new universe devoid of his motivation to live. Tim Seeley comes up with a twist on Ernie's m.o. that highlights how sick and wrong-headed the character is at his core. By extension, he takes a rather silly rock n' roll character questing for "megadeth" (did he ever consider Ticketron?) and reveals true horror beneath his leather jacket and glam hair. Aadi Salman is the perfect artist for this transformation, layering sickening painted flesh atop caricatures broad enough to allow for a proper Ernie manifestation. Cassie and Vlad work well for similar reasons. Hack is more gawky and believably flawed, rather than the mildly goth pin-up she's sometimes portrayed as. Vlad is malformed and creepy, rather than the big teddy bear in a modified gas mask some portray. This is one of those rare crossovers where everyone is in character and the interaction has a real emotional impact on those involved, and it was nice to see all those goofy CHAOS! characters again. It's a shame Seeley has had another crack at them, as the franchise remains in limbo (outside a Lady Death twice divorced from the lot of them.)

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