Alex De Campi reopens the Grindhouse

I definitely enjoyed the eight issue comic book horror anthology Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight written by Alex De Campi, which Dark Horse published last year.  So I was happy to find out that a “second season” had been given the go-ahead.  The first four issues of Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out feature more excellent, unnerving writing from De Campi.

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The opening two-parter “Slay Ride” is illustrated by R.M. Guera.  It is Christmas Eve in northwest Canada, and death stalks the countryside.  A group of malevolent spirits have taken on humanoid form and begun a killing spree.  After claiming their first two victims, the entities approach the elderly Mother Wolf, only to let her be when they sense that she is already dying of cancer.

Mother Wolf telephones Shayla, an embittered woman who is estranged from her family, to let her know that her father and brother have been murdered.  Mother Wolf convinces the reluctant Shayla to try to help the other families in the remote area before they are also slaughtered by the creatures.

De Campi is deliberately vague about the nature of these entities.  Attempting to explain them to Shayla, Mother Wolf states…

“You have to make a conscious decision to be good. It’s hard. The world wears you down. Every day, you have to start trying all over again.

“Or else, monsters like these? They tiptoe in on every hateful thought.

“If you believe in something enough, it appears. They are what we believe in now. Greed. Compulsion. Addiction.”

These beings appear to be human sin and weakness made sentient & corporeal.  Their physical “bodies” are created from snow, and although this makes them somewhat easy to disperse they are nevertheless extremely dangerous.  Even if their forms are destroyed, it seems likely that whatever was animating them still exists and has merely been temporarily banished.

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“Slay Ride” is allegorical and open to interpretation.  For example, Shayla alludes to these beings having claimed members of her family many times in the past.  It is unclear if this means that they have actually manifested before, or if the vices they represent, such as lust and alcoholism, have plagued her family through the decades.

We also are never told the exact relationship between Shayla and Mother Wolf.  Is the elderly woman her aunt, her grandmother, or something else?  De Campi doesn’t specify.

While the lack of details and explanations can be maddening, this undoubtedly contributes to the unnerving tone of the story.  “Slay Ride” is a darkly surreal nightmare, and the unanswered questions compound the reader’s unease.

Guera’s artwork possesses a palpable air of twisted insanity.  The designs for the entities are comically twisted, simultaneously outrageous caricatures and grotesque phantasms.  The coloring by Giulia Brusco works extremely well with Guera’s art, and the end result is an atmosphere of oppressive bleakness and razor-taut anxiety.

De Campi totally shifts gears in her second story, “Blood Lagoon,” which reunites her with artist Chris Peterson, her collaborator on “Bee Vixens From Mars” from the first Grindhouse series.  “Blood Lagoon” features the return of the sardonic, ass-kicking Garcia, aka “that crazy, one-eyed Latina.”

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Also making a comeback are Wayne and Sergei, the couple who helped her defeat the Martian invasion.  The two are engaged to marry, and Wayne is hoping to convince his father to attend.  Of course, this is the Deep South and Wayne’s father is a redneck of the first order, with accompanying homophobia.  Garcia reluctantly accompanies Wayne on the road trip to Alabama, although she expects it will be an exercise in futility.  As she dryly inquires, “On a scale of zero ta minus ten, how much fun is this trip gonna be?”

Not surprisingly, Wayne’s father Billy Ray provides anything but a warm welcome.  On top of that, while Wayne is happy to be home for a visit and reunite with old friends, he is depressed to see that the town is in dire straits.  Unemployment is rampant and the area is being polluted by the local slaughterhouse.

And then the aliens show up.  This time, though, instead of a hive of seductive bee-women, a horde of giant blood-sucking ticks is on the rampage.

Once again De Campi presents a story where the protagonists fall outside of what some would refer to as “traditional American mainstream.”  Garcia is an older Hispanic woman.  Even though her family has lived in Texas for generations, people keep ignorantly assuming she is an immigrant from Mexico, which understandably infuriates her to no end.  Wayne is a homosexual who grew up in rural Tennessee, and as a result had to find the ability to stand up on his own two feet and defend himself at a very early age.  Wayne’s old friend Vikki and her teenage son Darryl are African American, and Vikki proudly proclaims that her late father was a Black Panther back in the day.

De Campi humorous lampshades the backgrounds of her cast when they hole up in the town liquor store to fight off the giant ticks.  Vikki hands her cell phone to Wayne’s father and tells him “Billy Ray, you call the police. You sound white, they’ll listen to you.”  It’s a funny line, but it’s also sadly depressing in its accuracy.

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It eventually once again falls to Garcia to save the day.  De Campi shows us that Garcia is tough-as-nails without making her invulnerable.

As I’ve noted before, one of the reasons I like the original Die Hard movie is because John McClane, despite the fact that he was out-fighting terrorists, very much came across as an everyman, and he was put through the wringer.  This was also more or less the case in the sequel.  But by the third one McClane had become an unstoppable action hero, and I totally lost interest in the series at that point.

Fortunately De Campi does not fall into this trap.  Garcia beats the odds, but she comes out bruised and bloody.  She isn’t given an easy victory, which of course makes it all the more compelling when she does succeed.

“Blood Lagoon” is a violently comedic farce.  Peterson’s artwork is perfect for this story.  He very adeptly renders both humorous gags and horrific gore side-by-side.

I also appreciate Peterson’s depictions of Garcia.  She is an older woman, but she is still in shape and attractive.  I think some artists are unfortunately only able to draw two types of women: young & sexy and old & frail.  Much like Steve Epting’s excellent work illustrating Velvet Templeton in Velvet from Image Comics, Peterson renders Garcia as a woman in her mid-forties who is very much ready to kick some caboose and turn heads in the process.

Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out has so far been impressive and fun.  I’m definitely looking forward to the second half.

By the way, the first three issues actually sold out before I could buy them at one of the comic shops in Manhattan.  I was able to purchase all four through Things From Another World Comics, which has a section on their website for De Campi’s work.  So if you’re having trouble locating Grindhouse, head on over there: Alex De Campi at tfaw.comics

And, no, I am not getting a cut of the profits from TFAW!  I am just trying to help out and point people in the direction of some excellent comics that might have fallen under their radar.  Try some new stuff;  it’s good for you!

Comic book reviews: Grindhouse #1-4

I was born a decade or so too late to have been the target audience for grindhouse movies, the kind of sleazy exploitation genre films to have played in second-rate cinemas back in the 1970s and early 80s.  By the time I was old enough to explore New York City on my own, most of those less-than-venerable institutions had closed their doors.  However, I caught quite a number of their successors via direct-to-video and cable TV releases.  And in the last decade, there’s been a surge in nostalgic interest in those old cheese-fests, at least partly brought on by the works of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Already being something of a B-movie aficionado, I’ve seen a handful of those “classic” grindhouse flicks on DVD.  Most of them fall into the so-bad-they’re-good territory.  They’re campy and violent and quite often sexist.  But at the same time, it’s interesting to see what those filmmakers working on a shoestring budget could accomplish with imagination & ingenuity in those long-ago days before anyone with access to a laptop could easily whip up some CGI effects.

So naturally my interest was piqued when the eight issue Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight series was announced by Dark Horse Comics.  Written by Alex De Campi, the series is comprised of a quartet of two-part tales, each an homage to the exploitation films of days past.  In the first four issues, we have a pair of over-the-top romps into sex, violence, sci-fi and horror entitled “Bee Vixens From Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares.”

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“Bee Vixens From Mars” sees the women of a small Southern town taken over by an alien insect queen, transforming them into horny, bloodthirsty femme fatales linked to a hive mind.  With nearly everyone in the town either mutated or brutally slaughtered, it falls to Deputy Garcia and the owners of the local convenience store, Wayne & Sergei, to battle the alien infestation.

I really think that Alex De Campi’s background as a woman who has lived & worked on three continents allows her to write from a different perspective.  In interviews, she has commented that one of the more interesting qualities of grindhouse fare was that often the protagonists were women and/or minorities.  Yeah, a lot of those movies were “sexploitation” or “blaxploitation” or whatever you want to call them, meaning the main characters were probably on the stereotypical or one-dimensional side.  But it nevertheless did provide some sort of avenue for depicting heroes who weren’t white males.  In contrast, as De Campi points out, the majority of big studio action & genre pictures nowadays usually feature handsome, macho, WASPy men as the main characters.

In contrast, in “Bee Vixens From Mars,” we have Deputy Garcia, an older Hispanic woman with white hair and an eye patch, as the ass-kicking savoir of humanity.  Backing her up are Wayne & Sergei, a gay couple originally from Eastern Europe.  You have a small group of individuals who can be considered outsiders to the traditional, mainstream population as the heroes.

The art on “Bee Vixens From Mars” is by Chris Peterson.  I’m not familiar with him, but he does great work on this book.  Peterson really draws the hell out of the erotically charged, ultra-violent story.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely strong.

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“Prison Ship Antares” is basically a women-in-prison story in outer space.  A group of hardened female convicts are sent away from Earth to settle Alpha Centauri, accompanied by their warden Kalinka and her contingent of cloned guards.  Yeah, I know, it doesn’t really sound plausible, trying to colonize another planet with only women.  But that’s the situation De Campi sets up in order to tell her second zany tale.  I’ve seen far more nonsensical scenarios in actual B-movies, so whatever.

In any case, Kalinka turns out to be insane, a sadistic religious nut who believes she is the reincarnation of a samurai warrior.  She decides to “burn away the sinful parts” of her prisoners, gruesomely killing them with acid and fire.  The convicts, led by a gal by the name of Spanish Fly, realize that they had better seize control of the Antares, and quick, before they all end up dead or mutilated.

With a set-up like this, you might be concerned that the book would devolve into “lipstick lesbian” pornography.  But, aside from a couple of cheekily playful sequences, for the most part De Campi writes the inmates as realistic, well-rounded individuals, giving them a certain amount of personality & background.  There’s only so much development she can fit into a 48 page story, but on the whole these women come across as real people, rather than merely objects of titillation. They’re sexy, but intelligent and tough.

Simon Fraser is the artist on “Prison Ship Antares,” and I could not have thought of a better choice to illustrate this tale.  Fraser is the co-creator, with writer Robbie Morrison, of the Nikolai Dante feature in 2000 AD.  Dante was, in his early tales, sort of a ne’er-do-well rogue, a hedonistic adventurer who got involved in all sorts of wacky sexcapades.  The first couple of Dante stories I ever read were “The Movable Feast” and “The Cadre Infernal,” which were set in, respectively, a gigantic brothel on wheels and a BDSM club.  So, yeah, Fraser knows how to draw smut… and I mean that in the nicest way possible.  No, but seriously, Simon is a fantastic artist.  He really imbues his characters with a great deal of personality & individuality through facial expressions and diverse body types.

Truthfully, there is actually a lot more violence than sex in “Prison Ship Antares.”  Some of it is horrific.  Other parts are just plain hysterical, such as when the prisoners riot against the clone guards while singing the “Toreador Song” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen.  Frasier does a superb job with that sequence.

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There is another distinct quality to both of these tales.  Since each of them are stand-alone stories, sometimes it really seems up in the air whether or not various characters will live or die.  Without a status quo to adhere to, you half-expect De Campi to bump off one or more of her lead characters.  It really does keep the reader a lot more on edge.

The covers for the first four issues of Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight are by Francesco Francavilla and Dan Panosian.  Both of them have designed a couple of nice, striking pieces, sort of faux movie posters which also have a rather retro, pulp feel.

If you are a fan of genre films and B-movies, you’ll probably enjoy Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight.  It’s a fun, strange homage to exploitation films, with something of a tongue-in-cheek feminist slant given to the old genre formulas.  I’m looking forward to seeing what De Campi and her collaborators have in store for the next four issues.  It should be crazy.