Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter rides again!

Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter is an odd entry in the Hammer Studios horror oeuvre. After a couple of decades of movies featuring middle-aged scholars struggling against monsters and supernatural menaces, Captain Kronos introduces a young, handsome, aristocratic swordsman as its hero. The movie was written & directed by Brian Clements, who previously had a prolific career in British television.

Clements is probably best known for his decade-long association with the spy-fi series The Avengers, and he brought much of the energy & ingenuity of that show to Captain Kronos. The movie was a deft blending of swashbuckling action and gothic horror.  Clemens had conceived of Kronos as a possible franchise for Hammer.  Unfortunately the movie was not released for two years after its completion in 1972, and its theatrical run was limited.  Between that and Hammer being on its last legs, there would be no further cinematic adventures for Kronos.

Over the next few decades, however, the movie would go on to become a cult classic, gaining numerous fans. I saw it on television twice in the 1990s, and thought it was amazing.  I’ve re-watched it several more times since it was released on DVD in 2003.

Captain Kronos 1 cover

I definitely agreed that Kronos had the potential to helm an ongoing series. Obviously others also felt the same way, and the character has at long last been revived by Titan Comics in a four issue comic book miniseries written by Dan Abnett, illustrated by Tom Mandrake, colored by Sian Mandrake, and lettered by Simon Bowland.

Set in the mid-1600s, the first issue opens with Kronos and his fellow vampire hunters Grost and Carla pursuing the undead fiend Porphyr across Eastern Europe. This chase leads the trio to the town of Serechurch, which is beset by a plague of vampirism.  The town elders ask Kronos to rid them of these monsters, and the swordsman, eager to continue his vendetta against the undead, agrees.

Abnett does a good job writing a fast-paced story. There are several exciting action sequences in the miniseries.  Much as Clemens did in the original movie, Abnett also effectively utilizes a certain amount of humor in order to offset the horror and violence of the plot.

The characterizations of Kronos, Grost and Carla are tweaked to various degrees. Clements merely hinted at Kronos’ immense obsession in one scene, and for the rest of the movie depicted him as a level-headed strategist.  Abnett, however, re-casts Kronos as a brooding monomaniac who charges in to danger.  Grost is no longer quite Kronos’ close friend, but rather a mentor who is alarmed at his protégé’s rash actions.  Carla has evolved from Kronos’ girlfriend and inexperienced assistant to a very adept vampire hunter in training.

It is certainly possible to see these as logical extrapolations of the characters. One can imagine Kronos, after repeated encounters with the forces of darkness, and the loss of a number of people who were close to him, eventually becoming harder, more obsessed and rash.  Grost, the level-headed scholar, would be alarmed to see this change, and would probably feel that stern admonitions would work better than heartfelt pleas at bringing the Captain to his senses.

Carla is the most-changed of the trio. The sweet, kind Gypsy girl has become a tough, take-no-crap fighter.  I appreciated that Abnett gave Carla much more agency in this story than she had in the movie.  At times, though, I felt perhaps he did go too far in changing her.

That said, via her dialogue in this miniseries we can conclude that Carla’s first meeting with Kronos was a transformative experience. She became aware of both the existence of the supernatural and of the wider world outside of her tiny village home.  Already cognizant of the very limited choices available to women in the 17th Century, and now awakened to the dangers posed by vampires & their ilk, Carla obviously decided that the best opportunity she had to both gain independence and acquire the skills necessary to survive in a very dangerous world was to join Kronos and Grost on their quest.

Abnett does fortunately still retain some of Carla’s innocence and inexperience. Upon arriving at Serechurch, she thinks to herself that it is the “biggest place [she’s] ever seen” and wonders “Is this what a city looks like?” In the next scene, entering the hall of the town council, Carla is awed by the wealth on display, whispering to herself “Is that gold? The ceiling’s painted with gold.”

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The one real criticism I have concerning Abnett’s writing is that at times his scripting is a bit too present day, especially in his humorous banter. Early in the second issue Kronos goes off to scout the town quarter occupied by the vampires. Carla, fearing that he will do something rash, tells Grost “Let’s hope Kronos doesn’t do anything too Kronos before we’re ready.”  That line feels more like it belongs in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer than in a Hammer Horror period piece.

There is also a running gag throughout the miniseries where one of the three main characters will curse and another will respond with a chiding tsk tsk of “Language.” It’s funny the first couple of times, but after that not so much.

On the artwork end of things, Tom Mandrake is certainly a very appropriate choice to illustrate Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter. Mandrake has a great deal of experience working on horror-related series, such as his acclaimed collaboration with John Ostrander on The Spectre at DC Comics and his work with Dan Mishkin on the grotesque miniseries Creeps from Image Comics.  Mandrake superbly renders both the supernatural elements and the fast-paced action in Abnett’s plots for Captain Kronos.

Mandrake’s storytelling is very effective on this miniseries. It works equally well in the action sequences and in the quieter moments when characters are conversing.

One thing I noticed regarding Mandrake’s layouts is that many of the pages are constructed to contain tiers of three to five panels stacked vertically. I don’t recall Mandrake employing this device before.  I am curious if he made this choice in order to evoke the widescreen frames of a movie.  It is an interesting creative decision, one that does suit this story.

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As I have observed before in other reviews, when working on licensed properties it can be a tricky proposition for an artist to capture the likenesses of actors. Sometimes going too photorealistic can actually be jarring, with characters who look like they were traced from photographs, which can really take the reader out of the story.  It is usually more important for the artist to depict the personalities of the characters.

To wit, Mandrake’s renderings of the main trio in Captain Kronos do not look especially like actors Horst Janson, John Carson and Caroline Munro; however they do feel like the characters of Kronos, Grost and Carla, if you understand what I mean.

Sian Mandrake is obviously going to be very familiar with her father’s artwork, with knowing what works over it and what doesn’t, and she does an excellent job coloring it. The subdued palette she utilizes works well in the service of the story, with the occasional bright splash of color for blood or fire consequently standing out.

The only quibble I have concerning the coloring is that Sian gives Carla reddish-brown hair. A darker color, something closer to black, would have more closely evoked the look of actress Caroline Munro.

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Despite a few missteps in the writing, I really did enjoy the Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter miniseries. I definitely would like to see a follow-up from the same creative team. There is a great deal of potential to these characters, and to the world they inhabit.

My dream would be to see Kronos encounter the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. In real life actor Christopher Lee was an expert fencer, and so it would be very appropriate to have his iconic depiction of the lord of the undead cross swords with Kronos.  There is also the infamous Karnstein family, who were actually alluded to in the movie.  They would make appropriate adversaries for Kronos to meet in combat.

Really, there are a lot of possibilities, and I hope that the character returns soon.

Star Wars reviews: The Apprentice and The Dream

Continuing the countdown to The Force Awakens, I am looking at past Star Wars comic books.  Today I’m spotlighting two more issues from the original Marvel Comics series.

“The Apprentice” appeared in Star Wars Annual #3 (Summer 1983).  Its sequel, “The Dream,” was in Star Wars #92 (Feb 1985).  Both stories were written by Jo Duffy.  “The Apprentice” was illustrated by Klaus Janson.  “The Dream” was penciled by Jan Duursema and inked by Tom Mandrake.

Star Wars Annual 3 cover

Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, “The Apprentice” sees members of the Rebel Alliance on the planet Belderone investigating rumors of an Imperial project that threatens their base on the nearby world of Kulthis.  Most of the locals are secretive except for two curious teenagers, Flint and Barney.  Flint in particular is intrigued.  Noticing the lightsaber Luke Skywalker carries, an excited Flint mentions that his late father was a Jedi Knight.  The teens take the Rebels to the local tavern, which is run by Flint’s mother Zana.  Princess Leia realizes that the two teenagers are star-struck by Luke, but he brushes this off, insisting that they have an important mission.

The Rebels’ arrival does not go unnoticed, and one of Zana’s neighbors notifies General Andrid.  The Imperial officer dispatches assassins to eliminate them.  But Luke’s connection to the Force alerts him to the impending ambush, and the Rebels are able to thwart the attack.

Off in space, Darth Vader’s ship is en route to Belderone.  He has sensed that something important will take place there, and he is expecting Luke’s involvement.  Vader learns of Andrid’s failed attempt to kill the Rebels, and the enraged Sith strangles the General.  Vader decides to take personal charge of operations planet-side.

Luke, realizing Vader is near, leaves for Kulthis to summon reinforcements.  Leia and the other Rebels are led by Flint and Barney to the mysterious installation where most of the population is employed by the Empire.  Suddenly the ground splits open and a group of Imperial Walkers emerge.  They begin marching to the nearby airfield, where they will be transported to Kulthis to attack the Rebels.

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Flint and Barney, seeing the enormous AT-ATs heading towards town, rush off to warn everyone, including Flint’s mother.  They are secretly observed by Vader and one of his men.  The aid asks if they should have stopped the two teenagers, but the Sith is dismissive of the pair.

Before the Walkers can reach their ships, a group of Rebel X-Wings led by Luke arrives, catching them off guard.  With the aid of Leia and Lando Calrissian, who have seized control of one of the AT-ATs, the Rebels defeat the unprepared Imperials.

Unfortunately, before the battle is over, one of the Walkers wrecks a path of destruction through the nearby town.  Among those killed are Zana.  Flint, crouching by his mother’s body, is distraught…

“It was all just a game… we were useless… we couldn’t do a thing… And they let us go on… pretending we could help… But we couldn’t… we were useless… I was useless… and now you’re dead…

“I swear… I swear to you… I’m going to learn… I’m going to get the training… the same training my father had… I’m going to become someone who matters… And then I’ll show them all!”

The grieving Flint does not realize that he is being watched.  The observer steps forward and addresses him…

“I know how you feel… I had almost forgotten what it was like to feel that way… It has been some time since I heard anyone speak the way you do now… I did not take you seriously before, and I should have… forgive me. Let me make it up to you now…

“I could not single you out for special training right away… you would be just one of our men at first… but I have sensed the power in you… in time, I promise you, you will be tutored specially… and if you really wish it… you will become someone who matters very much!”

The way this scene is written by Duffy and illustrated by Janson, the reader is led to believe that it is Luke speaking to Flint, recruiting him into the Rebellion.  However, a few pages later we learn from Barney, who witnessed this exchange, that the individual who has approached Flint is none other than Vader.

As the Annual closes, Barney leaves Belderone with the Rebels.  Elsewhere, watched over by Vader, the grim Flint dons the armor of a Stormtrooper, joining the ranks of the Empire.

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“The Dream” takes place several months after Return of the Jedi.  The former Rebel Alliance is attempting to organize the newly-freed planets and to deal with the Imperial remnants still active across the galaxy.  Luke is having a series of troubling dreams in which his now-dead father, Darth Vader, appears to him in an eerie mist-filled void.

A ship piloted by Prince Denin of Naldar arrives on Endor.  The desperate Denin informs the Alliance that Imperial forces are laying siege to his world.  The Prince demands assistance.  He also wants to be trained as a Jedi by Luke.  Reluctantly Luke declines, remembering how his own father Anakin Skywalker was not adequately trained, allowing him to be turned to the Dark Side of the Force.

Despite Denin’s brusque manner, Leia convinces the Alliance to investigate the Prince’s claims.  Luke accompanies Leia and the others.  Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Luke falls asleep.  He is once again in the void, but this time he is greeted by the spirits of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even his father Anakin.  Luke realizes the image of Vader represents a new Dark Lord.  Anakin explains to Luke…

“Do you not recognize him? We share the blame for his creation, my son.

“He is not beyond redemption, my son… but I am unable to return and undo the evil I did. Only you can save him, Luke.”

The Falcon arrives to find Naldar completely decimated by the Empire.  The ship is hit by a powerful energy cannon and crashes.  While repairs are being made, Luke heads out with Lando and Denin to investigate.  They are attacked by Imperial forces and soon surrounded.  A black-armored figure approaches.  Luke faces down the dark figure and challenges him…

“Why don’t you show us what’s under that armor? It’s not as though you need it to survive. Or are you afraid to face me without it?”

Grimly the armored figure removes his helmet… and, yep, it’s Flint!

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Luke and Flint engage in a lightsaber duel.  Flint reveals that Vader began training him in the use of the Force, and accuses Luke of killing him.  Luke tries to explain that Vader was his father, and that in the end he turned away from the Dark Side, but Flint is too enraged to listen.

The crew from the Falcon then arrives, and Barney is among them.  Flint is shocked to see his old friend.  Barney approaches him, accusing Flint of fighting the people he once admired.  When Flint argues that the Rebels couldn’t save him mother, Barney counters this…

“Was it an Alliance bomb that killed her? No, it was the Empire. And you couldn’t save her and be a hero… so now you’re gonna punish the whole universe, and kill a whole lot of mothers and sons and innocent people? That makes a lot of sense!

“Frankly, I don’t think you can. But I’ve been wrong before. So, prove it to me, for old times’ sake. See the face of one of your victims. Kill me first, Flint.”

And, despite all the crimes he has committed, Flint realizes that he is unable to murder his friend.

One of the Stormtroopers, watching this unfold, prepares to shoot Flint in the back for his “betrayal.”  But Denin (who we now know to actually be Princess Vila, taking on her fallen brother’s identity) sees this and grabs Luke’s fallen lightsaber.  Throwing herself in front of the Stormtrooper, Vila intercepts the blast meant for Flint, and kills the Imperial.

Witnessing Vila’s sacrifice, a disgusted Flint turns his back on the Imperial cause.  He uses the controls on his armor to destroy the energy cannon.

Star Wars 92 cover

Jo Duffy became the regular writer of the Star Wars comic book with issue #70 (April 1983) and, except for a few fill-in issues, wrote the series until its cancelation with issue #107 (September 1986).  Her stories were a wonderful mix of drama and comedy.  Duffy’s run is rather underrated, especially the later issues, where she was working to devise a new direction for the series after Return of the Jedi.  Duffy showed the characters attempting to transition from freedom fighters to diplomats, politicians and teachers.  She also introduced new adversaries to threaten galactic freedom.

“The Apprentice” and “The Dream” are two of my favorite stories that Duffy wrote for Star Wars.  She examined Luke’s burden to continue the legacy of the Jedi.  Luke was understandably reluctant to train a new generation of Jedi, concerned that if he did not do so properly that they could be corrupted by their powers.  But with the events of these two stories Luke learns that if he neglects to take up that responsibility then those with the potential to utilize the Force, such as Flint, might fight other teachers who would not hesitate the steer them towards the Dark Side.

This is another one of those instances where I’m really left wondering if George Lucas was influenced by these stories!  Flint is similar to how Anakin Skywalker was depicted in the prequels.  Flint’s mother dying, resulting in him accepting Vader’s offer to train him, is remarkably similar to what would happen in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin’s mother was killed by the Sand People, beginning his descent towards the Dark Side.  Vader’s own dialogue here implies that he was once in a situation that was similar to this.  Flint even looks somewhat like Hayden Christensen!

Speaking of the artists, these two issues were both well done.  Janson had a very moody, noir-ish style to his work on “The Apprentice.”  That’s not unexpected, given that this was drawn around the time he was wrapping up his six year long association on Daredevil.

The battle between the X-Wings and the AT-ATs is unfortunately a bit on the sketchy side.  Janson does much better work on people than machinery, although that splash page reveal of the Walkers is really stunning.  Most of the scenes are well-rendered, especially the shootout in the tavern.  Vader’s recruitment of Flint is effectively told, and Janson’s depiction of the Sith is menacing & sinister.  On the lighter side of things, I always laugh at the expression Janson gives Chewbacca on finding the tavern food disagreeable!

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 16 Chewbacca

Jan Duursema and Tom Mandrake happen to be married.  I believe “The Dream” is one of the few occasions they’ve worked together.  This was fairly early in their careers.  Nevertheless, the artwork is extremely good.

Duursema and Mandrake have very different styles to their work.  Duursema’s art is well suited to sci-fi and fantasy, while Mandrake’s is very much in the horror and supernatural vein.  This makes their collaboration on Star Wars #92 especially effective.  Duursema’s effectively pencils the characters and technology of the Star Wars universe, and Mandrake’s inking gives the story a genuinely eerie, atmospheric feel.

Although this was Duursema’s only work for the Marvel series, years later she would become a regular contributor to the Star Wars comics when Dark Horse held the license.  From 2000 to 2010 she did great work on several of their of Star Wars titles.  But hopefully more on that in a future post!

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The cover to #92 is an interesting collaboration by Cynthia Martin and Bill Sienkiewicz.  Martin was the regular artist on the Marvel series for its final two years.  She had a rather cartoony look to her work.  Having her finished by Sienkiewicz, with his bizarre, abstract style, results in a cover that very much suits the story within.

I recommend reading these two issues.  I’m confident Marvel with be reprinting them in the near future.