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.”

Captain Kronos 1 pg 4

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.

Captain Kronos 1 pg 22

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.

Captain Kronos 2 pg 14

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.

Happy birthday to Richard Howell

I want to wish a very happy birthday to comic book creator Richard Howell, who was born on November 16th.  Not only is Richard a fantastic artist and a talented writer, but he is also a genuinely nice guy who I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions.

Looking back, I probably discovered Howell’s work when he was penciling Tony Isabella’s great Hawkman stories.  The two of them collaborated on the four issue Shadow War of Hawkman miniseries in 1985, which was followed the next year by a special and then an ongoing series.

Hawkman Special cover

Isabella had a great conceit for his storyline: Hawkman and Hawkwoman discovered that their fellow Thanagarians were covertly invading Earth. Unfortunately, Carter and Shiera Hall were forced to combat this infiltration completely on their own.  The Thanagarians possessed a device called the Absorbacon which enabled them to read the minds of anyone on Earth (the Hawks were immune because they were also from Thanagar).  So there was no going to Superman or the Justice League or anybody else for help.  Their only ally came in the unlikely form of their old enemy the Gentleman Ghost, who took it as a challenge worthy of his larcenous talents to “steal back” Earth from the Thanagarians (being dead, presumably they were unable to read his mind).  As a ten year old kid, I found this set-up majorly chilling & spooky, the idea that Carter and Shiera were seemingly all on their own, everyone else on Earth was compromised, and their one source of assistance was an untrustworthy villain.

Unfortunately, Isabella departed the ongoing Hawkman title with issue #7 due to disagreements with editorial, and his successor wrapped up the invasion storyline in a rushed, unsatisfactory manner.  Nevertheless, the work that Isabella & Howell did do together was really great.  Howell really showed his versatility, rendering the Kubert-designed Hawks with their combination of high-tech & primitive weaponry, the science fiction designs for the Thanagarian invaders, and the supernatural aspects of the series.

Vision Scarlet Witch 1 cover

Around this time, Howell was also over at Marvel, penciling the twelve issue Vision and the Scarlet Witch series written by Steve Englehart.   This took place in real time, which meant that we saw Wanda get pregnant and, in the last issue, give birth to twin baby boys.  Unlike some, I was never terribly bothered by the notion that Wanda used magic to conceive children with an android.  (I was quite annoyed when a few years later John Byrne did a major retcon, wiping the twins out of existence, but fortunately Allan Heinberg eventually reversed this and brought them back into being as super-powered teenagers in the pages of Young Avengers.)

Howell did some really great work on this series.  The wide range of guest stars that popped up enabled him to render a significant portion of the Marvel universe.  A few years later, Howell again had the opportunity to draw the Scarlet Witch in the four chapter serial “Separate Lives” which ran in Marvel Comics Presents #60-63.  He also wrote, lettered, and colored the entire story, demonstrating he was a man of many talents.  Between that story and his work a few years earlier, I thought that Howell drew one of the most all-time beautiful, sexy depictions of the Scarlet Witch.  Years later, when I told him that, he modestly responded “It’s not difficult drawing a beautiful woman who was visually created by Jack Kirby and then developed into a star by Don Heck.”

Another group of characters who Howell drew really well were the Inhumans.  In addition to drawing their appearance in Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Howell penciled a “Tales of the Inhumans” short story written by Peter Gillis and inked by Sam De La Rosa which saw print in the back of Thor Annual #12, of all places.  I just found a copy of that comic about a year ago.  The splash page by Howell & De La Rosa is gorgeous.  Howell also penciled & colored a double-sized Inhumans Special written by Lou Mougin published in 1990 that delved into the history of the Royal Family immediately prior to their first appearances in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Vince Colletta inked that one and despite his tendency to do rush jobs, especially in his later years, Howell said he was generally satisfied with how the art turned out.  If you want to check it out, that Inhumans Special was just reprinted by Marvel in a trade paperback along with their 1988 graphic novel written by Ann Nocenti.

Inhumans backup Richard Howell

In the 1980s, Howell also drew All-Star Squadron, the Green Lantern feature in Action Comics Weekly, various profile pics for Who’s Who, DNAgents, and his creator-owned Portiz Prinz of the Glamazons.  That last one first originated as a self-published project in the late 1970s.

Howell did some work on Vampirella for Harris Comics in the early 1990s.  He then co-founded Claypool Comics with Ed Via in 1993.  I first found out about Claypool several years later.  As I’ve mentioned before, I used to see artist Dave Cockrum quite often at conventions & store signings.  When I asked him what he was currently working on, he told me he was penciling Soulsearchers and Company for Claypool.  Since I loved Dave’s artwork, I had my comic shop order the current issue, which was #30.  I read it, and thought it was awesome.  The series was a supernatural comedy written by Peter David, with co-plots & edits by Howell.  I was soon following Soulsearchers and Company on a regular basis.

Claypool also published three other series.  There was the twelve issue Phantom of Fear City, written by Howell’s old collaborator Steve Englehart, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, an anthology featuring the campy, vampy horror hostess, and Deadbeats, a dark vampire soap opera written & penciled by Howell, with rich embellishments by Argentine illustrator Ricardo Villagran.  Howell acknowledges that Dark Shadows had an influence on Deadbeats, and series actresses Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett & Lara Parker have each written introductions for the three trade paperbacks.

Deadbeats Learning the Game cover

It took me a while to get into Deadbeats, simply because I’ve never been a huge fan of vampires.  This was around the time that Interview With A Vampire and Vampire: The Masquerade were really popular, and I just thought the whole notion of the undead as these refined, romantic, aristocratic beings was so annoying & pretentious (you can just imagine what I think of all that Twilight nonsense nowadays).  And so I unfortunately assumed that Deadbeats was more of the same.

However, corresponding with Howell via e-mail, he wore down my resistance, and I finally picked up the first two TPB collections, “New In Town” and “Learning The Game.”  And I have to confess I loved them.  Yes, the vampires in Deadbeats were super-sexy (both the women and the men, got to give Howell points for fairness) but most of them were unabashedly evil, committing brutally violent killings in their quest for fresh blood.  There were also a few morally conflicted members of the undead, as well as some who had relatively benevolent agendas, such as the vampire king Hermano (no relation).  There was also a really interesting cast of humans who were batting against the vampires of Mystic Grove, led by teenage couple Kirby Collier and Jo Isles.  Anyway, once I was done with those two TPBs, I started following Deadbeats with issue #50.

One of my favorite covers from Deadbeats is #53, penciled by Howell, with lush inking by Steve Leialoha.  I don’t know who did the coloring, but it looks fantastic.  One of the subplots in Deadbeats concerned Kirby’s long-lost father Adam arriving in Mystic Grove and recruiting vampire hunter Dakota Kane in an attempt to track down the mysterious bat cult that had kidnapped his wife years before.  It turned out that sultry lounge singer Countess DiMiera, currently performing at Mystic Grove’s popular social spot the Bat Club, was a member of that secret society, as well as a conduit for their dark deity, Murcielago the Bat-God.

Deadbeats 53 cover

I really loved Howell & Leialoha’s depiction of the sinister songstress on that cover (in hindsight, she might have reminded me of a more wicked version of Howell’s Scarlet Witch).  I asked Howell to let me know if he ever wanted to sell the original artwork.  He responded that he typically held on to all of his originals.  But a few years later he was kind enough to do a really nice sketch of the Countess and her disciples for me.  You can view that, and a few other beautiful pieces he has drawn for me, on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Richard+Howell&GCat=60

Unfortunately, due to low sales, in 2007 Diamond Distributors decided they would no longer carry any of Claypool’s titles (this is the kind of thing that happens when you are stuck doing business with a monopoly).  Deadbeats, Soulsearchers, and Elvira were all canceled.  Since 2007, Howell has continued the Deadbeats story as an online comic at the Claypool website.  I’m glad he’s been able to do that, but I really hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to collect those installments together in print editions.

As you can see, Richard Howell has had a very diverse career, during which he has written and drawn some amazing comic books.  I really enjoy his art, and I hope to see more from him in the future.  Happy birthday, Richard.  Keep up the great work.

Richard Matheson: 1926 – 2013

Horror author Richard Matheson passed away on June 23th at the age of 87.  I was a pretty big fan of his work.  He wrote some incredibly imaginative, genuinely scary stories.

My first exposure to Matheson’s work had to be this anthology of short stories that someone gave me as a gift in the mid-1980s.  The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories collected together all of the previously published short stories that were subsequently adapted into episodes of Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone television series.  Matheson was the co-editor of the book, and it also contained several of his stories.

The most famous of those was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the one featuring the monster on the airplane wing.  Originally written in 1961, it was filmed two years later starring a young William Shatner.  Of course I had heard all about this one previously, but I’d never actually had the opportunity to view it on television.  Reading the original Matheson story was quite a harrowing experience, so much so that a couple of years later when I finally did catch the Twilight Zone episode, I was pretty much biting my nails, dreading the upcoming moment when Shatner was going to whip open the curtain over the airplane window to find the monster’s face glaring right at him.  Inevitably the monster that my mind conjured up when reading Matheson’s actual story was infinitely more terrifying than the man in a panda bear suit that made it to television screens in 1963.  (Matheson reportedly critiqued the on-screen realization of his gremlin as “a surly teddy bear.”)  Nevertheless, the flawless direction by a young Richard Donner, combined with Matheson’s adaptation of his own material, made “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a truly scary episode.

Twilight Zone Nightmare At 20000 FeetAnother of Matheson’s great works was his 1954 novel I Am Legend.  In the book, Robert Neville is the last man on Earth… but he is not alone.  Every other human being across the globe has been infected by a plague which has transformed them into vampires.  Neville spends the novel struggling to survive an unending onslaught of the undead, as well as the threat of madness & despair that threatens to engulf him in his solitude.  I Am Legend is an extremely bleak, downbeat, apocalyptic novel.  It is regarded as having been a major influence on the horror field, particularly the zombie sub-genre.  The book has been adapted into three different movies: The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price (1964), The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston (1971) and I Am Legend starring Will Smith (2007).  I haven’t seen that most recent one, but the Price version is quite atmospheric and remains pretty faithful to the original novel.  The Heston version plays much more fast & loose with the material, and at times is sort of cheesy, but still entertains.

(As a side note, The Omega Man, with its scenes of Charlton Heston running around toting a machine gun, shooting at anything that moves, does almost come across as his audition tape for President of the NRA.)

Matheson also penned the chilling, atmospheric novel Hell House, which was published in 1971.  Hell House details an attempt by a group of parapsychologists and psychics to investigate the infamous Belasco House, which is described as “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses.”  All of the previous individuals who have sought to explore the mysteries of Belasco House have met with either death or insanity.  Matheson wrote the screenplay for the 1973 film version The Legend of Hell House, another one which I have not had the opportunity to see.

Hell House graphic novel adaptation by Ian Edginton & Simon Fraser
Hell House graphic novel adaptation by Ian Edginton & Simon Fraser

Hell House was adapted into a graphic novel by writer Ian Edginton & artist Simon Fraser, which IDW published in 2005.  I have to admit, I hadn’t actually read Hell House before that point in time.  But I was a fan of Fraser’s art, and intended to get the IDW book, so I picked up the original Matheson novel in order to read it first.  Edginton & Fraser did a very good job on their version.

In addition to adapting his own writings for film & television, Matheson wrote screenplays based on others’ works, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Fritz Leiber.  Among these was the script for The Devil Rides Out, based on Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel.  Released in 1968, and starring Christopher Lee, it is definitely one of my favorite Hammer films.

 All this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Richard Matheson’s prolific pen.  If you are not familiar with his work, I encourage you to seek out some of his writings.  Hell House and I Am Legend are both extremely haunting, unsettling reads.

Happy birthday to Elaine Lee

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to writer Elaine Lee, who was born on April 22, 19XX (I’m not going to guess the year, because it is impolite to speculate about a woman’s age).  I first discovered Lee’s work back during the summer of 1994.  Lee had collaborated with artist William Simpson and cover artist Brian Bolland to create Vamps, a miniseries about a quintet of sexy vampire bikers crisscrossing the highways of America.  The book was published by DC Comics under their Vertigo banner.  Lee was doing a signing at the Heroes World comic shop in White Plains NY, and I picked up the first issue there.  Lee had come to the signing with her friend Rachel Pollack, whose bizarre writing I had been enjoying on Doom Patrol.  It was there that I learned that Pollack was also a prose author, and soon after I picked up a copy of her excellent novel Unquenchable Fire.

Vamps #1
Vamps #1

Vamps was a pretty good read, and I was interested in finding some more work by Lee.  I soon discovered that she had written the sci-fi series Starstruck, which ran for six issues under Marvel Comics’ Epic imprint in 1985, as well as a graphic novel.  I found a copy of the first issue, and was totally blown away by the amazing artwork by Michael Kaluta.  Truth to tell, I was a bit confused by the events in Lee’s story, but Kaluta’s art was simply amazing.  This was the beginning of my love affair with his work, and I soon became a huge fan.

This was also the first time I learned that Starstruck had originally begun life as an off-Broadway play, via the cute editorial cartoon on the inside cover, wherein a robotic Archie Goodwin presented the readers with a striking portrait of Elaine Lee herself in the role of freedom fighter Galatia 9, as seen below:

Archie Goodwin presents Elaine Lee as Galatia 9
Archie Goodwin presents
Elaine Lee as Galatia 9

A few years later, I started running into Kaluta himself at several NYC comic conventions.  He must have mentioned that the original Starstruck script could be found on Amazon.  I ordered a copy and when I read it, I was laughing out loud almost non-stop.  The script was written by Elaine Lee, Susan Norfleet Lee and Dale Place.  Michael Kaluta did the imaginative & intricate costume and set designs.  A funny & clever homage to and parody of space opera, it had two month-long runs, first in 1980 and then in 1983.

Early on, Lee and Kaluta decided they wanted to expand the Starstruck universe and characters beyond what was seen on stage, and planned out a whole series of comic books & graphic novels.  Starstruck, in addition to the Epic issues, appeared in the pages of Heavy Metal, through Dark Horse, and then finally a 13 issue miniseries published by IDW starting in 2009.  That was a combination of “remastered” older material and brand new work by Lee & Kaluta.  Having met both Lee and Kaluta at different comic book conventions throughout the years, I knew that they had a wealth of unpublished stories that they’d one day hoped to bring to print.  So I was thrilled when the IDW series was released, although I did end up waiting for the trade paperback edition so I’d have everything in one handy volume.

Starstruck script book
Starstruck script book

Currently Lee and Kaluta are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in order to publish a new graphic novel, Harry Palmer: Starstruck.  I definitely wish them the best of luck.  After so many years of dormancy, it’s great that they have these opportunities to return to the Starstruck universe.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. The second time I met Elaine Lee was, I believe, a year later.  She was at a comic con in upstate NY, somewhere in the Hudson Valley.  One of the books she had for sale was her graphic novel anthology of erotic sci-fi stories, Skin Tight Orbit.  I really wanted to get a copy, but back then I was only 19 years old, plus my father was with me at the show, so I was much too embarassed to buy it!  Hmmm, all these years later, and I still don’t have that book.  Time to look for it on Amazon, I guess.

But, anyway, each of the times I’ve met Elaine Lee, she’s always come across as a very friendly person.  It’s always a pleasure to see her at a convention or on Facebook.  So, once again, let us wish a very happy something-something birthday to the talented, lovely, and very pleasant Elaine Lee.  Here’s hoping for many more years of amazing stories from your pen.