Energetic 'Spirits of Vengeance' has macabre thrills to burn

Energetic ‘Spirits of Vengeance’ has macabre thrills to burn

By Don Alsafi. So an angel walks into a bar, pulls up a seat next to a guy in a biker jacket, and promptly expires. No, it’s not the setup to a surreal existentialist joke, but rather the inciting incident in one of this week’s new releases. And even though it’s just the kick-off to a five-issue miniseries, it’s also one of the first batch of comics to be found in the new Marvel Legacy relaunch. So, let’s see how it goes…

Spirits of Vengeance #1 (of 5)Spirits of Vengeance #1 (of 5)

Written by Victor Gischler and Robbie Thompson.

Art by David Baldeón and Anthony Piper.

Colors by Andres Mossa.

Letters by VC’s Cory Petit.

Eerie, but sometimes hilarious. Taking us on Marvel’s latest foray into the creepy side of town is Victor Gischler, a novelist who has written his fair share of horror-tinged works. Notably, he was the writer behind 2010’s “Curse of the Mutants” storyline, which turned Jubilee into a vampire. (Surprisingly, that change has remained ever since, leading to weird but goofy scenes like in Generation X #1 when she nearly mixes up her baby’s bottle with a bottle of blood.) As this new title stars Ghost Rider, Hellstrom, Blade the Vampire Hunter and Satana, he’s clearly a wise choice.

If you’ve not encountered Gischler’s work before, rest easy: He’s clearly got the chops. Setting up the first part of a finite story starring four disparate characters (while also getting the narrative up and running) is no easy task, but he makes impressive use of the twenty pages he has to work with. The plot mechanics aren’t much more involved than what’s stated above: an angel is murdered, which seems to signify a war between Heaven and Hell, and it’s left to Ghost Rider to gather a couple of allies and follow up on the clues. However, Gischler gives every scene its own sense of character, and introduces us to societies and settings alike that hint at a living, breathing corner of the Marvel Universe, one that readers have rarely seen.

He also walks a careful line between effectively selling the reader on the sinister vibe intrinsic to this kind of story, or else – as it is with the genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – occasionally showing the supernatural as much funnier than one might expect. After first bringing the matter at hand to occult expert Daimon Hellstrom, the pair then consult a corpulent demon living in the Bronx. Its price for reading the mystic bullet that felled the angel? A box of assorted doughnuts. And yet that pales in comparison to a later scene in which a pair of typical masked bank robbers make their getaway – with the one difference being that they’re vampires who’ve robbed a blood bank!

Interior panels to 'Spirits of Vengeance' #1. Art by David Baldeon, Anthony Piper, and Andres Mossa/Marvel Comics

Interior panels to ‘Spirits of Vengeance’ #1. Art by David Baldeón, Anthony Piper, and Andres Mossa/Marvel Comics

Visually inventive. The artist on this little walk on the wild side is David Baldeón, who has spent his time at Marvel these last few years illustrating such diverse series as Monsters Unleashed, Web Warriors, and that peculiar Marvel Tsum Tsum plush toy tie-in. At first glance, his work might come off as overly stylistic, with figures who can seem unusually gaunt or elongated. A deeper look, however, reveals that his characters are highly expressive, with faces portraying a far higher variety of appearances and attitudes than is usually found in superhero comics, and with backgrounds showing a constantly impressive level of detail. Andres Mossa does a similarly laudable job on colors, often using one primary palette or hue per location to make each new setting feel like a distinct and lived-in place.

In fact, the constant inventiveness that Baldeón brings to each scene is responsible for much of the comic’s success. The bar in which the story opens could have been any run-down dive populated by the usual stock extras – but instead we’re given a bartender with a Harley-Davidson shirt and a caring face, a tired redheaded waitress who looks to be in her 40s or 50s (as opposed to the usual choice of the hot 20’s blonde), and a female bar patron wearing baggy jeans and a carpenter’s belt. Whether in the characters or setting, Baldeón’s art evinces a thoughtfulness and creativity in each element that’s far too rare in comics, and – like some of Gischler’s unusual narrative decisions – seldom settling on what would have been the obvious choice.

Interior page to 'Spirits of Vengeance' #1. Art by David Baldeon, Anthony Piper, and Andres Mossa/Marvel Comics

Interior page to ‘Spirits of Vengeance’ #1. Art by David Baldeón, Anthony Piper, and Andres Mossa/Marvel Comics

Way off the beaten path. Perhaps the only odd note might be in wondering exactly how this fits into the line-wide retooling that the publisher has been making such a big fuss about for the past few months. This is a surprisingly compelling comic, but it certainly feels like one that could have been published at any point over the past year. Ghost Rider was one of the only characters that readers got to spend any significant time with in Marvel Legacy #1 – but that was the newer Robbie Reyes incarnation, as opposed to the original Johnny Blaze version seen here. (And if Robbie doesn’t pop up later in this mini, then where does his story continue from last week’s one-shot? Does it at all?)

One of the unifying gimmicks being applied to all the new comics under the Marvel Legacy banner – in addition to removable “Marvel Value Stamps” and a snazzy new trade dress – is the addition of three “Primer Pages” in the back of each new debut, written by Robbie Thompson and illustrated by a variety of artists (in this case, Anthony Piper). Taking a few pages at the start of a relaunch to lay out to new readers just who all these Marvel characters are isn’t a bad idea – though it would have been far more useful had Marvel Legacy #1 done a better job of courting new readers than it did. Having said that, it seems an odd choice to throw Primer Pages into the back of a comic that will be over in four more months – especially when the pages in question introduce all four lead characters, even though one of them (Satana) doesn’t actually appear in the first issue at all.

Spirits of Vengeance is a moody comic, set in the dark and supernatural corners of Marvel that haven’t been seen for some time. That kind of tale isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, but if you find yourself itching for something different – especially in this spookiest of months – you might be surprised at just how enjoyable it really is.

8 out of 10

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