Thursday, October 8, 2009

CREEPY Resurrectus

If you are a horror fan whose formative years occurred between 1960 and 1980, you would have had to labor mightily to avoid the influence of Warren Magazines. Their flagship title was, of course, Forry Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland, and its success inspired publisher James Warren to return high-quality illustrated Horror to the nation's newsstands for the first time since the heyday of EC Comics. To bypass the strictures of the censorious Comics Code - created in the aftermath of EC's excesses - Warren launched his comics as magazines, the larger page size proving all the better to display iconic covers from Frank Frazetta and astonishing artwork from such illustrators as Neal Adams, Steve Ditko, Alex Toth, Gene Colan, Reed Crandall and many, many others. Archie Goodwin (who at some point in his career brought excellence to every comic company) supplied most of the terse, literate scripts, and when Creepy was inaugurated in 1964, it quickly spawned companion mag Eerie. Warren Publishing experienced artistic and financial ups and downs over the next decade and a half (the 1969 addition of Vampirella was a watershed moment and did much to save the company), but before it folded in the early 80s, Warren was the gold standard in black and white comics, and had produced some of the generation's most memorable work.

There have been a couple of fitful attempts to re-launch Creepy in the years since, none successful. Recently Dark Horse Publishing acquired the rights to Warren's back catalogue, offering sumptuous reprint volumes collecting the early issues of Creepy and Eerie - for which the company won a well-deserved Eisner Award. In addition, Dark Horse has committed to a full-scale relaunch of Creepy, the first issue of which hit comic shops this summer.

For the first time since 1982, I find myself living more than a half-hour from the nearest comic shop, and I told myself that first issue should still be waiting for me when I got to a store. Nope. Sold out. Finally, after too long a wait, I received a copy in the mail, and for the first time in almost three decades, my hands opened a brand-new copy of Creepy.

The first impression was a bit of a shock, but I should have been prepared; this Creepy is a comic book, not a magazine, and the reduced page size demonstrates Jim Warren's wisdom in the 1960s. With less space to work with, the artwork is generally simple, lacking detail. It is difficult to imagine a Crandall or an Esteban Maroto working in these dimensions - the intricacies of their art would be cramped, crowded. Even the frontispiece from legendary horror artist Bernie Wrightson is spartan in detail; welcome, yes, but still missing a sense of flourish. (Eric Powell's nightmarish "Hell Hound" cover is spot on, however. Still wanted to see it larger, though.)

Angelo Torres, whose work graced the very first issues of Creepy, is here on loan from Mad Magazine with the cover story "Hell Hound Blues," and the issue ends with a reprint of a Bill Dubay / Alex Toth story from the 1970s, "Daddy and the Pie." The other three stories - "The Curse," "Chemical 13" and "All the Help You Need" are from contemporary creators, and they share a problem that compelled me to suspend my comic buying ways back in 2005; they can all be read within a matter of seconds. Dialogue is minimal; captions are non-existent; there is no sense of pacing. There is nothing on the printed page that forces you to slow down, live in the moment, absorb any mood whatsoever from the story. In the case of Saskia Gutekunst's artwork on "Chemical 13," the story of a Nazi concentration camp extermination gone awry, there is no flow from panel to panel, and at an important transitional moment in the story, there's nothing visual to confirm what I think is happening. It's sloppy storytelling, and it's antithetical to all that is creepy - and Creepy.

The final story (billed on the contents page as one of Uncle Creepy's "mouldy oldies," but it's really from a 1975 issue of Eerie), is the aforementioned "Daddy and the Pie," and it serves as an elegy for what this reboot has failed to get right. It's a tender - even a bit saccharine - story of a boy and a visiting alien (seven years before ET, mind you) that possesses an actual script (with captions!), and artwork from the towering Toth that could serve as a master class in the tints, shades and washes available in the b&w medium. Sadly, it's been shrunk to fit the constricting pages of this new book.

It's an apt metaphor for this debut issue. Jim Warren thought Big; he aggressively pursued the finest in contemporary comics to get them to play in his sandbox, and exulted when he could score a steal from Marvel or DC. Dark Horse needs to use the same ploy. Maybe they won't be able to land the finest out there, but there have to be more accomplished creators available than these, or DH has to aggressively pursue luminaries from the past (Vertigo's short-lived horror anthology series Flinch did a superlative job of this). Dark Horse holds Creepy's past in their hands, the blueprint for how to rebuild the title for the future. Now it's just a matter of finding the right laborers for the work.

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