The comic I’ve been reading this week is Warlock 5 — the “complete” issues 1-13, by Gordon Derry and Denis Beauvais, and published by Aircel Comics.
Years ago I owned a copy of issue #7 which I bought new off the shelf in what must have been 1987. I have no idea what happened to that copy, but a brief “appreciation” of the series on Newsarama a few years back prompted fond memories of that single issue I owned and curiosity about the rest of the series. So I put it on my want list, and finally got around to ordering them a few weeks back.
I said “fond memories” before, but that does not accurately describe my feelings about Warlock 5 #7. Warlock 5 #7 was categorically badass. Back in 1987 when I was reading Superman, Transformers, Excalibur, and I’m sure something else which I can’t quite remember right now, I would still scan the shelves at the comic shop even for the indies, which I did not read, and the cover of Warlock 5 #7 refused to be denied. I mean look at this thing!
There were very few painted covers on comics at the time, and this one was beautifully executed with an awesome range of character designs the likes of which only I myself could have come up with at that age. I mean, who cares if the robot is a Terminator rip-off? It’s still such a wicked visual. The air-brushed black-and-white interiors were not exactly photo-realistic per se, but they had a three-dimensional solidity to them which I had never seen in any other comic before — certainly never in any of the 4-color Marvel and DC books I was enjoying at the time. To this day I remember the last panel here:
And I loved the violence of this sequence:
And then, at the end of the book, there was this:
Holy Shit!!! Boobies!!! Believe me, at 13 years old, I spent A LOT of time with that last panel above. I mean, MASSIVE amounts of time. I mean, INCREDIBLE, MASSIVE, WHOLE LOTS OF TIME. HOURS AND HOURS OF TIME. MEGA COLLOSAL, HUGE TRACTS OF TIME. REAMS OF TIME. GARTANTUAN, MONOLITHIC GALLONS OF TIME. I MEAN, STUPENDOUS, INCALCULABLE AMOUNTS OF TIME.
Anyway, there was no “Mature Readers” label on the cover. I wondered if the guy at the counter would sell it to me — I would have been 12 or 13-years old at the time. I had to own those boobies no matter what. I had to give it a shot. Hopefully he hadn’t read it and wouldn’t know that I should not actually be allowed to buy it. So I took it up to the counter and, as I recall, the guy sold it to me without a word.
This comic never made any sense to me. And, really, if you’re jumping on at issue #7 it’s unlikely it would. It begins with some kind of medieval battle between a witch and a sorceress on the top of a castle, when a knight in armor enters the fray; then it’s the present and some dude gets stabbed by two women in the street and the women are pursued by bikers in armor, and that’s kind of it. But that cover and the art is still riveting. And I still love the scanned scenes above. The incomprehensibility of the plot only made the comic more compelling as an object in my mind — like a page ripped out of someone’s diary that you find in a gutter. I got a dream-like sense of the greater tapestry beyond the reach of my conscious awareness. And, speaking practically, how many more of these would I be able to sneak past the guy at the cash register anyway?
Finally reading the complete series this past week, it is sadly disappointing. When you read a single issue, you can only imagine the greater framework. Seeing that actual framework, you realize how terribly flawed and dishearteningly uninteresting it is. You realize how many of the same traps it falls into that other black-and-white indies of the era did — this thing wants to hyper-accelerate the construction of a giant comic book universe without any meaningful development and the resulting impression is of a typical kind of Marvel knock-off conceived by a 14-year old. (In fact, every founding title from Image Comics suffered this same juvenile approach.) I mean — Great Krypton — weren’t any of these people reading Love and Rockets or Cerebus, or at least ElfQuest?
From issue #1 the plot still makes no sense. Supposedly the book is about: “five Guardians struggling for control of a Grid that is the intersecting point of five conflicting realities” (so says issue #12). The back pages are filled with supplementary matter to help explain the structure of the universe — almost all of it is confusing mumbo-jumbo that fails to illuminate anything. Characters regularly spout lines full of generalities like: “Maybe the only way to solve the imbalance of the universe is to change the present reality. I’ve discovered that the turbulence of cosmic energy is centered on this time” (actual dialog from issue #12). As if this helps to delineate anything. Sometimes they even try to clarify the plot in the letters pages! While the “grid” seems to operate according to certain rules, there is no discernible internal logic to the magical abilities people seem to randomly display.
At the end of issue #3, one of the Guardians is about to kill the other four with a nuclear bomb and the caption says: ‘To Be Continued.” At the beginning of the next issue, everything is back to status quo with no mention of what happened — and, no, I didn’t skip an issue. They apologized for this TWICE in the letters pages: once explaining that it was some kind of radical new storytelling technique where the readers were supposed to imagine for themselves what happened, and the second time explaining that they had to cut short story pages resulting in the gap (and yet the issue in question also contained a back up story and house ads).
Most issues fall into a basic pattern of one or more Guardians showing up to fight one or more of the others, while the remaining one(s) try to convince the others to stop fighting until the next issue. One of the fatal flaws of the series is that a Guardian seems to die in almost every issue only to be shown to have survived in the next. If you’re going to kill off and bring back, say, Colossus or Kitty Pride every 100 issues or so, that’s one thing, but in Warlock 5 the cycle is only two or three issues long — the formula almost instantly becomes predictable and tedious.
An exceptional issue is #13 which oscillates between wince-inducing cliché / Alan Moore pastiche, and some really interesting formalist sequences, the likes of which had never been even hinted at in the series before:
But worst of all: there are no boobies in any issue except #7.
Denis Beauvais’s art, though, improved with each issue. Issue #1 in fact is a bit clunky, alternating from somewhat not-ready-for-prime-time line work, to his signature airbrushing:
I’ve only seen one or two other Aircel books — Demon Hunter and Samurai (illustrated by the one-day-to-be-famous Dale Keown) — but they did seem to have a kind of “house style” — a kind of fetishistically shaded Eastman and Laird — and Beauvais definitely fits into that category at first. But by issue 4 or 5 he hits his stride and distinguishes himself. (Demon Hunter by Barry Blair and Samurai samples below.)
Aircel is a company I know almost nothing about except that they were based in Canada, and they seemed to survive the Black & White Boom and Bust, which is a fascinating event in comics history in itself. Another weird thing about Warlock 5 is that, while I called it “complete” above, in fact there were a lot more issues. The thing was taken over by a radically different creative team after issue #13 and went on for a further, something like, 15 issues (illustrated by Barry Blair of Demon Hunter above). What’s odd is that on Beauvais’s website he states that: “15 issues were created in total, issues #14-#15 unpublished.” This is odd because Derry and Beauvais owned the copyright on the series. So how did they end up losing control of the series — what the heck is the story there…?
Long story, short: to some extent I actually regret having read these comics. They’ve destroyed the illusion of greatness I got from issue #7. Fortunately, none of it is very memorable, so my plan is to sell off all of them except #7, forget all about them, reconstruct my awe around that one issue, and climb back once again into the moist, sultry womb of nostalgia.