Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: El Diablo: The Haunted Horseman

I have recently been reorganizing my massive comics midden, a long overdue task forced upon me by a break-in, during which the would-be burglars dumped all of my long-boxes out in the middle of the room and rifled through the resulting pile, apparently convinced I had hidden $100 bills between random bagged-and-boarded comics (I don't think they stole any comics; I recently discovered that I seem to be missing my entire run of JSA and Justice Society of America, but I'm not sure if the box containing them was stolen in a previous break-in at a previous apartment, where I also lost all of my Robin, Batgirl and Nightwing comics, or if it was just lost in a move).

It's precisely because I have ever-so-gradually been going through every comic book I've ever bought that I know I never finished Jai Nitz, Phil Hester and Ande Parks' 2008 miniseries El Diablo. In fact, I seem to have given up on it after the second issue (Unless I did buy and read all six issues, and the thieves decided to just steal the last four issues of the series).

I became newly curious about that series and that creation upon seeing this year's Suicide Squad film, which prominently featured a version of the Nitz/Hester/Parks iteration of El Diablo in the cast, presumably because the post-Flashpoint "New 52" revival of Suicide Squad did so. I was able to track down a copy of the 2009 collection of the series, El Diablo: The Haunted Horseman, through the library, although it doesn't look like it is currently in print. That is unfortunate (as I imagine others might suddenly be interested in the character thanks to the movie as well), but also understandable (The New 52 version, and the one in the film, vary quite considerably from the one Nitz and company presented in their series).

Rereading the early chapters, I was reminded fairly instantly of two elements of the book I didn't care for.

Nitz picked up on the retconned version of the original El Diablo, a cowboy character created by Robert Kanigher and Gray Morrow, which had reimagined him as being a literally diabolical, supernatural character. In this series, that El Diablo, Lazarus Lane, appears as Rip Van Winkle-looking coma patient kept alive by his curse. At one point he shares his hospital room with the paralyzed prisoner Chato Santana, passing on his curse and making Chato the new El Diablo, "Hell's hitman." What does that entail? Well, he would transform into the guy you see on the cover, with super-strength, a degree of invulnerability and the ability to walk again. He gets a flaming whip and an enchanted pistol from cowboy times that fired brimstone bullets only capable of striking sinners (they would dissolve in the air if fired at the innocent). He also had access to the magic ghost horse that Lane used to ride.

Not a bad suite of supernatural powers, although the face resembling a skull and the flaming whip were pretty reminiscent of the actual skull face and the flaming chains of Marvel's Ghost Rider, as was the mission passed down from a cowboy era spirit of vengeance and El Diablo's specific remit: He was to kill evil men with his supernatural powers, consigning their souls to hell.

The Ghost Rider-iness was particularly strongly felt in 2008, as the Ghost Rider film was released in the previous year.
The other aspect was that grated with me at the time was that El Diablo III here was basically created to do the very same job that The Spectre and Ragman held. How many spirits of vengeance did the DCU need running around killing bad guys? Weren't theyse guys eventually going to get their capes all tangled up at some point? (Looking back, the last Spectre ongoing, the one starring the then-dead Hal Jordan, was cancelled in 2003; by this point, Crispus Allen was the host of the Specre, but, like Ragman, he didn't have his own series.)

Anyway, that was eight years ago. How does it read now?

Remarkably well. I was particularly impressed by the Hester and Parks art, which, were it published by today's DC Comics, would look particularly weird and unusual, as the publisher's range of art styles has gone through a couple rounds of contractions towards a house style and expansion away from that house style, but the contractions have always been more dramatic than the expansions.

In addition to being completely solid on the fundamentals of storytelling–sadly, no longer even a given for books from the two major direct market publishers–Hester and Parks offered thick, chunky figures on a relatively flat plane, in a highly individual style that couldn't really be mistaken for anyone else's. At least I have never seen a piece of Hester's art and thought it was anyone else's, nor have I ever seen anyone else's art and wondered if it might be Hester's (Nor have I ever heard anyone else mistake his work for anyone else's, or anyone else's work for his).

The design of the title character is, in passing, familiar to that of the version in The New 52 and the Suicide Squad film, mainly from the neck up, but not so much in context. Chato is a bald, built, Mexican man living in L.A., and when becoming El Diablo his skin turns ghost white and the markings of a skull appear, while he's clothed in garb that's vaguely cowboy-like (poncho, gloves, boots). The current conception of Chato is a more wiry figure, heavily tattooed (In the film, he's like ten times more heavily tattooed than the rather heavily tattooed Joker and Harley), and he has pyro-kinetic powers, given to him by a vague-ish source.

Chato is a fairly smart and fairly ruthless gangster with a heart if not gold, then at least at least of some valuable metal–he's not a 100% total bastard, but he is a real bastard. This being the DCU, his criminal empire involves more than just the usual, real-life criminal activities and, at the book's opening, he's in the midst of purchasing some high-tech laser guns from the HIVE. When the deal goes bad and the police try to bust it up, Chato's betrayed by his lieutenant and ends up getting shot and paralyzed.

He refuses to give up any information at all to the law, no matter what they do to him or offer him–including an experimental procedure to fix his legs–but his old gang comes for him anyway, and he's only saved by taking on El Diablo's curse.

Once empowered, he goes through a bit of training with Lane in which he learns more about his powers and their limitations, while going after various targets of vengeance assigned to him, and the one he wants, the guy who betrayed him.

Meanwhile, he gets mixed up in a DCU superhero-like plot involving an alliance of several villain agencies that mainly serve as Easter Eggs for long-time fans, gets his first villain in a sword-handed guy named Vorpal and discovers the origins of the curse, which goes back to prehistoric mythology and leads to a climax for the fate of the world (Spoiler: El Diablo saves the world).
Of particular interest is his encounter with "Brave New World"-Era Freedom Fighters, a battle which climaxes in Mexican-American drug dealer Chato Santana literally duking it out with the Spirit of America, arguing over who has more blood on their hands and who better represents the American dream. It's the kind of scene that could only occur in a superhero comic, as no matter how fraught with symbolism or commentary the scene might be, it's also perfectly natural, because Uncle Sam rubs shoulders with the other characters of the DCU. (I was actually pretty surprised by the presence of Invunche, those particularly disturbing monsters from Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, if only because such direct references to events from Swamp Thing would have been a little unusual then; Hester and Parks' versions manage to be creepy without being as completely terrifying as the more detailed version drawn by Rick Veitch).

While I had no interest in the character in 2008, and apparently not many other comics readers did either, based on El Diablo's vertual disappearance until 2011's Suicide Squad, now I can't help but wish this was the version that was still running around. As derivative as many elements of the character are, he's visually much more compelling (and easier to draw; New 52 El Diablo suffers from wandering, ever-changing tattoos) and has a much more interesting back story and status quo than "former gangsters who shoots fire out of his hands."

Also, I really like scary horses in my comic books.

I wonder if this version could have worked in the Suicide Squad, movie or comic book, though, given what we're told of the curse. Like, I'm not sure how Amanda Waller would keep this guy from killing his teammates and everyone else in Belle Reve, like, immediately.

I know Nitz has been given the opportunity to revisit his creation in DC's post-movie Suicide Squad's Most Wanted series. I read a few chapters of the El Diablo story, and I'm afraid they didn't do much of anything for me, mostly because of how poor the art was. I'm interested in re-reading them now though, having just completed this series.

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