31 Days of Horror Comics Day 2 – ‘Criminal Macabre’ Delivers a van Helsing for the 21st Century

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It’s my favorite time of the year. Halloween is just around the corner, the air is getting cooler, it’s the perfect time of year to snuggle up in bed with a good book. But which book? That’s where I come in. Every day this month I’ll be suggesting a great horror comic series; some will be straight out tales of sheer terror, while others will be more subtle. We’ll have everything from vampires, zombies, werewolves, and witches, to stories of less defined horror. So join me for 31 Days of Horror Comics.

For day two I’m continuing with Steve Niles week by talking about his second most famous creation, Cal McDonald.  Cal got his start in the short story Big-Head in the Fly in My Eye: Daughters of Fly In My Eye anthology published by Niles’ own Arcane Comics in 1990 with Jim Whiting on art duties. This led directly into the four part Hairball story published in Dark Horse Presents. Now Criminal Macabre isn’t a horror series, per se, but it contains all of the best elements of spooky entertainment. Criminal Macabre follows the adventures of the sarcastic and a bit vile at times self appointed hard boiled occult detective Cal McDonald and his ghoul servant Mo’lock. Cal is a chain smoking, drug using, booze swilling, loveable asshole who takes on werewolves, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night; a sort of 21st century van Helsing if you will. He’s the kind of guy nobody wants to hang out with, but if you have a zombie infestation, he’s the guy you call.

472621-42340_20070101014556_largeAfter his short Dark Horse Presents appearance, Cal went on to star in two prose novels also by Niles. Savage Membrane and its sequel Guns, Drugs and Monsters feature the perfect blend of noir sensibilities and horror tropes with a bit of dark humor thrown in for good measure. Originally an East-Coaster, the latter novel sees Cal relocate to Los Angeles by following a living severed head searching for its body. He would later star in two more prose short story collections, but this column is about comics, and he starred in many of those too.

After the first two novels Cal got his first mini-series from Dark Horse. Entitled Criminal Macabre, Niles and frequent collaborator Ben Templesmith threw Cal through the ringer, pitting him against vampires, alien zombies, and a 100 year old plague; too bad the police don’t believe a word of it. The story is nihilistic yet hilarious in parts, and was a great introduction to the character for me. Niles relishes writing this character and the world he inhabits, and you can tell from page one he is having a great time. Templesmith’s art is perfect for the title, giving this world the dark and spooky edge it deserves. The pair would team up once more for the one-shot Love Me Tenderloin, and then a short story in the Dark Horse anthology Drawing on your Nightmares, but future Criminal Macabre stories would feature different, yet equally capable artists.

Last Train to Deadsville sees Cal and Mo’lock having to deal with demonic possession, urban rednecks, and a pissed off girlfriend in the heart of a Southern California backwater town. And it is one of the most messed up and laugh out loud adventures yet. Cal has forgotten Valentine’s Day, leaving his girlfriend steamed, but that’s the least of his worries as he contends with a portal to hell in Billy Ray’s bedroom. The follow up, Supernatural Freak Machine is even more fucked up and madcap, as Cal has to contend with mad scientists, a possessed muscle car, and an old enemy he put away, Dr. Polynice, aiming to take out those closest to him.

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These two stories are what you’d expect from Niles, full of dark humor, a cynical outlook on the proceedings, and of course monsters. With Kelley Jones on art these books have a different vibe than the previous volumes, but it is no less suited to the story at hand. Jones has studied horror comic art, and his style is very fitting in an EC Comics sort of vein. With a very polished look, it couldn’t be any further from Templesmith’s stuff, but that works to the book’s advantage in my opinion. His style of inking is in stark contrast with Templesmith’s sort of blurry artwork, and the way Jones uses shadows gives the book the creepiness it needs. Sadly Jones would not return to the character after these storylines, but that’s okay because Niles brought Kyle Hotz on board for the next installment.

tumblr_inline_npqz7htX9H1qcpowu_1280Two Red Eyes sees Cal hit rock bottom.  With no girlfriend, no human friends, and a district attorney who’s out to get him, and withdrawal symptoms hindering his every move, how will Cal stop a Nosferatu made of rats? This is easily the most lighthearted of the Criminal Macabre books, even with its rather heavy subject matter. It serves mostly as a bridge between Supernatural Freak Machine and My Demon Baby. Kyle Hotz is a great follow up artist, as his style is just close enough to Jones’ as to not be jarring, all while giving the book his own stamp. Hotz excels in many of the same areas as Jones, without being as polished, and Niles again found an artist perfect for the book. Sadly, other than the one-shot Feat of Clay, where Cal meets a real live Golem, Hotz never returned to the character.

The next two books feature the art of Nick Stakal. My Demon Baby sees Cal still stuck at rock bottom, maybe even deeper, as his pal Mo’lock gives him an ultimatum; get off your ass and back to work, or I’ll kill you before the drugs can. But with his girlfriend a minion of Nosferatu and a group of SoCal satanists trying to bring Satan into the world death is beginning to look pretty good to Cal. Cell Block 666 sees Cal facing jail time after being framed for murdering a police officer, but what has made him different from everyone else may end up saving him. My Demon Baby is an okay entry in the series, but Cell Block 666 is fantastic. The prison setting changes the dynamic in many ways keeping the series fresh. Nick Stakal’s art is drastically different from previous artists, but in the most refreshing way possible. Not my two favorite storielines, but both are worth it for the art alone.

finalThe next few years saw a procession of one-shots of varying quality, most of which had art by the wonderfully talented Chris Mitten. These are collected in the book No Peace for Dead Men, which also includes the fantastically fun Cal McDonald crossover with Eric Powell’s the Goon. Next would see two of Niles’ worlds collide with Final Night: The 30 Days of Night Crossover. I mentioned this one in my previous column. This was the book that ended a franchise. Cal McDonald has to face vampire Eben Olemaun in an epic showdown that one won’t walk away from. This book is the culmination of what Niles had been working on for years, and it is a satisfying conclusion to the 30 Days of Night series, while also being a damn fine Criminal Macabre entry. Chris Mitten remains on art duties for this and the remainder of Cal’s stories, and his style is different than anything that came before, and lends some real world weight to the world.

The Eyes of Frankenstein and The Third Child are the last two books released, and are a mixed bag for me. The Eyes of Frankenstein sees Cal helping Frankenstein’s monster with a case, while the mystery of an illness begins taking its toll on him. He seeks the help of “the world’s foremost authority on the supernatural”, but is it really help he receives? The Third Child sees an undead Cal submitting to his demons, and becoming what he’s always fought against; a monster. Frankenstein is a wonderful chapter in the series, and adds a lot to the mythology while dropping it firmly on its ear, whereas Third Child is a hard one for me because of the conclusion to Frankenstein, but the art on both is excellent as usual. It is a fitting end to the series though, if Niles doesn’t ever come back to it.

Monsters, ghouls, demons, possessed muscle cars, vampires made of rats, and a booze swilling, pill popping psychic detective to contain them all. What’s not to like? It’s the perfect book for 31 Days of Horror Comics.

 

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