Issue(s): Hellstorm #7, Hellstorm #8, Hellstorm #9, Hellstorm #10, Hellstorm #11
These issues comprise a short run after the original creative team, Rafael Nieves & Michael Bair, left the book but before Warren Ellis comes on board (with Leonardo Manco mostly remaining as artist). Peter Gross will become known for his work on Vertigo titles like Books of Magic and Lucifer, so he's clearly a good fit. Len Kaminski, on the other hand, seems like an unlikely writer for this book, and if it weren't for the fact that his plot gets cut off mid-story, i would have assumed that he was just filling in until a "real" writer could be found. However, despite some flaws and despite the story never reaching conclusion, this is the best writing that i've ever seen from Kaminski, and it's a vast improvement over what we've seen in this book so far.
The story begins by finally using Rabbi Avram Siegal, who's been in this book from the beginning without actually doing anything. He calls Hellstorm and tells him that he received a phone call from an old friend whose husband was put in a coma. The husband has recently been revived by a televangical faith healer named Joshua Crow. There are "side effects" that Siegal's friend is concerned about. When Hellstorm investigates, he finds that the man has a German accent and has been waiting for someone to take him back to Hell.
The story here is that Joshua Crow isn't really bringing people out of their comas. He is pulling souls from Hell and putting them in the comatose bodies. But what makes things interesting is that the people being pulled from Hell aren't history's greatest monsters (i.e., like "Coldsteel" and "Zyklon"). They are ordinary people who to varying degrees may not even have belonged in Hell. One was a serial rapist, so yeah, ok.
Another is a pedophile, and you can see him struggling against his urges.
One, Nikki, is a hedonist into drugs and sex. Not exactly "good" but not evil.
The guy that Hellstorm first found is, Joseph Heinrich Gerhardt, who was a Nazi during World War II. And his story puts the normally mocked "just following orders" defense into context. As a boy, he had Jewish friends and girlfriends. But he doesn't resist when he's assigned to a death camp.
Years later, he died, and went to Hell, where he was forced to toil away. But now he's woken up in the body of a Holocaust survivor.
Another soul Crow has brought back from Hell, Lisa, is a lesbian.
Her inclusion is the most controversial, as the story itself makes clear.
Hellstorm confronts Crow, who it turns out knew what he was doing, although he saw it as bringing a mercy to the damned and didn't consider it a bad thing. Confronted with the suffering Gerhardt, Crow admits that it's not really a mercy. A temporary problem is Gabriel the Devil Hunter, who has been having a crisis of faith, and he was taken in by the miracles that Crow was seemingly performing. So he tries to fight Hellstorm when Hellstorm first confronts Crow, and after the truth is out, Gabriel is extremely angry at Crow, his faith now totally shattered.
This is a great premise, full of moral complexities. As well as exploring the tension between what the audience knows to not be evil (e.g. homosexuality, hopefully) and what the "rules" are according to many religions in a universe where the Christian Satan, at least, has always seemingly existed as a character.
The story is unfortunately cluttered with distractions, though. For example, in issue #8, the humans around the returned souls get possessed by demons who attack.
That was completely unnecessary. I guess it helped to extend the story and provide some "action" and horror, but it doesn't really even make any sense. The idea is that these souls have returned to Earth, and we should be exploring that. Not having them get randomly attacked by demons.
The pedophile is killed by the demons. The other characters are gathered by Hellstorm. Hellstorm catches the rapist about to attack Nikki, and he determines that he truly belongs in Hell and sends him back there. The rest he brings back to his place, and they agree to go with him to Heaven to confront whoever made the decision to put them in Hell.
Hellstorm takes them there through a path in Purgatory, using his chariot and demon horses.
Issue #9 feels like another wasted issue, showing Hellstorm having to fight off demons sent from Hell to get back the souls before they make it to Heaven. It's just a big long boring fight. The main point is to demonstrate that Hellstorm is very much as scary as the demons he's fighting, but that point could have been made a lot quicker.
For what it's worth, Hellstorm's horses are destroyed during the battle.
So issue 7 got me pretty interested. Issue #8 continued to be interesting but the demon possessions felt like a waste. Issue #9 then felt like a complete waste. Issue #9 happens to be the one where Peter Gross gets an art assist, meaning that several pages were drawn by Mark Badger, and it's kind of terrible (which i attribute to deadline pressures, not Badger's skill). So at this point i was thinking that once again i get myself excited over a premise that was going to go nowhere. But then issue #10 got good again.
We start to learn more about our remaining returned souls. We see the guilt that Gerhardt lived with.
And a really good scene showing a scene from Lisa's childhood when she realized she was gay.
I really love the idea of her finding validation in the form of a schlocky exploitation vampire film, because what else was out there at the time? It's without question the best depiction of a homosexual character that i've seen in a Marvel comic to date. Pretty much the only case where a story goes beyond just revealing that a character has a same-sex partner (which of course itself was still rare) and really goes into their experiences. It feels way ahead of its time. I definitely double-checked the credits to confirm that it was really Len Kaminski, who's never given me an impression that he was anything beyond a perfectly average super-hero writer. Without taking anything away from him, i also wonder how much Fabian Nicieza was involved in the plot. Nicieza was only getting a co-editing credit at this time as the editorial team was transitioning to Marie Javins, but these kind of character vignettes are the sort of thing he was doing in Nomad. Although i definitely think the writing here is more natural than Nicieza's. I'm also super glad that Peter Gross was doing the art, even if it meant that Hellstorm's demon fights in issue #9 had to be extended so that Gross could get back on schedule.
As the cast climbs a mountain leading from Purgatory to heaven, Gerhardt and Lisa begin to feel lighter as they face their guilt. Hellstorm feels heavier, though, and finds it harder and harder to climb, and the same is basically true of Nikki. She doesn't want to let go of her memories, and she eventually decides to drop back into Hell.
The others make it to the top of the mountain and are declared "purged" and allowed to enter.
Nikki was right that she would have had to give up her personality and memories to go to Heaven. Hellstorm doesn't like that when he finds out about it, but is unable to stop Gerhardt and Lisa.
Hellstrom continues to protest, and the guardian therefore casts him down to Hell. And that ends "Book 1" of this storyline.
In the only issue of "Book 2", Hellstorm is given a tour of Hell by what seems to be Simon Garth (aka the Zombie).
During this tour, what was implied in the previous "book" is confirmed: that what keeps people in Hell is their own feelings about themselves. The fairness of that doesn't get debated and there are clearly problems with that idea (but at least the serial rapist still wound up in Hell). Hell is said to have multiple forms and is a "mirror for the collective unconscious", reflecting the fears and dreams denied of the denizens.
And there's more but, unlike the depiction of "Heaven", which is extremely rare in the Marvel universe, we've had many trips into Hell and i'm not too interested in this particular interpretation since i don't think it's definitive. So i'll just skip ahead to the reveal that the "Simon Garth" in this story is really Satan (which among other things means we don't really have to take his word for anything he told Hellstorm about Hell).
Aaaand... cut! That's where this run ends. Warren Ellis' run will not be a direct continuation. I suppose this could have been the plan all along - the title listed in the next issue blurb really is the title of the next arc, and what happens after this encounter is incorporated into Ellis' plot as a mystery - but it seems like a very unlikely place to end. I don't know if Kaminski's removal was sales related, or if it was just "hey we got our replacement writer!", or if the topics tackled here turned out to be too controversial.
If these issues generated controversy about the positive depiction of lesbians and Nazis, it's not shown in the lettercols. Some people do write in with concern about the seeming implication early on that lesbians should go to Hell, but the response is for the readers to hang in there, and indeed one of those writers writes back to a later issue to acknowledge that the story was well handled.
I really liked the focus on these characters from Hell. Unfortunately between extended demon attacks and other problems (like a page seemingly missing from issue #10), the good moments are mixed in with extraneous and sometimes confusing stuff. So this is a real diamond in the rough, but unfortunately there is a lot of rough. I also don't know that it would have gotten better. Issue #11's exploration of the cosmology of Hell is somewhere between boring and potentially alarming from a continuity-breaking perspective (it's best to just not have defined rules for how a Hell and Heaven work in the Marvel universe). I didn't particularly relish the idea of a Hellstrom/Satan confrontation either and so it was with mixed emotions that i realized that Kaminski's story was cut short. But i would have very much have liked to see Kaminski doing something character/scenario driven. His role of shepherding misplaced (?) souls could have been a very interesting long term status quo for him. It's a very Vertigo-ish idea, which is something this book was explicitly aiming for.
Some other notes:
Crow is supposed to have brought back six souls, but only five are accounted for. The final soul turns out to be Satana. She sends Crow to Hell.
Also mixed up in all of this are a pair of entities, Armaziel and Sammael. They seem to be playing a complicated version of chess with each other (continuing the usage of chess from earlier issues, but Satan was involved at that time).
We see Armaziel (or a similar entity) at the end of the story, guarding the passage to Heaven, but we never return to Sammael. I suppose Kaminski would have expanded on this if his run had continued.
In issue #9, we see what may be the return of Gabriel's deceased partner Desadia, but which may also be a hallucination. Either way, Gabriel is clearly not doing well.
We also check in with everyone's favorite boisterous Hellcat. How's she doing?
Cheese and crackers!
The above is during the portion of issue #9 where Mark Badger is providing an "art assist" which, based on the quality i assume means that someone grabbed him in a hallway and begged him to scratch out several pages in ten minutes.
Statement of Ownership Total Paid Circulation: Average of Past 12 months = 122,828. Single issue closest to filing date = 76,685.
Quality Rating: C+
Chronological Placement Considerations: Next issue jumps ahead "months" and we'll only learn the details of Hellstorm's confrontation with his father later.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (1): showAmon (Demon Steed), Avram Siegal, Gabriel the Devil Hunter, Gargoyle (Defender), Hecate (Demon Steed), Hellcat, Hellstorm, Satan, Satana, Set (Demon Steed)
When you're talking about things we know to be evil, I think you missed a not. "As well as exploring the tension between what the audience knows to now be evil (e.g. homosexuality, hopefully) " Love your site
Posted by: Joshua | February 28, 2017 3:16 PM
Whoops, typed "now" instead of "not" and totally changed the meaning! Thanks.
Posted by: fnord12 | February 28, 2017 3:20 PM
LOL having been a fan of your site for a long time, I was fairly certain of the error but it is funny how one little letter could so change an entire paragraph.
Posted by: Joshua | February 28, 2017 3:24 PM
Does the revival of Satana merit a Historical Significance boost or does this ultimately not mean much?
Posted by: Morgan Wick | February 28, 2017 5:33 PM
For me, that was really mind-blowing... In Italy, these was the first episodes of a brand new experiment of publishing Marvel Comics in 96 pages pocket books in black & white (previous episodes of this series was published in a magazine alongside Ghost Rider and Midnight Sons). When I read these stories, well ... I shook my head! Shortly after I started reading also Preacher, and shortly thereafter they "drove out" of the Catholic school and I went to public school. Best choice of my life, I started to make me a lot of questions about life, about the society (I think it was the first time that I really felt empathy for a homosexual), I started reading the X-Men beyond the forms of Psylocke and really understand the message of equality and coexistence that communicated ... I would say that Kaminsky (and then Ellis) has really changed my life... I am the person that I am nowaday thanks to these stories they writes...
Posted by: Midnighter | February 28, 2017 5:58 PM
The introduction of the demons surrounding the returned souls is interesting. I wonder if their introduction is a quick fix designed to rid complications of whether a pedophile (who seems repentant) belongs in heaven or hell.
Posted by: Mark Black | February 28, 2017 6:32 PM
@Morgan, she only appears in 3 more issues of this series and then doesn't appear again until 2004, and she's also the sort of character where "resurrections" aren't really surprising. And she was promised on the cover of issue #1, so i consider her return as part of the package of the series. So i didn't think it merited a significance point.
Posted by: fnord12 | February 28, 2017 9:33 PM
That actually is Mark Badger's normal art style, as evidenced by his 1988 Martian Manhunter mini-series.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | March 1, 2017 10:46 AM
Reading the review i expected more than C+ tbh.
Posted by: Entzauberung | March 1, 2017 11:23 AM
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