Tim from Last Week Reviews: Criminal Macabre – A Cal McDonald Mystery #1!

Story: Steve NilesCriminal Macabre #1 cover
Art: Ben Templesmith
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Released: 4/20/2001 (collected 8/2011)

Steve Niles is well-known for his horror comic writing, as well as work outside of comics. He has written Spawn, Spawn: Dark Ages, and Hellspawn for Image Comics; 30 Days of Night (et. al.) for IDW Publishing; Batman: Gotham County Line and The Creeper for DC Comics; as well as writing the script for Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s F.E.A.R.3 video game.

Ben Templesmith has created the art for some of comics’ creepiest titles, including Hellspawn, Hatter M, Fell, and Ten Grand for Image Comics; 30 Days of Night (et. al.) and Silent Hill for IDW Publishing; Gotham By Midnight for DC Comics; as well as art for Steve Jackson Games, Wizards of the Coast, and White Wolf Game Studios.

The cover of this book starts us off right. If this is your first exposure to Ben Templesmith’s art, get used to it: he creates some creepy art. Here, we see Cal McDonald, our “hero,” with a shotgun in his hand, blood on his chest, and a creepy dude (vampire?/demon?/something?) over his shoulder. The city is dark and gritty behind them, so I’m thinking things are bad.

It seems it’s been bad for Cal since childhood, when he found a headless body, and it’s only gotten worse from there. Cal headed west, to L.A., to try to stop monsters. Regular old, nasty, monsters. Cal works with some undead folks to battle the demons, werewolves, vampires, whatever.

The book opens with Cal telling some cops “what went done”, and they don’t believe his tales. Turns out Cal has some addictions, and some history, and the cops don’t really like him. As Cal tells his tale, we see it. Seems he was working a vampire case (cops couldn’t figure out why some college students were dead and missing their blood…). He gets some info, grabs his gear, and heads on out. As it turns out, there are beasties everywhere. Some are just trying to get through life, like us. Cal knows them all, but he’s most comfortable with the ones who lurk around the shadows. They don’t really make trouble, and they don’t tend to be noticed. Cal tracks his vampire, but his rules dictate he can’t just kill the baddie in front of the world. After lifting his wallet, he hopes to track the vamp home (to kill him), but notices another address while checking the I.D. When he gets to the address, he fights his own urges to bolt and get high, even though the gig doesn’t feel right. Cal’s vampire and some friends are talking inside, but he’s surprised to see different types of monsters, together. Instead of running scared, Cal pumps some adrenaline, and ends up interrupting the bad guys. Some monsters escape, some end up bloody, and Cal ends up with little information.

Time passes, and some beasties break into a lab (with the security codes…), to steal a chemical. They efficiently dispose of the records of their passing, but don’t kill the guard. When the police arrive, they find out that a rare strain of black plague was stolen. Records show it never killed anyone, but legend says it wiped out a town in the 1300s. Evidence indicates werewolves, but the crime doesn’t fit the wolves’ m.o.: hunting and killing. Cal stumbles home, hoping to dull the pain with his various vices, but ends up finding his ghoul friend, Mo’lock, in his place. Mo’lock informs Cal that the city’s ghouls want Cal’s help to solve a mysterious attack, so Cal and Mo’lock go deep into the sewers to talk to a gathering of ghouls.

So, I like Cal McDonald. He’s not a great guy, so far, but he is doing what he can do to keep the worst of the worst from damaging the normal way of life. Not that he gets to live that life, and not that he’s necessarily doing it out of love for people; just an obligation, a job. But, he’s also not just a random monster hunter, who kills just to kill. Bad guys may need to go down, but if you’re not a bad monster, it looks like he’ll leave you alone. Seems like a solid plan. This is not my first exposure to Steve Niles. I read all of his old Spawn work when it came out. And, frankly, this was not as scary as his older stuff, but I like the fun nature of this work, much better. The Spawn books were trying to show how evil evil can be, and I think Criminal Macabre is trying to show that there is another side to what we traditionally think of as monsters. I like that treatment much better (Hell, that’s how I view people!).

So, Ben Templesmith is great at creating mood. A lot of it comes through in his color choices, but even regular people can feel creepy under his hand. During the police interrogation, you can tell everything you need to know about the cops just by how their faces appear. I love this stuff. Cal goes through minor transformations from scene to scene, sometimes looking tough, sometimes beat down, sometimes even a little wimpy, and that’s all about Ben’s work. And, of course, we get to see a bunch of different creatures, and his art sort of re-interprets some of the old looks that we generally associate with these monsters. However, through all of the color palette changes and all of the different looks for the characters, there is never a moment where you can think it’s not a dark and gloomy book. We are shown the underbelly of the city, and the only place to go is down.

I really enjoyed this comic, and I plan to read through the rest of the stories. This is the first part of a 5-issue mini-series, but there have been a bunch of mini-series published (mostly) by Dark Horse Comics, who also published the omnibus edition that I used for this review. Criminal Macabre Omnibus volume 1 contains 2 complete series, plus a one-shot story (Love Me Tenderloin), plus another complete series (Supernatural Freak Machine), totalling 392 pages, all for $24.99. There are 2 more Criminal Macabre Omnibuses available, containing 368 pages per volume, also $24.99 each.

Criminal Macabre, and other great comics, can be found at Johnny Destructo’s Hero Complex located at 4456 Main Street, Manayunk, PA 19127. Visit him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/jdsherocomplex/

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