Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Stalker #2

Hello, Anj from Supergirl Comic Box Commentary again.

Last week I wrote a post about Stalker #1, a 1970s DC Fantasy title that last 4 issues. Written by then fledgling writer Paul Levitz and drawn by industry superstars Steve Ditko and Wally Wood, the first issue was a fast paced sword and sorcery story that set up the premise of Stalker and gave us a couple of good hooks to get us to come back.

I enjoyed Stalker #1 enough that I thought I would share my thoughts on Stalker #2.

Stalker was recently seen again in the DCU in the 'Ends of the Earth' storyline which ran in Wonder Woman #20-23. In that story, Gail Simone has Wonder Woman meets Stalker in the DCU and is brought to his world. There she meets other DC fantasy heroes Claw the Unconquered and Beowulf. Together the heroes find and defeat Dgrth, the demon lord of Stalker's world and the claimer of Stalker's soul.

Throughout that tale, Diana takes on the aspects of these heroes, becoming soulless  and craving the kill (like Stalker) and actually manifesting Claw's demon hand. I have waxed poetic about Aaron Lopresti's art while on Wonder Woman. Here is a great cover showcasing the different battle outfits he put Diana in as she walked through that world of DC fantasy titles.

I think the purpose of this blog was really to delve into DC's vast history. And if there is one thing I love about DC it is that there is a sense of legend, a sense of a common past. It is why homages and Easter eggs crop up in some issues, a nod to the greatness that has come before.  So I loved that Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti cared enough to not only write this story but to really do the research on the characters, draw them as they were drawn, continue their stories as they were written. Even the name of the arc, 'Ends of the Earth', echoes Stalker's quest of getting to the World's End. Stalker lasted 4 issues, Beowulf 6, Claw the Unconquered 12. But even if brief, they are still part of the tapestry of the DC Bloodline.

As we learned in the Stalker #1, Stalker gave his soul to Dgrth and in return received tremendous combat skills as well as the ability to have his revenge on the Queen who made him a slave. When Stalker realizes that life without a soul isn't all it was cracked up to be, he decides to track down Dgrth and force the god to rescind the deal. It won't be easy as he will need to travel to 'World's End'.

Here, at the sea of World's End, Stalker is tracking Prior F'Lan, one of Dgrth's high priests. F'Lan will be able to tell Stalker where he can find Dgrth.

Getting to F'Lan isn't easy. First Stalker must dispatch a multi-armed demon guard manning the bridge that leads there.

Nothing spectacular here although I did like that Stalker used the bones that form the bridge's hand rail as his weapons to defeat the monster. A similar bridge is seen in the Simone arc, another small nod to history that only a few will acknowledge.

But again, this victory is hollow. The lack of a soul makes joy and happiness an impossibility. There can only be hate.

With the guard defeated, Stalker enters the Dgrth  temple that F'Lan presides over. Pretty wuickly, he is discovered. Unfortunately, despite his demon-given combat prowess, Stalker is overcome by F'Lan's guards and thrown into prison. He will be sacrificed to Dgrth in the morning.

Not surprisingly, not everyone is not treated well in F'Lan's temple. There are slaves here, mostly young women drawn in a classic Wally Wood style.

Wishing to be freed from her life of slavery, one of them decides to help Stalker. She slips him a small dagger and tells him that on the sides of the cliff where he is to be killed there are many nooks that he may hide in. All she asks for in return for helping him is her freedom.

The next morning, Stalker is taken to the cliff to be sacrificed. In what I thought was a nice twist, Stalker actually played along hoping that Dgrth himself might show up to bear witness. Maybe gods manifest often down on this world?

When the demon god does not show up, Stalker makes his play, killing the guards and presumably jumping off the cliff to his death. Naturally, he has found one of the crevices the woman told him of and is able to hide there safely.

Meanwhile, back at the temple, somehow the woman's assistance is deduced and she is tortured. The 'Wheel of Infinity' certainly sounds diabolical.

Unable to deal with the pain, she divulges the site of the cliff's shelter.

This is another example of Ditko's and Wood's excellent art. First, the lower left panel reminds me of Wood's later portrayal of Power Girl. But the layout of the last panel is wonderful. The woman looks utterly defeated, her right hand clenched in a fist as though she is angry that she gave in, her hair down dejectedly; she just looks defeated. That is a lot of information conveyed and that's without even seeing her face. More importantly, the angle looking up from the floor with F'Lan in the background. It is as if we are on the floor too, sharing her defeat. Nice!

Of course, Stalker is alive and well. He makes his way back to the temple, killing F'Lan's guards. Terrified of being killed himself, F'Lan finally tells Stalker how he can get to Dgrth, via a gate to Hell on the Burning Isle.

Stalker decides death is too good for F'Lan. Instead he decides that justice would be for F'Lan to suffer the temple's tortures. Stalker straps him into the Wheel of Infinity and activates it, knowing F'Lan will now spin 'till the end of time'. I love the 'nooooooooo!'

Some twisted heroics there. I like it!

And here is another interesting twist. We see Stalker leave the temple with the woman by his side. I assumed that she would end up being a supporting character, maybe the love interest. But instead, she is sent away by Stalker ... a most chivalrous thing to do. What good would it do for her to now be free only to stay with him and travel to the gates of Hell. That was unexpected. And as someone who has read comics forever, it is good to be surprised!

I also found it interesting that we never find out her name. We don't know Stalker's name either. I wonder if it was intentional on Levitz's part to leave the heroes of the book nameless.

Of course, for all I know, she is in the following issues. I don't own Stalker #3 or #4.

And so Stalker continues on his quest to regain his soul.

As for Stalker's fate in the Wonder Woman story. Diana ends up defeating Dgrth. But in the end, it turns out that Stalker was a traitor. Unable to win his soul back, he had made another deal with Dgrth offering the demon god the souls of Diana, Beowulf, and Claw in return for his own. In fact, in the first issue of the arc, he actually steals Diana's soul for himself.

With his plot revealed and Dgrth defeated, Diana reclaims her soul leaving Stalker once again a hollow shell of a man. What a bitter ending for this cursed being, neither hero nor villain. Have I mentioned that Aaron Lopresti's art was fantastic? He is the only reason I am tempted to get the upcoming JLI book.

As I have said before, Silver Age reviews get a softer look from me. While Stalker #2 was not as strong as the opening chapter, it was done well enough to make me poke around for the other 2 issues of the book.

Overall grade: B


Diabolu Frank said...

Okay, now that I got my OT rambling out of the way last time, let's talk about the actual Stalker issues. I can't remember for sure if I had the first issue as a puppy, or if I'm combing memories the house ads of that glorious cover with recaps from a later issue. Whichever issue it was, a copy of Stalker was one of my very first comics, and I found it oddly compelling.

In my youth, I struggled with the "weird" artists like Ditko, Kane, and Kirby who had very distinctive and unusual styles. They were very prolific, but were often on short-lived "off brand" titles, which led to negative associations on my part. I knew Ditko had done Spider-Man through reprints, but I preferred the more safe, "on model" John Romita Sr. I kind of liked what little I had seen of his Charlton work, but those were hard to come by. Even on the old Strange Tales issues I had, I kind of resented Ditko for drawing Dr. Strange so much differently than everyone else, plus he had Steranko Nick Fury to contend with. Thankfully, as an adult, I've learned how wrong-headed my prejudices were, but Stalker was that one shining moment when I had a Ditko book as a babe that I fully appreciated.

Nobody draws like Ditko, so even through the heavy embellishment of Wally Wood, I recognized the man. However, I was struck by how much more palatable Ditko's work was on this book. Wood was dead by the time I was coming into comics, so I didn't discover him until much later. I just knew somebody had done something right, because I could finally enjoy Ditko's dynamic, emotive, peculiar storytelling without being distracted by the furthest manifestations of his eccentricity. Wood made the girls pretty, gave the figures weight, and offered cinematic lighting that brought the characters to life.

Paul Levitz's story read very well, and he was one of those guys that never disappointed me growing up. Stalker had a well thought out mythology, and I honestly think his soul-stealing origin gave me my first taste of existential angst. Stalker was probably my first anti-hero, driven by cold vengeance and motivated by supremely poor choices in his life. Stalker was a really intense guy, and those red eyes of his creeped me out.

It was a pleasant surprise when James Robinson brought back Stalker for a JSA crossover, but making him a giant stand-in for Dgrth felt like a missed opportunity to me. It's not that Stalker isn't scary enough to be a villain, but he should be more sneaky and cutthroat like a... um... stalker. You definitely make me want to check out that Wonder Woman arc, but DC unfortunately released trade collections before and after it that left me stone cold. Still, I need to chart a course through those Stalker issues, then see about working my way up from there. I wish they'd put it in a shiny new trade.

Once again, awesome coverage, Anj! Thank you!

Luke said...

Frank, Ends of the Earth is pretty easy reading even if you are not "into" the WW story surrounding it. I read the issues cold and dug them.