SUPER NATURALS #6: MONSTROUSLY GOOD ART!

My favourite Super Naturals cover so far wasn’t initially drawn as one. So impressive are Massimo Belardinelli‘s monstrous creations in one of the strips inside that they were used in a montage, with an image of Scary Cat by Sandy James hiding the seams. The black and white images work perfectly with that logo and I can only imagine what could’ve been if Massimo had been given the chance to design and colour a cover of his own!

The images are for the anthology tale not related to the licence and we surprisingly kick things off with the other original story, The Doll. Moving from the middle of the comic to pole position could be a sign of the strip’s popularity and it’s got the shock factor to perfectly kick things off. It’s still Christmas Day and the family game of hide and seek almost ends in tragedy. Uncle Frank is rushed to hospital with the horrible knowledge that the doll (which he believed was somehow responsible for the death of previous foster child Alan) is alive and murderous.

He’s able to whisper this to Simon before he falls into unconsciousness and rushed away. Simon is the only one who knows the truth, apart from his seemingly hypnotised younger brother David of course. Speaking of David, he’s almost party to his older sibling’s murder in this issue. There really is a feeling of the stakes being upped here.

An angry Simon takes to searching the house, determined to finish this. But while looking out a suddenly opened window the doll creeps up from behind and pushes him out from the upper floor of the house. Luckily able to grab a drain pipe, it buckles under his weight while David just watches, his facial expression almost matching that of the doll’s. But when the Marshall’s son Clive enters the room David’s attitude completely changes and he rescues his brother from certain death.

Did he do this himself so as not to get caught? To play along as the innocent bystander? Or did the doll relinquish its spell over him, to keep his hypnotised state a secret for now? Maybe the doll simply ran off before being detected and its grip on David was lost. Intriguing questions and I look forward to answers soon. With the comic coming to an early end just three issues from now, I suppose the only upside to its cancellation is knowing answers will be forthcoming a lot quicker.

The layers are building; Frank’s hospitalisation while now knowing the truth, David’s apparently willingness to see his brother die, the fact the doll is clearly out to kill and not just terrorise. It’s wonderfully paced and Francesc Masi‘s artwork is perfect for a horror story like this, setting an idyllic scene with a horror element right in its centre. It ends with Simon hoking about under his mattress for Alan’s diary and his hand comes across something moving. I remember what comes next from the last time I read these a few years back and it’s probably the most memorable moment from the entire story. You won’t want to miss the next review.

Anthony Williams is the artist for Ghostlings which continues its future tale and the underground-dwelling humans are now officially called Troggers, our ghostly characters foretold as “the great deliverers from beyond”. Convinced both Super Naturals are there to help they won’t listen as Spooks tries to explain. We see Weird Wolf battling one of the Crevice-Crawlers and the strip ends with Web-Winders invading the caverns. The comic really is trying to get as many creepy crawlies into this strip as possible.

The evil Super Naturals have made it all the way to the Cornish coast

The Ghostlings form a truce, knowing it’s their only chance of escape back to the Tomb of Doom but this lasts all of a handful of panels before Weird Wolf takes off, too scared to fight these monsters and leaving Spooks to defend the humans alone, possibly losing his only chance of leaving before there Tomb of Doom disappears again. Despite his comical appearance, Spooks is developing into quite the hero and I really like that. I’m also enjoying the setting, which feels very much like classic Doctor Who‘s depiction of future worlds. I’m sure kids would’ve relished the giant insects, dinosaurs and spiders. As an adult it’s great fun and isn’t that the whole point of a comic?

The comic’s lead strip, Legend of the Super Naturals is now taking up residence in the middle pages and the evil Super Naturals have made it all the way to the Cornish coast in their flying Bat Bopper car. It’s interesting to read about the limits of the powers these characters and their vehicles have, the comic has rules within which it operates and they make for better story choices and drama. Here, the Bopper needs time to recharge its “aerial energy” and the good guys are in an even worse state which I’ll get to soon. But first I wanted to point out some wonderful little parts to this story.

Dave D’Antiquis once again does a superb job of bringing the toys to the page and even though I really liked Alan Landford‘s faceless Burnheart in #4, I think Dave’s more toy-accurate depiction here is also superb. The powerful image makes the fact the Ghostlings undermine his transformation in the same panel all the funnier too. Then Snakebite takes centre stage for what is a quite dark sequence when you really think about it.

He morphs into this reptilian humanoid form to use his hypnotising powers on three huntsmen who have discovered the Bat Bopper. His face in this form reminds me of the aliens in V, which would’ve still been on TV at the time so this may have heightened the thrills for the young readers. But what stands out is the fact he’s hypnotising the three men to take aim at each other and fire their shotguns. Yes, their barrels are empty by this stage but the intent is there for a truly horrific scene, making this probably the darkest moment in this story since #1‘s church scene.

While strong in other ways, the good guys’ Ghost Finder isn’t that great at flying and has to make its trip across the Atlantic Ocean in stages. While it’s not explained here I’m going to assume that means jumping from ship to ship, terrifying the crews along the way for the greater good. Knowing that will take too long Lionheart and Thunderbolt use a little-used power to travel from New Orleans to England instantly, even though this will mean they’ll not only be vastly outnumbered until the rest can catch up, they’ll also be weakened by the transference at the same time.

This is what I meant about restrictions on their powers being better for the story. If they all just had unlimited powers the comic would be nothing more than one repetitive battle after another. I’m not sure if the limitations were outlined in the toy range of if the comic created them, but either way it works. The three licenced strips have been doing a good job of defining these characters enough that I care about what happens to my favourites. These limits add some tension and drama on top.

The issue has another one-page Ghosting Tale of a bully trying to scare some campers with his shadow, only for that shadow to turn into a creature of the night and attack its owner, and there’s another poster by Sandy James in the centre pages. The above contribution to the letters pages caught my eye, not only because Mahmoud is from Northern Ireland where I reside myself, but also his heritage links him to the Ghostling he wanted to write to. As before, the accompanying illustration is by Fleetway stalwart Tom Williams.

The absolute star strip of this issue is the latest Scary Cat Challenge called Nightmare which is based on an idea sent in by reader Trevor Knott of Plymouth. The story revolves around a young boy who ditches school and ends up in the supposedly haunted Bedlington Castle on a tour to kill time. The castle is shrouded in mist and the tour guide is suitably creepy so we know there’s going to be something else going on. The young boy gets bored quickly and decides to wander off, poking about inside the castle’s restricted areas. The tour guide sees all however and soon decides to teach the lad a lesson “better than he would have learned at school today”.


“The boy trembles… shivers… and sits transfixed with fear…”

Nightmare

After making jokes about the tour guide’s looks and sneaking inside one too many private areas, the kid soon finds himself locked in a room full of medieval torture equipment. Thinking he’s not going to get out until the castle opens again the next morning he starts to cry, thinking of the trouble he’ll be in with his parents. It’s at this point, when he’s at his lowest, that he spots a shape taking form in the air around him. A man wearing an old-fashioned actor’s collar tells him he’s going to put on a show as a way of apologising for such an apparently boring tour. This is when artist Massimo Belardinelli unleashes his imagination!

Panel after panel we’re treat to (and the boy is terrified by) more and more horrifying creatures. Each one is an original, highly detailed masterpiece! This carries on for a few pages and there are some truly creepy and, depending on the age of the target reader, scary images here. Those same readers would’ve loved every panel though. They were buying Super Naturals for things like this!

Massimo was an Italian artist whose work I discovered as a kid when he drew the first two chapters of Joe Alien in editor Barrie Tomlinson‘s Wildcat comic, an original science fiction title published a year after Super Naturals. (You can check out Massimo’s work in the Wildcat reviews.) He’s also known for his work on 2000AD‘s Ace Trucking Co. and Sláine amongst many others, where his highly detailed and highly imaginative alien/mythical art was a hit with readers.

I think the level of detail here is just incredible. The amount of time and effort afforded to this one strip, a one-off in a toy licence comic based on an idea from a reader, must’ve made young Trevor’s year! Any one of these panels could’ve been a splash page but Massimo packs them in on each page instead, and we see the boy becoming more and more terrified with each one. This is the kind of quality we had in our toy licence comics and the licence holders must’ve been thrilled with what Barrie and his team were producing for them.

The story concludes the next day and I have to say, even as an adult, it really shocked me! As the tour guide unlocks the door I was expecting the kid to either run out screaming, having learnt his lesson, or to be a gibbering wreck and ready to apologise for his behaviour. I did not expect him to be dead! To have been scared to death. So much so in fact, he’s become a petrified skeleton overnight, still inside his pristine clothes. What a shame this is somewhat ruined by the panel which immediately follows it.

While we’ll most likely never know for sure, I have a feeling the discovery of the skeleton was where Trevor’s original idea may have ended. The panel with the child turning the television off isn’t in keeping with the rest of the strip at all. Could it have been added so the story didn’t end with the death of a child? It’s quite possible and I’d understand why, of course. Although I would’ve thought Scary Cat‘s appearance would’ve had the same effect.

It doesn’t take too much away from the story though and nothing could take away from the art on display over these six pages! It’s sad to think of work like this being forgotten, that the comic wasn’t successful enough to last longer, to keep on producing strips of this quality and earning itself a reputation for doing so. Today there are those online who still scoff at the idea of licenced comics, who unfortunately will forever miss out on reading and enjoying things like this.

The licenced strips themselves don’t let the side down. As Legend of the Super Naturals continues to lay out the ground rules and develop the background to these characters, the final strip would be set at some later point in their story, gorgeously illustrated by Alan Langford. While he’s now decided to give Skull eyeballs (as opposed to the especially creepy version in his previous serial, Mount of Athos) his work is no less suited to the horror comic genre.

I particularly love how they set the Bat Bopper to work eating its way through the wall, that definitely raised a laugh

In England to uncover the lost tomb of Britannicus, a fictional barbarian sorcerer, last issue the evil Super Naturals explained if Britannicus is freed evil will break loose and rule the world. As this issue’s chapter starts they’re still racing down the Thames in a wonderfully atmospheric opening panel. Last time we had a classic Victorian Christmas as our opener for the festive special, but this time it’s quite the opposite, gloomy scene.

As for our heroes, they’ve become pinned in by locals determined to protect their families from them. To be fair, given the setting the locals are just as scared of the vehicles, so no wonder they’re unable to distinguish between the two sides. There’s a scene of Eagle Eye having to scare the “valiant citizens” away so that they’re not harmed in the pursuit of Skull and his cronies. It goes against everything they stand for but it’s for the greater good and concludes with this brilliant juxtaposition of Christmas Card-like imagery and Tonka truck!

The characters are settling into their different personalities, distinguishing themselves from each other in their actions and not just looks. It took a lot longer than six issues for more successful comics such as Transformers to do this as successfully. They’re also starting to use more of their unique special powers, which you can see below on the final page when we go back down the river and catch up with Skull, Burnheart and Scary Cat as they find what they’re looking for thanks to Skull’s x-ray vision.

I particularly love how they set the Bat Bopper to work eating its way through the wall, that definitely raised a laugh, while at the same time it kind of makes sense when you consider the huge row of teeth the front of the possessed truck has! What a fun way to give us half of our cliffhanger. The other half is the final panel at the bottom, where we see the humans have reformed, summoned the military and the Ghost Finder and its passengers are in for a rough ride. We know guns have no effect on the Super Naturals in their humanoid forms so as long as they don’t transform into their animal personas they’ll be fine. Not sure if the same can be said of the Ghost Finder itself though and without their transport all may be lost.

There’s still the mystery around Britannicus and who or what he actually was to solve too, so the next chapter should be particularly interesting.

The Christmas issue still remains my favourite so far. That could be because of my love of the season combined with the festive ghost stories of course, but nonetheless #5 just pips this issue to the top of the list. But I must say there’s a real feeling of confidence about this issue. From the scope of its stories and some truly incredible artwork, to pushing at the boundaries of what a children’s horror comic can publish.

What a shame there are only three regular issues left in the series. However, there are also two big Super Naturals special editions though, the first of which will be reviewed before the final issue, and I’m really looking forward to getting my fangs stuck into that one. Before then are a couple more issues, the next of which will be reviewed on Sunday 23rd January 2022.

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