SUPER NATURALS #8: ESCALATING ECTOPLASM

The Ghostlings strip makes the cover of the latest Super Naturals as Spooks faces up against the monsters of Earth in the far future. Anthony Williams is the cover artist for the first time and it may not look like it but the story itself remains the lighter, more comedic of the comic inside. It’s also the first cover to directly relate to a chapter of a strip. Previously they’ve been general images of characters or scenarios to lure readers in, and #6 was a collage of panels from the Scary Cat story. I can understand why early issues of a new comic, especially a licenced one, would have more generalised covers so maybe this one was a sign of things to come.

Although things weren’t to come. We’ll get to that a little further down the review but first up let’s get stuck into the continuing Legend of the Super Naturals which has technically been ongoing since #1, although it did sort of start a new story within itself in #6 when they made their way to the Cornish coast. As Skull and his team get ever closer to the location of Excalibur, the good Super Naturals are split in two, beginning with leader Lionheart and Thunderbolt making quite the entrance.

Accidentally scaring some local farmers away, the weakened heroes hop aboard their abandoned tractor to give very slow pursuit in a small moment of comic relief. The next page on from this takes us across the breadth of the entire story, beginning with the tractor pootling along before we catch up with those upon the Bat-Bopper. I wonder if these acts of violence towards Skull’s own underlings would’ve developed into a plot point further down the line. While the good guys see their Ghostlings as helpers, it’s clear their counterparts view them as slaves, there only to do their bidding.

They come across a local village and just for the sake of spreading fear they tear it apart with flames and missiles, basically for their own amusement. We also catch up with the team on the Ghost Finder who have stopped off on another small rock outcrop in the middle of the ocean to let their vehicle recharge itself, just like I assumed they would’ve had to do. I’m glad to see this wasn’t overlooked for the sake of expediency.

Eagle Eye senses some unknown mineral beneath the surface and a quick missile blast later Hooter is getting to work with his little-used alchemy abilities to turn it into a useable fuel. Once on their way for the final part of their journey Eagle Eye says he’ll fly solo alongside them. But really, he just wants to use his own powers of instant transference (which the others used to their detriment last time) and doesn’t want to be talked out of it. As Spooks wishes “Feathers” well the cliffhanger has us back at the destroyed village, Lionheart and Thunder Bolt looking on, desperate to help but unsure how they won’t just make it worse!

There’s certainly a lot happening this issue. However, none of it is rushed and it’s become the best of the licenced strips by far, with multiple points of view all playing out independently from each other. It feels like a much meatier read than five pages would normally contain and in fact I had to go back and check there weren’t any extra pages added to the tale. The writer (most likely editor Barrie Tomlinson) has an expert hand on these characters now and having Sandy James as the artist is the perfect choice. After all, he developed the comic versions of the toys in the first place. I’m looking forward to seeing how all these elements come together for a surprise finale.

The Ghostlings strip is beginning to feel like it’s running out of steam story-wise, but artist Anthony Williams certainly seems to be having a blast. His designs for the dinosaur-like Surface-Stampers and the giant insects the Crevice-Crawlers are great fun, as is his interpretation of Eagle Eye who makes a surprise appearance here, big heroic chin and all! Back in Ghost World, the all-knowing being Specter may not care about sides, but it would appear he can be coaxed (or tricked) into giving away a location and the door to get there.

Weird Wolf is quite angry none of his own teammates came to rescue him so he turns into his animal form and howls, summoning the beasts above, which in turn attracts the Crawlers who see the stampede as dinner on the go. It’s all rather inconsequential after the interesting story we’ve been treated to so far and unfortunately the ending is worse. It’s just annoying. It happens off to the side, with Spooks simply describing what’s happening.

This feels like a cheat to shoehorn in a cliffhanger. Without showing the apparent danger it feels cheap, like a lazy last-minute way to attempt a dramatic ending without putting any of the effort into writing or drawing it. It’s such a shame because it’s been a good story until now, and Anthony’s art was saving this episode somewhat until this. I do wish Anthony had been enlisted to draw a full Super Naturals strip though, I’d loved to have seen his versions of the other main characters.

After not actually showing himself in last issue’s chapter (but having his presence very much felt) The Doll is about to make up for lost time. Simon Wickham appears to be trapped in the caterpillar-laden basement, the stairs have collapsed and the doll is closing in, axe in hand. Swing after swing almost connects before the ventriloquist’s dummy throws it at him in frustration and it sticks in the wall. Using it as a step up, Simon leaps for the door and escapes in a very exciting sequence I’m sure had child readers thrilled.

Artist Francesc Masi seems to relish being able to finally draw more of the murderous toy. It’s expressions would’ve been terrifying for the target audience and his relentlessness in trying to kill Simon, who the readers would’ve been able to identify with, is quite severe. It’s clear by now the doll isn’t out to make mischief or harm, he’s a killer! This is confirmed by Simon’s foster mum Louise.

When Simon discovers a broken ventilation cover leading to the basement he realises the doll has been able to come and go undetected. Louise, knowing David is on his way to visit Uncle Frank in hospital and that he left with a suitcase big enough to house the doll, rushes them both to the hospital. On the way she comes clean and finally admits, to herself as much as to Simon, her previous foster child Alan was killed. It was no accident and it’s now clear to her the doll, now on its way to her comatose husband, was responsible.

There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment here which may be a hint of what’s to come in the finale. Look at David’s face while the monster that’s possessed him is beating Frank. Is he starting break through the spell? The strip ends with him leaving, suitcase in hand, just as the others arrive and Simon tentatively opens the door to Frank’s hospital room, now in darkness. I’ve loved this chapter and it’s definitely building to a climax. Of course I only know this with the gift of hindsight but it makes for a breathless episode and I’m excited to see how it’s all wrapped up in the next issue.

However, I can’t help but be a tiny bit concerned about the amount there still is to wrap up in just four pages. We’ve the mystery of Alan, David’s possession, the outcome of the attack on Frank and hopefully the defeat of the doll itself. I have faith in this comic though. So, while I can’t imagine how they’re going to do all of that I have faith they will! Let’s just hope it’s not left too open-ended as a result. I want a nice, satisfying end to the doll’s murderous rampages!

It’s hardly a sign of a comic series about to be cancelled

Eagle-eyed (no pun intended) readers may have spotted something was missing on the letters and drawings pages, the end of The Doll and the final panel of the Scary Cat Challenge strip. Namely, the address for the comic. Clearly its fate was known in advance (unlike Ring Raiders) and it would’ve been unfair to ask the young readers to send in more contributions when they would only have been received after the final issue had gone to the printers. But on Spooks’ letters page there’s an advertisement which gives a different sense of how the title was performing.

On the same day as this issue went on sale, the Super Naturals Adventure Book was also released. A thick, glossy publication along the lines of the OiNK and Wildcat Winter Specials and most likely timed to entice all the new toy owners from Christmas to buy it (and through it discover the comic). It’s hardly a sign of a comic series about to be cancelled. Obviously it would’ve been created a long time before this point when hopes for Super Naturals were still high but still, I can imagine the shock of readers who picked it up only for the next regular issue to announce it was the end!

Speaking of readers, let’s have a quick look at a couple of contributions to Spooks’ letters pages. I really like this Tom Williams drawing of George Michael as a Ghostling, created to beat the evil Weird Wolf‘s terrible singing. Reading this today and seeing him as a ghost has a different feeling to it, but as a fan I like the idea of him protecting us mortals with his music. Also, Mr. Lucky grants a reader’s wish in a moment which reminds me this is very much a Barrie Tomlinson comic.

The Scary Cat Challenge this issue is based on an idea sent in by reader Jonathan Williams of Liverpool. It takes place in India where Professor Ronald Barton is in his element, enjoying the culture and people and paying his respects to the history of the country. His ungrateful son Julian however doesn’t even want to go. When they get there he’s foul to every local, intolerant to the ways of the people, their cultures, food and language and even thinks the Taj Mahal is nothing compared to Wembley Stadium! He reminds me very much of a certain kind of British tourist we all know too well from holidaying abroad.

Julian ends up insulting many of the locals. One particular temple tour guide doesn’t take kindly to a comment from him. Standing in front of a golden statue depicting The Snakes of Panatha Julian scoffs at the prophecy, that “one day the golden snakes of Panatha will reincarnate”. Asking Julian to respect their ways, instead the guide is verbally abused. Apologising on his behalf, his father the Professor tries to reason with Julian but his son is just as rude to him. By this stage I felt myself becoming frustrated with the character, which is the whole point. We can also see where this story is going when he returns to his hotel room to find a smaller version of the same statue as part of the decor.

He throws a blanket over it and climbs into bed to read a football magazine he brought from home to “get away from a load of old mumbo-jumbo”. We see the blanket move and golden snakes appear, one after the other, accompanied by the eerie caption, “A moving snake makes no noise”. Screaming in fright, Julian ends up entangled among them and we suddenly find the story jumping forward to the next morning, where a local doctor is examine him.

While the comic doesn’t go so far as to scare a kid to death this time (see #6), the outcome could actually be worse for this particular brat. The final page shows his body stiff but still breathing, his heart racing but no movement or reactions whatsoever. He’s been frozen in fear, possibly for the rest of his life. These final panels showing Julian’s facial expression are the creepiest of the whole story, but add these to the moments of the snakes surrounding his bed and that silent panel in particular and Julio Vivas once again captures the potentially scary moments perfectly. I’m sure young fans would’ve loved his work!

After a brief Ghostling Tale involving a fairground ghost train we move on to our final strip which as per usual is The Curse, drawn by Alan Langford. In the tombs under the Thames Skull, Burnheart and Scary Cat have discovered where Britannicus lies and are attempting to open his casket to release his curse upon the world. Knowing they’re late to the party, Lionheart and Eagle-Eye take up arms against Burnheart outside and we finally get some Super Natural-on-Super Natural fight scenes. Don’t get me wrong, the story has been intriguing and I’ve been eager to see what this Britannicus fella is all about, but Alan did such an amazing job of the fight scenes in his previous story (Mount of Athos) I’ve been looking forward to them clashing again with him on art duties.

There are spells and flames and swords and guns aplenty but the setting just can’t relive that epic feeling from the previous story. However, it’s still fun and as always we have to remember the original audience. Eventually, as the good guys recover from a spell cast by Scary Cat, she and Burnheart race inside to recharge the flame gun (see last issue) and finally free Britannicus’ body. But it appears the Romans knew it could still be of value to evil and so they sealed it within a further casing, this time made of brass. Knowing it’ll take longer to break into this, Skull and his cronies retreat through the underground sewers until they reach a dead end.

The final panel halts the action as the Bat Bopper unleashes one of its flying bombs and the ‘Next Issue’ panel simply states, “The Flood!” so I think we can guess what’s on the other side of that dead end. It’s a much lighter episode this time compared to the atmosphere-rich story we’ve had thus far. T here are also more examples of using Skull for comedy which I found humorous last time because it hadn’t been done before, but now I feel it’s taking away from that gloriously scary leader Alan portrayed in Mount of Athos.

Nevertheless, knowing the final chapter is upon us I’m still looking forward to seeing how this one is resolved, even if it’s now looking very unlikely we’ll get to see what Britannicus looks like or what his curse entails.

It’s sad to think there’s only one more issue of the regular comic to go, but I’m excited by the Adventure Book, which as I explained above also went on sale on this day back in 1988. So I’ll be spending time this week reading that for the full review in seven days, to fill the gap between the penultimate and climactic issues of Super Naturals. So come back to check that out on Sunday 13th February 2022.

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