Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.
Nick: Yes, we are back, loyal readers! And for once in our column writing careers, we actually have a somewhat decent reason for our recent absence. You see, yours truly recently became a father for the second time and needed a little time to welcome our new fangirl into the family. Greg, meanwhile, has recently added a new set of sheets to his apartment and he’s spent weeks trying to figure out whether the elastic on the fitted sheet goes on the long side of the bed or the short side. So yes, good reasons all around for our sabbatical.
Greg: Luckily I had enough sheets left over to hang up for my annual one-person Halloween party! It’s the most GHOULISH time of the year, and I know how to celebrate in style!
Nick: Indeed you do. And in light of your festive attitude, we felt it was appropriate this time out to take a look at some of our favorite characters from the magical, mystical and occult realms of the comic book world.
Greg: With All Hallows’ Eve approaching, what better time to examine some of the scariest, weirdest characters in the comic book realm? With all that said, let’s get cracking with Nick’s pick for the five spot.
Nick’s No. 5: Etrigan
One of Jack “King” Kirby’s most enduring DC Comics creations, Etrigan has been featured in the comics and on the small screen, and in any appearance he’s entertaining.
Nick: Now, we should pause here to offer a bit of a disclaimer: Greg and I aren’t exactly experts when it comes to a lot of these characters. Rather, our impressions of them and resulting admiration stems from the few instances we’ve been exposed to them, whether that’s an occasional guest appearance in books we regularly read or, as is the case with Etrigan, standout appearances in the DC Animated Universe.
Greg: Indeed, supernatural/occult characters were never really my bag, baby, but the DCAU and some stories in the last decade have changed that.
Nick: Etrigan first made his DCAU debut in The New Batman Adventures, already bound to his human host, Jason Blood. Etrigan would appear occasionally in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited in the years to come, and his appearances almost always resulted in memorable episodes that gave the creative team of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm an opportunity to play in a different corner of the DC sandbox.
However, one aspect of Etrigan from the comics that I have a bit of a soft spot for is his tendency to speak in rhyme. In that light, I’ll close my thoughts here with one of my favorites:
“Is it a bird or is it a plane?
No–’tis a flatulent, flying fat ali-en!
Oops, there I go now, pushing my rhymes!
P’raps ‘t would be best just to lay off the wine!”
Greg: Words to live by.
Greg’s No. 5: Doctor Fate
Nick’s No. 4: Doctor Fate
Greg: Outside of his appearance as a frail old man in “Zero Hour,” I don’t know that I read a single Doctor Fate comic book when I was a kid. Luckily, the wonderful Justice League Unlimited showed me the error of my ways. While the mantle of Doctor Fate has been worn in the comics by more characters than perhaps any other, the animated series went with the original, Kent Nelson. Like Superman: The Animated Series before it, Justice League showed Kent and his wife, Inza, as a heroic couple just trying their best to be normal in the face of bizarre circumstances.
Using the mystical Helm of Nabu, Kent is perhaps the foremost sorcerer in the DCU, certainly so in the DCAU. In the comics, the various Fates — Nelson, Hector Hall, Khalid Nassour and on down the line — share one trait in common: they’re the go-to guys when it’s time to solve a supernatural problem. Plus, Fate has a costume so cool that it’s barely changed since his earliest appearances in the Golden Age!
Nick: And the actual Helmet of Fate is one of the most well-booked, well-protected items in all the DCAU. Every time there was a question about its security or ownership, the entire League immediately dropped what it was doing to ensure that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. That reverence for the helmet continued in the criminally short-lived and underappreciated Young Justice cartoon, where it eventually came into the hands of Zatara, the father of Zatanna.
So, I suppose you could say my appreciation for the character is more for the legacy of the helmet and its passing across the generations than any particular person to hold it, but the fact remains that no matter who wore the helmet, badassery was sure to ensue.
Greg: Let’s move from a character created over 70 years ago to one created just recently.
Greg’s No. 4: Josephine (Fatale)
Greg: The main character in Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ 24-issue limited series Fatale, Josephine at first appears to be a traditional 1950s femme fatale, but it becomes apparent in the very first issue that there’s something quite strange about this beautiful stranger.
As it turns out, Josephine is seemingly immortal, looking exactly the same in the ’50s as she does in the 2000s. On top of that, she’s been cursed (or is it blessed?) with the “gift” to turn any man she encounters into a love-sick madman incapable of escaping her charms … even if she wants him to.
Given my love of noir-influenced comics, it’s no surprise Jo captured my imagination early on. But as the series progresses (I’ve only finished the first two collected volumes) her gift becomes increasingly scary. If you haven’t tried out this Image Comics critical darling, click the Amazon link on this page and remedy that. Rest assured, we’ll be conducting a Longbook Hunt on it in the near future.
Nick: And from one femme fatale to another… (HOHO WOW, What a segue!)
Nick’s No. 3: Zatanna
Greg: I wasn’t a huge Zatanna fan on Batman: The Animated Series, oddly enough, but some great Justice League stories and the JLU cartoon made me appreciate this magical vixen.
Nick: While it’s her mystical abilities that qualify her for inclusion here, it’s her personal life that made her a must-include for my list. In the DCAU, it is revealed that a young Bruce Wayne once trained under Zatanna’s father Zatara in his many years away from Gotham before the birth of the Batman. During that time, the two developed romantic feelings for one another that were never acted upon. When Zatanna returns to Gotham years later, those feelings are resurrected and again pop up once Zatanna earns true mystical powers and uses them to earn a place among the Justice League.
While it is her power that makes her a valuable ally for Batman and the rest of the League, it is her fiercely independent nature and quick wit that makes her every bit Bruce’s intellectual equal and enables her to actually keep one of the calmest, most collected characters in the DCAU continually on his toes.
Years later, writer Paul Dini would resurrect the fantastic dynamic between she and Bruce during his run on Detective Comics. There’s just something about the pairing of Dini and Zatanna that works, a fact DC realized when the company tabbed Dini to write Zatanna’s first ever solo series in 2010.
Greg: Zatanna also played a key role in one of the funniest episodes of JLU, “This Little Piggy.”
Greg’s No. 3: Deadman
Greg: Once a successful circus trapeze artist (and not the nicest guy in the world), Boston Brand was murdered, only for his spirit to be brought back with the ability to possess any living being.
While Boston can use this ability as he chooses, he chooses to fight the good fight, whether it’s seeking out the man who killed him or simply doing good deeds for others in the hopes of ending his permanent stay in purgatory.
As Nick alluded to, he’s also got a killer sense of humor. Get it? Killer? Anyway, Deadman often serves as comic relief when he pops up in the DCU, but he’s also been a centerpiece in some of the biggest stories in company history, such as Brightest Day and especially Blackest Night. In that one, Boston’s one of the few capable of understanding and combating the Black Lanterns from the get-go, and he helps Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne along with the rest of the heroes as they battle the forces of Nekron.
All the while, he never loses that morbid sense of humor. Of all the occult characters who could use a new series these days, he’s got to be near the top of the list.
Nick: I’d certainly read it. And by “read,” I mean I’d want to read it but wind up having to tradewait due to budgetary constraints.
Nick’s No. 2: Black Hand
Nick: Now, you may be thinking to yourself: “Is Black Hand really a mystical or magical or occult character?” And the answer to that is “He is now!”
For most of the character’s existence William Hand was something of a cheesy, one-note villain obsessed with stealing Green Lantern’s ring to power some sort of magical rod he used to commit petty crimes.
However, under the guiding hand of Greg’s and my comics overlord Geoff Johns, Hand was reimagined as a downright creepy villain who was obsessed with death and was eventually given the ability to resurrect the dead. He served the role of the physical embodiment of death, much like Ion served as the embodiment of will for the Green Lanterns.
He played a major role in the epic crossover Blackest Night, bringing dead characters from across the DCU back to life in an effort to wipe all emotion and all life from every corner of the universe. He eventually failed, retreating as he often does to a desecrated grave, one of the few places he feels at peace. If that’s not appropriate for the month of October, I don’t know what is.
Greg: Oh, without question, Black Hand is a GREAT character, one of the best villains in all of superhero comics. When it comes to pure creepiness, it’s hard to beat resurrecting the family you killed and talking to them over a TV dinner.
And speaking of graves, my next character’s habits will likely lead him to an early one.
Greg’s No. 2: John Constantine
Nick: This may be grounds to revoke my fan card, but I’ve sadly never read the classic Hellblazer series, so my exposure to Constantine is limited to the very solid TV series and the very shaky Keanu Reeves movie.
Greg: A creation of my second-favorite comics writer, Alan Moore, Constantine was one of the original antiheroes. Unfortunately, my comic book exposure to the Hellblazer has been limited. When I was young, I obviously couldn’t get my hands on Jamie Delano’s mature Hellblazer book, and when I got back into comics it was out of sight and out of mind. What I do know, though, is every time I encounter the character he wins me over. Yes, I even liked the Keanu Reeves movie.
John is a chain-smoking, cynical, often anti-social jerk, and we love him for it. The NBC TV series took some time to find its footing (which it did before being unfairly cancelled), but actor Matt Ryan instantly embodied the traits that make John the lovable fiend that he is. Like most outward cynics, beneath all the bluster beats the heart of a good man, and in this case it’s a man with the ability to fight demons and angels alike using magic spells that would give Zatanna a run for her money. He prefers to use simple cunning, though, and as the “Trinity War” story arc showed, he is an expert at playing people against one another.
Hopefully we’ll be seeing Ryan’s Constantine on the small screen for years to come, and the new John Constantine, the Hellblazer series from DC looks promising.
Nick: Well said, sir.
I feel like this might cause an echo in here, but here goes anyway.
Nick’s No. 1: The Spectre
Greg’s No. 1: The Spectre
The idea of the wrath of God’s judgment taking on a human host, and then carrying out various forms of punishment in increasingly inventive ways is just a great concept. An example, if I may. During Green Lantern Rebirth, The Spectre judges Black Hand for his sins and makes his name a whole new level of appropriate by incinerating one of Hand’s hands to ash, forcing Hand to watch as it crumbles and blows away.
Greg: No doubt, the Spectre is one of the most creatively interesting characters in comics. The amazing Jerry Siegel came up with Spectre just a couple years after inventing Superman, which shows he had an unparalleled imagination and that his tastes delved into multiple genres.
Spectre is a flat-out horror character, when you really think about it. Through a deceased human host, usually Jim Corrigan, he enacts painful and often ironic wrath on those who have done wrong.
Depending on the landscape and the needs of the DC Universe writers at a given time, Spectre can be a street-level crimefighter, a spooky apparition who is neither hero nor villain, a Galactus-sized monster or a space-faring adventurer, making him one of the company’s most versatile characters.
One of my favorite periods for Spectre was in the buildup to Infinite Crisis, where Spectre became disembodied and insane. The villain Eclipso even manipulates the spirit into wiping out magic in the DCU. It’s a great story, and it led to a Spectre just as cool as Corrigan in Crispus Allen.
Nick: Couldn’t agree more. Infinite Crisis, more than anything else save perhaps Rebirth, really stoked my interest and appreciation for the character and concept.
Well, that about does it for this week. Be sure to check back next week as we dig into our longboxes for another Longbook Hunt.
Greg: And if you can find it, check out the Spectre one-shot animated feature that came as part of the Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam DVD. It’s great stuff.
Did we leave anybody off our list? Of course we did! Let us know by heading on over to the Place to Be Nation Facebook page, tweeting us @gphillips8652 or @nickduke87 or emailing us at GregP@placetobenation.com or NickD@placetobenation.com.