A Descent Into Darkness: A Review of Chaos! Comics's "Undertaker" Series, Part 1
On Monday, I reflected upon the influence that Professional Wrestling circa 1997 had on the types of storytelling that a younger me enjoyed, and I also looked at a product of that "Attitude" era, Chaos! (damn you, exclamation mark!) Comics's one-shot "Mankind" comic book. Tonight I'll look at a character who was a little bit better suited toward comic-bookification (or "adaptation," if you're into the use of real words), and one whose stories intrigue me to this day: The Undertaker.
First, I think it's important that you get a little background on the character. Sure, I could refer you to the Wikipedia article, but it's always more fun to hear history from someone who's particularly passionate about it - which I, a little embarrassingly, still am.
The Undertaker was created at a time when gimmicks were still the bread and butter of Sports Entertainment, then called "Professional Wrestling." Performers didn't just have personalities, they had costumes - they were like real-life superheroes (or villains). And like superheroes, some of them had super powers. The Undertaker is one of the few wrestlers who've had their gimmicks survive the "Attitude" era, which re-envisioned wrestling as "Sports Entertainment," giving it the feel of a "Soap Opera for Men" that leaned more on realism and sly insider references than on larger-than-life characters. Today, if a character does get a more colorful gimmick to work with, it'll be played for laughs (see "Hurricane" Helms). The Undertaker, except for a brief period from 2001-2004, was a gimmick that thrived, despite what was going on around it. He could resurrect himself. He had an army of "druids" who would occasional hold torches for him. And he could, sometimes, shoot bolts of lightning. He was also not averse to trying to bury you alive.
The Undertaker was introduced at Survivor Series 1990 as a mystery partner for Ted "Million Dollar Man" Dibiase's "Million Dollar Team." He was originally named "Kane, the Undertaker," and was yet to be accompanied by long-time ally Paul Bearer, but the basic facets of his character - stoicism, propensity to speak in a gravelly-toned pseudo-biblical gravitas, and the tendency to finish off his foes by performing a "Tombstone" piledriver - were all there.
Soon after his first appearance, he split from Dibiase and began to appear on "The Funeral Parlor," a talk-show segment with his new manager, Paul Bearer. During this time, Paul Bearer carried an urn with him that seemed to have something to do with the Undertaker's ability to totally beat the snot out of everyone he fought. Bearer would hold the urn up at ringside when the Undertaker was in trouble, and the "Phenom" would sit up and proceed to kick ass.
The Undertaker would also bring a real, honest-to-goodness casket down to the ring during big matches, like the one with the infamous Ultimate Warrior. This led to the creation of 'Taker's specialty: the Casket Match, in which the winner was decided by whichever poor bastard got locked in a coffin brought to ringside. The most famous of these, at Royal Rumble 1994, was against the man known as Yokozuna, a character with a Sumo-wrestler gimmick, which involved the creation of a specially-designed coffin big enough to hold the reportedly 500-lb. man. In the end, the Undertaker would end up being shoved in instead, ganged-up on by a multitude of other wrestlers, who only managed to get the Dead Man to stay down when somebody knocked over his urn, and a cloud of nasty green shit came pouring forth. It would take more than a locked box to hold the Phenom, though, and his "soul" would float up from the casket after the match, determined to return at a later date.
Fast-forward to 1997, and the WWF is bigger than it's ever been, forced into that position by the "Monday Night Wars" with rival promotion WCW. Enter Kane, no longer a name owned by the Dead Man, but given to his eeeevil masked brother:
Kane was forced to wear the mask after being horribly scarred in the fire that destroyed The Undertaker's family's funeral home as a child, although he doesn't seem terribly bothered by it nowadays. After a convoluted series of slow-building clues, including broken Grim Reaper statues, graveyard desecrations, and mustache-less Paul Bearers, Kane showed up after 'Taker's "Hell in a Cell" match against Shawn Michaels at the "Badd Blood" Pay-per-view exhibiting nearly all of the "powers" of everyone's favorite deadman, but with a twist - he could seemingly control fire to an extent, setting people and things aflame at will (which culminated in an hilarious bit where he and his brother tried one-upping each other by firing bolts of lightning at various parts of the arena, which included quite a few hapless event employees). Soon after his arrival, he allied himself with the Undertaker, but then turned on him once more, locking him in his own casket and setting it on fire. The Undertaker was apparently "dead" for real this time.
That is until he returned, this time sporting a few new tricks: he tried to "Crucify" several people, and began prophesizing the coming of a "Plague of Evil." This is the era of the Undertaker that these comics were published under. It was also the downright most awesome thing the WWF/WWE has ever done. Although the Undertaker would go on to form the Ministry of Darkness, using giant flaming t-shaped symbols to scare the crap out of Vince McMahon, these events are not chronicled within the Undertaker comic book.
These issues, therefore, suck. Unequivocally.
I just thought you might like to know that. Hell, if you read my last review of a wrestling based comic, the aforementioned Mankind, you already know that, most of the time, the adaptation is very different from the source material. This one, though, at least acknowledges that the Undertaker is a wrestler, and so he should probably be seen wrestling at some point. This shall be the only place where Chaos! (ugh) Comics will not disappoint.
Believe it or not, The Undertaker actually had a longer run than I thought it did - it ran for 10 issues, and since Chaos! Comics didn't seem to realize that the comic book industry was in a bit of a slump in 1999, there were more variant covers than an X-Men mag. There was also a Halloween Special which I haven't been able to track down, and the god of your choice only knows what fantastically terrible goodies are in that one.
Tonight, I'll be looking at the only logical place to start our journey into unforgivable travesty. Actually, the logical place to start would be #1, so there's some well-laid plans already ruined. Looks like we're riding bitch with illogic for this one, which is quite serendipitous, as that's exactly what Chaos! (JESUS CHRIST, SHOOT ME NOW) Comics specializes in. We will begin our journey with Undertaker #0.
Alright: I've stalled this long enough already, let's get this shit over with.
Luckily for you, this one's more of a preview book - it's only 12 pages, instead of the usual 24 or so.
Undertaker #0 was one of those Wizard give-away dealies, a promotional item that was supposed to interest readers enough to actually shell out $2.95 ($4.58 for us poor Canadians) for issue #1. And, hey, bonus: the art isn't quite as ugly as it was in Mankind.
#0, written by Beau Smith and penciled by Manny Clark, sets the stage for the conflict to follow by revealing that the Undertaker is actually the ruler of some place called Stygian, which is either an owl, the River Styx, or a heavy metal band from Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Oh wait, he actually says it's "Hell's prison." So I guess it's a mix of all three.
Wow. Hell's prison. I thought Hell was a prison, in a way. Even so, why would you want to be the warden of a bunch of demons? Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Apparently, there's a war being fought for control of Stygian - why, hell, who knows? The important part to know is that when you go to watch a wrestling match, you're really watching two demons duking it out for control of a prison in hell.
You think you're seeing this:
But what you're really seeing is this:
Yikes. But also, huh? If you were a demon-thing, would you choose to fight over the most important real-estate in the underworld in a dark alley, perhaps while brandishing a sharp, stabby object - or would you choose to participate in semi-staged events within a limited, yet open, space, surrounded by thousands of people, and under a set of confining rules that include "no biting?"
You win this round, irrationality.
Anyway, one of those handsome fellers up there is fighting on behalf of a guy called The Embalmer. We'll learn more about him in #1. The other guy is fighting for the aforementioned Paul Bearer. Both are players in the war to control the inexplicably valuable Stygian.
The Undertaker doesn't like his demons taking time off to wrestle, though, and so he comes to the ring to send 'em back to his prison - which means that these demons are fighting to stay out of Stygian by fighting for two guys who want to own Stygian. Hm.
You've got to give it to Beau Smith, he's done his research: WWF referees are completely ineffectual, even in the Chaos! universe:
That'll teach 'em, Earl.
Okay, maybe not.
When I first read that, I thought he was saying "WAUUGH!" I thought maybe the author of The Loved One had some sort of unexplained grudge against him. Another opportunity for a spin-off wasted! It's these kind of short-sighted decisions that bankrupted this company in 2002.
There's not much else happening in this issue other than an atrociously bloody beat-down that the Undertaker lays on the two demons. He manages to send them back to Stygian by giving them piledrivers, which is a lesson that all priests should take to heart when performing any upcoming exorcisms.
The Embalmer shows up, looking somewhat less than dangerous:
and slightly more Gen-X than I expected. He is an inspiration, though - he was able to bed two women, even while insisting on watching wrestling afterward. He is a hero to us all.
Kane even shows up, but whose side he's on is left as a mystery for now - although we can reasonably assume that it ain't gonna be 'Taker's.
So there's not a lot to chew on in this one, but it does have me dreading the next.
After all, any comic where the fate of Hell rests on a "sport" with arbitrarily defined rules which are infrequently enforced can't certainly be good, can it?