Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I Walked With a Xombi, Part 1 (of 2)

In 1994, John Rozum and J.J. Birch served up the comic book series Xombi, which survived for 22 issues (issue #0 + 1-21). It was briefly revived last year by Rozum with artist Frazer Irving for a mere six issues, which is where I first discovered it. Eager to learn more about the series' backstory and to learn whether the initial series was as fascinating as the latter, I recently purchased the original Xombi#0-6.

Xombi#0 actually doesn't belong with the other six issues - it was the first published issue of Xombi and explained the character's premise, but it was set chronologically at a point after issue #6. It served primarily to establish the hero, David Kim, and set him up within the Milestone Media comics universe (I didn't recognize any Milestone characters in issues #1-6). Arriving in stores six months before issue #1, the #0 issue was really just a teaser and featured Milestone founder Denys Cowan on art, rather than Birch.

This out of the way, let's look into "Silent Cathedrals," the six-part story which opens Xombi.

We meet middle-aged scientist David Kim as he welcomes his one-time student and protege Kelly Sanborne to work at Organitek; because Kelly is a woman and David is presently engaged to someone else, David's co-workers delight in teasing him about being involved with Kelly. The truth is, David and Kelly are immensely close friends, not lovers, but platonic friends in the truest sense.

Kim is developing "the Cabinet Beast," a nanotechnology device which can reshape organic materials into other substances (ie, paper can become chocolate). David doesn't think his work is particularly impressive, not compared to his collegue Gerald, who trains ants to perform in a miniature circus.

As you may have gathered, the world of Xombi is not quite ours and I haven't spoken of the man made from sausages or the ghosts of dead insects. In the course of issue #1, David is fatally wounded by creatures who are after his nanotechnology; Kelly saves his life by using the nanomachines to repair his cells. It works: not only are David's wounds healed, he becomes physically younger and his nearsighted vision is fixed. Unfortunately, the process requires raw materials and because Kelly was hugging David during the ordeal, trying to comfort him, the machines used her body for spare parts. David awakens to find Kelly's partially decomposed body next to him, in the story's most horrific visual.

In what follows, David sets after the creatures responsible for Kelly's death, soon discovering because of his rebuilt body, his nanomachines have rendered him unkillable. He soon finds allies, such as Catholic Girl (a Catholic schoolgirl who can fly by crossing herself, create a force field by chanting the Hail Mary and shoots energy beams through her rosary), Nun of the Above (Catholic Girl's superior, who can view people within a 30 mile radius), occultist Julian Parker and Rabbi Sinnowitz and his two Golems.

The latter characters are worth highlighting because I had met each of them in the 2011 Xombi series. There, I noticed not much effort was made to reintroduce the characters to newcomers, but looking back to "Silent Cathedrals," I see little was done to introduce them in the first place - like so many of the elements which emerge during the storyline, people like Catholic Girl simply are; from their dialogue, you quickly grasp they've been dealing with strangeness for some time (and thus readily accept David as their new ally), but you learn more about them from their following actions, rather than any exposition. In Xombi, weirdness seems to have always existed, it didn't originate with David and it certainly doesn't end with him.

Amidst the weirdness, Xombi reveals itself as a super hero story, a horror story and a comedy. You really must appreciate all three genres to have any hope of enjoying Xombi, but the fast-tracking narrative mostly encourages good-humour. For instance, there's the sequence in Xombi#3 where Julian and David are attacked in a library by "Sheer Shears," creatures with scissors instead of heads. Julian explains them thusly:

"The Sheer Shears. The best agents to send into a library. That book won't do you any good. You can't use books, or the ideas contained within, against them. Which is why magical spells are useless. Anything you've learned from reading is ineffective. Only the oral tradition is effective, because as everyone learns as a kid... scissors cut paper. But... rock smashes scissors."

Julian delivers this speech solemnly, but the entire concept is so absurd - and yet logical! - that his eventual solution was a laugh-out-loud moment for me. Perhaps your mileage varies?

Xombi's strengths do not entirely revolve around the weirdness. Probably the book's greatest asset - because of the quick pace, gigantic cast and aforementioned weirdness - is how Rozum develops his characters. Everyone, even the series' villain Dr. Sugarman possesses at least a quirk of some sort which makes them stand out. In issue #1, a security guard is introduced and killed in a single page, but Rozum spends the page developing the guard's personality and his love of composing poems while working; when the guard dies, we feel the tragedy of a human life snuffed out; he was not a faceless extra, we glimpsed something of the uniqueness in every human being.

One of David's earliest quirks is his fear of pain. Before he gains his powers, David is mocked by his co-workers about wincing when his blood is drawn. Even after become unkillable, David flinches at pain. It's no small thing for David to break his arm because he reacts like a human being whose arm has just been broken. Compare this to comicdom's most famous unkillable hero, Wolverine, who shrugs off fatal wounds with "clever" one-liners. When a giant monster steps on David he can only gripe with his allies who want him to get back into action: "I think every bone is my body is broken, and you want me to move?"

By the end of "Silent Cathedrals," David has saved the world, but failed to capture Sugarman, the man who orchestrated the death of Kelly. But it wasn't just Kelly who died that night at Organitek, with security guards and a cleaning woman amongst the victims. One of David's co-workers remarks "I heard about what they did to the cleaning woman." David answers: "Her name was Cecilia." It's an insight into David; not only is he sensitive to pain, he's sensitive to others. Throughout issue #6, David recalls his friendship with Kelly, recalling the party games they would play, strange things about her diet, her favourite jokes... not only do these memories seem to keep Kelly alive, he hopes his nanomachines will be able to restore her body, just as they did for him. Unfortunately, Kelly's body has already been cremated, scuttling David's plans. David is forced to make his peace with Kelly's memory, deciding he doesn't even want vengeance on Sugarman, knowing it wouldn't bring Kelly back to life. Since his body was rebuilt using Kelly's, he decides part of her is alive within him and he will live as she would've wanted to.

Comic book culture commonly derides the 1990s and the glut of over-produced material was certainly a nadir for the industry; however, quality work existed then and it's worth unearthing it now and granting it the recognition it deserves; if you think you've read all the 90s had to offer, think again: you need to reckon with Xombi. I hope to visit the other 15 issues in time, but I'm now certain "Silent Cathedrals" is one of the best super hero tales of the 90s.

More on Xombi #1-6 tomorrow.

1 comment:

Colin Smith said...

"I hope to visit the other 15 issues in time, but I'm now certain "Silent Cathedrals" is one of the best super hero tales of the 90s."

Oh. OK. That sounds like the kind of buried treasure I want to hear more of. I look forward to what you write next.

And now .... E-Bay ....