While this collection ended with a strong tale, it’s a rough path to get there.
Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are one of those epic writing partnerships that you don’t find much of in this day and age. Nowadays, you find most writers usually having to team up with their peers when they are behind on deadlines and need someone to bail them out. Perhaps there are some cases where writers team up because they legitimately work well together, but these are usually short-lived. Palmiotti and Gray, on the other hand, have collaborated together for almost two decades and have the distinction of having worked at almost every well-known comic book imprint. Although they are most well known for their work on Jonah Hex and Power Girl over at DC, these guys have also contributed to Marvel, Image, IDW and many others – in essence, they’ve seen and done it all.
Cell Block Earth and Other Stories is a trade paperback that brings together (almost) all of Palmiotti and Gray’s work over the last few years at Dark Horse. For completists, their work “Rubber Guns” which appeared in Dark Horse Presents #26-28 is conspicuously absent. With that said, this collection is great for those readers (like me) that get overwhelmed by heavy loads of superhero continuity (which most of Palmiotti and Gray’s DC works are full of references to) and just want to enjoy standalone stories. In general, the Dark Horse Presents title from which almost all of these works originate from is full of single or limited issue stories in an anthology style format that don’t require you to be a comic book history buff. That’s the surface analysis, though. How does the actual content fare?
“Cell Block Earth” kicks off the collection, following what appears to be a standard alien invasion storyline, and…that’s about it. Yes, this story was a bit disappointing. The main character, David, is introduced as a soon-to-be-single Houston cop and father who is about to quit his job to start a new life, but his plans are abruptly shattered by an alien invasion. From there, he pairs up with Janet and Hallet, two of his fellow officers, and after some time hiding out they return to the city to find much of civilization is destroyed.
Things play out about the way you would think, with our heroes fighting back with renewed purpose. However, the ending almost feels like someone cut out the last several pages and just slapped “The End” a few pages before the real ending. I was pretty confused, waiting for a resolution and some advancement of the story and I feel like after the pivotal battle ended, the further explanations that I was waiting for never came. There is very little character development, and world-building and the plot generally move at a hundred miles per hour. It really feels like Palmiotti and Gray just crammed this in to fit this trade, as all the other stories were previously printed in Dark Horse Presents or elsewhere and this story was being touted as exclusive to the collection.
Thankfully, the art salvages the work as Juan Santacruz, a frequent collaborator of Palmiotti and Gray’s (Painkiller Jane, The Twilight Experiment), brings his A game and embraces the maximum weirdness potential that an alien invasion story could have. First, the invasion that kicks off the story is drawn with exquisite attention to detail, as the city’s destruction, the reaction of the inhabitants, and the invading aliens are all given the appropriate level of emotion and seriousness you would expect. You can tell there was a lot of thought given to the design of the aliens as one of them looks like a shark with a human torso and legs, while others look like fish crossed with men, or something out of the weird and wacky alien renditions attempted by TV shows and B-movie studios in the ’60s and ’70s as noted in Gray’s introduction. The alien on the cover of the collection is also fascinating as Santacruz constructs what looks like a female variation of a humanoid possessed with the Power Cosmic, wearing a hoodie and shorts. While all this is quite interesting, it’s a shame the actual plot and characters fall far short of the level of thought and effort put into art, specifically the construction of the aliens.
The next story, “The Deep Sea,” suffers from similar issues. Here, the premise involves a retired Navy Officer, Paul Barry, who is being brought back by the Navy to pay a visit to the vessel, the U.S.S. Illustrious, that launched his most memorable mission fifty years ago. Unfortunately, the mission was memorable for all the wrong reasons. In a flashback, we find out that the mission was to perform the first manned descent into the Challenger Deep but instead ended up being where the entire mission team, including Barry’s significant other, Mary, ended up suffering an accident and dying – with the exception of Barry. As it turns out, Barry suffered a leg injury moments before the planned descent and ended up listening (via radio) to the rest of the team perform the mission without him, only for them to supposedly perish as something went horribly wrong. As we return to the present, Barry boards the Illustrious and is presented with a stunning surprise that ends up invalidating all of what he thought had happened fifty years ago.
Before he has time to process what is before him, the ship is attacked by a formidable sea creature and the story essentially turns over to artist Tony Akins (Hellblazer, Wonder Woman) and colorist Paul Mounts (Fantastic Four, Ultimates). The sea monster wreaks havoc on the resisting Navy forces and medical staff, with one scene particularly standing out for the somewhat gratuitous gore. The sea creature itself is a highlight, as we appear to be looking at a cross between a spider and a colorful slug. Even before this climax, the art is quite good as Akins does a great job at conveying all sorts of emotions in characters including happiness, surprise, anger, and horror. Mounts also tries to inject a sense of realism into the story, despite the supernatural premise, by doing something as simple as displaying the passage of time – when the story starts, it’s sunset, and by the time the tale wraps up it is twilight. The orange glow that permeates the skyline until the end of the tale adds to the ominous sense that something is wrong. He also gives the sea creature an unexpected palette dominated by pink and red, instead of just making it an actual large spider/slug hybrid through and through.
In closing, unlike the last story, at least we have the possibility (with “The End…for now!”) that the tale will continue, but without it we have no real explanation of what just happened and what comes next. Judging from the cover and the story, this is a Fantastic Four origin tribute with a twist, but once again Palmiotti and Gray leave us hanging (and not in a good way). The characters of Paul Barry and his fellow officers were ripe for exploration, but instead the focus is heavily on the plot – indeed, the characters just seem to be along for the ride, reacting to everything that happens right along with us. While this is a step above “Cell Block Earth,” it still feels like we are rushing through the action (and this time the story was spread throughout three issues).
The final story is entitled “Wrestling with Demons” and was originally published as a six-part jaunt in Dark Horse Presents. And finally, we get a story that delivers. Because everything isn’t ultra-compressed, we have a chance to digest the plot, the characters, and the supernatural twist Palmiotti and Gray put on an everyday activity (in this case, sports meets Satan). This time, our protagonist is Matt Thiessen, a father, widower and an MMA fighter who is chasing a big payday in Las Vegas and happens to bring his daughter Penny with him to give her a summer vacation. During the drive to Vegas, a billboard advertising a “ghost town” catches Penny’s attention and they make a pit stop into what turns out to be an actual abandoned town seemingly straight out of a western.
As Penny goes exploring, she gets kidnapped by some sort of creature and is taken to parts unknown. As Matt realizes this, he is quickly joined by a large party of what appears to be other fighters, some spectators and a fighting coach named Ferryman Ted. It’s quickly revealed that the town is a front for a fight club of sorts and Ted has brought these fighters to face off against demonic opponents, in the employ of Satan himself. The twist is that Satan is also the one who kidnapped Penny, and challenges Matt to don fighting gear and go through a gauntlet of demons if he wants to get his daughter back. What follows is a wonderful exposition of how all of us go through rocky patches in life involving family, physical well-being and financial wellness – but what defines our character is not only how we respond to adversity, but how we respond to success. We see two dueling takes on this through Matt and Ferryman Ted. Palmiotti and Gray reveal a surprisingly optimistic worldview as they don’t necessarily subscribe to the philosophy that “money corrupts everyone.”
The art by Andy Kuhn (Blue Beetle, Spider-Man Unlimited) and John Rauch (Batman, Captain America) is gritty and fits the street-level feeling of this story. While Matt and Penny are obviously dealing with the devil and his minions here, unlike the first two stories the art doesn’t need to rely heavily on giant splash pages and gratuitous action shots (although the few full-page shots that present themselves are fantastic). The action shots are subtle and the distinctive style change of the flashback images of Matt thinking about his life to date are fantastic – in particular, the painted style of the colors allows Rauch to leave his own mark. Overall, while there are still some issues with the story (specifically that Matt comes across as a blank slate and seems too good to be true, in contrast to some of the other more gray, complex characters in the story), this is a much better entry than the rest of what we get in the collection.
While this collection ended with a strong tale in “Wrestling with Demons,” the other two entries of “Cell Block Earth” and “The Deep Sea” are disappointments that are carried solely by their strong art. Perhaps it might be that some of these stories in single issue format don’t hold up as well when collected or combined. In any case, I expected better from an all-star writing team.