Some solid action and gory art cannot overcome the dearth of character development, interesting plot, or engaging dialogue in this three-issue miniseries inspired by one of the most revered names in thrash metal, which is now collected in hardcover.
Licensed comics are a curious thing. For fans of the source material, they are one more collectible to be placed on the shelf as a sign of your devotion. However, the creators of a good licensed comic can go far beyond catering to a built-in audience by adding surprising depth to simple concepts, like in Larry Hama’s classic G.I. Joe run, or taking a property off the rails in wild new directions, as in Jack Kirby’s bizarre take on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Stories inspired by music are especially tough to pull off in this purely visual medium, though that hasn’t stopped many from trying. In a few cases, talented artists and writers have pulled it off, like in Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli’s eerie miniseries adapted from Alice Cooper’s concept album The Last Temptation. More commonly, the results have been akin to the Steve Gerber-scripted Marvel Comics Super Special featuring KISS as superheroes fighting Doctor Doom – harmless, goofy, and entirely forgettable outside of the tale of the band mixing their blood into the ink used to print it.
Slayer: Repentless is definitely more on the KISS end of that spectrum, though not nearly as much fun. Instead of heading into exciting new directions, the script by Jon Schnepp – best known for his work in animation, including directing many episodes of Metalocalypse – is hamstrung by its source material, offering a sequel to the three videos released for tracks off of Slayer’s 2015 album. Those clips, directed by veteran camera operator and Hatchet III auteur BJ McDonnell, were heavy on gore and cameos by B-movie heroes (most notably Danny Trejo). However, the storyline was mostly a perfunctory excuse for the blood-drenched excess, revolving around various brutal confrontations between a one-eyed, ex-neo-Nazi convict named Wyatt and his former brethren. In “Pride in Prejudice” the plot culminated with Wyatt refusing to fight to the death against Manny (Trejo), his love interest – an African-American woman named Angel – “fridged” as a consequence, and a massacre of everyone in a prominent neo-Nazi’s home.
Schnepp follows up on this plot and provides some additional background on how Wyatt and his older brother Adrian became involved with white supremacists after the deaths of their parents, but there’s still not much depth. A big part of the problem here is that Repentless is far from the richest material Slayer has put out in 35 years of releasing thrash metal anthems. Whereas earlier albums offered up tales of the supernatural and occult, the first record since the death of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman keeps its lyrics focused on real-world concerns and celebrating the band’s own past glories. The title track is rather touching in the way it finds guitar player and primary songwriter Kerry King paying tribute to his lost bandmate, but it’s far too specific to that situation to make any sense when the lyrics are transcribed into captions over a series of splash pages during Wyatt’s climactic battle.
Indeed, as a long-time Slayer fan, I caught references to the band’s lyrics on almost every page. This could be endearing, except that the words characters are spouting off are nearly always jarringly inappropriate. When Wyatt is standing over the corpse of his murdered lover, one would think he’d have some more focused sentiments to share, rather than reciting lines from “Disciple” off 2001’s God Hates Us All. While an ultraviolent Western-style showdown built around Slayer lyrics could be an enjoyable proposition, the lack of meaningful character development or intriguing twists leaves a story that exists only to guide us between references to classics like “Dead Skin Mask” and scenes of gratuitous bloodshed.
The good news is that while the plot and dialogue are rather half-assed and constantly veering into absurdity, artist Guiu Vilanova keeps the visual side of the storytelling grounded with some quality draftsmanship, expressive characters, and dramatic angles. Along with the muted palette of colorist Mauricio Wallace, who seems to take only too much delight in the opportunity to cover everything with digital blood splatter, his artwork wraps the thin story in a professional-looking package, topped off by some nice paintings from veteran cover artist Glenn Fabry.
One of the highlights of the series is seeing the only slightly idealized depictions of Slayer’s current lineup – featuring Exodus guitarist Gary Holt and lifelong replacement drummer Paul Bostaph alongside founding members King and bassist/vocalist Tom Araya – as the biker gang Manny enlists for back-up. Vilanova’s gritty style is reminiscent of fellow Barcelona resident R.M. Guéra, and his work here suggests that he could have a great crime comic in him. I have not read his collaboration with Fred Van Lente on Weird Detective, but now I’m definitely interested to do so.
There’s only one way to end this review, and that’s with an overly long and seemingly irrelevant quotation from the band whose name is on the cover:
“Propaganda, death ensemble,
Burial to be.
Corpses rotting through the night
In blood laced misery.
Scorched earth the policy,
The reason for the siege.
The pendulum, it shaves the blade
The strafing air blood raid.”