The beauty of the comics medium is that one’s ability to tell a story is only limited by one’s capacity to draw it on a page, unbound by the laws of physics, time, and good taste. A similar alchemy takes place during the creation of music, when composers graze from a limitless vista of possible sounds and recombine them to suit a whim of the moment, explore an emotional state, or support an ambitious aesthetic goal. The material barrier to entry is remarkably low when it comes to beginning to create art in either medium. It’s what the artist accomplishes from a purely imaginative standpoint that makes the audience want to pause and absorb it. Unfortunately, the mass production and distribution of the artist’s creation can be a nightmarescape of frustration, disappointment, and empty pockets.
An alignment of narrow distribution opportunities with particularly terrible trends made the 1990s an especially dire period for people with a thirst to create. The dominance of mainstream, megacorp channels (increasingly monopolized shops, labels, studios, publishers, and so on) plus cumbersome digital sharing that wouldn’t be radically reshaped until the last months of the decade created a stagnant atmosphere that made it feel like all the best weirdness had already come and gone. In American pop culture, the ghastly flowering of nu metal, the embrace of bike messenger chic by persons of both genders, and the ascendancy of the pouch-bedecked comic book anti-hero were just some of the elements that combined to drive countless larval teen counterculturalists to look backwards for respite from this overwhelming terribleness.
Glenn Danzig is a figure whose feet have always been firmly rooted in the retro, so there’s a certain appropriateness to the fact that he reached the pinnacle of mainstream radio success during the 90s. Whether writing songs about the horror films of decades past for The Misfits, harkening back to demon-haunted occultism with Samhain, or serving the Elvis-meets-Black-Sabbath Realness of his solo work, Glenn Danzig has consistently performed his own brand of heavy metal archaeology to create a unique aesthetic that flows through every aspect of his creative output.
Hot on the heels of his “Mother”-related renaissance, Glenn Danzig launched Verotik, a new platform for his self-expression. Born in 1994 out of Danzig’s desire to create a line of adults-only comics, Verotik has been steadily publishing titles that remain true to their tits and gore mission statement. The names of series like Dark Horror of Morella, G.O.T.H, Inquisitor, and today’s eventual topic of conversation, Satanika, give even the most casual reader enough insight needed to understand the sort of material that is being dealt with. Unlike Danzig’s Misfits-era monster-kid-nostalgia-meets-punk-rock-glue-sniffing or his black-on-black deathrock days with Samhain, Verotik doesn’t feel so much countercultural as it seems culture-cultural, a product of the 90s zeitgeist with all its gritty, explicit thrills. It’s significant to note that Verotik was founded after Image Comics unleashed the demonic anti-hero Spawn (1992) and also after DC founded its own line of mature comics in the form of the Vertigo imprint (1993). It takes cracking the covers of a Verotik book to unknit the reasons why this imprint exists.
Satanika, one of the first characters in Verotik’s stable, made her debut in a three-issue 1995 miniseries titled The Brimstone Trail. Written by Glenn Danzig and illustrated by Duke Mighten, one would be hard pressed to find a more perfect distillation of a certain type of 90s exploitation entertainment. Aggressive in its violence, myth-making, and baffling anatomy (demonic nature of its protagonist notwithstanding), The Brimstone Trail defies the reader to approach its contents with logic or nuance. Recounted in its entirety, the story finds Satanika escaping from Hell, fighting coyotes, murdering rapists, smashing a car, fighting a pack of demons, fighting an even-more-powerful lady demon, and getting thrown through a window into someone’s apartment.
It’s unfair to analyze storytelling of this kind in such a fashion though. Taken similarly, every Friday the 13th movie can be summarized as “several people die; one doesn’t,” and fans know that the joy of the slasher genre lies in its momentary particulars and not in its intricate plotting. Much like a slasher movie, Satanika is a creation of pure id. Unlike a slasher movie, Satanika is the creation of Glenn Danzig’s specific id, at a time when it just so happened to line up with an aesthetic trend in comics. Satanika is a perfect blank slate character on which to hang scenes of sex and violence: unaware of her past, vaguely stalked by a powerful devil, and loose in a human world full of crime and suffering, there’s just enough context for Danzig and Mighten to build gore-flooded scenes of depravity. To put this in porno conflict terms: all you need to set things off is a pizza delivery; from there you can build out the inability to pay and invent the drastic and sticky measures that must be taken to rectify the situation.
This is probably as good a point as any to transition this to the first person to tell you that the copy of The Brimstone Trail that I read was in German, a language that I do not speak. Only occasionally did my rudimentary German reading skills come between me and my understanding of the story, however–this is a testament to the fact that it was told effectively using the visual nature of the comics medium. It’s true that I described the anatomy in this comic, which uses the densely detailed linework and exaggerated proportions characteristic of 90s comics, as looking like balloon animals sculpted by a priapic clown. I’m not going to walk that back, but it’s hard to deny that the stylized, borderline-to-way-past-borderline grotesque nature of the artwork complements the contents of the story. A more refined illustrator’s hand would feel dissonant against all the madness. Rock hard bosoms, muscular striations heretofore undiscovered in nature, and spine-wrenching postures match the catalog of animal punching, murder, and gang rape that make up The Brimstone Trail.
In skimming responses to Satanika and other Verotik publications, it’s clear that the people who run blogs and comment on message boards are not picking up what Glenn Danzig is throwing down in his comics. The chief characteristics of The Brimstone Trail (and the Verotik imprint as a whole) are a dated and unloved illustration style, a scanty plot, and an attitude of adolescent leering. In spite of this, I maintain an admiration for the fact that Verotik–and by extension, Danzig–has single-mindedly stayed the course with a vision to bring a very specific kind of gross-out sex comics to the world. Unchanged in over twenty years, the physically contorted, over-the-top violent aesthetic of Verotik remains untainted by market forces.* Compare this to DC and Marvel, who have both undergone two major reboots each during this period, to make no mention of more minor character adjustments and course corrections.
But let’s end where we started, with the question of medium and the artist’s ability to mold that medium to their message. A twenty-year history points to the fact that Verotik has found its niche, though it is certainly outside of any orthodox comics or heavy metal fandom. Could it be that the transition from horror lyrics to horror page tarnishes the charm of Danzig’s work? While ghoulish lyrics play as camp posturing against metal riffing, it’s not like anyone wants to see a Cannibal Corpse comic book, right? Oh–never mind. I suppose I know what you guys will expect me to read next.
*Here’s a great interview with former Verotik helmer Hart Fisher that sheds some light on Verotik’s inner workings and alludes to Glenn Danzig’s complicated relationship with market forces: http://www.optimumwound.com/hart-fisher-on-comics-journalism-frank-miller-running-danzigs-verotik-and-life-in-los-angeles.htm