Gargoyle #s 1-4
Writer: J.M. DeMatteis
Artist: Mark Badger
Colors: Bob Sharen
Letters: Ken Bruzenak
Cover artists: Bernie Wrightson, Jon J. Muth, Dan Green & Mark Badger
Editor: Carl Potts
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $0.75 US/$1 CAN per issue
Some comics enthusiasts and collectors scan flea markets and yard sales for treasure, for valuable comics at bargain-basement prices that they can flip for a tidy profit. I sometimes have that in mind when I peruse the tables, but more often than not, the treasures I’m looking for are forgotten stories. I definitely found one a few weeks ago when I happened upon this complete set of this 1985 limited series. Gargoyle is a rather obscure character, and I have only a passing familiarity with it from sampling a handful of Defenders issues from the Bronze Age.
The title character here is a unique one, in that he started out as a senior citizen who, in an endeavor to save his town, ends up being cursed by being cast into the form of a gargoyle. The basis of J.M. DeMatteis’s story here is to question what that gargoyle form was up to before the elderly Isaac Christians inhabited it, but as is the case with many of the writer’s works, it’s really about spirituality, the failings of the human spirit, and finding purpose through misery. As this is an earlier DeMatteis work, though, it feels a bit scattered, and ultimately, it ends up being more about a brand-new supporting character (that’s never seen again, as far as I know) than that of Isaac Christians.
Isaac Christians, better known as Gargoyle of the Defenders, returns to Christiansboro, the puritanical town his family founded years ago only to find it’s become abandoned. His sacrifice in becoming the Gargoyle was for naught, but despair is replaced by confusion when he finds himself face to face with himself, his former human form, and the woman he once loved from afar during his youth at the turn of the 20th century. He’s given a chance at being human again and at the love he never had, but in the process, he lets loose his monstrous alter ego on the world, unrestrained by his morality.
The most striking aspect of this series visually was easily the covers, but given the lineup of cover artists who contributed, that should come as no surprise. The image adorning the first issue, by the late Bernie Wrightson, is understandable the most striking, but this sort of painted work was relatively rare at the time and stood out as a result. Of course, I must also note how dynamic, fitting and cool the Gargoyle logo is; I suspect it was developed specifically for this limited series.
The early Mark Badger art within is pretty loose, but ultimately, it worked pretty well with the subject matter. The line artist’s rendition of the title character is perfectly inhuman, but oddly enough, he appears a bit more convincing in appearance than the human characters. I liked the airy look the art takes on for the flashback scenes. Badger, aided immensely by colorist Bob Sharen. Sharen’s muted colors add to the introspective, philosophical tone of DeMatteis’s story quite nicely as well.
The biggest problem with this story is that DeMatteis has to introduce us to several key characters who turn up here out of nowhere. Really, later in the series, this seems more like the tale of Derwyddon, an ancient druid linked here to the origins of the monstrous Gargoyle before the hero inhabited the form. After reading the book, the relationship between the druid and the monster reminded me of the dynamic between Merlin and Jack Kirby’s Etrigan from The Demon — so much so that I couldn’t help but wonder if this plot was a repurposed one, shifting from a better known DC property to a more obscure Marvel one.
There are two key female characters in the story — Elaine and Germaine. The former is the woman Isaac loved as a boy, who was married to his best friend. The latter was a French prostitute with whom Isaac shared a bed as a young man, serving as a stand-in for the woman he couldn’t have. DeMatteis’s characterization of Germaine is rather harsh. She’s called a whore, and she’s depicted as a manipulator. Elaine is implausibly pure-hearted, while Germaine is cartoonishly selfish and sinful. It’s unfortunate such oversimplified characters are all we get from the women in the series.
I find it interesting that the villain of the book is one driving an agenda of hedonism, which brings out monstrousness in humanity, according to DeMatteis here. On the other hand, Isaac’s earlier undoing is his obsession to preserve a faith-driven community, which he appears to do out of atonement for the sins he committed (real or perceived) in his youth. It’s as though the writer is saying one must strike a balance between the divine and the debaucherous in life. I like that message, if that’s what was intended or otherwise.
Ultimately (but not surprisingly), DeMatteis’s plot about a weak man finally standing up to atone for his past sins was an appealing one, and it’s easy to see oneself in Isaac’s flaws. But that plot is executed incredibly clumsily. DeMatteis would go on in his career to tell more compelling, focused and ambitious stories similarly delving into self-discovery and awareness. It’s interesting to look back at this earlier juncture in his evolution as a writer. The Gargoyle was a nice diversion in that regard, but somewhat forgettable as well. 6/10