Ah, the last week of November. A time for cooler weather, holiday planning, and plenty of leftovers. But I’m not talking about dried-out turkey and piles of congealed starch. My late autumn traditions include those last morsels of Halloween candy and reserves of yummy pumpkin beer.
This year, I squirreled away a particularly haunting brew. From Old Ox Brewery comes a terrifyingly tasty sequel, the Oxorcist II. An imperial pumpkin ale, this beer is concocted with Vermont maple syrup, seasonal spices, vanilla beans, and the titular gourd. The resulting brew is rather rich. Leading with a smooth start of candied pecans, the Oxorcist II cascades into a malty body of pumpkin pancakes with maple syrup. The final flavors showcase allspice and nutmeg, which leaves a lingering taste of sweet potato pie.
The Oxorcist II is an ideal companion for curling up in a comfy chair with a small stash of candy and some especially spooky comics. Fortunately, I have some seasonally appropriate stories from Udon Comics, haunting my long box of horrors.
It’s that time of year once more; when the barrier between the natural and supernatural is at its weakest and little ghouls haunt the streets in search of sugary treats. For this video game comic column, it only makes sense to venture into the darker side of the printed page. There is a rather massive subgenre of horror comics, and its tentacles stretch far into the video game world. So let’s dive into a realm where monsters do battle in rounds of two, until only the strongest survives.
It was back in November of 2004 that Udon Entertainment debuted their Darkstalkers comic series. At this time, Udon was releasing their work through Devil’s Due Publishing, which included a Street Fighter comic series that launched in 2003. The Darkstalkers comic ran for six issues, until it abruptly stopped in April of 2005. In October of the same year, the chief of operations Eric Ko, announced that Udon had become a full-fledged publisher and its lengthy hiatus was due to producing material for the video game Capcom Fighting Evolution. Since that time, Udon has grown into a massive comic book and video game powerhouse, producing several comic series, art books, and work for video games such as Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and New International Track and Field.
For the Darkstalkers comic, Udon had plenty of interesting characters and settings from which to source fresh story material. This is especially true, since most fighting games have very few details outside of “some people got together to fight in an arbitrary battle tournament held by a mysterious benefactor.” For example, this story comes straight from the Darkstalkers instruction manual:
“When the sun sets and humanity retreats to the imagined safety of their beds, a mysterious entity appears in the sky to assemble the wicked and the evil. The unimaginable secret power of the dark is unleashed! Ten supernatural beings of destruction have materialized to wage their eternal war for the domination of the night. The Vampire, the Mummy, Frankenstein, Bigfoot. . . their very names conjure fear. But who or what has summoned them? These creatures of myth and legend, the Darkstalkers, have gathered for what is destined to be the greatest battle ever. And the fate of all humanity rests on who wins the epic struggle. The Darkstalkers are coming. . .tonight!”
From this rather bare bones plot, Udon crafted a solid story about the various machinations of the Darkstalkers who hide in the dark corners of the Earth. In this six issue series, the conflicts between certain characters take center stage, while the sideline characters are left as mere window dressing. So while Dimitri and Morrigan prepare for an eventual battle of the ages, Rikuo and Lord Raptor only show up briefly in side stories and single panel shots. Every issue features plenty of great fighting scenes, complete with signature moves and plenty of nods to the fans of the video games. There is also loads of background on many of the major characters, including several side stories that flesh out their motivations even further.
As with most of the comics from Udon Entertainment, the artwork really shines. The horror themes of the video games allowed the artists to include plenty of heavy contrast and shadows, which really lend to the atmosphere of the comics. The characters remain in the anime-inspired style of the fighting games, but with more vibrant colors and further detail for better expressions. In spite of the show-stealing appeal of the characters, the backgrounds have not been overlooked. There is plenty of detail in the settings of each scene, with some panels exclusively dedicated to moody environmental shots.
Besides the solid story work and gorgeous art, my favorite part of Darkstalkers comes at the end of each issue. A single page is always dedicated to a gag comic called Darkstalkers Mini. The fun work of Corey Lewis (pseudonym, Rey), these quick strips feature super-deformed versions of the fighters in silly situations, most of which end with goofy punch-lines. Unfortunately, when Udon collected the comics into a trade paperback, all of these side stories got the boot. On the plus side, that has made the individual issues of the comic unique to the trade version, so be sure to track these gems down!
At the end of the first issue of Darkstalkers (right before the Mini comic), there is a writers’ commentary aptly titled, “From the Darkside.” On this page, some of the staff from Udon spill their guts about the joy they felt in creating the Darkstalkers comic books. There is talk of the great chance to write a darker story than the usual Street Fighter comics, along with their mutual love of horror films and fighting games. At the very end, the colorist, Gary Yeung, says that the goal at Udon was to “make a faithful interpretation of Darkstalkers from a game/animation into a book.” Through action-packed stories and striking artwork, all wrapped up in a spooky atmosphere, it seems like Udon met their goal quite nicely.
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