Saturday, October 28, 2006

Scratch #2

Scratch #2, September 2004, DC Comics
writer/artist: Sam Keith
letterer: Phil Balsman
colorist: Alex Sinclair
editor: Joey Cavalieri
assistant editor: Harvey Richards

My mother would be the first to tell you – just as she was the first to tell any girl I’ve ever brought home – that nothing scared me more as a child than these three things: the Barney Miller theme song, our mechanical bell-ringing Santa Claus doll, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. Like many boys before and unfortunately since, I was a Michael Jackson fan, and to see the King of Pop transform into a werewolf at the touch of a pretty woman was foreboding and foreshadowing, but the latter point is for another forum. Thriller was my first haunting encounter with werewolves and zombies, but despite all of the encounters since, it’s the first cut that is always the deepest, right?

With this werewolf-centric issue, Sam Keith has managed to scratch at those mental scars. Thanks a bunch, buddy.

Scratch is the proverbial Hulk to lead character Zack’s puny Banner, yet, unlike other stereotypical “monster within” stories, Zack is an uncommonly courageous fifteen-year-old that, and he actually longs for his beastly alter ego to emerge and save the day. Like yesterday’s issue, the cover of this issue is somewhat deceptive, because it’s the only time we actually see the title character. Despite his pursuit of a multi-eyed monster that has kidnapped a little girl, his tumble with dozens of gnarly-toothed, freakish midgets, and the revelation that his galpal might be in a proactive war against some bigoted villagers, the best Zack can muster of Scratch is a werewolf-ish arm which his better judgment dissuades him from swinging lest he seriously hurt someone. Zack’s inner conflict is inching to the surface, and I was actually more amused with his plight than I would’ve been had Scratch made a complete appearance. Keith implements a sense of anticipation and suspense that propels into the following issue, which, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, makes for an effective horror comic.

However, Keith’s strength has always been his unique art style that, unlike his fellow Image founders, has rarely been imitated. I’m not sure how it could be. Since with early work on Marvel Presents with Wolverine, then later with his creator-owned work The Maxx, Keith’s work has always had a bestial and brutal nature about it, starring massive characters that are as characteristically massive as they are unexpectedly vulnerable. His inks are often as sketchy as any other artist’s pencils, but with a solidity that pulls even the most complex page layout together. In contrast to his huge heroes, Keith’s stories usually feature diminutive characters, as well – usually children, with well defined but scrawny little bodies, and this case, Zack’s frailty only emphasizes Scratch’s powerful presence . . . if we ever actually saw it, that is. I remember this consistency in his work was controversial during Keith’s run on The Maxx, particularly with the Maxx’s surprisingly endowed and compromisingly positioned teenage girlfriends. Were similar concerns ever really pressed about Lee’s or Liefeld’s scantily clad heroines? I’m just asking. The problem with such a unique style as Keith’s is that it usually stands out from the rest.

I should mention that this issue was superbly colored, as well. Most of the story takes place in a dark cave, but Sinclair’s effects with ambient light not only add a level of realism to the book, but also an aura of creepiness with makes Keith’s intentionally twisted visuals a little more horrific. Coloring is really only noticed when its good or bad. Fortunately, in this case, it’s the former and not the latter.

I’ll conclude by asserting that Scratch definitely leaves its mark, and its second issue picks up flawlessly where the first left off, and strikes a cord of interest for the next one. As a five issue miniseries, I wonder if this story was a successful highlight of Keith’s career, or just a tale he had to purge from his undoubtedly creative mind. I’d honestly never heard of it until I found this ish in the quarter bin at a local comics shop. Even still, some of the scariest stories are usually in the darkest corners, or perhaps the recesses of our minds, as were my memories of Thriller, until Keith clawed them up to the surface. I guess some scratches never heal.

If only Michael had genuinely been a werewolf. It would be less scary than what he’s really turned into!

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