Pulp and Dagger

Comic Review

Tales of the Night Stalker

Story and art by various.

Comic book series

Published by Moonstone Books

Normally at Pulp & Dagger we do Graphic Novel reviews...but, what with Halloween coming up, we decided to take a look at a few issues of an on-going comic book series appropriate to the season...just as a bit of a change of pace...

Like a lot of comics publishers trying to crack the market, Moonstone Books has put much faith in pre-existing properties -- figuring that if you're trying to draw the interest of a reader, a recognizable name might at least cause them to pause in their browsing. But Moonstone has gone a bit more of an eclectic route than simply landing comics rights to Star Wars or the latest cult TV series. Instead, they produce graphic novels and comics based on everything from historical figures to 1930s radio series (along with original titles, too).

Added to Moonstone's list is a series of Kolchak graphic novels that they've done over the last couple of years and, now, a regular comic book series.

Kolchak (alternately known as The Night Stalker), for those who don't know, was a short lived 1970s TV series starring Darren McGavin as a dogged reporter investigating weird and supernatural events. Though maintaining a cult popularity over the years, it perhaps received a particular boost in its profile in the 1990s when X-Files creator Chris Carter cited it as an influence on the X-Files. Still, not the most high profile property upon which to base a comic. But ironically, Moonstone may have anticipated a resurgence of interest. A new, completely recast version of the Night Stalker is airing on ABC, and the original series has just been released on DVD.

For those who've seen the new TV series, it's worth noting that most purists have generally given it thumbs down for its revamping, and reimagining, of the concept. Ironically, if the TV version has missed the boat, Moonstone seems to have got it right.

Though updated to the modern era (Kolchak uses computer disks) and relocated to LA, this comic is very much a revival of the original TV series version. Kolchak is a rumpled, middle-aged, old school reporter who will track a story, no matter how bizarre, because that's what his ethics tell him to do. He lives in a dump, dresses off the rack, and gets by doggedly asking questions and making the odd quip. Kolchak was kind of cool precisely because he wasn't cool -- this coming from the era that gave us Peter Falk's equally rumpled Columbo and other working stiff heroes.

Whether there will eventually be pressure from ABC to model the comic after the new series, who knows. The fact that the comic is called Kolchak, while the new TV series is The Night Stalker suggests there may be some deliberate separation of the two interpretations.

I've only had a chance to read three of the comics -- a colour two-parter in issues #5-6 of Kolchak: Tales of the Night Stalker, and the black & white special, Kolchak: Black & White & Read All Over, which is an anthology of three different tales. But so far, I kind of like what I've seen. Bear in mind, I'm not a hardcore Kolchak fan (having only had a chance to catch a few episodes here and there in sporadic reruns over the years) but I have a general fondness for the show, and the comic seems to capture the flavour quite well, from the mix of suspense and quirky humour (humour being noticeably lacking from the new TV series) to the "voice" of the characters (you can practically hear Darren McGavin saying the lines). In fact, the comics seem to go one better than the original series, adding a little more depth and nuance to the personalities, and to Kolchak's relationship with his irascible editor, Tony Vincenzo, than I recall there being in the TV series...yet it's a depth that embellishes, rather than messes with, the established characters. Likewise, the comic, being a comic (and therefore serialized), works in minor sub-plots that seem intended to carry over from story to story

The two-parter, "Proximity", has Kolchak himself becoming the victim of an ancient Egyptian curse. Which, right off the bat, makes for an interesting story as, instead of it being about a character removed from, but investigating, the story, Kolchak experiences the story, adding a deeper, personal element to the happenings.

The curse involves the victim being plagued by nightmarish visions, and the creators craft an interesting first part, creating suspense and unease even as the characters themselves are unsure how or if the hallucinations are physically dangerous. It's a tricky thing to try in a suspense story, but they pull it off.

Ironically, the second part loses a bit precisely because it moves into more traditional horror terrain, with a physical threat posed by a mummy. And the humour, nicely effective in the first part, is kept up in the second, which robs the climax of a bit of tension, as there's tongue-in-cheek when it should be more out-and-out suspense. Still, it's enjoyable.

The art by Kirk Jarvinen does a nice job of straddling the different needs of the story, being slightly cartoony, adding a humorous twinkle throughout, while still telling the story well, the characters expressive and effective, often conveying meaning through expressions (important for some of the scenes). Because Jarvinen's style has a caricaturish aspect, he manages to capture the likenesses of actors McGavin and Simon Oakland (Vincenzo) effectively and, perhaps more unusual in a comic, consistently enough, without making the characters look stiff, as though cribbed from still poses. It nicely roots you in the feel of the old show better than a lot of media tie-in comics. Unfortunately, Jarvinen isn't the regular artist, so I can't comment on the art in general on the series.

The Black and White and Read All Over special has Kolchak relating three different cases. The first, written by comics fan favourite, Peter David, is the most traditional, as Kolchak investigates a bizarre murder during a beauty contest. It's enjoyable in its straightforwardness, with Jarvinen supplying the art and, once more, delivering a nicely evocative Carl Kolchak.

The next two stories try for something a little more off-beat...and pull it off quite well. One story has Kolchak looking into Vincenzo's background and discovering that, once upon a time, he too had an encounter with the unknown. It's an entertaining piece, still keeping the focus on Kolchak, while providing some intriguing nuance to the Vincenzo character and his motivations.

The other (and final) story is written by Stefan Petrucha, who wrote some particularly good X-Files comics for Topps a decade ago (so the Kolchak/X-Files relationship continues) and it plays around with chronology in a way that maintains interest for its 14 pages. In fact, as the stories range from 11 to 14 pages, they're each long enough to be "stories", but short enough to not out stay their welcome.

The other artists are a bit more uneven, I'll admit, seeming as though they may've only just graduated from the independent comics field. But the beauty of Kolchak is you don't necessarily need the art to be its own thing -- you aren't expecting breathtaking panels of Kolchak soaring majestically over the buildings or anything. Nope, the art is here to serve the scripts...and the scripts do the trick, with all writers seeming to have a nice feel for the flavour of the series, and the character himself.

If you've seen the new series, and wonder what the original was like, but don't want to shell out, sight unseen, for the DVD set, Moonstone may offer an alternative. Based at least on these comics, I'd say Moonstone has done a pretty decent job of capturing the essence of the original series, and they warrant a look both for long time fans, and for the just curious.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

For an editorial about Kolchak, new and old, check out They "Got To" Carl Kolchak: What Happened to All The Conspiracy Guys?

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com

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