Anti-heroes were the bread and butter of many artists and writers of the ‘90s. Dark, menacing characters with mysterious pasts soaked the pages of countless comics with blood for years because that’s what fans wanted to see: Wolverine gutting ninjas; the Punisher filling mobsters full of bullets; Lobo creating a trail of carnage throughout the universe.
Despite the Comic Code Authority’s censorship powers, even pre-‘90s comics were filled with violence, but the anti-heroes upped the ante, plumbing the depths of the grotesque like never before. Characterization was thrown out the window in favor of chaos and readers were treated to interchangeable heroes whose tactics spoke louder than words. There was Cable toting guns the size of refrigerators, and Shadowhawk breaking spines.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there was Evil Ernie.
After suffering at the hands of his parents for years, young Earnest Fairchild snapped and became a sadistic killer. Doctors’ best efforts to cure him of his evil ways only furthered the problem; after a number of failed experiments, Ernie was reborn into a supernatural killing machine. Able to raise his victims from the dead and accompanied by an evil button (yes, a button) named Smiley, Ernie has been on a killing spree for years.
Unfortunately, the spree continues.
First, in the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that I currently reside in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the supposed setting for Ernie’s latest blood fest. Reading the story of an undead fiend butchering folks in my adoptive home appealed to me for two reasons. 1) I’ve never lived in a town where a comic takes place. It’s interesting to see how your home is portrayed in any form of media and besides, most comics take place in big cities, and I’m not moving to Metropolis anytime soon.
2) Curiosity—why the hell would Evil Ernie be in Santa Fe? And who thought it was a good idea?
Apparently, Alan Grant did. A veteran of the industry, Grant has worked on his fair share of anti-heroes in his time, chronicling the adventures of Judge Dredd and, of course, Batman.
In a brief interview at the end of issue one, Grant reveals his decision to set his tale in the City Different: it’s an apology. The last time he visited our fair city, he and a friend “got so drunk, all we saw of Santa Fe was the sidewalk, as we negotiated it on our hands and knees. I’ve always wanted to make it up to the city for my terrible behavior,” he said.
But like an alcoholic making amends, this tale is too little too late.
Ernie heads West under the spell of a spinning top. With each spin, the top indicates who will be Ernie’s next victim. Hot on the trail of the sixth person he sees, Ernie uncovers a black magic cult that kidnaps and hurts children, a pet peeve of our hero’s. He sets out to free the children and, of course, satisfy his thirst for mayhem.
Hot on his trail are a detective and Layna Price, the daughter of the man responsible for Ernie’s supernatural transformation. They’re determined to put a stop to Ernie’s killing spree and collect the fat reward for doing so.
Grant is responsible for some great Batman stories from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but here, in the absence of a strong main character, his writing feels flimsy. The whole story has a sense of disconnection and lacks cohesion, with things happening only to serve the character’s (or the writer’s?) psychotic urges, without any making narrative sense. Grant’s penchant for gore—and an arsenal of cornier-than-your-uncle jokes—do little service to the story beyond proving Ernie is a one hit wonder. Characters are disemboweled, burned and stabbed in the testicles simply because that’s what Ernie does. That’s all there is.
The bright spot is Tommy Castillo’s art. Though uneven at times, there is a spooky, dreamlike quality to the work that fits the subject matter (such as it is). Colorist Carsten Bradley lends the whole series a washed out, dimmed approach that sets the mood for horror. In terms of color, even the blood and guts has a faded, hazy quality that is somehow more effective that total saturation.
But, despite Castillo’s best efforts, my dream of seeing my home depicted in a comic book page has been vanquished. Castillo’s renders our town as a dark (happens every day), rainy (not unheard of, but rare) place where giant cacti grow (check next door in Arizona). The only real indication this story takes place in Santa Fe is the title. The arbitrary assignment of a setting to this already hollow story indicates the “phoning it in” factor is, you guessed it, off the charts.
Ernie is a caricature of violence, the worst nightmare of rock music and video game-fearing conservatives come alive. From his Gene Simmons grin to his glowing green innards, Ernie is nothing more than a cheap imitation of every bad metal album cover released. There is a reason anti-heroes fell out of favor—they simply can’t last. There’s nothing complex or interesting about a guy who killed his abusive parents and turned into a demon, and the gimmick of horrific murders—while charming—wears thin fast. As readers, all we can do is feel sorry for poor Ernie as his misery continues at the hands of those who’ve forgotten that the end of the ‘90s has come and gone—his creators.