Sympathy for the Devil
The recent appearance of a new El Diablo series from DC comics is another instance where an older character is revived with modern sensibilities. All of which begs the question as to whether this is worth it. The original El Diablo was a rather forgettable western character that first appeared in Weird Western Tales. He later gained a short-lived series of his own in the late 1980s that updated the character to modern continuity with little connection to the original. El Diablo didn’t make a big impact in comics and few people remembered his existence at all. So why are we seeing a new El Diabloseries now?
The answer is simple: sex and violence. Under today’s much more flexible attitudes, comics can portray a truer Wild West and tell more authentic stories about the time period. Which is good and bad. For Eastwood Unforgiven, there is a Costner Wyatt Earp. After the success of Frank Miller’s Sin City series, the crime comic was once again a popular medium. El Diablo‘s writer, Brian Azzarello, made a name for himself with his own crime series 100 Bullets, and this is his first major series outside that venue. But many elements carry over. What makes the first two issues curious is the fact that El Diablo as a character doesn’t really appear at all. The story concerns a small western town, presided over by a former bounty hunter (“Holy” Moses Stone) turned sheriff, where a small group of wanted criminals stop for a rest. When they are nearly wiped out by a shadowy figure, Moses suspects and begins tracking down El Diablo. In the second issue, we are given some more details about El Diablo. He is portrayed as a spirit of vengeance, intent upon righting the wrongful deaths of others more mystery than man. There are secrets lurking beneath the surface here involving both the sheriff and El Diablo, which are sure to come to light in the final chapters. Still, the question plagues me… why El Diablo?
It’s no secret that one of the prevalent trends in comics today is the revitalization of forgotten characters. Sometimes it works very well as in STARMAN, but other times it misses the mark as in the recently cancelled STARS AND S.T.R.I.P.E. Based on the first two issues, the character of El Diablo could be exchanged with any other new character; there is so little reader recognition with the original that little is gained by the relationship. The story to date would be served just as well by an entirely new character taking the El Diablo spot. As a vengeance epic, it is serviceable but suffers from too few details being given over too long a time. We are meant to fear the avenging spirit’s sudden, violent appearances but, because we know next to nothing about the men who are killed or why they are killed, their deaths have little impact. Instead, their demises just become instances of cinematic violence captured on four-color paper.
To be fair, it’s possible that everything will come together by the last two books of the min-series. It’s possible that hidden meanings, secrets and, motivations will come together and provide a strong whole that some wonderful unity will actually validate the “blood and guts” Peckinpah episodes. But, based upon what’s been seen so far, it’s difficult whether most readers will stick around to find out.
Which brings us back to the main topic: the revisionist recreation of Western comics. Last year, readers were ‘treated’ to Marvel’s Blaze of Glory, created as the ‘last’ story for Marvel’s Western characters. These characters (Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, Ghost Rider, etc.) bore almost no relation to their former versions and, in a few cases, suffered badly in the update. Perhaps the traditional concept of Western comics will never see light again. Our society has become too jaded to allow such clear definitions of good and evil. As adults, we understand that the Wild West was not the world of Cowboys and Indians that the movies once showed. But that understanding was one have reached as adults and through historical analysis. We know that it was a violent, dirty place where there was little room for honor or nobility where life was cheap. Where then are the Westerns for today’s young readers? Where are those great Marvel Westerns where everybody was clean (even though they’d been riding for days) and all the heroes had impeccably short haircuts and perfect teeth? Sure, they’re unrealistic. Sure, they’re simplistic. But, without the basic understanding of the good and evil that old Westerns provided, how can we as adults put the more realistic Western into proper perspective?
Does everything have to be updated? Or has our society become so jaded that the concept of a good man, possibly being framed or hounded for wrongs he never committed, riding through the countryside helping others, has no place in our lives today? The superhero concept is only now recovering from the ‘grim and gritty’ revision craze of the 1990’s with the return of more traditional superhero comics. The Western, though, is still suffering under this glare, perhaps because, in today’s modern world, ‘white-hat’ lawmen don’t sell books. Would El Diablo be published without the addition of the violence, profanity, and sex? Would this review need to be written? Probably not, on either count. Which is more the pity. Sometimes creators become so obsessed with ‘statements’ that the first rule is forgotten: make the story entertaining. And that, in the end, is the problem of El Diablo. It’s the new breed of western that we’ve already seen before. The ‘adult’ western has already become tired and needs a new sun-kissed wrinkle to distinguish it again.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/el-diablo/