The idea of Image Comics revisiting their roots in 2012 was a great, splashy red one. Classic early runs of The Savage Dragon and Spawn were bloodier than comics had ever been. And gleefully so. But twenty years later, current Image titles like Revival and Danger Club tweak genre tropes and prove a helluva lot smarter than their 1990s counterparts.
Which brings us to The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, today's best ongoing splatter-fest. Written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Tradd Moore, this comic has a name that evokes Victorian bestsellers. Its innards, however, ask what might've happened if Peter Parker grew up with an abusive dad and a love of Friday the 13th movies.
Minus the radioactivity, of course. Stick-boy Luther gains the power "to focus [his] mind, body and spirit towards one goal" from a book called the Hercules Method (advertised in comics, in a nod to Flex Mentallo). We see him, in a few quick panels, meditate, do push-ups, down some protein, and proclaim the whole endeavor pointless.
Worry not, savages! The tale opens, lest we underestimate our hero, to explosive gore. First, Luther pops bullets from his flesh like pesky blackheads. Then, with a Godfather poster in the background, we see him standing astride a half-dozen corpses. His barehanded attacks, able to disembowel, have left dead gangsters punched through the ceiling, ripped in half, and armless (with one arm going down and out through another guy's throat).
Artist Moore should be proud. His take on ultra-violence is hilariously nasty, and something every human being should witness (like autumn in New England and I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Miserables). He and writer Jordan also use a nifty technique in which Luther sees the shadow of something dangerous before it happens. Not quite a "Spider-Sense", but we're also treated to panels where Luther literally sees red, in the form of people's musculature. It's gruesome, intriguing, and one of many features that makes this title so rich.
Another is that the Hercules Method is an occult document, sent to Luther by an ancient group of death-obsessed lunatics. We meet them chained up in a cavern, disguised in bandages, and able to lethally spit teeth. Their footman, the Librarian (whose bald head, goatee and bow-tie screech NEMESIS), also happens to see people as sacks of meat.
By the time he confronts Luther, our dweeb has beefed-up and sharpened his skills on high school jocks, convenience store robbers and drug dealers. These encounters are exceptional- Jordan's got an ear for what's just abrasive and cocky enough to read well (unlike Mark Millar, who cranks abrasive and cocky up to eleven, then walks away swinging both middle-fingers). Here's alpha-douche Paul, channeling David Attenborough as he mocks Luther: "Behold the nerd in its natural habitat as it attempts to mate. Unfortunately, its small, almost vestigial penis will prevent success." Rounding out the supporting cast, we have Mom, best friend Pete, and future cougar Petra (if she lives that long). "Jesus," she says to classmate Luther, squeezing his arm, "you feel like a condom stuffed with walnuts."
While she's at it, Petra wears a NIN shirt. Her pens live on her desk in a Misfits mug. In fact, wherever the creators can tout their influences explicitly, they do. Luther and Peter attend (Jason) Voorhees High, read comics (that are clearly) by Grant Morrison, and love films like Akira and John Carpenter's The Thing. More than likely though, if you're reading Luther Strode, you already enjoy this stuff too.
In lesser talents, these visual shortcuts would be a crutch. Not so for Jordan and Moore. Aiding and abetting them is the indispensable Felipe Sobreiro, who brings cool, lurid colors to the mix while allowing oceans of bright red to command most scenes. His use of shadows even has me wonder what might result if animators tackled this material. Then I realize any translation would diminish Luther's world. This is a comic book- and a winking red spectacle of one at that.