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Friday, June 12, 2020

Four-Color Fridays: A History of ‘Friday the 13th’ Comics

As we celebrate 40 years of Friday the 13th, it’s hard to not feel a little sorry for Jason Voorhees, perhaps the most mistreated horror icon. Ignored by his founders at Paramount Studios and mishandled by his new owners at New Line Cinema, Jason has had a bumpy on-screen career. Even worse, where his peers Freddy and Chucky starred in comics from 1989 and 1991, Jason had to wait until 1993, when he finally made his debut with an ignominious cameo in Satan’s Six #4. 

Despite such inauspicious beginnings, Jason has had a surprisingly good run, appearing in comics from Topps, Avatar Press, and finally DC Comics’ WildStorm imprint. If the birthday of Mama Voorhees’s favorite son has got you wanting more, these comics will surely do the trick. 


(Topps Comics, 1993)

Comic book adaptations of movies have a long and respected history, ranging from Marvel’s classic Star Wars miniseries to the recent graphic novel based on William Gibson’s Alien 3 script. 

But even those who (like me) have a soft spot for Jason Goes to Hell have to admit it’s a weird place to start if you’re new to the character. Not only does Jason rarely appear in his hockey-masked glory, but the movie eschews his standard “drowned at a summer camp” backstory to introduce a lot of stuff about demon worms and bloodline rebirths. 

Writer Andy Mangels hits the movie’s major beats, and even adds a few bits of clarifying dialogue. But any effort to streamline the narrative is hampered by the artwork across the adaptation’s three issues. Undefined line work, a lack of basic storytelling chops, rushed inks, and muddy colors make the Jason Goes to Hell comic incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t already seen the film — which kinda defeats the whole point of an adaptation. 


(Topps Comics, 1995 – 1996)

While movie studios struggled to realize the Jason/Freddy showdown teased at the end of Jason Goes to Hell, Topps Comics redeemed their initial missteps with the surprisingly great three-issue series Jason vs. Leatherface.

Before we go further, I need to be clear: despite its title, Jason and Leatherface only fight twice in this story, scuffles that involve no more than stabs and swats. Furthermore, the comic significantly departs from the movies. Jason’s mother is called “Doris” for some reason and the comic’s Nubbins “Hitchhiker” Sawyer neither looks nor acts like the character played by Edwin Neal. 

Despite these oddities, writer Nancy A. Collins (working from a plot she developed with David Imhoff) offers a thoughtful and disturbing mashup, one that explores the bond Jason forms with Leatherface after a toxic waste disposal team accidentally takes him from the bottom of Crystal Lake to the backwoods of Texas. Jeff Butler’s art and Renee Witterstaetter’s colors capture the grotesque tone of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, somehow both stomach-churning and, believe it or not, moving. Jason fits well alongside the Sawyers and comes off, if not quite sensitive, then at least introspective next to his deranged hosts. 


(2005, Avatar Press)


(2005 – 2006, Avatar Press)


(2006, Avatar Press)

After Topps Comics folded in 1998, Jason disappeared from comics for a while, finally finding a home with the indie publisher Avatar Press. Teaming with veteran horror writer Brian Pulido, pencilers Mike Wolfer and Sebastian Fiumara created two different storylines about Jason. 

The more traditional story features attempts by various organizations to capture or destroy Jason. Bloodbath and Special, written by Pulido and drawn by Wolfer, offer some interesting ideas, including a Cabin in the Woods-style premise involving a group of teens brought together to lure out Jason. Fearbook, written by Pulido and drawn by Fiumara, follows the survivor of that experiment as she sets Jason loose onto her Illuminati tormentors. 

Unfortunately, Pulido and Wolfer pay little attention to these compelling concepts and focus instead on Jason hacking people to bits. Fortunately, it’s a lot of fun to watch Jason hack people to bits. Where special-effects budgets and MPAA censors limit moviemakers, the comics can go all out with the gore. At their best, Wolfer and Fiumara portray mangled bodies in sadistic detail. And even when the pencils become a bit too sloppy (which happens too often in Bloodbath and Fearbook), colorists Greg Waller and Andrew Dalhouse provide enough vibrant viscera to keep the visuals striking. 


(2005, Avatar Press)


(2006, Avatar Press)

The other Avatar Press comics star Über-Jason, the nano-bot cyborg from Jason X. As much as I love that movie’s irreverent take on 90s sci-fi and the Friday mythology, these two comics leave a lot to be desired. 

Written by Pulido, with art by Fuimara and colors by Mark Sweeney, Jason X Special tells of a young woman’s plan to capture Über-Jason and use his regenerating cells to heal her ill brother. It does not go well. 

Fiumara captures the dated future-fashion of the original movie and designs some cool cyborgs for Über-Jason to kill, even adding a Pamela AI to guide her augmented son’s kill-spree. There’s nothing too creative about these kills, but Fuimara’s compositions are all impressive and Pulido finds a fun twist for the story’s otherwise predictable end. The slight narrative spans only a single issue, never wearing out its welcome. 

The same cannot be said for the sequel Friday the 13th: Jason vs Jason X. Granted, the miniseries only lasts two issues, but the extra pages overstretch a plot that’s no more than “Jason and Über-Jason kill a lot of people on a space cruise ship while fighting each other.” Mike Wolfer takes on writing and art duties, introducing ideas about cloning Jason and a Pamela Voorhees AI, but once again tossing them aside in favor of a double-Jason murder rampage. 

The extra work takes its toll on Wolfer’s art. Like Fuimara, Wolfer captures the aesthetic of Jason X and brings the same level of gore he had in his collaborations with Pulido. But his line-work feels far more sloppy here, as he sacrifices sound compositions for panels that highlight kills with a machete swipe. It’s fine for a few pages, but the gag gets old by the end of issue one and outright tiresome by issue two. 


(2006-2007, WildStorm)

After his short stay at Avatar, Jason finally came to rest at the DC Comics imprint WildStorm. A creator-driven line, WildStorm let some of the best voices in comics tell their Jason stories, resulting in compelling variations of the Friday the 13th model. 

For that reason, the miniseries by usually reliable writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray disappoints. Palmiotti and Gray tell a fairly straightforward Friday story, about counselors hired by a businessman to renovate Camp Crystal Lake getting slaughtered by Jason. 

But rather than stick to that nuts and bolts story, the writers add in several twists, none of which get enough development to work. They weave supernatural elements into the plot, including ghosts of murdered children and a flashback involving the indigenous victims of murderous settlers, none of which properly melds with the main slasher storyline. The counselors are as vapid and cruel as ever, but Palmiotti and Gray make two of the men closeted lovers. Rather than add depth to the usual machete-fodder, the reveal only gives other characters an excuse to spew some truly awful slurs. 

Artists Adam Archer and Peter Guzman do a nice job making the characters look distinct and the gory kills do manage to shock the reader. Nonetheless, the entire series feels like an underachievement, especially compared to the publisher’s other Friday books. 


(2008, WildStorm)


(2007, WildStorm)


(2007, WildStorm)


(2008, WildStorm)

After their lackluster first attempt, the WildStorm Friday comics hit their stride with a quartet of one- and two-issue stories, all of which wrap compelling character studies around the bones of standard Jason plots. 

The weakest of the four is Bad Land, from writer Ron Marz and artist Mike Huddleston. Bad Land builds on the indigenous curse idea introduced by Palmiotti and Gray, crosscutting between Crystal Lake in the 17th century, where a trio of EuroAmerican trappers murder an indigenous woman and her baby and set her partner on a vengeful attack, and modern-day Crystal Lake, where Jason hunts a trio of campers. It’s a tight script, and Huddleston’s art is strong and expressive. But the theme is just too complex for a scant 32 pages. The story comes too close to invoking the tired “Indian burial ground” trope without taking seriously its implications. 

Jason Aaron and Adam Archer’s How I Spent My Summer Vacation twists children’s fantasy tropes by making Jason the monster who befriends an outcast. The boy in this story is Davie Faulkner, whose deformity catches the attention of the marauding Jason. Feeling a kinship with Davie, Jason takes the boy to his cabin and teaches him to hunt, feeding him scraps of food stolen from the picnickers he kills. Aaron strikes the perfect balance between nasty humor and genuine pathos, especially with Davie’s sardonic narration. The only missteps involve a coked-out sheriff searching for Davie and Jason, but Archer’s pencils, enhanced by sharp inks by Peter Guzman and subtle coloring from Johnny Rench, covers even these problems. 

As the title suggests, Jason’s mother takes the focus in Pamela’s Tale by Marc Andreyko and Shawn Moll. As she gives a ride to Annie, the doomed hitchhiker from the start of the first movie, Pamela describes her life with abusive husband Elias, the events that brought her to the camp, and the bond she formed with Jason while he was still in her womb. Although it sounds like mere fan-fiction, Andreyko pulls off impressive character work, especially when Moll’s detailed images contradict the story told in Pamela’s cheery narration. Pamela’s Tale restores the dignity of a killer who has been long-overshadowed by her masked son. 

For me, the most successful of the four minis is the most simple: Abuser and the Abused, from Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andy Belanger. Despite the comic’s gaudy cover from Brandon Badeaux and Carrie Strachan, Abuser and the Abused features the thick lines and basic colors (courtesy of Darlene Royer) of an EC Comics classic. And that fits, because Fialkov borrows the structure of those morality tales. Sick of being dumped on by everyone in her life, teenager Maggie follows Jason’s lead and massacres her tormentors. But when she lures her abusive boyfriend to Crystal Lake and lets her role model finish the job, Maggie learns why you should never meet your heroes. It’s a nasty tale, made better by Fialkov’s efficient script and Belanger’s striking art. 


(WildStorm / Dynamite Entertainment, 2007 – 2008)


(WildStorm / Dynamite Entertainment, 2009)

Jason’s comic book tenure started with an adaptation and it ends with an adaptation (of sorts). 

Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash is exactly what it sounds like, a sequel to Freddy vs. Jason. Over six issues, writer James Kuhoric and artist Jason Craig flesh out a treatment from James Katz, which finds Freddy trapped inside Jason’s consciousness after the events of the 2003 film. Posing as his new father, Freddy urges Jason to find the Necronomicon from its hiding spot in the Voorhees home (as established in Jason Goes to Hell). At the same time, a fancy new S-Mart Super Center opens up in Crystal Lake, and the head office brings in from the Detroit store one Ash Williams. 

Yes, that’s a contrived plot, but Katz gives each of the characters understandable motivations, and Kuhoric successfully blends the three icons’ tones. Jason remains the killing machine he’s always been, massacring a new set of New Jersey teens. Freddy only gets one dream sequence kill until he’s restored by the Necronomicon, but he gets to be his snarky self when taking Pamela’s place as the voice inside Jason’s head (even if he is a bit too quick to toss slurs). Ash’s bravado and cynical narration add a necessary layer of irony to the proceedings, without dulling the edge of his classic one-liners. 

The art from Jason Craig is more of a mixed bag. When it works, it works great. Craig gives us an imposing Jason, worthy of Kane Hodder. His Freddy captures the spritely energy of Robert Englund at his best, and Ash gets a pompadour to match Bruce Campbell’s glorious chin. But even more than previous Jason artists, Craig fudges basic storytelling fundamentals to highlight high-rise thongs and incomprehensibly goopy gore. While this type of story sometimes allows for composition rules to be tossed aside in favor of exploitation visuals, Craig does so too often, over-relying on Thomas Mason’s colors to give the images depth. 

The next year’s Freddy vs. Jason vs. Ash: The Nightmare Warriors doubles up on its predecessor’s strengths and weaknesses. Katz and Kuhoric return with an overstuffed story that teams Ash with the titular Nightmare Warriors, a group of Jason and Freddy survivors made-up of characters from previous films: Dr. Neil Gordon (Nightmare 3) and Dr. Maggie Burroughs (Freddy’s Dead) join Alice Johnson (Nightmare 4 and 5) and her teenage son Jacob (Nightmare 5), Steven Freeman and his daughter Stephanie (Jason Goes to Hell), the telekinetic Tina Shepherd (Friday Part VII), Rennie Wickham (Friday Part VIII), and of course Tommy Jarvis (Friday Parts IV-VI). 

If that lineup isn’t enough, the plot goes deeper into wackiness, bringing back Army of Darkness Deadites, transforming Jason into a long-haired hunk, making Stephanie and Maggie into Freddy and Jason: The Next Generation, and showing Freddy masquerading as, uh… George W. Bush. 

The gonzo story might be great for readers, but it overwhelms Craig’s art. His takes on Ash and Freddy remain strong, but the other familiar characters bare only a slight resemblance to the actors who played them. The loose anatomy and tendency to over-sexualize female characters stand out here, as does the poor composition of the various fight scenes. 

Still, despite its flaws, I cannot deny that The Nightmare Warriors is a lot of fun. It’s over-the-top enough to hold us over until we finally get that long-awaited thirteenth Friday the 13th film. 


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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