Comics continuity is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? If you follow Marvel or DC in particular, every few years you have to watch as characters from smaller, subsumed imprints are quietly shuffled into the mainstream continuity. It’s one of the unique things about comics as a medium that we don’t just accept this, we actively embrace it. Watchmen sprung from Alan Moore’s attempts to use DC’s newly-acquired Charlton Comics characters to tell a stand-alone story (Rorshach was originally Steve Ditko’s Objectivist superhero The Question), with the characters only taking on the form we all recognise now when DC decided to merge the characters into the main continuity, denying Moore their use. This was probably for the best – no-one ever wants to know about Blue Beetle’s erectile dysfunction, but change him to Nite Owl and it’s a lot easier to read.
Similarly John Rozum’s Xombi, originally part of the Milestone Comics range that DC published in the mid-nineties, finds itself back on the shelves and part of the mainstream DC Universe. This is worth celebrating, because it means that the DC Universe now finds itself populated with characters with names like Nun of the Above, Manuel Dexterity and Catholic Girl, not to mention a damn fine comic to boot.
Founded by pioneering writer Dwayne McDuffie (producer of some of DC’s best cartoon output, who sadly died two weeks ago), Milestone Media was an attempt to increase representation of ethnic minorities in comics that ran for several years, most notably spawning the comic Static and its cartoon adaptation Static Shock. The comics were published by DC but were not part of that universe, at least up until now, as Xombi becomes the first title to rejoin the mainstream DCU as a stand-alone title.
The Xombi in question is David Kim, a medical research scientist whose body was reconstructed by nanomachines after he was attacked. They now inhabit his body, breaking down anything he eats and keeping him in peak condition. A side effect is that when he is damaged, they’re not fussy about what they use to rebuild him – his lab assistant was consumed by them when they first infected him, killing her to rebuild him. Despite his hi-tech origins, David is pressed into battle the supernatural and general weirdness, finding himself surrounded by superheroic nuns, evil angels, demons and all manner of peculiar and frequently pun-based creatures.
When paintings start attacking each other and mundane things start to go weird, David is sent to prevent a prisoner escaping from The Prison of Industry. Having read a book infected with semicolon cancer (Xombi is full of puns), he has been transformed into Mr Hyde. If anything defines Xombi it’s a sense of playful horror. Everything is slightly twisted in this world – snow angels, instead of being a way to ruin a perfectly good coat in the name of ‘fun’, wear dimembered faces and will freeze you to death. Nuns are superheroes. Doll houses double as prisons. It’s full of ideas, and enough of them are so playfully and wilfully daft that the whole things zips along at pace.
Artwork is handled by 2000 AD veteran Frazer Irving (whose name is spelled incorrectly on the cover of issue #1 – get it before it goes to reprint, pedantry lovers!), and is quite frankly great. Despite a dearth of action in this issue, it’s always dynamic, and the fact that he handles colouring duties as well as linework means that there’s a unified look not often seen in monthly comics. If you saw his work on Grant Morrison’s Klarion the Witch Boy that ran as part of the Seven Soldiers series a few years ago, or his more recent run on Iron Man: Inevitable you’ll have an idea of what to expect. Lurid pinks, cyans and golds make up much of the colouring, giving everything a strange, stark neon look. It’s some of the strongest computerised colouring I’ve seen in a comic, though that might be something to do with the fact that it’s not all just muscles and gradient fills.
I came to Xombi broadly unaware of the previous comic, but I found it easy to follow as well as engaging. Not everything makes sense straight away, but I get the feeling you could be the world’s biggest Xombi fan and that would still be the case. There are hints that the divide between David and the nanomachines will be a big part of the upcoming stories, potentially taking it into Swamp Thing-esque territory on the nature of consciousness (with puns, I presume). Even as a complete newbie to the series I’m left wanting to read not only more of the ongoing series, but everything that came before as well. Not bad for a lone issue.