Since 1990, The Undertaker has been a force to be reckoned with in professional wrestling. With his recent retirement, it seemed like an excellent time to remember that he was once considered the Big Dog in comic books as well… Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of The Undertaker #1 awaits!
THE UNDERTAKER #1
Writer: Beau Smith
Penciler: Manny Clark
Inker: Sandu Floria
Colorist: Jason Jensen
Letterer: Comicraft’s Oscar Gongora
Editor: Brian Pulido/Gregg Pisani/Jim Monti/Dan Monti/Brad Gould
Publisher: Chaos! Comics
Cover Price: $2.95
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3.00
Previously in The Undertaker: “The Undertaker: Once he was the guardian of Stygian, Hell’s prison. Now, he uses the squared circle of the
WWF WWE ring to do battle with the dark souls, the demon footsoldiers who have escaped from Stygian with their own alliances and agendas. All seek control of the three Books of the Dead, unholy books of prophecy and power that have been in existence since time immemorial. The one who possesses all three holds the key to unimaginable destructive powers, including control of Stygian… The Undertaker holds the third volume of the books, the mysterious Embalmer holds the first volume. Who holds the second?
In Hell, you can trust no one…”
There are those who find it hard to believe, but I will tell you that Chaos!/WWF Comics were a pretty big draw during my first comic shop run in the late 1990s. Undertaker’s book was the cornerstone of the line, but comic adventures of Chyna, The Rock, Mankind and Stone Cold Steve Austin were also available at different times, all taking the characters’ on-screen personae and expanding them into superheroic form. For some, it required some work (Chyna was reimagined as a bodyguard, The Rock as a roving troubleshooter/shoot fighter.) For the Undertaker, whose persona was that of undead servant of darkness, all it took was some extrapolation…
This issue starts with a long summary of what has gone before (There was a #0 issue released before this one, as it was the 90s, after all), then launches into a battle sequence during which the dialogue…
…reinforces exactly what that long summary said. In some cases, ‘Taker’s dialogue is word-for-word the same as the text page, telling us a second time about his escape from hell, his former job as warden of the prison in Hell, a place called Stygian, and it’s there that I have to reveal to you why I could never really get into Undertaker comics back in the day:
Stygian IS a real word. However, it is an adjective that describes hellish conditions, which is the equivalent of calling Folsom Prison “Illinoisian.” It’s the kind of thing that can really drag you out of the plot. That is a shame, really, as the plot (as ineffectively and repetitiously framed as it is) has some fun elements to it. While The Undertaker dispatches demon after demon in his special wrestling ring (OF FIRE!), elsewhere an evil force prepares to confront him to steal his Book Of The Dead…
One of the few named characters who isn’t based on a WWF character of the era, The Embalmer is an odd case. His mask makes me think that he might have been intended to be wrestler Mankind, but had to be changed in order to keep from having that character be the villain. Manny Clark’s art isn’t really my cup of tea, but I have to admit that there’s a power to his storytelling that I find admirable. In keeping with the general Chaos! Comics house vibe, it feels like it would make really cool tattoos for the right audience, and there’s fun to be had in that style. The Embalmer’s plan to capture the other books of the dead sends him to the Earth-realm, I guess, moving The Undertaker to realize he must act now…
For at least the third time, the premise of our story is explained to us, which makes me wonder if this book was aimed at a younger readership than I expected. Perhaps the 10-15 year old range, which would make sense in terms of 1990s wrestling fandom? I’m uncertain, but in any case, we turn from the pits of Hell to the stone canyons of New York City, where The Embalmer has created his own tiny empire from which to spearhead his search…
Because “Augustus Slayer” is a completely innocuous name that no one would ever suspect has anything to do with evil or underworld forces or anything… “M. Palmer” was probably already taken. Slayer reveals that The Undertaker isn’t the only one with big plans, checking in on his own ace-in-the-hole, the demon flame-creature known only as Kane… THE UNDERTAKER’S OWN BROTHER!
If The Undertaker plans to use the fighting rings of Earth to further his own agenda, it only makes sense for The Embalmer to put a few obstacles in his way. The story shifts immediately (smash-cuts are the way of the world in this book, as in many 90s comics) to show The Undertaker in battle with the wicked force of nature known as Mezzmor!
Both bigger and theoretically more intimidating than The ‘Taker (a feat which generally isn’t possible in real life, as Undertaker/Mark Calaway borders on seven feet tall), Mezzmer gives the Deadman a run for his money, but ends up taking the fall thanks to sheer grit, determination, and the power of “Your Name Is On The Cover”, leading him to the same end as many other challengers…
…albeit with less splattery results in the case of the real-life Tombstone Piledriver.
Also: “SPLLAAAADD” may be my favorite sound effect in recent memory, even though the gross demons calling his destroyed brain matter “soup” immediately afterward are honestly stomach-turning. As The Undertaker rises, intoning “Rest. In. Peace.” as is his wont, he hears a familiar voice and realizes that there’s more than just The Embalmer standing in his way…
Full disclosure: I love Paul Bearer. I have always loved Paul Bearer. A long-time wrestling manager also known as Percy Pringle, he had a wonderful spoooooooky horror show delivery that actually heightens my enjoyment of this comic book greatly. Just the fact that they’ve made a chubby Southerner in corpse makeup one of the big villains and made him intimidating makes me happy. It also gives you an idea of how Chaos! Comics operated: On the Rule Of Cool. That makes The Undertaker #1 a pretty cool book, even with repetitive plotting and a marked tendency to tell rather than show, which combines with the stylized art to make for a reading experience that conveys the creators’ enthusiasm and earns 3 out of 5 stars overall. It’s a book designed for a certain audience, to be sure, but one that stands out (especially from the relative doldrums of comics circa the late 1990s.)