- The Washington Times - Friday, August 12, 2005

The comic book permeates all levels of popular culture. This sporadic feature reviews some recent examples from the world of digital video discs (compatible with DVD-ROM-enabled computers and home entertainment centers) and also includes a recommended sequential-art reading list to extend the multimedia adventures.

‘Constantine: Deluxe Edition’

(Warner Home Video, Rated R, $27.99)

Mature comic-book fans never could understand why their favorite Hellblazer was not sporting a blond coif, was not British and was not living in London when his Hollywoodized version debuted earlier this year.

The film did not attain blockbuster status even with Keanu Reeves starring as John Constantine, the heavy-smoking, working-class stiff who sends demons back to their fiery realms while dealing with a terminal case of lung cancer.

With the movie arriving in digital realms via a two-disc set, it adds just enough exploration of Constantine’s comic-book origins to satisfy fans while delivering enough bonuses to keep digital video aficionados amused.

Disc 1 offers only the 121-minute brooding epic, with an optional commentary track by director Francis Lawrence and a few of his creative minions.

The second disc quickly makes up for the first with a 15-minute featurette, “Conjuring Constantine.” In it, film creators try to explain how they wanted to present the spirit of the character when they should have just been true to the source material.

—Thankfully, lots of great artwork from the comics is shown, and interviews with comics writer Jamie Delano and Vertigo editor Karen Berger provide much insight into Hellblazer and the groundbreaking DC Comics imprint, Vertigo.

Additionally, a generous 14 deleted scenes with an optional director commentary are available (a few dealing with a pivotal character in the comics, Elle) along with a comparative look at the pre-visualization process, multiple dissections of visual effects and a video essay on heroes and mythology from author and culture historian Phil Cousineau.

Read all about it: Warner embellishes the set for new fans by putting a 48-page comic minibook in the package. Included are the story written by Garth Ennis that reveals Constantine’s deadly health problem (originally published in Hellblazer No. 41), a pair of tales culled from Vertigo Secret Files: Hellblazer No. 1 (with some classic art from Timothy Bradstreet), a one-page biography and some words on his encounters with the Devil.

Tales From the Crypt: The Complete First Season’

(Warner Home Video, $26.98)

Publisher William Gaines’ horror comic ruled pulp stands in the early 1950s until Fredric Wertham and a Senate hearing examining how sequential art corrupted youth turned Mr. Gaines into an industry pariah and ultimately forced his beloved EC Comics to go Mad (as in the magazine).

However, the influence of books such as Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear and Shock Suspense Stories continues to permeate the brains of popular-culture purveyors to this day. The most famous multimedia influence derived from an HBO television series in the 1980s, based on the gruesome anthology Tales From the Crypt. The first season of the 30-minute shows has been resurrected in a double-disc DVD set.

Hollywood firepower such as directors Robert Zemeckis and Walter Hill and actors such as Joe Pantoliano and Amanda Plummer infused shows from the sequential-art stories of William Gaines and co-editor Al Feldstein to deliver to the screen a homicidal Santa, an ambitious jailhouse executioner and a guy who just won’t die, each introduced by the black humor of the Crypt Keeper.

The most terrifying part of the set is that developers managed to put just six episodes, which technically is the entire first season, on one disc. Surely they could have gotten some optional commentary tracks or added the 18 episodes of the second season to fill out both DVDs.

Nonetheless, the second disc will still astound comic-book lovers with a 50-minute documentary revisiting EC Comics’ rise and downfall. Legendary storytellers such as comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson, film director John Carpenter, zombie movie maven George Romero and author R.L. Stine comment, along with EC legends such as Jack Davis and Mr. Feldstein.

Primary source material, such as footage of Mr. Gaines testifying before the Senate and the burning of comic books, just makes the censorship issue more horrifyingly fascinating.

Read all about it: Gemstone Publishing reprinted most of the EC Comics titles during the 1980s and offers the most affordable option (some of the single-issue EC horror comics in near mint condition go for thousands of dollars) for fans to enjoy the most terrifying morality plays ever created. I would suggest taking a cyber-hunt on the World Wide Web to find the multiple volumes compiling Tales of the Crypt in four- to six-issue trade paperbacks ($14 each).

‘Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles the Complete Campaigns’

(Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment, $49.99)

A kiddie cartoon based on author Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi epic war between extraterrestrial bugs and humans struggled for barely one on-air season back in 1999.

However, when all of the episodes completed are viewed via a new four-disc DVD set, it becomes clear that the creators had a great-looking series in the making and only the medium’s censorship restraints and some weak storytelling kept it from being a classic.

More than 700 minutes of fairly intense, computer-generated animation splatter across television screens as the adventures of teenage cadets Rico, Carl and Carmen are explored when they travel to distant planets and fight on the front lines of the First Interstellar War against bloodthirsty insectoids.

Having no bonus features or commentaries on the discs hurts the overall presentation. I would love to hear why producers thought this series would work as early-morning programming.

Read all about it: Art fans do get a beautiful miniposter created by Naoyuki Katoh, but for a sequential-art fix, they will need to purchase Dark Horse Comics’ trade paperback “Starship Troopers” ($16.95) to get a sampling of the books it produced in the late 1980s.

Zadzooks! wants to know you exist. Call 202/636-3016; fax 202/269-1853; e-mail jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com; or write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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