I know what you’re thinking, because I was too when I picked up this book: unless it’s having a bit of fun with itself, Toxic Storm is something of an unfortunate title. To me, it sounds like a specialty line of G.I. Joe action figures or an environmental-themed episode of Power Rangers. Don’t get me wrong, it has relevance to the story, but when a title is this overtly “comic booky,” I immediately get a telling twinge that it might not be the book for me. Then again, I had the same initial response to Storm Dogs, and look how much I ended up loving that thing. And so, with an invitation from its creators and without intended reservation or prejudice, I jumped right into the Toxic Storm, indeed finding it to be, at best, an unpredictable tempest.
The premise for this book is a relatively easy one to follow, and barring it's rather mature content, it reminds me in a lot of ways of the origin stories from my tender 1990s youth, but with perhaps a slightly more liberal sprinkling of ritualistic satanic sacrifice. It’s basically a mix of a “slasher” origin and that of a tragic superhero, and it could work in as many ways as it doesn’t.
Issue one brings our foundation of character. Falsely accused of rape by a jilted former lover, the otherwise inconspicuous and unhardened Simon Fisher is thrown into jail. While incarcerated, he quickly befriends keen observer of the occult, casual satanist and muscle-bound ass-kicker, Caleb Fontana, who teaches Simon the dark arts, ostensibly to protect his cornhole, but also to enact vengeance upon those who would or have wronged him.
This all comes back to (literally) haunt Simon, however, as an act of self-defense against yet another act of retribution (prison payback: it’s a vicious cycle), sees him put to death and his soul transferred into the noxious gasses used to put him down. What follows is a fairly formulaic story of vengeance, wherein the now rather more disembodied Simon dispatches those who wronged him before turning himself in to the FBI. However, suddenly no longer willing to kill folks, they decommission his gassy ass in a glass tube in what appears to be a governmental facility for “mad science.”
The second issue shows a further glimpse into the life of dark lord apologist, Caleb Fontana, whose motivations scream 1980s action movie, as well as introducing the other half of Toxic Storm’s titular equation in the mentally disturbed and most probably demonic Agent Jack Storm, whose brand new flame-throwing super suit will assist him in his ceaseless quest to recapture Simon’s amorphous cloud of green-hot retribution.
Despite having a story which turns certain action movie dynamics on their heads (the lawfully-wronged protagonist, the satanic father with a heart of gold), the writing in Toxic Storm often comes within a sometimes too-thick cloud of clichéd grandstanding, but without the self-aware fun that could make it great. In short, it feels like this thing - which is clearly a take on B-movie brilliance - takes itself a bit too seriously.
With only a few exceptions, almost every character in this book is a tough-talking badass, which I guess stands to reason in a book so entrenched with incarceration and hell magic, but it also makes everything feel one-dimensional. Again, this would be fine if the story had the levity of pastiche, but it doesn’t come across that way, at least to me.
I also found the character of the lead in Simon, like his new physical state, a bit hard to grasp. For example, he admits to being “scared shitless” after first arriving in jail, having “never seen a real prison,” yet he later says that he’s “always been a monster living as a man,” even before his transformation. That undulating characterization, combined with his moral-cum-murderous ambiguity, makes it difficult to relate to or feel much in the way of empathy for him. The same is true of Caleb, whose visual presence is as shaky as his B-movie paternal motivations, without having the irreverent joy of same.
This is not to say that the whole of Toxic Storm’s writing is “bad,” just tenuously-defined and relying a bit too much on odd re-imagining of classic tropes without the joy of their dissection. Similarly, the dialogue is a bit routine and inorganic. It does a fine job of getting the story across, but it does so without much narrative invention. I understand that this is a meat slab of a story, so looking for nuance may be ill-advised, but the premise would benefit from a bit more wordplay or at very least a wink to its inspirations. To me, it’s the difference between Troll 2 and Evil Dead II, though I don’t mean to compare this book to the former at all. It’s seriously not that bad.
See, I did enjoy Toxic Storm, definitely much more than I initially thought I would, given my misgivings of its title. With a few tweaks, I honestly think this could be a cult (or perhaps “occult”) classic, on par with something like Darkman, but it just feels like it takes itself too damn seriously, when it really shouldn’t. It has the potential to be insanely fun, and I truly believe Adam Cheal has it in him to still make that happen. Hopefully he can find its unique voice and conjure up the oddball enjoyment that this title quite clearly lends itself towards and desperately wants to embody.
The art, while sometimes showing the inconsistency present in most books where two artists share the visual workload, was actually quite good. Cotejar and Rodriguez’s styles work well together in the first issue for the most part, with the latter in particular showing some remarkably exceptional stuff in both issues, excelling particularly in sweeping splash page flourishes. While some of his figure work comes off a bit stiff at times, it’s clear that when Rodriguez is given enough time to hone and deliver, the resultant art can be staggering. Like the story itself, however, I do wish he would have a bit more fun with his craft, rather than attempting to make it feel so thickly atmospheric and morose.
Overall, I give this book a solid three out of five. I will continue to pick it up to see what happens next, so in that, the team has succeeded. I also appreciate the clearly hard work and love put into Toxic Storm’s production and admire these guys and girls for what they’re doing. I just wish that what they were doing had a bit more fun with itself.
Writer: Adam Cheal Artists: Renzo Rodriguez, Joel J. Cotejar Colorist: Mark Summers, Jimmy Herast (cover) Letterist: Mindy Lopkin Publisher: Markosia Enterprises Price: $.99 each on Comixology Release Date: 11/6/13 (First Issue)