THE UNADAPTED: Criminal Macabre

Posted: December 6, 2014 in Andrew, Cal McDonald, Constantine, Criminal Macabre, Dark Horse, Guest Column, Hellblazer, IDW, The Unadapted
**This edition of The Unadapted was written by novelist Andrew Prenger. He’s covering my ass for being late with my post on Justice League: Mortal Part 2. Enjoy his look at Criminal Macabre, a comic I literally know nothing about.**

The most surprising thing about this title is that it technically started in 1990. So that means the main character, Cal McDonald, has been around for over 24 years. Yet most comic book readers would be at a loss to know anything about it. Were it on Jeopardyit would be the awkward question everyone quietly stared at their feet for until time ran out and Alex Trebek read the answer off his cue card.

Templesmith’s take.

Granted it wasn’t until 2003 that the character appeared with any regularity. Before that a one-shot (titled “Big-Head”) by writer Steve Niles’ own publishing company introduced McDonald, followed by a small run (“Hairball”) in 1996’s Dark Horse Presents. Steve Niles also wrote two prose novels involving the character which were published by IDW (Savage Membrane and Dial M for Monster.) But one would expect it would be more popular since the 2003 mini-series came out almost immediately after Niles’ hit vampire story 30 Days of Night set the world on fire. The first mini-series, “Criminal Macabre” was drawn by Ben Templesmith, the artist on 30 Days of Night and the two universes even crossed over in the story Final Night.

I admit, I am a pretty biased in my love of this series. Something about it hooked me. Partially it has to be the art since I am a giant fan of Ben Templesmith. But it resonated with me even when he left after the first arc (although he did return for two one-shots). I love this series so much that, for a lot of the earlier stuff, I have bought it four times over. I own the original issues and then I purchased the trades. In 2011 Dark Horse released all the stories in an omnibus format so I bought that as well. Then they published a hardcover version which included one of the prose novels so that went in my collection. All without hesitation. Mind you, I already owned the original IDW copies of the prose novels and the book of short stories, Guns, Drugs and Monsters. Right now they have a solicitation for a paperback omnibus volume 3 and I’ll probably buy that even though I know it’ll be collected in hardcover eventually. Which brings me to the series’ storyline…

Cal and Mo’lock

Cal McDonald is a private detective who specializes in monster mysteries. He lives in Los Angeles and his best friend is a ghoul named Mo’Lock. Together they take cases that primarily deal with zombies, werewolves and vampires. The police don’t like him, and never fully believe him, but understand that there may be more to the world than they can take care of. Initially the only person with any power who trust him is Lieutenant Brueger, a police officer. Later added to the cast is Sabrina Lynch, publisher and writer for a tabloid akin to The Weekly World News, who becomes McDonald’s girlfriend.

“Fun” is the word I would use to describe the series, especially the first few arcs. Initially it seems like a place for Steve Niles to cut loose. There are giant-headed scientists, naked werewolves, cackling gremlins and one story involves a golem made of meat. Steve Niles gets to come up with bizarre creations and his artists (Templesmith, Kelley Jones, Kyle Hotz and Nick Stakal to name a few) get to cut loose drawing them. One particularly memorable moment is when Cal convinces his undead friend to take up smoking. The result is horrifying enough that it even weirds out the world weary main character.

American Constantine with a shotgun…
where have I seen that before?

Admittedly, Cal McDonald isn’t the most original creation. If pressed I would describe him as an American version of John Constantine from Hellblazer.Instead of using cleverness and magic to get out of tight situations, Cal never met a problem he couldn’t solve with a shotgun blast. Cal McDonald is a junkie, drinking as much as possible, popping pills he finds randomly in his pocket. Mo’Lock plays his straight man, dryly responding to any abuse hurled his way.

Belying this is the undercurrent of seriousness involved in the series. Niles uses the first few arcs to draw in the reader. They’re light, they’re fun, he introduces wacky characters and situations. There is a lot of world building, especially since early on it is revealed that the monsters have their own, sometimes literal, underground society. Once he knows the reader is hooked he starts up the emotional punches. There are revelations that Cal McDonald is not a junkie because of a funny character quirk, but a serious reason involving his upbringing and family. Mo’Lock has a tragic past which is kept under his taciturn personality. There are characters introduced and built up (who I won’t name here for fear of spoilers) that get dispatched with sudden brutality. And this isn’t a super hero comic, those characters stay dead and there are serious consequences that resonate throughout the entirety of the series.

Why cast anyone else?

There have been talks of adapting the series for a movie before. Obviously nothing came out of it. I remember there even being rumors that Tom Jane was going to star. Whether that was true or not, they did, for a time, have Tim Bradstreet draw the covers and used him as the model for Cal McDonald. He looked spot on at the time, though now I fear he would be a bit too old. Given my druthers I feel Cal McDonald would be better suited for television, though I think that about most comic books. Movies are good for spectacle and can be done well, but for more character-based books, like this one, it would be a disservice to try and shoehorn all the cool details into ninety-minutes.

“More like Poly-NOT-nice. Aheheh.”

It is a horror comic, though. It would need to be put somewhere it could be allowed to be horror. Netflix or AMC I feel could do him right. Let him have the violence and the gore, but also let him keep his bad habits like his pills and his smoking. It wouldn’t work well on a channel like CW or NBC. For example, there is a villain named Doctor Polynice. He’s a psychotic surgeon who creates Frankenstein-esque creations of young, pretty people to be sold to rich pedophiles. This is a character that’s not going to work if he’s JUST a Doctor Frankenstein knock-off and his creations are pretty people with an odd stitch here or there drawn on them with a Sharpie.

I think a prestige channel would be more amicable to filming the series similar to the way Niles writes the comics. Criminal Macabre isn’t published as an ongoing series. It comes out as a series of mini-series. So each arc tells a complete story in and of itself while building a bigger story overall. It could be stretched out to 22 episodes for a season, but I think it would be better served as a 12 episode series and spend more money on awesome monster effects.

In short, I wish to live in a world where Criminal Macabre makes it to a screen large or small. I’m not saying I have no hope, but I do understand the reality of this property’s popularity. As I mentioned earlier, it has never been a huge hit, even at a time when it should have been. Right now it seems to be a labor of love from Steve Niles and the mini-series continue with some regularity (which I very much appreciate.) As long as he writes this book I will continue to read it. And collect it. Multiple times.

Coming soon in super deluxe hardcover omnibus limited author’s edition!


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