My favorite indie comic is The Wretch. You probably haven’t heard of it.
Hipster humor aside, back in the summer of 2003, I was still in high school and still very new to comics. To this day, I consider this summer to be the most important in my life; it began with an abortive move to Baltimore, lasted over the six-week program that made me fall in love with Penn State, and ended in my father’s death. During that summer, I also bought the two trades that would eventually turn me into a comic book collector. It began with the first trade of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and while collecting the issues of the second volume, I found an ad for Slave Labor Graphics and Amaze Ink in the bag. Flipping through, I saw various horror themed comics that didn’t seem particularly interesting to me. And then, right at the end ... there was the first volume of The Wretch.
Created by Phil Hester, the Wretch’s adventures stretched over two all-too-brief series and short stories from publications like Negative Burn. When I saw the solicitation for The Wretch Volume One: Everyday Doomsday, I was immediately fascinated. It told of a dark superhero with no known identity in what TV Tropes would call a “Crapsack World.” They thankfully had a copy at the Comic Swap in State College, and it became a crucial book for me. I even used it in the mythology course I was taking for college credit.
“Superhero” is a loose way to describe the Wretch. He’s a hero, to be sure, but he’s closer to a mythological trickster figure. A typical Wretch story goes as follows: someone in Glass City is having a tough time, usually involving violence. The situation gets worse due to supernatural involvement. The Wretch appears and comes up with an inventive way to end the conflict and administer justice. Despite being little more than an ink splotch with eye spots and bandages at times, the Wretch never comes across as sinister. He’s creepy, to be sure; in fact, “The Creep” was Hester’s original name for him. But there’s never any doubt that, aside from some unusual tactics, the Wretch is on the side of good.
Hester’s Glass City is an incredible setting. It’s in a perpetual late '70s/early '80s, reflecting Hester’s own Midwestern childhood. Usually, the city is either burning in summer or drowning in a snowy winter, with the extremes creating boredom, fatigue, bigotry, and anger. Its children strive through an uphill struggle against personal demons, not to mention the actual demons residing in pawn shops, haunted church buses, and crystal balls. This is all capped off by Hester’s art, which never really shows the full city, instead showing sparse bits of it at a time. Glass City isn’t Gotham or Marvel’s version of Manhattan; there’s no real culture, just people trying to get through the day with a little help from their friend.
Everyday Doomsday collects six stories, with an intro page by Hester giving a few details and highlighting the work of contributors, including long-time collaborator Ande Parks. The first story, “The End of the World,” is described by Hester as being a template to introduce new readers to the series. Slave Labor Graphics decided to publish the stories in an odd order, with the very first ones coming out in the last volume.
“The End of the World” does to a great job of establishing the Wretch, Glass City, its inhabitants, and the kind of villains we’ll come to expect. A crazed pawn shop owner has stolen items from every inhabitant of the city to create a sort of pop-culture world-destroying golem. It’s structured similarly to a Batman story, with the perspective character being a slacker teenager who’s just trying to get his stolen comic book back.
"Bad Dog,” the next story, is when the fable format is established, as a striking worker’s son longs for a dog, and gets a toy one from the Wretch. Unfortunately, his anguished father runs it over with his lawn mower, creating a massive monster-dog which absorbs the hate of the workers and the scabs sent in to replace them. “Snow” follows an eternally cold bigot as we learn about his murder of his daughter’s African-American lover. The story takes a bit of a Twilight Zone twist as the Wretch brings back the wronged party and allows him to take his vengeance. “The Church Bus,” based on a similarly creepy bus from Hester’s childhood, has the Wretch chase after a kidnapped kid, literally using the power of imagination to return from his own destruction.
The last two stories are the ones that really keep The Wretch elevated in my mind. “White Lie” follows five kids as they use a Magic 8-Ball-style crystal ball provided by their therapist, which preys on their fears. I bought this book about a month and a half before my father died, and one of the sub-stories in this tale is so eerily reminiscent of my life that it’s taken me years to build up the courage to review this book. The Wretch shores up the kids’ courage and takes out the demon within the crystal ball in a very satisfying sequence. It’s a shame that Hester never really created any continuity for the series (short of a pair of stories in the second volume), because I would love to see these kids ten years down the line.
“Doomsday” is a massive change of style for Hester, as he goes for a full-on Jack Kirby homage with the Galactus-esque Executioner. He succeeds, imitating the grandiose dialogue and uniquely blocky Kirby artwork. The Wretch even turns himself into a facsimile of Captain Marvel to act as the Earth’s legal defender, and wins ... with the words of Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not going to tell you how the words are delivered, because it’s one of the silliest yet greatest ways I’ve seen a battle won in comics. The Wretch never actually speaks, instead using gestures, written means, and a bit of telepathy, and it’s a neat story constraint that Hester put on himself.
As far as storytelling goes, The Wretch is the rubric I use when reviewing other books and in my own writing. If you can find Everyday Doomsday, make sure to pick it up. Even if you don’t establish a personal connection, like I did, I think you’ll still enjoy it. All three collections are difficult to find, and I hope Slave Labor Graphics and Amaze Ink will put together a larger omnibus collection.