Night Force is an American comic book series featuring Baron Winters and the Night Force published by DC Comics.
In 1982, when DC’s Night Force first appeared, it was innovative in two ways: first, it was an anthology series with recurring characters; before this, horror comics were usually either anthologies like EC’s Tales from the Crypt (1950-1955), with a horror host being the only recurring character, or they were monster-driven, ongoing story-lines like Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula (1972-1979).
Second, if major characters in any ongoing story-line comic died, that condition was certain to be reversed in a future issue. Plus, those characters were most definitely never injured in any permanent way. With Night Force, the horror anthology story-line comic with truly mortal and battle-scarred characters was born.
Modern (for the early 1980s) settings and plots, dubious characters, and subversive outcomes accentuated the comic and took it out of the traditional shudders-and-creeps realm of previous comics and placed it into the more disorderly world of Cold War occultism, factious character motivations, and sinister éminence grise machinations.
Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, the writer and artist respectively of Night Force, gave this horror comic its debut as a brief back-up piece in issue #21 of DC’s The New Teen Titans (1980-1984), producing something truly unique by creating a macabre Mission Impossible concept that wasn’t afraid to maim or kill off its agents.
As an example, one of the main characters actually loses an arm and a leg during the first seven-issue story-line. They weren’t afraid to create characters with extremely ugly and realistic psychologies and still make them protagonists; the cynical and self-serving Jack Gold is an illustration, with his constant suspicions, shortsightedness, and deceptive handling of Vanessa Van Helsing in the first story, conduct which may haunt Gold for the rest of his life, placing him in an existential prison of his own making and damaging Vanessa beyond all repair.
Wolfman and Colon were also not afraid to drop all of the main characters, except Winters and Merlin (Winters’ leopard familiar) for the second, three-issue story-line, and bring in fresh faces – some of whom die. They weren’t afraid to bring back a few of the characters from the first story, scarred as they were, to close out the final story, dropping even more hints while still leaving things deliciously opaque.
Winters, himself, is an enigmatic figure, with many things being revealed about him throughout the short series, but little clarity being provided concerning who or what he actually is. It’s known he once worked in a carnival; Doctor Rabin, of the Potomac Psychiatric Hospital, mentions this a few times, always in reference to her belief that Winters is an occult charlatan; Merlin, being a leopard, never speaks, yet Winters converses with him and is frequently chided by him; it’s revealed in issue #14 (the final issue) that Merlin was given to Winters by an African sorceress, possibly from some other, much older, time period; it’s hinted that Winters is incalculably old without precisely defining his age; for the time being, he’s forbidden from leaving his mansion, Wintersgate, during the current time period and in this dimension, and it’s suggested that it has something to do with the African sorceress.
Furthermore, readers discovered that the structure of the house itself subtly warps in conjunction with Winters’ mood and that certain doors in Wintersgate lead to other time periods through which he can exit. It was also revealed that Winters is incapable of seeing the future, but is quite capable of being a puppet master, manoeuvring people into frequently deadly situations in order to get what he wants and that what he wants may appear at close focus to be brutally selfish, but at long-range may actually be the pursuit of a greater good. Maybe.
The occult aspects of this excellent comic are far-ranging and ubiquitous, with Soviet experiments into the arcane taking up the first story, the early stirrings of a possible Lovecraftian trespass constituting the short second story, and African auguries and bewitchments fleshing out the third and final story. These are only the main plot points, though; there are many other morsels to fill these ruptures in space and time, things to unsettle the complacent, and further reveals of Winters’ callousness and rather delicate personality.
Cruel and unsympathetic he may be at times, but it’s also revealed at one point he’s a devotee of chocolate egg creams. And anyone who likes chocolate egg creams can’t be all bad. Or can they? Do yourself a favour; read the comic and decide for yourself. And have a devilishly good egg cream while you’re at it.
Ben Spurling, MOVIES & MANIA
Image credits: Comic Vine