The last year or so has been pretty sweet for the Predator franchise. (Although, every year is good if you can camouflage and shoot lasers). Back in May 2017, Chris Warner and Francisco Ruiz Velasco debuted their Predator: Hunters mini-series. Warner then teamed with Agustin Padilla for the sequel series this past August. A month later, the fourth installment of the film series, The Predator, debuted to mostly mixed reviews (yay bountiful violence, boo hollow plot).
Now, Dark Horse has turned back into the canon’s rich history with Predator: The Essential Comics Volume 1. Written by Mark Verheiden and illustrated by Chris Warner and Ron Randall, the 336-page tome collects three pre-Predator 2 TPBs – Predator: Concrete Jungle, Predator: Cold War, and Predator: Dark River (plus a neat-o Predator 2 adaptation).
If nothing else, this history lesson proves just how much of a mixed bag of quality Predator has always proven to be. But in the case of the Essential Comics volume, the stories here strike at something deeply elemental to the much-beloved, often derided franchise.
The team of Verheiden and Warner-Randall seem to be perfectly fit for this unique approach. Around the time he wrote this stories, Verheiden was proving his nerdy cred with gigs writing comics for The Mask and Timecop. He clearly understands the balance of grit and realism and overt cheesiness required to perpetuate these stories. Verheiden molds these stories like little action films, with heavy emphasis on bold actions, larger-than-life heroes, goofy puns, and a sense of momentum that feels as if the stories drag you along by your ears.
And so much of that is made possible because of the brilliant, four-color artwork. Warner and Randall crafted art that reflects Verheiden’s same pillars, pages both brimming with ruggedly handsome heroes and neat angular action shots and gallons of blood. The art feels like essential ’80s comics, peak representations of a culture obsessed with half-cocked, whole-hearted drama and bountiful masculinity, but with a sense of awareness that keeps them from veering into latter-day territory of, say, Rob Liefeld’s monster men.
When you read a Predator story, you know exactly what you’re going to get: X number of motivated humans fighting one (or more) dreadlocked alien hunting enthusiasts. And to a degree, that’s a limiting factor these stories: each one sort of follows a same path, and as much variation as there may be in settings (jungles, city streets, icy mountains, etc.) or additional story elements (cute kids, angry Amazonian tribes, killing dudes with wire, etc.), the central tension always remains between hero and gnarly Predator. Bloody good fun, sure, but very close-ended creatively.
That said, Verheiden’s structured the stories in a way to add enough nuance to make them feel decidedly less homogeneous. To some extent that’s accomplished in a few different ways, like 1) making the leads feel capable in their Predator-ial pursuit, 2) placing real obstacles with actually danger and impact, and 3) keeping interpersonal drama and interplay at the core at all times.
More than those elements, Verheiden takes measures to expand the primary scope of the story. What makes Predator a great franchise is that it has the ability to reflect or perpetuate certain truths. For instance, 1987’s Predator feels like a great allegory about toxic masculinity, while 2010’s Predators comments on the nature of man and morality (albeit lazily). The tales in this collection achieve something similar, like the value of honor and duty (Concrete Jungle) or American greed and corporation (Dark River). Ideas that both enhance and move beyond the simple idea of survival and man vs. monster. They’re not always obvious, or even effective, but they make these ’80s promotional ploys standout and feel alive with purpose.
As essential as it is to view this as a collective story and statement, it’s similarly important to look at the individual tales for greater insight and understanding:
Concrete Jungle: This four-issue story follows Detective Schaefer, brother of Predator‘s Dutch Schaefer, as he engages a new Predator in during a miserably hot NYC summer. Given its protagonist and proximity to the original film, the story feels like the most direct continuation of Predator, the same kind of cheese and grit that made it such a hit. At the same time, some of the stuff with Schaefer and his partner, Rasche, feels really interesting, as well as the lead up to the big battle with a Predator army.
Cold War: Here, both detectives Schaefer and Rasche return for a story that quickly leaves the confines of NYC for the frozen mountains of Siberia. Schaefer is a solid hero, and holds a lot of the same intensity and intrigue as his fictitious brother. And it’s his back-and-forth with the Predator, in addition to his obsession with finding answers about his missing brother, that really makes this feel more compelling than some other canon stories. Which is essential, because while the Cold War angle does provide some interesting commentary, this story also feels overwrought to the point of soap opera, forgoing that wink-of-an-eye that’s essential to all things Predator.
Dark River: Detective Schaefer’s story arc continues as he returns to the same jungles from the 1987 original. On the one hand, that’s a kind of nostalgia that drops readers right back into the same glee and delight this seminal film provides in spades. Depending on the person, that direct connection back may feel hokey, but it certainly does seem an effective way to synchronize comic and film universes while telling an essential story about brotherly love and vengeance. If nothing else, though, the Predator battle is sweet, and the quasi-open ending works by not providing Schaefer with all the answers and thus drawing out his struggle.
As a franchise, Predator works because it’s simple — make people fight badass aliens. And while the results always differ wildly, this collection proves what makes the series so essential. Human emotion and blatant cheese, bloody action and sturdy plots, and, drum roll, monsters (real and metaphorical). Entertaining stories no matter the year, number of Predators, or presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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