June, 13, 2019: the incredibly mixed-up adult horror anthology movie Verotika debuts at Chicago’s Cinepocalypse Festival. Made on an estimated million dollar budget, Verotika evokes, but is not directly based on the types of EC-meets-Hustler stories featured in the pages of Verotik, goth-punk figurehead Glenn Danzig’s self-published line of erotic horror comics. Critical reviews for Verotika were predictably derisive, and the Cinepocalypse audience was equally unkind, even though Verotika features everything cult movie buffs tend to enjoy: eyeball nipples, blood baths, and dialogue like “I’m here to collect your face”, followed by “My face, no!” Danzig, at a rare post-screening Q&A, seemed blindsided by the audience’s response: “You guys laughed in some of the places I wouldn’t have, but that’s cool.”
And why not? Verotika, which became streamable earlier this fall on AMC’s Shudder subscription service, is not the product of garden-variety miscalculation: Danzig shot, scripted, directed, edited, produced, and scored this movie, as opposed to a few of Verotik’s titles, which he only has a “story” credit on. Some of those comics at least look semi-presentable thanks to the considerable effort of professional artists like Simon Bisley and Frank Frazetta, the latter of whom contributed painted cover art for the Tarzan-On-Roids sexy-exotic horror-adventure series Jaguar God.
Verotika has no such polish, as you can see in several scenes that drag on and on, presumably for the sake of channeling the same hypnotically dreadful mood as Danzig’s favorite cult-friendly influences: some chintzy, oft-purple lighting in “The Albino Spider of Dajette”, the first of three vignettes, brings to mind Italian horror filmmaker Mario Bava, whose Black Sabbath is an acknowledged influence. “Change of Face,” the second segment, fittingly recalls Blood Feast, Herschell Gordon Lewis’s proudly crude 1963 splatter cinema milestone: “Young woman with face, cut off” says one particularly idle, Bill Kerwin-esque cop as he sips his coffee while leering at a corpse whose prominently foregrounded face has been forcibly removed. Even “Drukija, Contessa of Blood” feels like a remedial version of another film, in this case the Countess-of-Bathory-inspired final segment of Immoral Tales, Polish provocateur Walerian Borowczyk’s happily perverse 1973 omnibus (like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales adaptation, only bloodier and sillier).
Verotika is, in that sense, a perfect fetish object, the sort of idiosyncratic folly that warrants comparisons to Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau, both of whom are namechecked in articles by Vulture’s Nick Allen, Bloody Disgusting’s Patrick Bromley, and Downright Creepy’s Adrian Torres. There’s an overlong take in “The Albino Spider of Dajette”—a girl in a purple, plastic-looking pixie wig (Ashley Wisdom) spaces out in a porn theater—“slowly making sex…how beautiful…”—that strives for arthouse dreaminess and ends up, uh, somewhere else (cartoonist John Gholson nails the movie’s shabby-spooky ambience: “What if the Spirit Halloween Store was also a strip club?”).
There’s also a very pale spider-monster (Scotch Hopkins) who, also in “The Albino Spider of Dajette”, threatens to sodomize a blonde prostitute (Tonya Kay, inexplicably speaking in a goony French accent). “I wish to pin you right here—and FUCK you in the ASS” he tells her. “Monsieur has good eyes, ass-fuck is my specialty,” she replies. There’s also a scene, in “Drukija, Contessa of Blood”, where a topless Drukija (Alice Haig) fondles herself while an ecstatic victim’s blood trickles onto her face and chest for a few impossibly long seconds. You don’t really need to read anything about Verotika to know that, as Allen writes, Danzig “did not set out to make a horror-comedy”: all the proof you need is on-screen.
Verotika is more of a failure of execution than creativity: it reminds me, as a forceful expression of Danzig’s juvenile imagination, of former Comics Journal editor Michael Dean’s distinction between the (intentionally) comedic and the surreal from his introduction to my Robert Kirkman interview in TCJ #289. Writing about Kirkman’s Marvel Zombies, Dean argued that the surreal is essentially disturbing because it’s absurd and dreadful without being funny: “The ideal of surrealism is to juxtapose things that wouldn’t rationally or conventionally seem to go together…” It’s true, Glenn Danzig is, like Marvel Zombies before it, not supposed to be funny, but it is surreal and only partly because its wooden acting, botched timing, crass dialogue, and adolescent sensuality…all only serve to thicken Verotika’s already powerfully sleazy atmosphere. This might be the Howard the Duck of Sexy Horror Comic Book Movies.
Then again, unlike Howard the Duck, Verotika only makes a little more sense once you’ve read some of its source material. You might remember Verotika #4 in particular from State v. Kennedy and Hunter, better known as the Planet Comics case, a well-publicized mid-‘90s court battle that led Oklahoma-based comic shop owners John Hunter and Michael Kennedy to close their store, and, after a prolonged legal battle, to plead guilty to two felony charges, including “trafficking in obscenity”, for which they were sentenced to a three-year deferred prison sentences and $1500 in fines per person (for more details, check out Jay Allen Sanford’s 2008 San Diego Reader article). Planet Comics was originally raided in 1996 after an anonymous Christian Coalition member reported Hunter and Kennedy for selling “obscene” comics. Of all the comics books confiscated by the Oklahoma City Police—including Mighty Morphin’ Rump Rangers and Verotik’s own Devil’s Angel—only Verotika #4 was considered worthy of prosecution.
Verotika #4: Pages 22-23.
Danzig petulantly accused the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund of not being “proactive” enough in educating the public about free speech and, uh, general literacy. ”I want to see the publishers deal with these laws before they get popped by the government,” Danzig told Peter David. “Because once you get popped, you’re going to lose.” Hunter and Kennedy did, in fact, lose, and Danzig didn’t even post their $25,000 bail. By the way: Danzig’s second directorial feature—which he’s described as a “vampire spaghetti western”—has supposedly already been shot.
Verotika, the comic book, isn’t that remarkable unto itself, especially since most stories were both scripted and drawn by passable artists who copy EC Comics’ well-loved formula of O. Henry moralism and corny macabre humor. “A Taste of Cherry”, the supposedly obscene Verotika #4 story at the heart of the Planet Comics case, is an especially desperate-to-displease example of this sort of edgelord entertainment. Co-scripted by Christian Moore and editor Hart D. Fisher, and penciled by James Daley, “A Taste of Cherry” is a rape fantasy that negligibly pushes back against sexual repression and institutionalized hypocrisy: a high school cheerleader is abducted, beaten, and raped by a gang of would-be pornographers hired by the girl’s father. Verotika is, after all, a comic book published by Glenn Danzig, a self-described “radical...revolutionary...and direct descendant of renowned abolitionist John Brown.”
A typical Verotika comic presents sexual violence as a righteous comeuppance against bigots, prudes, and other morally indignant closet cases. A bar hookup ends with the deliberate transmission of the HIV virus in “Box 69” (from Verotika #2), scripted by series writer Rex Miller and drawn by Mitch Byrd. A deranged stalker rapes a“shit-ass pro-life cunt” in “Sewercide” (Verotika #10), written by Miller and drawn by Calvin Irving. And in (Verotika #11), writer Nancy Collins (another series regular) and penciller Simon Morse pit a dominatrix against a slimy john, a former summer camp counselor who abused thirty “or more” kids “from inner city orphanages.” Readers’ letters, published in the “Blood Letters” backmatter, are predictably enthusiastic: speaking about “Sewercide” a Sacramento fan gushes that “I know every pro-lifer was shivering from this one” (published in Verotika #11) while a Helena, MT resident generally notes that “Reading your comics lets me know--I am not alone. There are thousands of people out there just like me” (from Verotika #10). He concludes that “THE UNABOMBER SAYS HE LOVES VEROTIK COMICS.”
Verotika #3: “Demon Lover”, Page 18-19
Some Verotika stories did not, however, just pander to fragile male egos. In “Demon Lover” (Verotika #3), writer Nancy Collins and penciller Estban Maroto pair an unsuspecting bachelorette with a scaly, well-hung snake monster. And in “Headturner” (Verotika #12), writer Kevin Murphy and penciller Thomas S. Roche deliver an unhinged vampiric body swap story about two transvestites, one of whom is described as “very poorly-constructed” and “exactly what she appeared to be”, while the other is “one of those ridiculous drag queens who resembled a woman not so much as she resembled a mannequin.” The latter woman is also a sexual predator, but is also ostensibly sympathetic since she hypnotizes and then forcibly swaps bodies with her self-pitying, “poorly-constructed” victim. “You will feed soon and you'll understand,” the ridiculous one says. “It's been ten years since I was a man and the first time in a new body is always the most fun, I'm sure you'll agree.”
Some fan mail suggests that this sort of confused fan service was appreciated, but the Danzig-scripted Satanika and Jaguar God comics understandably received even more positive reviews. Most readers directly addressed Danzig, even though Verotik editor-in-chief Hart D. Fisher always replied. In Satanika #9, a Denton, NC reader hails Danzig for publishing “a great comic book because you wanted to and not for the money”: “Satanika has a great plot with tragic characters, plus it's intelligent, which is the kind of comic I like. It may not be Sandman, but that's not what you're striving for. On a scale, it's a 10.” And in Satanika #8, a New Britain, CT correspondent shares a damp fantasy of being whisked away to a faraway castle by the series’ titular antiheroine: “Clenched lightly in all her limbs, I am strangely calmed and even enthralled by her toutch.” [sic] This reader adds that, in his dream, he hears “the faint sounds of Danzig playing in the background…"
Blood Bath from Satanika page 7
Still, the comics that Danzig purportedly scripted—why a “story” credit and not “written by”?—do give some insights into Verotika, which Scarecrow Video’s Matt Lynch accurately described as “a collection of stuff that pings Danzig’s adolescent boner radar.” As with the best and/or worst spank bank material, Verotika is filled with beguiling idiosyncrasies. There are some recurring images—like a blood bath in Jaguar God #2, as well as a gigantic transsexual albino sex monster in Igrat X—and a general precedent for why almost every Verotika scene feels tonally flat: beyond the tin-eared acting and cheap effects, Danzig often reduces mood to a monotone that he either negligibly escalates or varies sequentially, as in his comics. Unfortunately, without competent (or maybe just engaged) artists to flesh out his ideas, Verotika looks a lot more like what it is.
Satanika #1: Pages 6-7.
In the Danzig-scripted demons-vs-more-demons comic Satanika, the daughter of Satan fights for her life against Dalkiel, a muscular purple demon with a threatening-looking penis. These comics have a sudsy plot—lots of bathetic and unnecessarily convoluted flashbacks—but the story is just an excuse for Danzig to boldly re-imagine Paradise Lost with horny action figures. So in Satanika #0, a stylistically representative Simon Bisley-drawn origin story, Dalkiel snaps a woman’s neck after giving her indescribable (or maybe un-representable) pleasure, which he tells his victim to savor “for it is the last time you will know pleasure...or pain!!! Ever again!!!" And in Satanika #3, Igrat, Dalkiel’s conflicted but lustful emissary, makes Satanika submit to an unorthodox pelvic exam—“your nipples are hard...and you are wet to the touch”—before she demands that Satanika, “LICK MY BLOODY PALMS.”
Igrat also threatens to lop off Satanika’s breasts in Satanika #1, but somehow, penciller Duke Mighten doesn’t get to show us what that might look like. Which is surprising given that Mighten, who only contributed sporadically to Verotik comics, was as close to an accomplished cheesecake artist as Danzig’s books got. Some readers, real and/or imaginary, not only appreciated Dalkiel’s “excessive talent”, as one reader, from Georgia’s North Metro area, writes in Verotika #9, but also preferred Mighten’s take on the character compared to regular Satanika penciller Eric Canete’s version.
Satanika #1: Pages 12-13
In Satanika #7, a reader from San Antonio, Texas says that she misses Mighten's pencils and that the change from Mighten to Canete is like "being teased with a pretty cock”: “You dangled this strong, firm cock before my eyes, slapped my face with it a couple of times. So, I took the bait and started licking the shaft, sucking the head. Then squeezed it hard, sucked it harder, and it swelled before my drooling tongue. It got so swollen that I had to slip it into my dripping pussy. M-m-m, it felt so hard and delicious I just had to ride it. Up and down, in and out, again and again" 'You left me wet and empty, yearning for more."
Satanika #7: Pages 16-17.
All of this purple, pre-fab “Letters to Penthouse" stuff is as calculated and unbelievable as it seems. Fisher tells Ms. San Antonio that he’ll “dangle the dick one more time” and then teases a Satanika/Vampirella crossover drawn by Mighten. And, speaking at his North Metro correspondent, Fisher wonders aloud: “What is it about our Lord Dalkiel that has all the female fans inthrall? [sic] Is it his personality, his physique, or his genitalia. Possibly all of the above. Let us know.” Mind you, this is mere pages away from an ad for an anime-style statuette of Satanika, designed by hentai artist Wingbird. “While supplies last”, only $129.95, check eBay.
Igrat X: Pages 5-6
Speaking of Wingbird: his Satanika and Satanika-adjacent illustrations are probably the most articulate expression of Danzig’s infantile, tossed-off ideas. In the Wingbird-drawn Igrat X special, Igrat is raped by Medusa Dicks, the above-mentioned albino giantess, who promises that when Igrat is dead, “I'll make sure to preserve your dead body for others to enjoy.” “Ulk! Ulk!” replies Igrat. I suspect that Danzig does not enjoy or frequent many places where he’s required to listen to sober audience feedback.
Wingbird’s illustrations also suggest that he is the Rob Liefeld of hentai artists since his anatomy is as loosey-goosey as Danzig’s feverish plotting and dialogue, which are instantly more entertaining if you imagine him doing the characters’ voices at a Barnes & Noble signing. (My favorite line in Igrat X is a tie between "Ooh! I’ve never felt a lifeforce like this…ever!” and "No! Not my nipple rings! Not now!!”) There are ads for Igrat and Venus Domina resin kit models in the back of the book, priced at $69.96 apiece and sculpted by Susumu Sugita.
Jaguar God #0: pages 9-10
Danzig’s tendency of selling the sizzle and not the steak is also apparent throughout his Jaguar God comics, which feature his “story” byline and evocative, albeit unoriginal, Frank Frazetta painted cover art. In these grim comics, artists like Simon Bisley do their best Frazetta impression, which isn’t that surprising since by this point, Frazetta was already so invested in selling himself as a brand that he had already released two sets of trading cards.
In Jaguar God #1, penciller Matt Teran gives readers plenty of Frazetta-esque (ie: apple bottom) ass shots, and in Jaguar God #2, Verotik penciller Mitch Byrd shows us how far Danzig’s avatar will go to escape X’Alpen, a gigantic albino succubus, and a raving X’Alpen acolyte, who only lays Jaguar God in order to please her mistress. Jaguar God rejects their advances: “I serve none but Death.” Jaguar God #2 also features an ad for “a new collection of pencil renderings” from Frank Frazetta (“the master returns”), as well as an ad for Verotik comics, which seem to have been mostly sold in California and Arizona, but also Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. You know, the real America.
Jaguar God #2: Page 13
Jaguar God is the sort of comic book that, if you lived in New York City, you could find in the roped-off “adult” section of Midtown Comics (40th and 7th) or towards the back of the old Jim Hanley’s Universe (33d and 6th), behind the indie zines and comix. So it makes sense that Verotika, like Danzig’s other Verotik comics, feels like the sort of movie that used to circulate on third-gen bootleg VHS tapes (or, later on, DVD-Rs) at horror conventions (and at an obviously marked-up price).
Verotika is a throwback, and not necessarily in a good way. It’s the sort of silly trashterpiece whose creators’ sheer brazen narcissism is only quaint enough to be enjoyable given a suitably wide berth. I wonder how it will do now that it’s available to stream for free with a Shudder subscription, and you no longer have to attend a one-night-only screening, or buy the blu-ray (featuring a DVD backup, as well as a CD soundtrack). Then again, if you haven’t previously been exposed to Danzig’s Verotik comics, you might appreciate knowing that people have been comparing him to Ed Wood since the ‘90s: Myotis Lucifugus, from Athens, TN, quotes Wood’s Glen or Glenda at the back of Satanika #4: “Beware. Take Care. Pull the strings.”
Verotika’s ideal audience is probably well aware of Danzig’s overweening ego, chest-thumping misogyny, and technical in-expertise at, well, anything but being the lead singer of the Misfits (Have you heard Danzig Sings Elvis?). But idol worship is a helluva drug, and some outsider art is transfixing in a primitive and proudly unwashed sort of way because of, and not despite its considerable baggage. So while I can’t exactly recommend Verotika, I do think it’s the sort of movie that Roger Ebert used to review with an accompanying “zero star” rating since it exists somewhere between “so bad it’s good” and “so surreal it’s mesmerizing.”