Carefully and lovingly curated would not have been how readers would have described Steve McArdle’s Vendetta: Holy Vindicator when it first throat-punched and body-slammed its way into the hands of comic book readers in 1993. They would have been wrong. As Power Comics co-founders Evan Husney & Zack Carlson write in their introduction to a new collected edition of this 30-year old black-and-white curio: “We explore—and now publish—the weirdest, wildest, and most woefully neglected issues from that bygone era with the firm belief that these once-forgotten works and shattered dreams have now perfectly aged into the finest wine of outsider art.” Vendetta: Holy Vindicator, Power Comics' first book in partnership with Floating World Comics, collects Holy Vindicator #1-4 (1993-94) and the follow-up Artillery one-shot (1995) to help those less conversant with McArdle and his creations.
"Outsider art" is an important distinction to make when it comes to McArdle’s oeuvre. In many ways, McArdle was the ultimate insider: a true believer suffused with the gestalt of late '80s and '90s comics, thrash metal aesthetics and the nightmare fuel Derek Riggs supplied for Iron Maiden. McArdle created something so '90s, so Liefeldian, and yet so idiosyncratic and pure it remains beyond the clichés of the extremes it apes due to its total authenticity. McArdle had something to say and was damn sure he was going to say it his way. And he did so—on his own dime, self-publishing and self-distributing his comics under the banner, Red Bullet Comics—at a time when doing so was in vogue, but not as streamlined as it is when terms like ‘Esty’ and ‘Kickstarter’ make this process somewhat easier. Power Comics is Husney’s & Carlson’s pet project, and their introduction to this collection plays as both thesis and precis, casting them as the real vindicators - out to rescue and reappraise comics long consigned to the quarter bin, if not given away outright, because who would pay for this outré shit except dorks who run their own imprint tied a hip west coast boutique indie publisher? Sadly, this initial offering is more Nuggets–the music compilation series of American psychedelic and garage rock singles–than a comics equivalent of the Criterion Collection or a fussed-over Fantagraphics offering. A loving and essential act of conservation, but without the whys and ‘what-really-happened-was’ that go beyond fanboy posturing.
Holy Vindicator is a fine comic full of bookoo eviscerations, derivative heroes and villains, and pouches aplenty. There’s enough bombast per page to blow back your hair... bonus points if it’s a mohawk you’ve been rocking since high school. Appropriation and accoutrements aside, sophomoric delights and gutter punk ecstasies abound here. Reading Holy Vindicator in 2022 is like watching Mötley Crüe on their current legacy tour instead of seeing them in '87 backing Girls, Girls, Girls. Neither is better nor worse; times change, is all. As the acid-scarred Vendetta BABOOMS his way down staircases and across rooms lousy with complicated control panels, it’s axiomatic to say McArdle was self-taught. Holy Vindicator is visceral, not academic; it is this verve and veracity and lack of formal training that clearly lights up Husney & Carlson. This is also what fellow Floating World-published cartoonists like Alexis Ziritt, Ken Landgraf and (especially) Charles Forsman are after in their work: a sort of purity of mark-making that is egocentric in only the most positively obsessive way. McArdle’s pages make their bones on brio, recklessness and adolescent naiveté during an era when the hero’s iron cross-adorned onesie and guns of intoxicating-yet-ludicrous manufacture did not need further explanation nor require follow-up questions.
Reconsiderations like this are works of preservation and contextualization and (finally, hopefully) reappraisal in the mind of the reader. In such efforts, backmatter matters. There’s a lot of there there in McArdle’s short-lived career, and this collected edition overflows with preliminary sketches, pictures of fan-made action figures, process artwork, letters pages and other ephemera, but it fails to provide any insight or larger historical context for how Holy Vindicator came to be beyond McArdle’s personal stake. In a wide-ranging but shallow interview with McArdle, Husney is unable to pull out what makes/made this DIY maverick tick beyond a father’s love and support for a son’s obsession to draw comics and tell his own stories. In some cases that would be enough, but given the intensity of the subject matter and McArdle’s passion–and the business built around these foundations of love and determination–much of the interview feels like a series of missed opportunities. For instance, after McArdle mentions his idea to have Vendetta “quote the bible while in battle,” he never again explains his character’s vague religiosity beyond that “the religious factor ties it into a deeper history than just comics and pulps.” Ok? Husney is content to not push McArdle, which is also to say, perhaps, that even his fervor cannot rouse his interlocutor to recapture the intensity of his salad days. The interview is also mum on what McArdle has been up to for the last three decades. Odd. For all the in-your-face bravado of his creation, McArdle comes across as a puppy - gentle, humble, and enjoying the belly-rub being bestowed on him and his scrappy mutt of a comic.
Those who read Vendetta: Holy Vindicator for nostalgic reasons are sure to come away trés amped, ready to chew nails and spit bullets. As for the not-yet-converted, it is hard not to thrill to the sophomoric joys of mercs and musclemen repeatedly punching each other in the face, as have generations before and ever anon. And isn’t that the point? The final page of the collection shows a photo of McArdle “back in the day”, looking a little like a young Dave Mustaine, post-Metallica/pre-Megadeth, open and friendly but ready to immediately prove his worth. Like that proto-Mustaine, McArdle too had the chops to back up his bravado. No poseur he, an artist whose intensity, talent and, above all, dedication would prove to anyone that he cared and loved more about this shit than anyone else - the mark of a true believer, a holy vindicator indeed.