Devil Killer Mario!

Tiempos Finales (End Times) Vol. 1 (of 9) by Samuel Hiti

I was pretty excited about this book; good word had leaked out of MoCCA, and the project sounded intriguing from what information I could gather. The book was produced with help from the Xeric Foundation, and was apparently only available directly from the creator, whether through his website or at a convention. Since San Diego a few more people have been talking about the book; the buzz seemed to be good, but reviews have since been rather mixed. I still had to see for myself. At $9.95, the book isn’t too big a financial gamble for the potential reader.

I liked one thing about the book instantly. Directly beyond the cover, we see the extended title: “Tiempos Finales - Tripas sangrientas de los demonios” or “End Times: Bloody Demon Guts”. Certainly captures the imagination, eh? After I finished the book, the long title made even more sense, and seemed positively admirable in its honesty.

You see, the book is 116 pages long. Within those pages, we’re shown a fight scene between the protagonist, Mario Roman, and a nasty demon that has been keeping the local townsfolk fearful. The fight scene, including its build-up and its execution, spans pages 35-107, including a nineteen-page stretch in which Mario just walks through the town, the demon following him in misty spirit form. The viewpoint constantly drifts away from our hero; we see elderly citizens locking themselves in their homes, frogs devouring flies, little dogs yapping around, window blinds cracking open to enable voyeurs, and countless still images of deserted markets and roads. And the fight itself deploys some fascinating visuals and some interesting symbols. But on the most basic level, it’s a really big fight.

Little background is given. A council of demons holds the Five Towns in their grip. But the prayers of one of the towns cannot be suppressed; in exchange for their devotion, a Higher Power sends Mario (a holy warrior with a deadly serious mustache) out to destroy a particularly nasty Satanic specimen. He uses sacred potions to lead the beast outside the walls of the city, its stronghold of fear, which forces it to take on a physical form.

The transmutation of spiritual substance to physical substance is a common motif throughout “Tiempos Finales”. Mario has a symbol on his hand that burns demon flesh. On two occasions, he reads Scripture from several portable Bibles he carries on his person, attached to his uniform like The Punisher carries grenades or clips of ammo. That’s not too strained a comparison: after the Word is read, the book itself physically transforms into a weapon. A line from Job (“Be ye afraid of the sword: for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment.”) creates a blade. A snippet of a Psalm (“Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.”) forms a pistol and two bullets, melted down from the Lord’s Fury no doubt, for except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain! And just in case you didn’t quite grasp the point, at a crucial moment in the battle the reader’s viewpoint dives inside Mario’s body, into his heart, revealing the image of the Crucified Christ coursing through his very blood, the sound of his heartbeat spoken as dialogue by his Savior. Mario’s battle on behalf of the people can be viewed as akin to seeing a priest for confession, consulting a human authority to bring about spiritual healing. And like a priest with water and wine, Mario uses physical means (books, potions, symbols) to meet with a spiritual source to instant effect. But the instant effect here is action-hero power over a physical demonic entity, a scary monster. Thus, the true metamorphosis in this story is that of spiritual belief to pop combat ballet, revealing the titular bloody guts at its final bow. It’s not subtle, but it’s quite dazzling in its expressionist fireworks.

Which is a long way of saying that the book is about fighting nasty monsters, at least at this early stage (remember, there are a projected eight books left to go). It’s possible that the book is going the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” route, using Christian visuals mainly for aesthetic purposes, or maybe Hiti has a grander spiritual allegory planned. As of this point, only the broadest possible religious message is able to escape: pray and have faith, and God will save you from Evil, presumably by sending someone to kick Evil‘s ass. But what an ass-kicking! Hiti has a great command of perspective and movement. His art is reminiscent of Craig Thomson and Paul Pope, with a hint of Mike Mignola lurking in the shadow. Hiti’s makes you feel the city on that long walk; you understand the implications behind the stillness of the fruit carts. His demons are ugly and pliable. The big beasty goes through several transformations, like a well-designed boss in a video game, a Treasure boss. If there’s any complaint I have with the fight itself, it’s that Mario never seems to be in any particular danger, and his powers have a way of taking just the right form necessary for the occasion. But as I’ve said before, it is still early in the saga, and it is typical to set up the hero as an unstoppable force early on to define his powers and make his foes seem all the more dangerous later on.

Pieces of the larger story are suggested. You get bits of a demonic plot working in the background. A letter is given to a young child to take home. A woman from Mario’s past is on the way back to town. Dialogue is often terse, and sometimes left in untranslated Spanish. It gets the job done. I liked the style of this installment enough to anticipate the next book. Some who aren’t quite as taken with the book’s mood or its execution may find it to move too quickly. Some may find it thin; I think Hiti displays enough talent to retain hope that his story will take more of a shape in the future, while enjoying the execution of his story in the present. If it’s eye-candy, it’s good eye candy, and I‘ll take that for an introduction.