Backmatter: Thirteen O’Clock

I’ve got a number of orphans under my roof, but “Thirteen O’Clock” is the one who most deserves a home.

I’d been thinking about cities and superheroes, how they fit together and where they didn’t, and decided to create a Spooky City. Most classic comic book worlds have a hint of spooky somewhere, whether it’s the creepy characters who get trotted out for Halloween special issues or a full-bore Gaslight Ghetto where the creepy superheroes and macabre supervillains live. Some supercities even have spooky cycles… Gotham has them regularly (when it’s not being Sick or Hard,) and James Robinson’s Opal City had them regularly during his superlative “Starman” run.

I wanted to go a slightly different route, though. I wanted to create a city that was all Spooky all the time, but that stayed true to a superheroic vibe. I wanted wise-cracking urban heroes with uneasy relationships with the police, mighty redeemers from the stars and superteams that weren’t collections of moody loners glowering and then skulking into the darkness. Admittedly, these characters would fit the “moody loner who highlights the brightness of the main character and gives the sulky kids something to read” role in other peoples’ books. In their own, though, they’d be the show-runners and, thus, they’d be… superheroes. 

Who happened to be spooky.

Wrote up two issues of a four issue limited series set in New Jerusalem, a city that’s a little bit Richmond and a little bit Baltimore. Plotted the whole thing out to my satisfaction, splitting each issue into a deadline-based, rush-against-the-clock adventure and a setting piece.

It’s in the “someday” pile at this point. I’ve cannibalized a chunk of it, but the remainder’s hale and hearty and ready for a good home.

Someday’s a long time, and filled with possibility. I look forward to holding this in my hands at some point or, even better, watching it unfold on screen.

Here are the first five pages of Issue 1 and a couple of character descriptions: 

MEPHIT is our entryway into the story, so he’s worth some focus.

A firefighter who breathed in during the wrong fire, Mephit became a smoke para-elemental. He can create simple tools out of smoke, generate noxious smoke at will and disperse or coalesce his body at will. After a short period of misunderstood man-beasthood, he joined the side of right and good and became one of New Jerusalem’s defenders.

Mephit’s lost quite a bit and is still trying to find his footing. Although he enjoys helping others and he’s learned the heady joys of power, he hasn’t quite made peace with the fact that his powers (and the associated difficulties that the powers bring) were thrust upon him.                                                                                                                                

Mephit looks like a tall, well-built black man made entirely out of smoke… his eyes and teeth are very white, but the rest of him’s roiling clouds of smoke with the hint of faces and eyes occasionally boiling to the surface. He manifests smoky imps who serve as his eyes and ears at a distance, and he occasionally takes a more infernal appearance when the mood hits him.

THE PENITENT is, as previously mentioned, a fallen angel tasked to collect the souls of a thousand truly evil men in order to reattain theKingdom of Heaven.

That being said, he sees no reason to be terribly gloomy about it.

As an angel, he was the expression of the Divine Will and, thus, a worker. His fall gave him free will and the desire to reattain paradise as a willed being, but he’s a fundamentally blue-collar, put-on-your-black-funereal-wrappings-and-get-stuck-in kind of guy. Upon his very public return to Earth (Falling into a bank during a zombie-manned crime spree and providing a bulwark for the innocent before routing the foe), he’s become one of New ‘Salem’s most public heroes.

In any other continuity, The Penitent would be the brooding outsider, offering morose proclamations and vast swaths of blood at every pass. In New ‘Salem, though, he’s Superman: a mysterious stranger from the skies with powers beyond the ken of mortal man. He’s found it remarkably difficult to find a truly evil man and, thus, he does good works where possible and maintains his vigil. He’s also got an apartment in a quiet part of town, a cat and an avant-garde photographer girlfriend (Sherri, the “girl who doesn’t mind the scars”) who’s used him as a model in some of her more daring artwork.

The Penitent’s built on the model of Michaelangelo’s David, with huge black wings sprouting from his back. His face is covered by a metal full-face mask that’s been bolted into his skull, and he has various mystical and holy sigils branded and carved into his flesh. He wears loose black funereal wrappings around his lower body.

THIRTEEN O’ CLOCK

PAGE 1: Four panel

Panel 1: We’re on a rooftop in a warehouse district, looking through the eyes of MEPHIT, our narrator. Below, we see people unloading scientific equipment from a van into a warehouse with a large clock on the outside.

Caption: Sometimes I hate New Jerusalem.

Panel 2: Ground level. A cigarette-smoking crook leads a bound, blindfolded woman out of the back of the van. Several other crooks unload a heavy safe.

The smoking crook’s smoke should look a little thicker and clumpier than cigarette smoke normally does. Make it look like smoke from a film noir movie, with a couple of dim red sparks in the midst of it.

Caption: New ‘Salem. “The City of SecondChances.”

Caption: Last place in the United States to hold a witch burning.

Caption: July 4, 1976, incidentally.

Panel 3: Forehead and above level. We see the heads of the crooks and hostage and, more importantly, we see the smoke separate out and grow the vaguest hint of arms and legs. It drifts upward, unnoticed.

Caption: We don’t get the normal bad in the ‘Salem. Robots, mutants, that sort of thing.

Panel 4: Back on the rooftop. We’re behind MEPHIT, looking at him from about mid-back up. He’s got a smoky demon on his shoulder, whispering in his ear, and tendrils of smoke drift around him.

Caption: We get demon rampages, plagues of the undead, Elder Gods looking for a re-up…

PAGE 2: Four panel, equal size.

Panel 1: We see KING FEATURE in front of the safe. He looks like George Raft made out of papier-mâché; we should see the hint of words and pictures on his face and hands. He’s got one hand on the safe; the safe rusts under his fingers, growing corrupt at his command. One thing to note in this and every other panel where it makes sense: there’s a clock here that’s showing the time as almost 1 a.m.

KING FEATURE: Gather round, youse mugs. You might learn somethin’.

Caption: And this guy. “King Feature,” he calls himself.

Caption: Doc Abraxas made him in 1930. Summoned an “eikone of crime” into a body made out of crime page papier-mâché to banish to the Outer Dark, eliminate crime forever.

Panel 2: The door to the safe sloughs off, revealing stacks of documents.

KING FEATURE: Cake.

KING FEATURE: No need for the skirt. Smoke ‘er.

Caption: Worked as well as you’d think.

Panel 3: A pillar of smoke shoots up around the hostage. The THUG falls back, choking, while KING FEATURE falls back.

SMOKE: “Smoke ‘er?” Don’t mind if I do.

KING FEATURE: Be happy, go lucky…

Caption: See, this is why I hate New ‘Salem.

Caption: Anywhere else, a firefighter gets enveloped in mysterious smoke and turned into a walking smudge pot, it’d be Science Gone Wrong and he’d become… I dunno.

Panel 4: Smoke begins to fill the room. The pillar is clearish, showing that the hostage has disappeared. KING FEATURE pulls a long-barreled Colt Lightning revolver with a small flame flickering from the end of the barrel (John Wesley Hardin’s gun, by the by) from his jacket.

KING FEATURE: Boys. Spread out. He’s still here.

Caption: Captain Cohiba. The MarlboroMan.ClevelandSteamer. Something.

Caption: But because I’m ‘Salemborn and bred, I become…

PAGE 3: One half-page, two quarter page panels below

Panel 1: The smoke erupts into very solid activity. Thugs get swept up to the ceiling, pinned by huge, cloudy arms of smoke as the MEPHIT coalesces up from the floor, a smoke imp lounging on his shoulder. MEPHIT looks like a tall, well-built black man made entirely out of smoke… his eyes and teeth are very white, but the rest of him’s roiling clouds of smoke with the hint of faces and eyes occasionally boiling to the surface.

MEPHIT: Evening, King.

MEPHIT: Mind telling me when you got into the pharmaceutical research business?

Caption: The Mephit.

Caption: Some reporter actually came up with it, back when I was a gray hat.

Caption: Only in the ‘Salem.

Panel 2: KING FEATURE walks forward, gun aimed at MEPHIT. He’s grinning with a mouth full of mismatched teeth (yes, teeth from the mouths of executed killers) and his eyes are glowing. MEPHIT’s pushing as if trying to get out of a box.

KING FEATURE: You know me, Lucky Strike. Always tryin’ to expand my horizons, look into new opportunities.

KING FEATURE: Take my shot at the big time.

Panel 3: MEPHIT is crouched down, trying to escape from the rapidly shrinking box. KING FEATURE holds the gun to his head. He’s grinning broadly and blood drips from the barrel of the pistol.

KING FEATURE: So long, lawman.

KING FEATURE: See you in the obituaries.

CAPTION: King Feature’s got one thing holding him back… besides the ascot, I mean.

CAPTION: He’s a perfect incarnation of criminality. So if he gets a chance to, say, execute a superhero, he’s gonna jump at it. 

PAGE 4: Five panels; one large panel at the top of the page, four panels taking equal space below.

Panel 1: MEPHIT’s body erupts into a cloud of cinders surrounding KING FEATURE, who recoils and drops the gun. The real MEPHIT coalesces out of the smoke behind him, gesturing as the cinders surround KING FEATURE.

CAPTION: No matter how transparent of a trap it is.

CAPTION: The fact that he’s flammable doesn’t do him any favors.

Panel 2: Post-fight. Police are on-scene, and a plainclothes cop’s talking with MEPHIT. KING FEATURE is being taken away in handcuffs and the rest of his crew are being taken out on stretchers.

PLAINCLOTHES COP: Good collar. Any idea what he was after?

MEPHIT: With Feature, who knows? Sometimes he does it just because it’s a caper to pull, you know?

Panel 3: Everyone stops and watches the clock as it begins to chime.

CLOCK: Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.

Panel 4: Smoke begins to billow around MEPHIT, who’s lifting off.

CLOCK: Ding. Ding.

PLAINCLOTHES COP: Thirteen o’clock.

MEPHIT: I should probably go. Stay safe.

Panel 5: MEPHIT flies at street level, a cloud of smoke flowing behind him. We see bars closing behind him and, on every corner, a clock ringing out the hour.

CLOCKS: Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.

CAPTION: This is what I mean about ‘Salem. Anywhere else, you get a little warning before things go to hell.

CAPTION: Here? You get the clock. Not every night, but often enough.

PAGE 5: Four panels. One big panel at the top of the page, three below.

Panel 1: We see the balcony of an old clocktower. We see MEPHIT landing next to THE PENITENT, who’s gazing out over the city. A horrific-looking zweihander is propped against the balcony next to him, and ice glazes over that section of the wall.

CLOCK: BONG.. BONG.. BONG..

CAPTION: The Penitent’s first on the scene, as usual.

PENITENT: GOOD MORROW, BROTHER MEPHIT. THE GATES OF HELL YAWN HUNGRILY ONCE AGAIN.

MEPHIT: Yep. You been here long?

CAPTION: Guy still creeps me out.

Panel 2: Panel focuses on THE PENITENT. He’s got one hand up in the classical oratorical pose.

CAPTION: Don’t get me wrong, he’s saved the world a dozen times and he seems sincere enough…

PENITENT: I END MY ROUNDS HERE EVERY NIGHT, CONSIDER MY SINS AND AWAIT THE CALL.

PENITENT: THE FIRST THING ONE LEARNS IS THAT ONE ALWAYS MUST WAIT.

CAPTION: … but the whole “fallen angel collecting the souls of truly evil men in order to find salvation” thing is something you never get used to.

Panel 3: Frame shared with MEPHIT and THE PENITENT, who’s lowered his arm.

PENITENT: VELVET UNDERGROUND.

PENITENT: SHERRI IS FOND OF THEIR MUSIC.

MEPHIT: Oh.

MEPHIT: Funny!

CAPTION: This being New ‘Salem, he’s made a go of it. Got the key to the city a dozen times, found a girl who doesn’t mind the scars. Better than the Pit, I gather.

Panel 4: PENITENT points to street level.

PENITENT: BEHOLD! THE WITCH-FINDER AND THE LIGHTBRINGER APPROACH!

MEPHIT (under breath): About time.

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