Back in the early 90s, shortly before the demise of Marvel UK, a new sub-imprint of the brand was introduces - Marvel Frontier Comics. Frontier comics differed in approach to the rest of the Marvel UK line in as much as, primarily, they did not deal with Superheroes per se, but with characters closer tied to the more fantasy related areas of Marvel Comics and the occult. In that respect it is perhaps possible to draw a parallel between these books and DC comics' Vertigo imprint - in a way which Marvel US's MAX line has never quite managed. Creatively, as Marvel UK came to a close, it seemed more likely that in all likelihood this was really the direction which the imprint would have continued in, had it continued itself. It was something very different, and infinitely held more possibilities than the standard hero comics could offer. The imprint launched in 1993, with four limited series, and later a one shot anthology book - Marvel Frontier Comics Special #1. Among the people involved with the line, were the likes of Simon Jowett, Charlie Adlard, Liam Sharp, David Hine and even D'Israeli. It really makes you wonder just what could have been.
Anyway, among those limited series was the book I'm choosing to focus on, here, Mortigan Goth: Immortalis, by Nick Vince and Mark Buckingham. Nick's name you might recognise from his work on Marvel UK's Warheads, and Buckingham from everything from Marvelman to Fables. Mortigan, on the other hand, you probably don't. Aside from this four issue mini, a prequel story in the Frontier Comics Special, and an entry in a recent Marvel Official Handbook, Mortigan has not appeared anywhere else.
And frankly, I have wonder how and why? Because, as I see it, here we have one completely rounded character, with ties to the mainstream Marvel Universe through Doctor Strange and to Marvel UK via the Falsworth family.
And, of course, because he's pretty bloody interesting. ;-)
Basically, at its simplest, Mortigan's story is one of a Faustian pact made with Mephisto.
(Note: While in the mainstream Marvel Universe Mephisto has, at best, been a bit of a pantomime villain, this was not the case across his many appearances in titles for Marvel UK. Here he very much appears as The Devil, with all the powers that provides. He's the kind of devil who plays sick little games with mankind, daily, and in a Clive Barker-esque way. Not so nice.)
Mortigan Goth's story begins in 1349 AD, in England, with the country firmly in the grip of the plague. Mortigan is returning to his hometown, after some years away, and is overwhelmed with despair at seeing thousands dying of plague as he makes is way home. Feeling sure that God has abandoned mankind, he finds himself pleading to the devil, to spare his life.
And curiously, the devil actually answers.
Mephisto is interested in Mortigan, because he sees in him a soul which is bright enough to inspire hope in others - and, well, that's the kind of thing that could really throw a spanner in the works for him right now. So, he proposes that he and Mortigan play chess together (Anybody else having a Bill & Ted flashback, right now?), gambling Mortigan's soul for the chance of immortality. Only, much to Mephisto's amazement and annoyance Goth actually wins. Immortality is his.
But naturally it doesn't end there.
When Mortigan returns home he finds his mother dying of plague, and that his sister has been hanged by the local priest, for having murdering her infant. An infant who, as it turns out, was fathered by the priest. It's all a little bit messed up...
But being the good son and brother he is, Mortgan goes to sort the priest out, only for Mephisto to stop him. Apparently he has other plans, for the priest. He has promised him Immortality, also, in exchange for the killing the unknowing townsfolk - all of whom have begun to worship Mephisto in hope that they too will be saved. To seal the deal, Mephiosto demands the priest slays the youngest infant of the town. But Mortigan steps in. He offers his soul in exchange for the child's. He's immortal now! What the hell does he have to fear? It's not going to kill him.
Bad move. Because Mephisto takes his soul, and leaves Mortigan to be stoned into unconsciousness by the now angry and despairing townsfolk. He awakes weeks later, in a plague pit, the whole town having died.
Mephisto then appears to him again, taunts him for his choice, and names him 'Immortalis'. Mortigan vows that he will spend his immortal life fighting the devil, at every turn. But Mephisto tells him that for every hurt he tries to do him, he will torture his soul at thousand times. Mephisto's curse is that Mortigan will be forced to watch mankind's suffering for the whole of history, knowing that he could help, but daring not to for what Mephisto will do if he tries.
And there's your pathos.
So, other than having a surname which is now more associated with overly emotional teenagers than the macabre, what do we know about Mr Goth which is of practical interest?
Well, Mortigan is immortal - although, while he cannot die he does feel pain, and can suffer injury. It just won't prove fatal.
He travels around the world, and has encountered a number of Marvel characters in his past. He has also gathered a rather impressive knowledge of the occult - partly in the hope that he could use these things against Mephisto, partly because... well, what else do you do to pass the time?
Throughout the four issue mini (Which I would also like to say is actually pretty well-written, and stands the test of time far better than many Marvel UK titles) the focus is mainly on a story in the present day (or at least present day for 1993), with most of the origins of the character shown in flashbacks. That central story surrounds rumours that Mortigan has been travelling the world, and killing off other immortal. Doctor Strange, who has known Mortigan for many years, travels to England to speak to him, at the one address where he is most likely to be found; Falsworth Manor - Home to one Jacqueline Falsworth, the woman who is better known as the British superhero Spitfire (who fought alongside Captain America and the Sub-mariner as part of the ww2 team The Invaders).
(As a note to fit this story into continuity, at this point Jacqueline has not yet had the second blood transfusion from the original Human Torch, which made her the sprightly young thing we've recently seen in New Invaders or Ed Brubaker's Captain America. She's a woman very much in her late 60s, at this point, and long since retired as a hero. Doctor Strange is also without many of his original powers at this point, having refused to serve the Vishanti in the War of the Seven Spheres storyline, in his own book. )
Only the problem, when you deal with the Falsworths, is that you inevitably end up dealing with the legacy of the other half of the Falsworth family. You know, the half that happen to be vampires...
And that forms the second story running through the series. Back in the 1940s Mortigan Goth became a close family friend of Falsworths. They even gave him his own wing of the house to stay in. They knew that he was immortal - that was never hidden - but it never really became a problem until the arrival at the house of one Katherine Ainsley-Jones, a distant cousin of the Falsworths, in 1940 - having been evacuated from her home in London.
(For our American readers this was because even several years before America joined the war Britain's cities were having the crap bombed out of them on a nightly basis, by German planes hoping to take out munitions factories. Children and teenagers were evacuated from cities, and arrangement was made to have them relocated with families out in the Country, away from possible harm. You probably know all this, but in case you don't, there it is - Historical Sword ;-) )
She fell hopelessly in love with floppy-fringed Mortigan, and he for her. But realising that he could not bear to watch he grow old while he never aged, he left one morning never saying a word.
Heartbroken, Katherine chose to pour her feelings out to her cousin John Falsworth (Jnr), who told her that he might be able to provide a solution. For those of you who do not already know the irony in this, John Falsworth was a vampire - he sided with Germany in both world wars, under the costumed identity Baron Blood.
I think you can probably guess what happened next... ;-)
So, when Mortigan eventually returned to the manor, the newly vampired Katherine threw herself at him, and knowing her now to be immortal as well he even entertained the idea that they could be together. Only he now found her lifeless body to be cold, clammy and... well, a bit dead, really. Angered that even now Mortigan would not be with her be with her, she tried to bite him herself , in the hope of making him a vampire too.
Mortigan awoke four days later, having recovered from the bite, to be told that drinking his blood seemed to have cured Katherine of her vampirism. Though, after being told by Mortigan that he did not love her, and fearing the cure might not be permanent, she left. Destination unknown.
Well, half a century later, guess who's come home - all vamped up, and looking for a cure again? ;-)
And yes, this is the 90s. All vampires look like this. I think it might be the law...
Mortigan, of course, refused to cure her again. It's a pretty torturous existence he's given her and it really is about time she was properly laid to rest. And so - with Mortigan no longer an option - Katherine tries to drink Jacqueline's blood. She, after all, was once cured of vampirism, herself, by a blood transfusion from the original Human Torch. Only drinking her blood makes Katherine burn. Literally. She is consumed by fire and incinerated. A shame, but like I say, this is not a happy superhero tale.
And as I also say, that's not the main story. Somebody has been bumping off immortals, and and as far as onlookers are concerned, whoever is doing it looks like Mortigan. Same hair colour, same build, same androgynous look. It's pretty damning. But as he explains to Stephen Strange (The Doctor, that is, not the bloke from the 80s) he was in San Francisco at the time of these killings - a whole different continent. There's no way it could be him.
Or could it?
You see, while Mortigan had been out walking the world for the past few hundred years, his soul had been trying to escape from hell. At first of course that bright shining soul, that ray of hope, fought nobly - and showed encouraging strength to battle its way out of hell's many circles. Only as the centuries went by it began to be corrupted, twisted, and damaged. It was now Mephisto's plaything.
And you know how vampires are not supposed to be have a reflection in the mirror - because, so the legend goes, they do not have a soul? Well, Mortigan's always been the same. Only now it seems that he does. His soul is being sent through mirrors to kill off immortals who Mephisto has decided to sever contracts with - in exchange for eventually being allowed to extract revenge upon Mortigan himself.
Mortigan encounters his twisted soul springing from a mirror. It tears out his left eye, but tells him that it won't kill him today. It's going to take its time, slowly taking a piece at a time - it wants him to suffer as long as it has had to. But oddly, Mortigan is happy about this. Having lived so long, even though it will be an unpleasant experience, he now knows that one day he will die. And that makes life both sweet and precious to him, once more.
So, that's Mortigan Goth, in a nutshell. It reads extremely well, and had Marvel UK not come to an end I honestly would have hoped that the character would have continued. This series certainly has the feel of a test for either an ongoing or a series of limited series, in the Hellboy model of storytelling. Obviously, in particular with Buckingham's artwork, it's easy to draw potential comparison with DC Vertigo's Hellblazer. He's certainly nowhere near the same character and certainly not so self-enclosed from Marvel continuity, as perhaps John Constantine is from the rest of DC's universe. But the character had potential. Even now, purely from this series, I would not find it out of place if Mortigan turned up at Doctor Stranges front door, in an issue of New Avengers. That's how well-formed a character he is. I just don't think, in 1993/94, Marvel were really ready to embrace anything which wasn't a highly pumped up superhero tale. These days, with Ghost Rider back as an ongoing and mini series for the likes of Blade and Hellstorm, written with a more serious tone in place, times have changed.
He's a character well-formed enough to be believable, but with enough open avenues for new work. I hope that some day we might see him again.