Before we get to the meat of this one, a little link trail: from Comics Should Be Good's Chad Nevett's Random Thoughts, to his list of top 25 Warren Ellis comics. Now, I'm a pretty big Warren Ellis fan, even if I know I'm missing a few like Aetheric Mechanics, No Hero, Anna Mercury,or Crecy, or Lazarus Churchyard. Huh, have I read Lazarus? I know I've read part of Crecy...and I tradewaited No Hero since Black Summer took forever to wrap up.
I didn't care for Reload, Down, or his Hellblazer run as much as some others on the list. And I would've got Two-Step and Switchblade Honey in there somewhere. But the list got me thinking of some books that didn't make the top 25. Mostly, I thought about some of his early Marvel work. His run on Excalibur I love because I like the characters, but you can see bits of things that would turn up later in his bigger books like Authority. He did four issues with the Starjammers that are smarter than anything they've been in before or since. In Doom 2099, Ellis takes Doom to the logical conclusions, but he leaves the character in an untenable spot for continuing serial adventures: on top of the game, and too smart to make the same petty mistakes again. Ruins is a little harsh for my tastes, but it's a solid two issues, and they were wise enough not to make a four-issue deal of it.
And then there's Druid. God, it's a brutal book. Not just in the violence and squalor, but it's a pretty unflinching look at a man who sought power, got just enough of it to get beaten down by those with more power, finally lucked into the power that was always his, and then the things he would do to try and keep it.
I thought Druid read like Marvel told Ellis, "use this character up and throw him away," but per comments from editor Marie Javins in the last issue's letters page, it seems like it may have been intended to be an ongoing series, not a four-issue limited. And that may not even necessarily be a bad thing: there is always going to be those whose ambition far exceeds their talents or ability, and get themselves in over their heads for it. I'm not spoiling anything to tell you Druid comes to a bad end; but Ellis makes it natural, as opposed to trotting Dr. Druid out during some big crossover, so this year's Big Bad can brutally murder him in order to look like a contender.
The book starts with the status quo from Ellis and artist Leonardo Manco's prior book, Hellstrom, where Daimon has apparently been elected Satan or something. He's the real deal, and doesn't take kindly to being summoned by kids playing Iron Maiden records backwards, or in this case, one of Druid's hangers-on. (I didn't get the feeling that Daimon was 'evil' or malicious, just that he was completely unwilling to put up with any crap.) Druid had picked up an entourage before the term was in vogue, an assortment of "friendly little parasites...dabbling in the occult for wrong fun." (I'm curious to see if this will turn up in Dr. Voodoo: magic groupies, fanboys, wanna-be's.)
The expression is, 'how the mighty have fallen,' but Anthony Druid, born Ludgate, was never that mighty in the first place. He had been a Celtic scholar, devoted to discovering the secrets of pre-Christian Druidism; no small feat, since the Druids had an oral tradition and didn't write important things down, and then were killed off by the Romans in the second century. Ludgate thought all magic may have derived from the Druids, and the monks of Tibet still had an oral tradition, so he went to see what he could find. The Ancient One, of Dr. Strange, experiments on Ludgate for his own reasons--Ellis makes him seem much more creepy and manipulative here. He opens Ludgate's mind to ancestral memory, unlocking some (but not all) of the Druids' secrets, and probably driving him insane.
The brutality starts after the break!
Ludgate takes the last name Druid, fakes a better story for his origin, and joins the superhero crowd...for years of utter failure. Prior to this story, Dr. Druid was best known for joining the Avengers, becoming hypnotized or infatuated with Nebula, and running the team into the ground. He faked his own death to get out of the Secret Defenders, and now was a bitter, drunk failure.
His shabby treatment at the hands of Hellstrom was the last straw; not because Druid failed to prevent the death of his charge, but the final blow to his ego. He invokes rituals he had never dared to before, a secret ritual of change, to beg to learn the true secrets of power. Druid gets his wish, but immediately learns, as a tree grows through him, the old Druids weren't new-agey crystal peacenik types, and no change comes without pain.
As the fat melts of Druid's body, he is shown glimpses of the present, and the future: an earth with no oceans, and no oxygen, nothing but death. As realization dawns, terrifyingly, Druid tries to tear out his own throat before speaking the third and final part of the ritual; to no avail. He is told by the "Triple Goddess of Celtica" that to the Druids, the end of the world isn't necessarily a bad thing, and that he is "the beautiful destroyer...open your mouth: taste the debris of your sacrifice."
Outside Druid's room, his entourage is mildly surprised that Druid is still alive, but it's indicative of how damaged they are that they don't run upon hearing this:
Druid rises, but immediately changes his name back to Ludgate: "I'm not kowtowing and cuddling up to you bloody colonials any more!" He declares himself to be the Last Druid, and that he will never be beaten again...and looks a lot more together than he did before. Crazier, too, but there you go.
While I enjoyed this series, I don't know that I would've liked to see it go longer than its four issues: Ludgate isn't just a bastard, he's a vindictive, unlikeable bastard, who is completely hung up on getting the respect he thinks has been wrongly denied him. Maybe it doesn't deserve to be in Ellis' top 25 either, but it's still a good read, if you can stomach it. I'm not sure Druid was ever collected, either, and it's disconcerting to read it with bright, cheery ads for DevilDogs, Kool-Aid, and Malibu Comics...
Druid's death is in Marvel continuity as well: it's mentioned early on in Busiek and Perez's Avengers; which is fine. But I think Hellstrom may have benefited more from being left alone; and of course this predates Marvel MAX.