It's the engagingly disrespectful conceit of the Marvel Knights mini-series, Dead Girl, that practically every Marvel character who's passed away over the years — late superheroes, tragically slain girlfriends, croaked supervillains — winds up spending the afterlife in Hell.
This includes more than one member of Britisher Peter Milligan and Mike Allred's late, lamented (by me, at least) supergroup X-Statix, one of which — egomaniacal black superhero Tike Alicar, the Anarchist — has joined up with a group of nefarious baddies to bust out of the stygian depths. Using a green gloop garnered from the lowest depths of Hell, this motley crew of supervillains (which includes at least two Spider-Man faves, Kraven the Hunter and Mysterioso) are granted 24-hour stays in the living world, which they use to terrorize the populace in order to attract the attention of sorcerer supreme, Doctor Strange. Their goal: to force the good doctor to bring 'em back to life for good.
Hooking up with Dead Girl, who is spending her time in Hell as part of the Dead Sisters Book Club (the membership of which is entirely comprised of faces familiar to long-term Marvel junkies), Strange ventures into Hell and hooks up with several other expired figures, tempting them with the answers to the secrets of resurrection. Why do some superheroes die — and return — when others throw off this mortal coil for good? ("And why does it always seem to happen to the popular ones?" Dead Girl adds.) Is it all, as former X-Statix team leader Mister Sensitive states, just "a game of Snakes And Ladders?" (In America, Pete, we usually call it Chutes & Ladders.) Or is there something deeper at work?
Milligan doesn't really supply the answer, of course — other than to have Strange note that a "mystical process of osmosis" is at play in such matters — but then we didn't really expect him to. The main goal behind Dead Girl, aside from tweaking the rules of Life & Death in the Comics Universe, is to bring a host of well-known and obscure dead folk into the fore- and background of the action. Thus, we get to see another Spidey villain working as an elevator operator in Hell ("Poor guy's fallen on hard times," Dead Girl tells us), and one of the versions of Ant-Man engaged in a half-crazed, never-ending battle against carpet mites.
I found Milligan's fannish jokes fun, though I suspect that a different generation of readers — the ones who grew up with the original X-Force as a serious superhero group, say — are less amused. This is the kinda stuff that reportedly kept the serious X-fans away from X-Statix in droves (and ultimately pushed Marvel into unsuccessfully reinstating Rob Liefield's more thudding X-Force in its stead), but I got a kick out of it.
Milligan's treatment of Doctor Strange ("a B-Lister," Alicar notes) is also welcome: afflicted by existential doubts and hemorrhoids, Strange is really the story's central figure. Though Milligan's treatment of this character could easily spill over into pure ridicule (he does have a lotta fun playing with the sorcerer’s high-flown speaking patterns), he somehow manages to keep from deflating the character.
One of his essential aids is the book's Allred (in collaboration with Nick Dragotta) art, which is surreally otherwordly in the best Ditko-esque comic book fashion. Though the recent trade paperback reprinting all five issues of Dead Girl at times seems to wash out the linework, making it all look like a third generation photocopy, the artists' composition remains choice. Too, these guys have a knack for comically overdone expression that's in keeping with the larger-than-death material. Allred remains one of mainstream comicdom’s wild treasures, and it's great to see him still working his weirdness on the Marvel Knights Universe – fannish stuffed shirts, bedamned . . .