Chemo by Tom Kelly

Character: Chemo
Publisher: DC Comics
Artist: Tom Kelly
Reviewer: Joel Priddy

Well, geez, this is pretty freakin’ cool.

Chemo, a walking chemical holocaust in a clear plastic shell, should be one of DC’s more terrifying villains, but that bad-boy image is seriously indercut by a doughboy figure. As an opponent of the Metal men, its goofy appearance fit in just fine. But, now that Dc is handling it as a serious threat, or at least as a four-color Hurricane Katrina metaphor, Chemo desperately needs a new, more menacing look.

And, let me ask you, would you want this Chemo walking towards your hometown? It looks toxic, volatile, and deeply malicious.

Tom Kelly has submitted a number of designs, all of which worked as neat-o illustrations, but I had to wonder how many of them would translate out of Kelly’s particular style. This one, especially, works as a character design as well as an illustration. Kelly’s Chemo would be more difficult to draw than the present incarnation, but that’s why cartoonists make the big bank, right?

On a character level, an explanation would be needed for the sudden appearance of a skeleton amid Chemo’s swirling sludge. Chemo is nothing but a bunch of failed chemical experiments a whimsical and at least slightly moronic scientist poured into a giant humanoid-shaped plastic receptacle. The chemicals reacted to each other (something no scientist could have ever predicted happening), and the result was an unpleasant new form of life, capable of animating its shell and prone to rampages. So where does the skeleton come in? Did Chemo accrete it out of, uhm, say evil radioactive minerals? If so, why? Or did whoever patched it up after the Society splattered it all over Bludhaven provide in with it as part of an upgraded plastic suit?

In any case, congratulations to Tom Kelly for making Chemo’s appearnce match his character.

23 comments to “Chemo by Tom Kelly”
  1. I have to agree, this version WOULD translate well. I’d LOVE to take a crack at it. Maybe the skeletal image is some sort of psycho-resonate thing happening in the chemicals. Anyway, I totally dig it.

  2. I’ve never cared for the character because of its design (and the fact that it is difficult to attribute interesting motives to a jar of sludge.) But this design is inspired. I’d upgrade the origin, too.

    How about the new chemo was formed when a low-life thug was thrown into the liquid in the dormant Chemo suit? It ate away his flesh, but not his skeleton or mind, although he was driven insane by the pain, of course.

    Now that’s a Chemo I could get behind.

  3. You’re still left trying to explain why the skeleton is several stories tall, though. Chemo is *big*.

    Dean’s explanation, while made of purset handwavium, makes more sense.

  4. Pah! The skeleton grew big as they absorbed the chemical formula that caused the original Chemo to grow to gargantuan proportions.

    You can explain anything in comics. Look at Venom’s origin. No, wait, don’t…

  5. NICE ART and alteration
    though -revisionist history- is bad writing as a band-aid for bad writing… so I’d stay away from altering origins just to fit a costume.
    make the costume fit the origin. I like the look. but if it doesn’t work … it doesn’t work. a good explaination that doesn’t alter the past can make it all come together and work beautifully.

  6. Dude! But so many comics have benefited from revisionist history! Almost all of them! It’s a defining characteristic of Superhero comics, the maleable social consciousness!

    While my own explanation for the skeleton and imagery is not really revisionist, so much as a possible future development for the character, I must say that it’s wild when I hear comics readers talking bad about revisionism. I mean, Superman wouldn’t be able to fly if it weren’t for revisionism. Captain America wouldn’t be in the Marvel U. Proper without revisionism!

  7. We don’t have to leave behind the rich tapestery that is the current Chemo. Just create an event that results in the birth of a brand-new Chemo — one that acutally looks cool and has some sort of personality.

  8. What if the scientists at the think-tank/research center where Chemo was “born” were throwing all of their failed experiments into a tank together despite EPA guidelines to the contrary? A whistle-blower amongst them tries to do the right thing, but is caught by his comrades. One of them gets rid of him by throwing him into the toxic waste, and in a parallel to Swamp Thing (thank you Mr. Moore) his genetic memory imprint is placed on the chemical- biological stew. Long story short – the scientist becomes self-aware and actually feels incredible pain – driving him insane. He is driven by revenge to find those who did this to him (someone we’d never suspect).

    This explains the rages and the skeleton…

  9. The imprinted scientist idea is tragi-fun (and sets Chemo up as Swamp Thing’s evil opposite. Does Swampy still have arch-enemies? Or is he too centered for that?), but considering Chemo’s present status as a puddle of sludge draining through the gutters of Bludhaven, perhaps an upgrade is more appropriate than a retcon. Somebody, like the Society or SHADE, scoops up the remains and pours it into a bigger, badder shell. And maybe Chemo has gathered imprints of all the people who died when he hit. But they’re not complete imprints. Chemo didn’t get full personalities with rosey childhood memories of puppies and first kisses. Chemo just got the collective suffering and rage of 100,000 people dying of chemical burns. Now it’s filled with all this context-free anger, and taking it out on the world, which makes the new Chemo composed of equal parts slurry, fury, and irony.

    So, I haven’t been following “Battle for Bludhaven,” or anything. Maybe they’ve already dealt with Chemo’s remains. I just hope that all of this was part of an editorial mandate to get “Bludhaven” off the DCU map. What a completely idiotic name for a city. Were the city founders greasy thirteen-year olds in black trenchcoats?

  10. Yeah, I like the fact that whatever Chemo kills it takes the agony and rage and whatever violent emotion is there out of its victims.

    I also like the fact that he is a man-made opposite to Swamp Thing so we have a whole ‘man v. nature’ motif going on with the two characters. A better gray area to fight in, instead of the simplistic good v. evil.

    But there definitely has to be some tragedy there as well. Otherwise, he’s just chemical sludge. I like the fact that if he was ‘used’ in his origin, and now he’s used as a big fat WMD in Bludhaven – he could be a revenge filled chemistry set flowing through the sewer system.
    Maybe trying to pull himself together, but having difficulty after absorbing all those different rage-filled emotions from so many personalities… He’s psychotic from all those voices in his hea…er, sludge.

    Imagine if Swamp Thing had been created not from the single consciousness of one burning man, but from all the consciousness of a flaming school bus filled with dying children.

    And we all know how cruel children can be…

  11. Joel does win. And yeah, Bludhaven was the silliest place name in the DCU since Gay City.

    I don’t think Swampy has arch-enemies anymore though. He’s too surreal and psychedelic for that. He’s also Vertigo-only, and DC has mandated that Vertigo is now completely separate from the mainline DCU.

  12. Thanks, guys. I guess I knew that Swamp Thing had been shuffled off to Vertigo, but I got confused when he started posting on Ralph Dibny’s blog.

    Blogs are canon, aren’t they?

  13. I think DC allows characters from the main DCU to cross into Vertigo — just not the other way around.

    John Constantine runs into Zatanna fairly often, and she still manages to mind wipe members of the Justice League on a regular basis.

    There are some borderline characters that still exist in both worlds. Chemo could be one of those.

  14. I would imagine that the skeleton is forming through the evolution of the chemical life inside. Without a skeleton, how would Chemo move? Left on his own, in another year or so, maybe Chemo would develop a responsive nervous system? He seems to have no use for a digestive or circulatory system, as he’s just a roiling mass of chemical reactions, but the skeleton, and some design for sensory input/output would be a welcome addition in both his design and his story.

  15. I always saw the character of chemo as more of a monster/spector or personification of radiation as well as the toxic waste poising of the enviroment. Chemo is more of a man made monster which wants to eat and kill everything in it’s path. a kind of frankenstien’s monster of modern industrial pollution. I never really new the official chemo back story and as for the face and skeletal effects they are thier to reflect the monsters ties to humanity and its wraith like(evil) nature. Remeber chemo doesn’t just kill you he digest your body and absorbs the basic elements.

  16. Why not just set it so the sludge has “absorbed” things? You know, like buildings and the like. He is a living pile of goo after all. The steel thn bends to form a bit of a skeleton so it can keep a basic form.

    Revisionist backstories are usually more trouble than they’re worth. >.

  17. DC needs more monsters, and putting Chemo in this light really does show how good he would be in that sort of role. I like the semi translucent skin that shows through the toxic insides he’s made of.

  18. From Garth Wallace: “You’re still left trying to explain why the skeleton is several stories tall, though. Chemo is *big*.”

    Chemo was originally only about 2 to 3 times human size. In his origin, the scientist was working on a formula to create enormous plants as a food source for starving nations. It failed as the vegetation would grow to giant size and explode violently. One of the first things that happened when Chemo came to pseudo-life was an increase in size, and attacked the scientist, causing him to grow as well, which soon killed him. Chemo also attacked Doc Magnus and Platinum with the growth formula.

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