Jai Nitz hasn't made a big splash in mainstream comics yet, but he's done a few interesting things here and there (the all-Spanish "Blue Beetle" issue, some Johnny DC work, a Man-Thing story in "Marvel Comics Presents"). In other words, Nitz is still in that early-career "grooming" phase. But what a way to step it up to the next phase -- by launching a new series with art by Phil Hester.
Phil Hester's work (accompanied, as usual, by the top-notch inking of Ande Parks) is always excellent, and "El Diablo" #1 looks great. Hester can do the street-level crime look along with the supernatural elements, both of which are necessary in a story like this. All artists know that horses are particularly difficult to draw, yet Hester gives us a thrilling image of the new El Diablo and the ancient Lazarus Lane flying out of an exploding building while riding a horse. That's good stuff, and few could pull it off as well as Hester.
Nitz's story is a good one, too, although the first issue doesn't do much more than set the tone for the series and establish the new El Diablo's origin. But at least he gets it done in one issue -- no six-issue, slowly paced origin story here. Instead we meet Chato Santana, a gang leader and hardcore criminal, see him go down at the hand of his own compadre, and watch the Department of Justice do everything they can to get him to rat on his former friends. One of their cruel and unusual tactics is to place Santana, who's been paralyzed during the earlier betrayal, in the same room as Lazarus Lane, a fossil of a man who seems to make everyone around him die in their sleep. The threat doesn't break Santana, but there's more to Lane than just an old guy with a long white beard.
Lazarus Lane, who you may remember as the original El Diablo, has supernatural powers. In "Jonah Hex," his story was retconned (or enhanced) to make him into a kind of Ghost Rider figure -- a spirit of vengeance on horseback. Nitz takes that new version of Lane, and shows us that he's still around, over 100 years later, as an old guy in a coma. And when Santana's life is threatened, Lane visits him in his dreams and offers him a choice: die now, or be reborn as a spirit of vengeance -- and lose your free will.
The comic is called "El Diablo" and the cover shows a newly designed look for the character, so you can imagine what choice Santana makes.
The one problem with this comic isn't its execution -- because the writing is very good and the art is excellent -- it's the derivative nature of its concept. DC already has a spirit of vengeance in the Spectre, and Marvel's Ghost Rider is very close to Nitz's new version of "El Diablo." But Nitz is surely aware of such connections, and if the cover of issue #1, with El Diablo's skull mask and halo of fire, aren't enough to connect him to Ghost Rider, then surely Nitz naming one important character "Agent Aaron" would provide a knowing wink to the reader. Nitz and Jason Aaron (current "Ghost Rider" scribe) are friends, so clearly Nitz would be aware of the conceptual similarities between his new comic and the excellent work Aaron is doing for Marvel. But the mainstream comics world is a big place, and surely there's enough room for two skull-sporting spirits of vengeance. And I suspect Nitz has a very different direction in mind for this character, although if he busts out the chains and the motorcycle next issue, I may have to rethink that prediction.
"El Diablo" #1 is a strong start for Nitz and Hester, and it's a comic that's accessible to new readers and yet has those inside-DC bits that old-time fans will enjoy. In this marketplace, westerns and third-string superheroes don't stand much of a chance for longevity, but "El Diablo" definitely deserves your attention. Maybe after its six issues are up, sales will warrant an ongoing series by this creative team. I know I'd buy it.