INTO THE NEXT STAGE: If Only These Fiends Were Imaginary

While thumbing through the latest issues at my favorite comic book store Saturday, I came across a new magazine that caught my eye. On the first page, there are five teenagers, two of whom are Asian. As I tried to get a sense of what this title was about, I came to realize the main character was an Asian teenager named Melba Li. The artwork was decent (a high hurdle to reach these days, sigh…) and the coloring not so claustrophobically dark (an unfortunate trend these days), so I decided to buy it.

“Imaginary Fiends” (a play off of “imaginary friends”) opens in a small town in Minnesota with a couple of those kids trying to get high. Then the younger sister of one of them — 14-year-old Cameron Calle — stumbles through the woods bloodied from having been stabbed 17 times. The story then jumps six years to a juvenile detention center where the “inmates” are celebrating Melba’s 18th birthday by throwing her into the shower. It’s not a prank. Apparently, she’s so anti-social she refuses to take a bath and has no friends except for Alice Prieto, a counselor.

Cover of “Imaginary Fiends” #1.

Turns out Li’s been at the institution because she was the one who stabbed Calle’s sister Brinke, who survived. Special Agent Virgil Crockett of the FBI IMP (interdimensional mental parasites) division tells Li she’s not crazy or evil, as he believes one of these IMPs persuaded her to stab her then 12-year-old friend. The creatures have been around for centuries, latching onto young or mentally ill people and feeding on their “attention, affection, loyalty.”

As Crockett explains: “Most are immaterial and harmless, providing nothing but companionship, a confidante in a lonely world. They fade away and die when the host ages out of interest in them… But some — the hungriest of them — remain. They grow stronger, they start to be able to affect the physical world. The IMPs begin to need more sustenance. Convince multiple people to believe in them. They get a taste for fear. It gets them high. They start to demand… more.”

Crockett offers Li a deal: Help the FBI find the IMPs (only hosts like her can see them) and they’ll take her out of the hospital and she won’t be transferred to prison now that she’s an adult. But Li can’t tell anyone because if more people find out about the IMPs, they’ll become susceptible to their influence. The hardest part of the deal: Li has to work with the IMP that made her stab Brinke the first place — Polly Peachpit — because only IMPs can attack other IMPs, and she may come in handy.

In a flashback to that fateful night, we see Melba Li and Brinke Calle reporting their day to an unseen Peachpit, clearly deeply dedicated to her. But Brinke starts talking about starting junior high soon, and Melba panics when she realizes, “We waited too long to give her something. We loved something other than her! You feared something other than her! Do you hear that? She’s here. Right there! You summoned her!”

Brinke panics. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! What does she want? What can I give her?”

Then Melba talks to Peachpit: “Do I have to? Polly? Please…” She starts crying, then grabs the knife.

Melba Li confronts Polly Peachpit

Back in the present day, Peachpit appears to Melba. She’s a scary-looking giant spider with a white kabuki-like mask and sharp teeth. But this time, Melba has power over her “imaginary fiend,” knowing she needs Melba to believe in her in order to survive. Peachpit collapses in fear, begging her, “I’ll do anything, Melba, anything, for my treat. Please. I’m so hungry.”

In the next scene, we see “Agent Li” working in Kentucky with Peachpit, but only she can see her. The issue ends with an adult Cameron Calle talking to Charlie Cokecherry, husband of Peachpit. It looks like he may be the villain of this six-issue mini-series.

The alliance with the creepy Polly Peachpit makes me uneasy, but that’s why this is a horror comic for mature audiences with four-letter words sprinkled here and there. Aside from that, though, this comic book has potential.

And it was like watching a television show, though in sequential art form. Li is Asian, her friend Alice Prieto is Latina, Agent Crockett is black. “Imaginary Fiends” is published by Vertigo, an imprint of giant DC Comics (you know, the people who can’t make a good superhero movie — besides “Wonder Woman,” apparently — to save their lives).

One problem: The cover looks like Polly Peachpit is latching onto a blonde, white woman, not an Asian one like Melba Li. Did the cover artist not see the inside artwork?!