Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Living and the Dead, Grave Robber's Daughter, House, HWY 115

This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2007.
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Fantagraphics isn't exactly known as the go-to publisher for horror or suspense comics. Yet they've released a number of comics over the years that fall into these categories, albeit usually in a skewed or off-beat manner. Thomas Ott's scratchboard comics can't be considered anything but horror comics. Richard Sala works entirely within the mystery/horror realm, albeit with an eccentric sense of humor. Even Charles Burns' Black Hole explicitly uses monster-movie trappings to get at its deeper meanings. The fact is, Fantagraphics has never been afraid to publish genre comics, just so long as the works are intelligent and the result of an author's personal vision.

In recent months, Fantagraphics has published several comics that all lie in the horror-suspense continuum. However, each volume is completely different in terms of tone, style and intent. They range from zombie romance comedies to killer clown mysteries to the exploration of a spooky old house to detectives trying to track down a serial killer in a very strange world. Notably, all of them are in black-and-white; this is no surprise because there's no better way to get across the starkness of terror than by depicting it in the starkest of terms. Where each artist excels is in how they compose the page to guide the story, and the sort of linework they employ.

Let's begin with the most lighthearted of the four comics I'll be discussing, Jason's The Living And The Dead. This is a clever little tale by the fantastic Norwegian cartoonist, for whom genre boundaries don't seem to exist. No matter what kind of story he tells, he always uses his stripped-down, clear-line, funny-animal style in his comics. Amazingly, it works every time, acting as a very quick shorthand for the reader to instantly understand any situation. For his funny comics, his standard characters often wind up interacting with more outlandish caricatures (like Darth Vader, Indiana Jones or the Terminator). In his serious comics, their deadpan nature keeps the audience on edge. For a tale of zombies, it's perfect.

Like most good zombie stories, this book is really about something else. In a brilliant opening page when we're trying to find out who the protagonist is, we see a couple dining at a restaurant. We then see a waiter and the next panel focuses on him, so we learn the couple is not important. The waiter walks into a kitchen, past some cooks—it's not their story, either. Finally, we settle upon the dishwasher, who is clearly not happy to be there, and we learn that the story focuses on him. Walking home, he encounters a sweet-seeming prostitute whom he immediately falls for. Working up the courage to talk to her another night, he realizes that he won't have the money to pay for her services for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, a meterorite falls to earth in a graveyard and the dead walk again—just as our hero was ready to see his woman.

From there, he saves her from a zombie in the nick of time, and they run around town trying to get away from the undead. There are small moments of grim humor to go with whacking zombies in the head with axes or setting them on fire. The climax of the story is too good to give away, but suffice it to say that romance lives on even beyond the grave. The story overall is a nice confection: it doesn't linger in one's imagination as long as some of Jason's best work (especially his recent The Left Bank Gang), but it's still fun. While there are plenty of zombie-munching scenes, Jason's open layout and wit allows the reader to laugh at the scenes easily. He only uses 6 panels a page (with one notable exception towards the end), an approach that allows the reader to easily approach the work and almost race across each page.

Richard Sala's The Grave Robber's Daughter is a nasty comic with periodic moments of comic relief thanks to its heroine, Judy Drood. This young detective with a foul mouth accidentally stumbles upon a small town that seems eerily empty. It's empty with the exception of the town carnival, where she stumbles upon some extra-creepy clowns and smartassed teenagers. Nothing seems to make much sense until she runs into Nellie, a young girl on the run who's trying to dodge the clowns. Seems as though one night they rode into town, hypnotized every adult into coming to the fairgrounds...and then made them disappear. Nellie gets kidnapped when Judy nods off, and Judy is left to deal with one of the grotesque clowns. Judy clubs the thing in the head with a shovel and the remains of a corpse are revealed.

The story takes several twists and turns after that as we learn what the clowns really are, who brought them to life and why, and the ultimate fate of the town and Nellie. Witchcraft, curses, soul reanimation and teen angst gone amok are all involved, but the creepiest page of all is the final one, as we see Nellie changing into something very disturbing—and clearly influenced in part by Judy's own bad habits. Sala's panel design is an important part of the storytelling. The use of just a couple of panels a page in the early going, often catty-corner to each other, is a nice reflection of the town's isolation and Judy's disorientation. Like Jason, Sala also uses a stripped-down style, but this book resembles the art in a child's adventure book: the faces range from simple and iconic (often with dots for i's) to grotesque and cartoonish. This makes for some jarring moments when we are presented with grisly acts of violence. What I like most about this comic is that while mysteries are revealed and the case is "solved", there's no real resolution. The eccentricities in Sala's style and the Judy Drood character in particular are a perfect match for the horrors he reveals. The reader is never quite sure whether to laugh, cringe or both.

Josh Simmons' House is in many ways the most straightforward of the works reviewed in this article. There's no overt element of the supernatural at work here, and Simmons further restricts himself by making the story entirely wordless. I've been reading Simmons' minicomics and associated series for some years now. The best way to describe them is earthy: they're bawdy and often dedicated to exploring the lives of those on society's fringes. In House, he plugs in a teenage love triangle into an increasingly claustrophobic scenario that's a masterpiece of page design. More than any of the other books reviewed here, House could only work as a comic.

The opening sequence is quite memorable: a teenage boy comes across a ramshackle house in a forest clearing. After looking at it for a moment, he walks away from it to meet his friends at the real "house" in the story: a huge, magnificent relic of a building. Simmons takes a couple of pages to let the reader see just how impressive a structure it is. Meeting two female friends of his, the trio seems quite prepared for an adventure: they have headlamps and backpacks with supplies. Going through the ruins of the house, they discover that part of it is completely underwater. It's a spectacular scene, and loves blossoms between the boy and one of the girls—much to the chagrin of the other girl.

This long exposition sets up the action in the second part of the story. One of the girls almost falls down a flight of stairs in the dark, but the boy saves her in the nick of time. That save is yet another false take, as the stairs collapse under the weight of another girl. It's not long before the trio is separated—partly by circumstance, partly by jealousy, and partly by hallucination (or is it something else?). Simmons draws the reader into the ultimate nightmarishness of the scenario through his composition and use of black. The story starts off brightly, often with single-page splash panels. As the adventure begins, it goes into 3 panels per page—until we reach the secret passage that precedes the collapse of the stairs, when it becomes a 6-panel grid. When the characters are separated, it changes into a 9-panel grid. Towards the very end, as the characters are alone and in the dark, it becomes a 12-panel grid. By that time, every panel is engulfed in darkness, reflecting the desperation and hopelessness of the situation. This is a comic that's tautly and cleverly constructed. Its goals are modest in terms of narrative and themes, but it's a pleasure to see how Simmons takes a familiar set of elements and wrings real desperation out of them.

Finally, there's Matthias Lehmann's disturbing HWY 115. We are thrust right into the plot on the story's first page: there's a serial killer on the loose named Robert Illot who has escaped from his psychiatric hospital. His MO for killing his victims is to stuff unusual objects down their throats. He's already struck again, having forced a roast chicken down some unfortunate person's gullet. We then meet our hero, a detective who's trying to find Illot on Hwy 115, his choice of locale for his killings. The detective picks up a woman who's also looking for Illot, and she has a notebook filled with contacts. The whole book has a feverish sort of dream logic from the very beginning, as its never explained how the woman got this notebook or why she was on the side of the road. From there, they travel from place to place in order to talk to people who knew Illot at the institution. Two things happen in every case: we are told of a story that Illot told them where he's a young boy alone in a house, and someone is killed by means of some device that the detective had just heard about in that segment of the story. In particular, these items provided comfort to the young boy in the story, odd as they were. And without exception, they were stuffed down throats of their victims: a stapler, a bunch of lightbulbs, a huge beetle, a sock, etc.

The story has a curiously static feel to it. The detective is constantly in the dark even as he does all the legwork. He starts to wonder where talking to all of these people is leading to but feels compelled to keep doing it. The people he meets grow progressively more disturbing, until he finally meets the last person on the list. He tells the detective the last part of the little boy's story that Illot told him, and at that moment the two narratives converge suddenly, unexpectedly and violently. This leads to a final twist that is never explained but rather strongly hinted at throughout the story, making us question the sanity of more than one character and reality as it is presented in the narrative.

The tension in the story is ratcheted up through the use of Lehmann's manic scratchboard style. This gives each panel a sort of frenzied & neurotic energy, heightened even further by the unsettling events that Lehmann depicts. This story is about loops and feedback, and the new realities that result from such feedback. Lehmann is fascinated by the grotesque, and it's no coincidence that we never see Illot actually do anything bad until the end of the story. Instead, we relive the gruesome killings of those who knew him, each of them driven to kill by the circumstance of their own insanity (or so it seems). Lehmann is able to get some humor out of some of the situations (like a driver who picks up the detective and the woman), but the story is really just one long nightmare—and it's not clear that anyone gets to wake up from it.

That nightmare reality, the transformation of everyday reality into something horrible, is what these books are about. In The Living and the Dead, the protagonist embraces the nightmare. In The Grave Robber's Daughter, one character escapes from the nightmare and another character becomes it. In House, all three characters struggle but have to limply succumb to darkness. In HWY 115, the trick is not knowing where the nightmare starts and reality stops, because the ground shifts constantly for our hero. All of the artists involved are quite adept in manipulating fear for their audience.

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