The Boston Comics Roundtable's annual Hellbound anthologies have grown increasingly stylish in presentation. The 2012 edition, "Darkness" starts out especially strong with stories by Janaka Stucky/Josh Wallis and Kimball Anderson. The former, "Blackout", follows a mortician confronted by a group of bodies who start whispering "You are dead but your body is still dying", which leads to a narrative side bar of discussing a sect in India that believes that in order to avoid reincarnation, we must transcend duality by embracing the most depraved of practices. Ultimately, it is hinted that he becomes one of them in a story that varies its visual styles from stark realism to shadowy expressionism. Anderson's "no, he can come" is a frightening but simple story about a young man negotiating a fog; everything he sees is in shadowy gray and black. He is invited to explore an old factory with what he thinks is a group of friends and reluctantly agrees to come along...until he has the chilling realization that he doesn't actually know them. It's a perfectly timed story made all the more effective thanks to its use of grey and black.
Of the other stories, Adrian Rodriguez's "Pedestrian" is silent and spooky in depicting the ways in which abandoned city streets can be terrifying; the Lindsay Moore/Donna Martinez/Joey Peters story "Garbage" effectively subverts the dynamic between the wholesome, perfect schoolgirl and the tough girl who's always in trouble; and the Gregery Miller/Jacob Oley story "Vinshaw" is mostly nonsense in terms of the story, but Oley's delicate and disgusting line art is a genuine pleasure to behold. The worst piece in the book was Jon Clark's "Void", which was less a horror piece than a bit of misogynist torture porn.
On the other, hand, Gulp!, the fourth volume of Hellbound, is an attractive, well-executed anthology that makes the most of its Risograph printing. Every story is scary or funny or both, and the mix of artistic styles makes looking at every story a genuine pleasure. It starts strong with Dan Moynihan's story about kids trying to avoid monsters on the way to getting cookies and Rachel Dukes' story about a ghost cat going from being cute to horrifying as they both grow up. Old Highwater favorites like Jef Czekaj and Greg Cook contribute cute stories in their "cute-brute" style, while Owen Heitmann, John Lechner and Jerel Dye go more in the direction of horror-adventure stories. There are no clunkers in this collection and the editing by Moynihan and Dan Flynn carefully shuffles the stories so as to avoid repeating themes on a story-to-story basis. The duo-tone orange and blue from the Risograph printing adds to the attractiveness of the overall work. This was by far the most skilled set of contributors and the most attractive presentation of stories yet conceived for this series, a trend that I hope continues for 2014.