Saturday, December 16, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #16: Ian Richardson

Wendigo, by Ian R ichardson. There have been a few CCS cartoonists who have chosen horror as their means of expression, which makes sense considering that Steve Bissette is on the faculty there. Bissette is one of the greatest horror cartoonists of all time, not just for his time drawing and co-writing the classic Swamp Thing run with Alan Moore, but most especially for his role in editing and contributing to perhaps the greatest horror anthology of all time in Taboo. Though Bissette can draw can gore with the best of them to be sure, it was his cerebral approach that left readers to fill in crucial details of the story that made his comics especially unsettling. I don’t know how much Ian Richardson trained under Bissette in particular, but the professor’s legendary movie nights were often designed to test the limits and endurance of his audience.

Richardson understands one of the most important rules of a horror narrative: never give the audience more of an explanation as to what’s going on than the characters themselves get. The corollary to that rule is: try to give the characters as little information as possible. The trick is showing enough to make the story coherent but not so much that the mystery, the source of the terror, is hand-waved away by a trope like a Native burial ground, a demonic totem, etc. What makes Wendigo such an effective comic is that Richardson takes a familiar horror story and still manages to shock the reader. The wendigo is a legend surrounding a party out in the woods in the deep of winter that resorted to cannibalism to survive, causing an evil spirit to create a monster out of the party whose hunger for flesh was unending. It’s an especially nasty story because while it tugs against our willingness to do anything to survive against the harsh odds that nature presents us, it also represents this horrible betrayal against humanity. In this book, a family of five is out in a cabin during the winter, and the father is finding it hard to trap food. Indeed, it seems like some of his traps have been tampered with. Richardson quietly and elegantly portrays the evil spirit in the forest as a series of twigs and leaves bound together, with the skull of an animal atop it. It touches one of his sons and he falls ill. When the man encounters a neighbor who was tracking a fox, they team up to try to kill it, an event that winds up having horrible repercussions.

Richardson’s manipulation of plot details is masterful, especially in the way that it becomes clear that his family is starting to become increasingly ravenous no matter how much meat he feeds them. He hides the reason why for reasons that make sense, but the eventual reveal is both horrifying and triggers the eventual climax of the book. Thanks to his horrible, inhuman decision, the man’s family starts to engage in vicious, murderous behavior that is magnified in its horror by the innocence of some of the characters. The ending is ambiguous in the sense of whether the spirit is thwarted or just heightened. There’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter, that nothing good is going to emerge from this situation no matter what. Richardson’s art is a revelation. Earlier in his career, he had a tendency to over-render in an effort to create atmosphere. In this book, he used spot watercolors and a clean, thin line that didn’t skimp on detail but made sure to focus on the characters over anything else. The snowbound setting allowed for some strong use of negative space without sacrificing the reader’s sense of place. Faces and facial expressions, especially across an entire narrative, are still a bit of a weakness in terms of consistency, but Richardson was careful to focus on faces at crucial times.

What Happened To John Crowley?, by Ian Richardson. This isn’t so much a comic as it is a multimedia narrative told in the form of documents, images, letters, and newspaper clippings. The titular character is a man who sliced a woman open in broad daylight, shouting at something to make its presence known. The bulk of the book takes place as a series of letters between a psychiatrist at the local hospital in Vermont and his mentor living in Philadelphia. Ken Harker is the Vermont doctor charged to help the patient, found not guilty by reason of insanity. He writes to his mentor because he is genuinely as how to proceed. Richardson’s drawings are stand-ins for photos. The book is set in the early fifties, a time when shock therapy was still very common and the Polaroid One-Step camera had been invented. The shock therapy briefly helps the patient, who begs for more, that he “almost made it”.

Once again, the reader is ahead of the therapists in understanding that something horrible is happening here, but there are no easy answers to be found. That’s especially true after he manages to lure his brother and ex-wife to the hospital, and the tops of their heads explode and rain out blood that strangely does not stick to him. This is a particularly graphic and gory story in that regard, but far more unsettling is his claim to not be a demon but to be the wrath of god himself. To answer the titular question—no one knows, even 25 years after the fact, when Harker’s mentor tries to make sense of it all. Crowley killed a very specific set of people, then died, and then his corpse disappeared. Richardson leaves it up to the reader to guess at what happened, but it’s a slippery question. Was he possessed by a demon? Did he receive powers that were magnified by electricity? Why did he kill a very specific and small list of people? Did he go on to live in some other form? There are no answers, which is why this story lingers. That tension, once again, between knowledge and being kept in the dark with regard to the unknown, is something that Richardson has mastered. The next step for him as a writer is creating characters who are more than ciphers, something he’s able to do a little of in this story. He’s still more concerned with mastering plot and atmosphere than characterization at this point, but his progress in both of those areas makes me think he’s going to make a leap in other areas as well.

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