Friday, August 17, 2012

The Horror of Repression: The Amateurs

Many of the artists in Baltimore's Closed Caption Comics collective specialize in cutting-edge, psychological horror. Some, like Noel Friebert, create Lovecraftian scenarios with a decidedly macabre sense of humor. Ryan Cecil Smith's sense of horror is more theatrical. Then there's Conor Stechschulte, whose The Amateurs is deliberately vague as to the whys and hows of a situation and doesn't even show us the real events that inspired horror. Indeed, this comic is all about the ways in which our memories can trick us out of believing that something even happened, because to remember it is simply too monstrous and horrible a notion to grasp. Events beyond our grasp and our understanding lie at the heart of this morbidly hilarious, quiet little book that provides frequent shocks and no true resolution.

The book starts with a doctor's account of two travelers finding a human head that nonetheless was somehow still alive and speaking--a bald, round, mangled head. We cut to two men coming up to a small shack in the woods, and it quickly becomes apparent that their memories have become severely impaired. The shack is apparently their butcher shop, but they have no wares prepared and nothing in the window. When customers show up, they have to go out back and figure out how to slaughter a cow and pig. That leads to a series of brutal, hilarious and awful scenes of trying to kill the animals, injuring themselves, grinding meat but accidentally sticking one's hand into the grinder, etc. all while desperately trying to maintain a veneer of professionalism. The two men also have unresolved difficulties with each other that manifest in rage-filled stabbing attacks that are bloody but hilariously strange. Stechschulte just has an uncanny knack for merging the humor of awkwardness with bloody, visceral violence.

In some ways, the transition to the two female customers is even weirder.  They flee the shop when a half-dead pig starts running around, and go to the river to clean their blood-soaked dresses. When one of the women loses her wedding ring in the rocks, the other woman strips naked to try to find it (in itself a strange scene), only to find a hand floating in the water as a harbinger for a variety of other body parts and blood drifting their way. Stechschulte then uses one of his frequent, quasi-abstract color break points to end that scene. The final scene, where the two women encounter each other at a party but one declines to even discuss or remember the events of the day, hinting at something far darker that was have rumored to have happened, ends the book on an appropriately vague and disturbing note.

Stechschulte leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened. Were the two butchers also mass murderers who simply snapped one day and then repressed the memory of their butchery? Was the father of one of the butchers involved somehow, as the severed head of one of the butchers suggests?  How did that head get decapitated? How did it stay alive? What happened to the two women that caused one of them to actively repress the memories of that day? Are the color breaks in the comic indicative of a psychotic breakdown or a memory flashback? Not knowing these details, while being treated to a book's worth of crazy weirdness, is what makes this such a compelling read. Stechschulte's lumpy, grotesque and cartoony art adds to both the creepiness and the laughs, as he creates drawings that are simultaneously funny and unsettling.

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