Wednesday, November 15, 2017

NBM: Satania, by Kerascoet & Fabien Vehlmann

With regard to the French husband-wife creative team Kerascoet (Marie Pommepuy & Sebastien Cosset), their subject matter seems to be uniformly grim and perverse whether they're working with writing collaborators Hubert or Fabien Vehlmann. In their latest release in English, Satania, they are back with Vehlmann after their supremely creepy collaboration, Beautiful Darkness. It's not just that their comics are filled with visceral and frequently unsettling violence; in many of their comics, each page is a fight for basic survival for each of the characters, and the odds are stacked against them. Each of their books also tends to center around a quasi-innocent young woman who turns out to be tough as nails, as she fends off the dangers of her environment as well as a long line of men who threaten them sexually. The other commonality is that Kerascoet's command of color produces pure eye candy. Their line is cartoony, almost ranging into classic Gallic bigfoot style. That said, it's color that dominates every page, sometimes almost entirely overwhelming line.

Satania begins with two pages of near-darkness underground, until we meet a spelunking priest whose goal was to find a party that foolishly set out in dangerous caves. That party includes a scientist named Lavergne and the sister of an explorer who had disappeared in the caves. She's a redhead nicknamed Charlie, and she's the prototypical spunky Kerascoet hero who's in way over her head but finds a way to persist. She's in search of her brother, who has theorized that hell is a real place, only it has a scientific explanation: an offshoot of humanity found a way to live deep in the bowels of the earth. After a flood comes that wipes out half the party and takes away most of their supplies, the result is a story that's part Jules Verne's A Journey To The Center Of The Earth and part Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. A key character in the book is a hallucination: Charlie and Christopher's mother. As it turns out, she claimed to have been raped by a demon, which led Christopher to his wild theories about an underground civilization of creatures that looked like demons. Charlie knew that the truth was far more prosaic (a drunk, red-headed farmer at a party), but it turned out that Christopher accidentally stumbled on the truth. The party, whose composition with a doubting priest and a scientist burning with belief made it a walking but highly unusual debate, encountered all sorts of bizarre sights. There was a man-made utopia not too far under the ground called Ultimate Thule that an insane member of the party destroys; said member naturally turns rapacious toward Charlie when he reasons that he will be going to paradise so that his actions now have no further consequences. There was the appearance of what seemed to be actual demons, which led the remaining members of a party on a long and perilous chase. There were extremes of heat and cold, tornadoes, razor-sharp ice cities, oceans of magma, roots suspended from vaulted ceilings, and giant sloth-like creatures that one could hitch a ride on. The book is a relentless visual feast of crazy action sequences that never allow the characters or reader more than a moment of rest before the status quo changes. Things really start to get interesting once the breathless pace of the book eases and Charlie (whose black dot eyes along with the red hair make her a ringer for Little Orphan Annie) finds evidence that Christopher is still alive. When the priest and Charlie finally find what seems to be a secure location, she encounters a demon whose horn she had partially lopped off earlier in the book--only the creature is not only attracted to her, he's submissive to her and enjoys being hit. By this point, Charlie's half-naked and she's turned on by the beast and has sex with him. That only intensifies the guilty hallucinations of her mother, who taunts her for actually having sex with a demon. This is the beginning of the complete breakdown in structure with the characters, as the priest imprisons them, believing that it wasn't safe to leave. He had created his own little utopia, a running theme in the book as every time a character believes they've managed to achieve this, it gets smashed to bits. The end of the book brings up certain moral issues not unlike Conrad's. When they finally find Christopher, it's slowly revealed that being in this environment has revealed him for what he truly is: a monstrous, selfish manipulator. Unlike Conrad, that transformation becomes literal in a series of horrifying pages that Charlie barely survives. Christopher never has a "the horror, the horror" moment; instead, he falls into that abyss that he gazed into in a figurative and literal sense. The world of Satania is a sentient but completely amoral ecosystem that exists to move, thrash around and destroy, but the obvious point that Vehlmann and Kerascoet make is that it's really not that much different from the surface world. Or rather, it's a difference of degree and not kind, but in neither case is it to be lauded as something utopian. That's really punched home with the final pages, where getting back to the surface is less a matter of returning to civilization than it is making a choice between two different worlds with different rules regarding cultural mores but surprisingly similar rules regarding survival. Unlike Beautiful Darkness, whose ending seems happy at first but is actually horrific upon further contemplation, the ending of this book isn't so much happy as it is an acknowledgment that we ultimately are responsible for our own choices, and it's that agency that Charlie relies upon throughout the book that saves her. She's the only character uninfected by cold science or fervid beliefs that negate humanity; she has the flexibility of her brother with regard to adapting to her environment without his evangelical embrace of the id-ruled nihilism that Satania represents. That fits neatly into Kerascoet and their collaborators writing books about violence, horror and deviancy that wind up finding the conventions and authorities of society every bit as monstrous and dangerous. The ending of Beautiful Darkness is horrible not because the main character found a "home" with the giant, but rather because this conventional love she felt was for a person who had killed her host. In Satania, it's Charlie's flexibility and unflappability that allow her to overcome both the physical and philosophical dangers she's presented with.

No comments:

Post a Comment