Thursday, December 27, 2018

Thirty One Days Of CCS #27: Denis St. John

Denis St. John balances both genuinely unsettling horror comics with a quirky sense of humor. The result are stories that unnerve or shock the reader while making them laugh. In his collection of short stories, The Land Of Many Monsters And Many More Monster Tails, St. John bounces between takes on familiar creatures with wildly original characters and also draws a lot of dinosaurs fighting. If it sounds like pure fun on each page, that's because it is. This is a case where an artist expresses themselves through genre work in unusual ways, taking delight in the ways in which he can provide warped versions of classic ideas.

For example, "Drought" is a story imagining what happens when a Creature from the Black Lagoon encounters a drought. St. John's stories thrive on their sense of logical consistency, especially with regard to how one thing leads to another. In this case, the Creature happens upon a group of wholesome teenagers in an big, raised pool. (That the teens bear a suspicious resemblance to a certain gang of pals 'n gals from Riverdale is nothing more than coincidence, I'm sure.) The poor creature just wants some water when one of the gang slaps him, resulting in the Creature retaliating by slashing his face open. It's a shocking but funny image, especially after the creature is baffled and pained by the chlorine in the pool's water. Things go downhill from there, as St. John subverts the Creature/beautiful woman trope in gleefully horrifying ways.

"Horns" and "King Of The Hill" are silent stories featuring dinosaurs, and they are written with wit and verve. The fact that St. John clearly delights in drawing these creatures goes a long way to making the stories lively and fluid. The action is clear, the motivations make sense, and the sense of resigned patience on the part of the apex predators is all part of the comedy. The lush backgrounds provide the needed atmosphere to give the story some context without impeding the action.

St. John's former anthology series was called Monsters and Girls, and that speaks to his love of featuring femmes fatale in a number of different roles. In this collection, "Magic In The Moonshine" is about a witch who doubles as a burlesque dancer during prohibition times, and the aesthetic is a tribute to the Max Fleischer cartoons of the time. She winds up dodging demons and bible-thumpers by dropping in on a bootlegger who had a crush on her, and the resulting story is sweet and trippy. St. John is at his absolute best here in dipping between drawing her as a sexy woman and as a pile of bones, and the "magic drink" hallucination sequences are a particular pleasure.

"Dance Of The She Beast/Redneck And The Wolves" speaks to a different kind of femme fatale and a far less discerning audience. It takes the trope of the woman/witch turning into a wolf in the woods and subverts the hunter as Good Guy in this role, with a shockingly visceral death scene that ironically underscores his claims of being a hero. The subsequent story continues his shaky narrative, but there are dire consequences for him as a result. His story starring "Furiosa Frankenstein" combines the Bride of that particular monster with the ass-kicking heroine of the recent Mad Max update. This story mixes horror with action, as she has to fight the creatures in front of her as well as an imagined, twisted version of herself back at the lab where she was born. The visceral quality of his drawings is at his most detailed here, as the monsters drip with menace and gore.

Finally, "Whispers In The Woods" and "The Devil's Magic" reflect St. John's interest in having the mundane confront the extraordinary. The former story is about a couple of friends who go back and forth between thinking they're in horrible danger and trying to disbelieve in it, with increasingly rising stakes. Their reactions to what they see are hilarious, especially as the images become more and more bizarre, disturbing and monstrous--but not all is as it seems. The latter story is a funny, silent story, as a demonic figure shows up at a little creature's birthday party to perform the most mundane of tricks, yet those tricks are more impressive than him appearing and disappearing in puffs of smoke. St. John's line here is thin and expressive, emphasizing the almost dainty quality of the goat-creature magician's hands. This is a strong collection that fans of classic horror and more recent comedy-horror will appreciate.

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