At Play in Horror Comics

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At Play in Horror Comics

This piece is dedicated to William Bradley, who wrote our 2015 Halloween review and a number of other pieces for LARB. A brilliant essayist and nonfiction writer, William passed away after a long battle with cancer on August 28, 2017. He is deeply missed by his friends and readers.

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HORROR IS SHOT THROUGH with irony and subversion. At the very heart of the genre’s appeal, Noël Carroll has argued, lies a paradox: we find ourselves attracted to that which is repulsive. Yet, in a post-postmodern, post–Cabin in the Woods and Final Girls world — a world in which the tropes and conventions of pop horror and its many subgenres have been carefully deconstructed and laid bare for all to see — new modes of fearsome incongruity and aesthetic rebellion have become necessary. This new approach is perhaps most visible in the recent boom of low-budget yet quietly sophisticated independent horror films: The Innkeepers, The Babadook, The Eyes of My Mother, The Transfiguration. The films of this movement are aware of the horror traditions in which they are playing, but rather than committing a full-scale assault on the fourth wall, they bring this awareness to bear in a nuanced examination of horror and its affects. In comics, a similar awareness is taking multifaceted forms while engaging a variety of horror’s key affects and affectations.

If the first volume of Russ Lippitt and Ezequiel Pineda’s horror-themed racing comic The Showdown serves as a primer in degenerate character studies and boiling, soon-to-be-uncapped rivalries, the second volume offers a full-blown clinic in muscle-car carnage, wanton destruction, and demoniacally enjoyable exploitation. In The Showdown, the over-the-top absurdity and roller-coaster fun of Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races collides with the themed gangs and fluid comradery of The Warriors, with a touch of the go-for-broke nihilism and cobbled together rides and weapons of Mad Max. Tattooed zombie pin-up girls looking like Bettie Page if her flesh were green and rotting square off against neo-Nazi skinhead orcs, while Frankensteinian rock-n-roll greasers take on a truly skeletal biker gang. Fusing the eccentric fashions and snarling attitudes of various late-20th-century rock and punk subcultures with characters from the Universal Monsters roster, the cast of Lippitt and Pineda’s lead-footed monster mash are made all the more endearing by their doubled outsider status.

Each team speeds through circle after circle of Dante’s Hell, vying for first place and a chance to escape from Hell and return to Earth. Delivering on the tantalizing promise of abject slaughter and high-octane action made by the first volume, Lippitt and Pineda succeed in recreating the rapidity and tension of racing in a medium composed of still images. The Showdown is never boring or repetitive — something a comic with this bare-bones plot could easily have become — and each fender-to-fender battle is treated to its own unique paneling and perspectives. The seamlessness of the duo’s page compositions allows the reader to focus on the dynamics within and between teams, as drivers and passengers alike employ strategies ranging from headstrong, bumper-to-bumper slamming to seductive drive-by distractions to wholesale theft of competing cars. Enjoyable echoes of the hyper-violent, “that escalated quickly” moments of Brendon Small’s satirical cartoon Metalocalypse resound in many of the crash-and-burn brawls between racers.

A largely unseen narrator offers colorful play-by-play, introducing each of the clashes and divulging tantalizingly brief moments of self-reflection. (“It was right over there where I lost my virtue, but I digress…”) Although pun-riddled, the narration of The Showdown manages to avoid the category of groaners that could easily sink a premise already walking a fine line between cheesiness and authenticity. In Lippitt and Pineda’s hands, lines like: “Will Stabbo [of the clown-themed Slit Juggulars] have the last laugh or will those Zombie Pin-Ups beat a fate worse than death?” manage to maintain a tone of sincerity. And while at times the art can show its computer-generated roots in ways that undermine that sincerity — flames that are all too crisp; clean, formulaic Ben-Day shading; clip art-y onomatopoetic fonts — The Showdown’s artwork flourishes when spread across splash pages of pure mayhem.

Lippit and Pineda’s B-movie camp seems, at first glance, much better suited to the comics medium than does H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction. The deepest sensations of fear that one experiences when reading Lovecraft arise not from his popular behemoth aliens or hybrid hellions, but rather from his skill at intimating transcendent horrors that are always at least once removed from their source. Much like the figurative painter Francis Bacon, who in his work elected to “paint the scream more than the horror,” Lovecraft labors to circumvent, as much as possible, descriptions and depictions of horror, instead detailing the affects produced in those who encounter it. The minute description of the countenance of sheer terror cemented upon the dead face of the “haunted” Robert Blake in “The Haunter of the Dark” provokes more pangs of sympathetic fear in the reader than any elucidation of the haunter ever could. (This lesson was well appreciated by the creators of The Blair Witch Project, for this reason arguably the most Lovecraftian film to date.)

It is when Lovecraft is forced to describe the subjects of horror that his fiction suffers the most, which is why many visual adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories are fated to become de facto creature features, stripped of their psychological and affective nuances. For instance, the only Weird Tales cover to ever bear an illustration of a Lovecraft story — “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” — depicts the fishy Deep Ones in a manner recalling the cutesy, big-eyed Funko Pop figurines of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Contemporary comics adaptations of Lovecraft have faced similar difficulties, from I. N. J. Culbard’s sincere but overly cartoony rendition of At the Mountains of Madness to Argentine master Alberto Breccia’s moody and grotesque — but ultimately boilerplate — depiction of “the horror” in his adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror.”

It is thus all the more impressive that Japanese manga artist Gou Tanabe’s Dark Horse volume H. P. Lovecraft’s The Hound and Other Stories manages to avoid these pitfalls, offering a truly compelling adaptation of the writer’s work. Tanabe’s selection of stories suggests his appreciation for Lovecraft’s emphasis on indirect representation. Although all three stories contain ostensible subjects of fear — a ghoulish hound, undead sailors, ancient lizard people — and while Tanabe does transitorily depict these creatures, the stories are predominantly atmospheric character studies in which the reader vicariously experiences the terror of Lovecraft’s ill-fated protagonists. In his execution of these carefully chosen stories, it is Tanabe’s formalism that is truly frightening. Together, his slow-burn pacing, frequent deployment of silent mise-en-scène panels, measured and stylized use of disquieting onomatopoeia, and careful lighting of evocatively fear-filled countenances create a tensely claustrophobic medium of suspense and uncertainty in which terrified characters squirm with dread, compelling readers to do the same.

The collection’s opening tale, “The Temple,” is also its most rewarding experiment in Lovecraftian horror. Structured as a found manuscript tale — a literal message in a bottle — the story is already singularly removed from the events its narrator describes. It tells the tale of the doomed crew of a German submarine under the leadership of a coldly analytical officer. The crew brings aboard a small, finely shaped ivory carving of a man’s head found on the body of a drowned enemy sailor, setting into motion a series of hauntings, accidents, and murders. In one panel Tanabe goes beyond Lovecraft’s original by placing side-by-side close-up images of the face of the lifeless sailor and the mysterious carving, depicting both with similarly soft, delicate features — lips slightly parted and whitely blank dead eyes open and staring. The fear plastered on both faces is, he suggests, one and the same. And although its source is unknown to the reader, the parallel features of fear imply the magnitude of its terror.

If Tanabe shows the power of images to bring out nuances in adapting prose fiction, the haunting affects of artist Julia Gfrörer’s work spring first and foremost from her masterful imagery. Borrowing a phrase from Stanford professor of French literature Brigitte Cazelles, Gfrörer’s website avows that “The discourse of romance […] can therefore be characterized as an ideology of suffering, since the experience of human or divine love seems inevitably grounded in pain.” Gfrörer’s art, from her self-published minicomics to her commissionable tattoo designs, is nothing if not grounded in pain (literally so in the latter instance) and an appreciation of the play between suffering and love is essential to understanding her longer works. Following her much lauded full-length debut, Black Is the Color, Gfrörer’s sophomore effort from Fantagraphics, Laid Waste, smoothly surpasses its predecessor with its pitch-black artistry, coldly sparkling pessimism, and devastating humor. Gfrörer’s line recalls both fine-spun gossamer lace and cold-steel etching — bringing to mind a combination of Gary Panter’s ratty line and Kate Beaton’s caricaturesque minimalism — while the black sheet of her narrative is made all the more heartbreaking through interspersed punctures of hope.

If the music of heavy metal band Iron Maiden seems an appropriate soundtrack for The Showdown, Swedish black metal outfit Bathory might provide a fitting accompaniment for Laid Waste. Set in an unnamed European village during the apex of the Black Death’s destruction, Gfrörer’s thin grimoire centers on plague-widowed Agnès. Introduced to the reader as a baby, when she is accidentally taken for dead and buried while her mother sleeps, Agnès’s very origin screams her connection to the gothic, while her adult attempts to cope with life during the plague are blemished with tearful contradictions. Gfrörer’s story offers a sort of formal inversion of Ishmael’s proclamation in MobyDick that “truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast.” Rather than a small amount of cold enhancing the enjoyment of warmth, Laid Waste employs all too brief moments of warmth to invoke a world of existential frigidity.

Indeed, Laid Waste bleeds raw irony. Sharply avoiding the pitfalls of easy tongue-in-cheek cynicism, Gfrörer’s hope-tinged pessimism instead builds layers of shrewd insight and gallows humor. The book is full of material that makes the reader unsure whether she is supposed to laugh or cry: the sudden death of a beak-masked plague doctor while he attends to his patient; the “lucky” toddler who has begun to forget her deceased mother; the scene in which Agnès and widower Giles’s meet cute in a plague pit, surrounded by the decomposing bodies of family members and neighbors. Even the pivotal sex scene between Agnès and Giles is not free from the paradoxes produced by the plague. Spun through with a darkly endearing thread of nihilistic dirty talk — “Nothing is well nor will it ever be again”; “Nothing matters at all” — the scene intertwines life and death as the pair attempt a life-affirming union, all the time haunted by Giles’s plague-infected body.

Gfrörer intersperses her comic with darkly poetic moments that silently but unapologetically radiate the mundane and the morbid. An entire two-page spread is dedicated to a scene of two stray dogs fighting over a disembodied human arm, tugging it from one another as they would any other piece of scrap meat. Reminiscent of the Swiss-French cartoonist Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s sequential studies of cats at play, Gfrörer’s own animal study questions the logics of anthropocentrism underlying both religious and humanist ideologies, as dog saliva and human fingers spray outward in a graphically whimsical bouquet.

As befits its publication by Image, Rich Tommaso’s ongoing series She Wolf puts Tommaso’s considerable resources as a writer and artist to the service of a masterfully crafted, fast-moving genre narrative. Whereas the first volume of She Wolf vacillated between reality and nightmare as its teenage protagonist Gabrielle (Gabby) juggled high school, the occult, and a family history of lycanthropy, the second volume, Black Baptism, turns its attention to Gabby’s younger sister, Lizzie, in a more traditional narrative about a lost-and-found sibling. Having come to grips with her own identity as a werewolf, Gabby, along with her bad-ass vampire best-friend Nikki, travels to a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy world to rescue Lizzie — now a demon-possessed werewolf — from the clutches of the power-hungry Queen Hexacate and her younger sister, Shiga.

Essentially a mirrored tale of a pair of teenage siblings, this iteration of She Wolf could easily be read as a social commentary on teenage life, or an eccentric tale of female coming of age in the vein of Emil Ferris’s breakout My Favorite Thing Is Monsters. She Wolf also seems to fit in well with the current nostalgia-fueled renaissance of homages to the horror films of the 1980s, such as Netflix’s sleeper hit Stranger Things. Gabby and Lizzie wear mall-rat, hair-metal, and synthesizer-pop influenced wardrobes: lycra leggings, calf warmers, high-waisted belts, and big hair, to which Gabby adds occult accessories, most notably a pair of dangling inverted cross earrings.

In Black Baptism’s second volume, Tommaso’s art departs from the hazy and dreamy water colors that defined the pop-goth aesthetic and thematic underpinnings of the first volume, and instead takes up a more solid-fill approach to coloring similar to that found in Hergé’s Tintin adventures. Although the narrative shifts from a moody occult mystery to a flat-out tale of action and adventure, Tommaso’s line remains alternately painfully precise and fluidly slinky. His creature designs in particular excel at balancing the gross and grotesque with the puckishly playful. This is most evident in his rendering of Gabby’s werewolf form: a gracefully sinuous gray wolf turned airborne snake recalling Falkor, the endearing luckdragon of The Neverending Story.

From the exploitative to the existential, the unseen to the unreal, contemporary horror comics are playfully pushing at the boundaries of the genre from the inside out. Whether it is a bombastic appropriation of stock horror characters, a splicing of horror with unexpected or unlooked for genres, or a revitalization of classic tales through a visual lens, the fluidity of the comics form, the ingenuity of creators, and the open-mindedness of publishers are converging to produce a new framework for how we think about horror at play in comics.

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Colin Beineke is an independent scholar whose research and writing focuses on contemporary comics and the institution of the publishing house.

The post At Play in Horror Comics appeared first on Los Angeles Review of Books.


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31 October 2017 | 3:00 pm

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