Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Comics: Gossip gore gore girls.

Dead High Yearbook is a charmingly odd fusion of teen drama and old school horror anthology storytelling. The high concept pitch for this YA graphic novel is Tales from the Crypt meets Mean Girls. Like all good horror anthos, this one comes with its own hosts: an pair known only as "Zombie Boy" and "Zombie Girl." The former is a vaguely jockish character who sports faintly green skin and a collection of Frankensteinian stitches. The latter has a sort of post-Riot Grrl haircut, is a fiend for coffee, is comfortable in belly revealing t-shirst, and has eyes that occasionally glow an unearthly red. Zombie Boy is a bit of a softy and Zombie Girl is kinda bitchy. They spend their un-life creating a sort of yearbook-of-the-damned, which contains photos of high-school students who were bumped off in particularly unpleasant and horror comic appropriate ways. The creation of this grim annual record provides the antho with its reoccurring framing device.

Framed within are eight tales of teenage terror from as many different writer/artist teams. The stories run the gamut from gore-splattered gag-fest to grim metaphoric meditations on the emotionally pitfalls of intergenerational family relationships. Despite the predictability of many of topics discussed (is there anything more depressingly monotonous than the concerns of high schoolers: fitting in, body image, sex, family, the accumulation of trendy material possessions – strangely, however, music is missing here), there's a refreshingly modern approach to what would otherwise dip into "After School Special" territory. For example, in the queer vamp revenge tale "Fang You So Very Much," the homosexuality of several characters is treated as a just another fact of characterization. There are no tedious lectures on the inherent beauty of the human diversity or special pleading for understanding. Dead High Yearbook takes place in a world were the normalcy of homosexuality is already established – the culture wars that still convulse everybody over, say, 24 don't really appear in the pages of DHY. Even the "gay bashers" that appear in the aforementioned story are driven more by criminal profit motive than hatred of the sexual other or homophobia. The book's treatment of race is similarly unburdened by the weight of history: the ethnic origins of characters and interracial relationships simply are, without the characters or the writers congratulating themselves on their with-it-ness. I leave it to other, wiser readers to determine whether this is a sign of the authors' na├»ve view of the world or an indication of how mired in 1960s to '80s identify politics the ever-graying world of horror fanciers is.

In keeping with the old school EC-esque horror anthology feel, every tale does have an O. Henry style finale, but even these occasionally shake off the musty trappings of horror's well-established, comfortably conservative "diseases for kisses" approach to handing out just desserts. In fact, my favorite story ends with the following bit of moral philosophy:

"Why did this have to happen to me? Why did I have to die in this . . . ugly way? I lived a good life. I was a good girl. I worked hard . . ."

"Nobody promised anything. Got that? Good or bad, it's the luck of the draw."

"That's so unfair."

"I know."


That sort of moral fatalism strikes me as another generational thing. I recently read a review in which a blogger took a film to task for not mocking its protagonists for being the relatively privileged products of the first world's middle class. Wouldn't it be a better film, the blogger opined, if the characters realized that their class concerns made them loathsome and they realized they somehow deserved their fate? Wouldn't it be better, the blogger was essentially saying, if this film was made with the tired and smug Marxism light of 1968 as its guiding light? Instead, the film simply suggested that sometimes horrible things happen to good people, and to bad people, and to indifferent people. What's scary is that you can't hold the world hostage by your good deeds. Monsters won't care that you're a registered Democrat. Though several of DHY's stories partake of the tired shopworn moral calculus that has dominated horror for nearly eight decades now, I applaud its often amoral tone. Let's hope parents buy the book with looking inside it.

Speaking of audience appropriateness, another nifty thing that DHY exploits is the fact that the sort of crap parents will poop kittens over in film, television shows, and video games, will totally slip under their radar if you present in book form. Perhaps it's the lingering cultural capital of the printed word, but you can slip in all sorts of shenanigans. DHY slips in several sexual references (though no graphic depictions) and some definitely R-rated gore. I'm thinking specifically of a story in which a mutant tape-worm thingy bursts out of a teenage girl and does battle with a Hulk-like boy whose muscles continue to bulk up until he himself pops like a meat balloon. Seriously.

Ultimately, Dead High Yearbook is meant for a YA audience and, for an oldster like me, it is sometimes hard to determine if the things I don't like about it are bugs or features for its target audience. The plots and characterization take a backseat to dialog, which tends to speed stories along. There's also a tendency to simply slam elements of story together on the basis of reader-acknowledged references and not internal story logic. For example, one of the characters in one of the stories is, without forewarning, revealed to be a vampire hunter. This isn't justified by showing the reader hints of the character's extracurricular activities. Instead, the character's name – "Hunter" – and costume – "hey, like that Blade dude" – are all that the story needs. It can feel a bit like your watching a movie while somebody's got their finger on the fast forward button. Is this slim writing or am I used to more wordy stuff? Who knows?

What I do know is that DHY is a nasty little treat and, if it had been around when I was a late elementary or junior high kid, I would have loved sneaking this thing past the parental censors. Does a YA horror comic need a higher recommendation than that?

3 comments:

AndyDecker said...

There's also a tendency to simply slam elements of story together on the basis of reader-acknowledged references and not internal story logic"

This is a thing I also noticed of lately - how a lot of writers seem to work with the assumption, that you don´t have to explain supernatural things or concepts because todays audiences are expected to know them beforehand. Cue in postmodern joke and don´t waste any time on elaborate set-ups. The Buffy-Syndrom. "So you are Count Dracula? Thought you were bigger."

I wonder if this attitude is a bigger problem for the genre than all remakes and rating problems and the disneyfication of horror as a juvenile market category together.

Or, if we as an jaded and experienced audience, are any longer capable for the patience and the suspense of disbelief the genre needs.

CRwM said...

Andy,

In something like Deah High Yearbook, one could argue that the writers are smart to use such short cuts, as they're working with only eight comic book pages and they can use all the borrowed context they can't give space to. But it is something one sees everywhere these days.

I think there are several factors for it.

1. Kids don't care about suspending disbelief. They're willing to enter into the "reader's contract" with the artist without demanding the artist spend time making the impossible seem possible. In fact, such effort seems like wasted time to younger horror viewers. There's little that makes sense about vampires, ghosts, or whatever - why waste valuable entertainment time trying to prop up these inherent paradoxes with shoddy, always-unsatisfactory excuses? Just get to the good stuff.

2. Euro-influenced art-horror made being nonsensical seem deep. This isn't my complaint; I steal the idea from Pauline Kael who pointed out that people have simply become more accepting of incomprehensibility, seeing it as a marker of intellectual complexity. Creators influenced by such artists have learned the unfortunate lesson that style triumphs substance. Working in a rational, naturalistic style or with elements that demand, and then get, an explanation is considered a sign that you're a uncreative, dull hack with nothing to say.

3. I think supernatural horror has the tendency to encourage sloppy work in lesser artists. Because the rules governing the non-naturalistic world can be whatever the artist need them to be, the great temptation is that you'll bend them whenever you've painted yourself into a corner. Eventually, the much vaunted "uncanny" becomes just a trite form of deus ex machina. It takes real discipline, or a camp sensibility that just doesn't care about stuff like narrative logic, to work it right. (This happens with non-supernatural horror as well, but the temptation seems almost built into supernatural frighteners.)

Executive summary: the kids don't care, the adults taught them not to care, and the field is booby-trapped to begin with.

Sheesh. What a long and ranting answer. Sorry about that.

AndyDecker said...

No, interesting answer :-)

And I fear you are right. Of course it saddens me sometimes that the new generation can´t appreciate the books or movies I grew up with or read as a young man. It is hard to imagine that that todays ADS challenged kids could like a novel like Stoker´s Dracula or a movie like The Haunting - the original, not the dire remake -, because they are not fast reads or easy watching.

But everything evolves, for every Alien you get hundreds of imitations, and if some concepts don´t work any longer in their old context, that is the way it is.

I re-watched Targets with Karloff the other day, hadn´t seen it for some years. Still liked it much, great movie, but my appreciation came largely from being able to "get" the context. But I could really understand if a 30 year younger viewer disqualify this movie as boring and the ending lame. From his point of view he may be right.