Saturday, December 09, 2006

Comics: Two out of three ain’t bad.

The third of the New Line/DC Wildstorm franchise-theme horror books got its official launch this month. After a regrettable start with the vapid Nightmare on Elm Street series and a considerably more promising Texas Chainsaw launch, Friday the 13th has arrived.

I must admit that I had my doubts about this series. Outside of a film context, Jason’s a bit of a hard sell for me. As a character, Jason works best simply as an icon. By which I mean to say that his mindless and relentless persona rewards lack of development. He’s at his best, really, on covers and in posters, just standing there, all implied threat and malice. The hockey mask doesn’t hide his face, it is all the face he needs. The character is made to be thoughtless, free of motivations, in a paradoxical way, characterless. Movies, with their strong visual element, are his natural medium. He can move and kill and that’s all the medium will demand of him. Books and comics, with the interiority that prose implies, seem contrary to the spirit of the character. Before picking up the comic, I had this vision of the comic book Jason stomping through the woods, covered in gore, silent; blood dripping from his machete, but above him is a thought balloon that reads: “Being in-itself and Being for-itself were of Being; and this totality of beings, in which they were effected, itself was linked up to itself, relating and appearing to itself, by means of the essential project of human-reality. What was named in this way, in an allegedly neutral and undetermined way, was nothing other than the metaphysical unity of man and God, the relation of man to God, the project of becoming God as the project constituting human-reality. Atheism changes nothing in this fundamental structure.”

What could a comic do that 1) couldn’t be done better in a movie and 2) wouldn’t fall into the trap of trying to flesh out a character that become less interesting and less scary the deeper you looked into him?

Happily, like the TCM series, Jason’s new showcase bucks the low expectations set by the lame Freddy-based series and promises some genuine good times.

Penned by Justin Grey and Jim Palmiotti, the team behind the mostly successful Jonah Hex relaunch, the new series starts with a gutsy narrative move: Jason, the iconic anchor of the entire franchise, barely appears in it. The move not only pays off, but it signals to the readers that this series aims to be something more than comic book redo of your standard slasher romp.

The book starts with a lone RV cruising through a forest road. Suddenly, out of the woods, in front of the RV, a girl tumbles into the road. She’s naked, bruised, and half of her right hand is missing. (Injury to the hand, specifically finger-loss, is the signature wound of new horror, replacing, I think, the downward-jabbing knife wound to the body that’s been the hallmark injury since Psycho.) Behind her, making his patented deliberate and calm way through the woods, is Jason. The RV passengers get out, help the girl into their vehicle, and take off before Jason can reach them. This will be the last we see of Jason in the first issue: a splash page with him standing on the lonely forest road, machete in hand, watching the RV tear off, a small cloud of mist near his mouth wear his breath shows against the cold night sky.

Flash forward: hospital, the girl we’ve seen earlier is thrashing in a hospital bed. Nurses rush to sedate her. The local sheriff looks on and makes a comment about how, when he first arrived in town, he didn’t buy the stories of a death curse on Camp Crystal Lake. But, now, he says, they should burn the whole damn camp down.

Flashback: Camp Crystal Lake. The victim, presumably our “final girl,” and a handful of other young men and women are being lectured by a young business “shark” type. He explains that the horrific past of Crystal Lake makes it a unique camping opportunity and he intends to turn the decrepit camp into a sort of horror-themed camp. He’s even run off a bunch of “I Survived Camp Crystal Lake” t-shirts. (Do these really exist? If not, New Line, you’re missing a wonderful merch opportunity.) He explains that he’s hired this group to clean up the camp and get it ready.

We can see where the rest is going. Or can we?

One of the most interesting aspects of this new take is the inclusion of more backstory not only for Jason and his clan, but of Crystal Lake. Grey and Palmiotti seem to be working in two different threads of horror, hoping to add some more depth to the franchise’s shopworn formulas without ruining the basic premise. The first is a return to the giallo inspired suspense genre that helped first spawn the series. Instead of rushing straight into the slaughter and relying on revved up gore levels and body counts, this series promises to work on a slow burn. Second, the groundwork is laid for the idea that something was very wrong with Crystal Lake long before the Voorhees family made it their personal al fresco abattoir. By the laying the groundwork for a sort of “cursed land” theme, this series establishes the franchise in the context of the classic strain of New England horror, connecting a modern horror icon to a deep and traditional source of American horror.

It is an ambitious, creative, and strong start to the series.


Anonymous said...

THAT should be the title of the next new entry in the film series:

And like the Thing's signature: "IT'S CLOBBERING TIME!", you need to create a T-shirt of Jason doing his Thoreauvian constitutional w/machete, complete with thought balloon: "Being in-itself... ...fundamental structure."

You are a merchandising machine!

Anonymous said...

How do you like your evil killing villains ? The slowly progressing never ending plodding type a'la Jason, or the demented playful type a'la SAW, or the dropping bad one-liners a'la Freddy ?

CRwM said...

Mr. Sasquatchan,

I don’t tend to identify with the killers much, so I tend to be drawn to movies that involve clever types, mainly because filmmakers who want a clever killer are usually required to develop the victims and monster-hunters a bit more. I like the first two Saw flicks, for example, not because Jigsaw’s garbled philosophy seems sensible, but because the victims seem to me to be the main characters. And watching the fight to survive is where the real drama’s at. At least for me.

Of the slasher types, I prefer the original Leatherface. With his animal-noises and his gender identification issues, he was such a great, surreal figure that captured that original film's whole crazy aesthetic.

spacejack said...

Uh oh, I've been reading groovy age of horror too much lately. I totally read the sentence in the 8th paragraph as "Nurses rush to seduce her," thinking WOW this really is a different re-telling.