Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Comics: Majors and generals.

Greetings, Screamers and Screamettes. Today, your humble horror host brings not one, but two comic reviews. That's right, boys and ghouls, AANTS is giving you both barrels of four color stupendiosity!

I've pair these two comics not because of any linked theme or similarities in their stories. In fact, it is hard to imagine ay two horror comics that could be more different. Instead, I think they both show what you can do in comics that I don't believe you can fully pull off in any other medium. These are great horror comics, each great in their own way.

First, we've got a historical horror comic set in the endgame on the European front in World War II. Desperado Publshing's Common Foe, written by Shannon Eric Denton and Keith Giffen with art by Jean-Jacques Dzialowski and Fredrico Dallocchio, is driven by a pretty simple high concept premise: US and Nazi troops fighting the Battle of the Bulge accidentally unleash a horde of blood-hungry demon vampire thingies. The soldiers must learn to fight together, natch, or end up monster grub.

With that, you've learned every essential bit about the set up and plot of the book.

The second book, Josh Simmons' House, has a deceptively simple premise. Three people go exploring a massive abandoned structure and run into disaster. The book is drawn in an expressively cartoonish black and white, contains not a single bit of dialogue, and is an utterly haunting slice of thoughtful horror despite the fact that we have no villains, monsters, ghosts (well maybe perhaps a tiny little glimpse of one - but that's not a sure thing), or slashers. Just three folks and a horrible accident.

So what makes Common Foe great? It exploits the comic medium's unique sense of the immediate. Of all the popular arts, comics seem to most often get linked to movies. This is unsurprising given the combination of visuals and dialogue, not to mention the industry-wide assumption that the goal of comics is to aspire to film – in fact, many comic artists now get gig storyboarding flicks and Marvel's own guidelines to writers suggest getting some film writing experience before tackling comic writing. But, I'd like to suggest that some comics often resemble the perfect pop single. They are direct, immediately involving, memorable, and with just enough layers of artistry to not make you feel stupid for giving them a little attention. This is exactly was Common Foe does. It takes its premise and delivers on it with a slick and professional precision.

The comic opens with a bang. A handful full of American soldiers are fleeing a horde of strange monsters – part zombie, part scarecrow, part shark. Explosions, gun fire, the Americans lose a Joe, and, finally, find shelter. In this brief moment, one of the GI's has a flashback that explains how the soldiers got in this bad situation. Far from the main battle front, two units – one American and one German – fight to control as town of no strategic significance. As one of the characters puts it: "The only reason they want it is because they think we want it." For the first fourth of the book, these two groups pound each other mercilessly. During a lull in the combat, the Germans notice that some fire has busted open what appears to be a well. Strangely, the stones of have small crucifixes carved into them. A local superstition perhaps? Whatever, they are in the middle of a war. The well is left unsealed. Enter the beasties. For the remainder of the book, the American and Nazi soldiers will battle a seemingly endless number of demon-things. The creatures shrug off gunfire, so the soldiers are reduced to running and hiding, setting explosive traps, and trying to keep alive until sunrise. The beasties, you see, don't like the sun.

The characters are stock and the action somewhat predictable, but the pace – which comics can crank up even past what films can deliver – and strong visuals overpower these. This is an army versus monster story the way "Good Vibrations" is a just a pop love song. It knows exactly what it needs to give you, and delivers fully on the promise. This would be too limited of an achievement for a film or a novel. A novel would demand more backstory and, as a film, this would feel curiously one-note. But it is a strength comic books have that they, like hard-liquor, can get more powerful through the process of distillation. This title's pleasures come from the efficient and competent way in which the book so expertly focuses on doing exactly what you know it would, leaving you with a feeling that more "writerly" comics no longer seem to credit as a worthy goal: you're left thoroughly entertained.

If Common Foe is the perfect pop single, Josh Simmons' House is the indie rock experiment. A wordless, black and white comic, House tells the story of three folks who explore a massive and rooting old home, and ultimately get separated and lost within its twisting corridors. The characters are all nameless. One is a young man, he seems to be the one who is encouraging the group to explore in the house in the first place. The second explorer is a lively, athletic blonde. She and the man will develop a romantic connection through the course of the story. Finally, we’ve got a stand-offish semi-Goth chick. The action starts off slowly. There's something child-like and almost sweet about the characters. The house they're exploring resembles the grim fortress asylum of Session 9, but they seem so eager and happy to explore it that the mood is lighter. Slowly, inevitably, the thin, intricate line-work of Simmons' grows heavier and dark pools of black ink crowd the page.

I don't want to give away much more of the plot other than to say it hinges on none of the standard horror devices. There's an accident and the characters are left to fend for themselves. They don't have to battle monsters or discover any great mystery about the house (and there are several curious things about it). All they need to do is find one another and get out. Despite this lack of standard horror elements, Simmons' story is as dark, grim, and despairing as anything I experienced in the genre. It goes deeper than scares, evoking a sad dread that is, in the end, harder to shake off.

Perhaps even more than Common Foe, House could only be a comic book. It exploits the most obvious feature of comics: the gutter, the break between panels. Comic readers get so used to the break, we tend to forget what a powerful impact it has on narrative. As a comic reader, we "fill in" the time and content of gutters. The trick is, the time element isn't a set thing. We look for clues in the panels that precede and follow the gutter, adjusting our expectations accordingly. We fill in the necessary content in the same way. This expectation that we'll need to fill in huge gaps in the story is part of the reader/writer contract all comic readers make with comic creators and it allows the comic creator a considerable amount of narrative freedom. For example, the lack of dialogue is a striking feature in House, but it doesn't have the same impact that making a silent film or a novel without any dialogue would have. Readers assume these characters are talking and that we're just not hearing it, something akin to the "fill in" we already have to do. It makes the way Simmons withholds info from the reader a subtle game. It's a game Simmons pays well. He purposefully undermines our ability to "read" the gutters, leaving us – like his characters – bewildered and lost. How long have they been trapped? Where are they in relationship to one another? Eventually the negative space of the gutters will grow, leaving characters and actions trapped in disjointed bits of panel – sometimes little more than a spec on a otherwise inky black page.

Before, we've discussed what horror comics can't do. Horror novels have the capacity to depict inner emotional states better and are, at their best, more emotionally immersive. Film can deliver the physical sensation of fright like no other medium does. But comics have a unique ability to combine focus with narrative freedom and that opens up the potential for stories you just couldn't do any other way.

As a little treat, for sitting through all that, below is a page from House.

No comments: