Comic-books are a medium, not a genre; they can tell any story and suit any palate. You want horror? I’ve got bottles of the stuff. Welcome to ‘Splashes of Darkness.’
Hi folks, I’ve recently started a column for the Ginger Nuts Of Horror site, reviewing comics. This is partly to give me an excuse to get back into the medium as a reader, partly because reviewing is good exercise for the old analytical muscles, and partly just because I wanted to give something back to a community that has welcomed me with such open-heartedness.
I’ll be archiving here at The Fine-toothed Comb for easy access in case you miss any of them. There’ll be a separate post for August, September and so on.
Deadbeats has got pep, has real character and is surprisingly refreshing. It’s two parts necromantic nightmare, two parts screwball comedy, a splash of gangster noir and a squeeze of Lovecraft Country. Stir it at midnight, pour over ice and serve in a rough glass tumbler.
It’s all about the hustle. Keep moving, and you just might stay afloat. Hell, you could even have some fun along the way; that’s jazz! When Lester Lane flattens the wrong fella, he has to get out of town in a hurry. He scores a desperate gig for his band – a midnight funeral in the backwoods of Illinois. There’s a particular piece the preacher wants them to play, but there’s just one problem: he can’t read sheet music. Now, caught between an undead sorcerer, a troublesome dame, some relentless revenants and an apocalyptic god-monster, it’s time for the trio to do some serious improvisation.
Chris Lackey, Chad Fifer* and Ian Culbard must have had a ball making Deadbeats. When you come across something as fun and effortless to read as this Mythos-soaked (but wholly original) tale, it’s kind of hard to imagine the creators had to actually work at it – yet the more I look through the pages, the more impressed I am by the talents involved.
Fifer has experience writing for film and television, and those skills were clearly put to use in honing the script with Lackey. It’s an elegant job, weaving backstory, personalities, running jokes and drama through dialogue that never feels less than naturalistic. The patter is an absolute joy, by the way, and it’s a mark its strength to note just how little the writers rely on text boxes for exposition. The plot flings the trio from one crisis to another in seemingly wild abandon, yet the boys bring it home with barely a word wasted.
That economy gives Culbard plenty of space to work his magic – and let me tell you, this man knows how to make the most of his inches.** He uses tricks of scale and perspective to give a real sense of three-dimensionality to the world, packing his panels with incident, detail, and character moments. His visual story-telling flows effortlessly, building pace, tension and some truly great comedic timing. Even his layouts*** are energetic, with panels toppling forwards as though in a hurry to be seen, or overlaying one another to punch out of the page. All in all, it’s pretty damned effective.
I could go on about Deadbeats cinematic potential, the innocent charm of the character design, the missing pants of ‘The Dixie Peach’ and a great many other things, but I’ve taken up enough of your time already. You need to go read this book. It’s a gas!
If you’ve avoided all things Lovecraft because of the old-fashioned stick up his literary arse, if you’ve been put off by his racism, or if you feel like you’ve already squeezed everything you’re going to get from the Mythos – then I respect your position. Deadbeats is a very different kettle of fish, though. It’s down-to-earth, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and it has a hell of a lot of heart in its cadaverous chest. The only racism present lies in the lips and the minds of the villains. They may draw from Lovecraft’s deep, dark well, but Lackey and Fifer leave all of the poison behind. What we get here is sharp, fun, and worth your money. Splash out! You deserve it.
Reading experience: 5/5
* Who, amongst other things, are the genial, insightful and engaging hosts of the long-running HPPodcraft.
** You have a filthy mind. Stop it.
*** Here’s a glossary of comic terminology if you need it.
The Little Sisters of Eluria
The Little Sisters of Eluria is a row of shots in a grimy saloon on a bleak, baking-hot day. Every glass knocked back leaves you gasping for air, eyes wide, lips twisted, but you’ll reach for another. And another. The slugs are cruel, creepy, tense, harrowing, and heartbreaking by turn. They won’t quench your thirst, but there’s an aftertaste on your tongue that might just be hope.
The world has moved on but Roland, last of the legendary Gunslingers, will not be left behind. Badly shaken but dogged, he rides out from the ashes of Gilead seeking the Dark Tower…and vengeance for his fallen friends. He comes now – on a dying nag – to the festering town of Eluria and a deadly trap. The monstrous nuns encamped there hold him in the balance between life and death. Webbed up and gunless, Roland will need to use all of his wits and his courage to escape the bloody embrace of The Little Sisters and resume his quest.
The Dark Tower is Stephen King’s magnum opus – the central spoke around which the wheel of his writing career has spun. For those of you new to the world, it’s a post-apocalyptic melange of spaghetti western, Arthurian legend, brutal horror and a deep, throbbing tragedy.
Marvel began a chronological adaptation of The Dark Tower back in 2007, guided by Robin Furth. Though currently incomplete, it remains a stunning set of books, vividly depicting Mid-World and its denizens in ways that both honour and expand upon King’s magnificent world. The Little Sisters of Eluria began life as an offshoot from the main series, a novella written for the Legends anthology which finds new life and a new audience here, in comic form.
I must begin with the artwork, because it draws me back to this series time and again. That in its self is remarkable because – in reading for pleasure – my tendency is usually to focus on the words, with the images a secondary, swiftly glimpsed bonus. Richard Isanove’s colours are arresting though, bursting with warmth yet using subtle gradations for depth and intensity. His skies are particularly effective, whether lit by sun or moon, and his firelight is dazzling. He is one of the finest exponents I’ve seen in the field of comics.
The fact that he has Luke Ross’ fine penmanship to embellish only ups the ante. This man can draw, and no mistake! He seems equally adept at towering landscapes and the intricacies of the flesh, using a combination of linework and hatching techniques for those ever-important shadow. His Little Sisters manage to be just as terrifying in their looming human forms as their vampiric alter-egos but, perhaps strangely, I found myself most impressed by the fingers he draws. They are elegant and mobile – taloned or otherwise – captured in all sorts of configurations, and it is their physicality which helps to sell the rest of Roland’s living nightmare.
The script on this story arc is by Peter David, perhaps best known for his seminal run on The Incredible Hulk. He captures King’s folksy narrative voice well (d’ya kennit) so it’s an easy slide into Mid-World for the constant reader. Adaptation is a tricky thing to pull off though, particularly when it involves the written word. Strip away too much, and you can lose the authorial tone. Keep too much in, and you can overwhelm the imagery. David manages the balance pretty well throughout, but I felt there were a few occasions in The Little Sisters of Eluria when I’d have preferred to be shown rather than told, trusting the reader to infer Roland’s feelings, keeping the gunslinger inscrutable like his spaghetti-western forebears.
I’ve been a fan of The Dark Tower books since I was a school lad, and I’ve greedily gathered up the complete hardback collection of these comics, delighted at the chance to revisit the world and see it through new eyes. I’ve chosen The Little Sisters of Eluria to discuss today because it’s a corner of King’s creation that you may not have encountered yet. It does have one or two flaws, not least of which is a certain lack of clarity in the ending (Ed. hark at this hypocrite reader who wanted to be trusted in the previous paragraph) but the story stands up on its own.
Reading experience: 4/5
but the series as a whole gets full marks.
I can only pray it’s completed one day…
Cindy and Biscuit
Cindy and Biscuit is a sweet and frothy affair with a surprisingly tart undercurrent which cuts through the blend and stops it from cloying. You’ll knock back a couple without blinking, confident that it won’t affect your judgement. (How could it? It’s kid’s stuff after all.) Pretty soon you’ll find yourself sitting there, grinning like a loon. Ignore those bitter people over there, tutting and shaking their heads. Why shouldn’t you enjoy yourself once in a while, eh? Eh? (Ahem.) Barman? Hit me again…
It’s a weird world out there. Most people are so wrapped up in their dull little lives, they don’t even notice it. Luckily for us, Cindy is keeping watch – ever vigilant – with her faithful hound by her side and a whacking-great stick to hand. It’s not easy being a hero when grown-ups keep hassling you to tidy your room or sit some boring test. Still, if anyone can protect the planet from alien invaders, cryptids, killer robots, haunted dolls and living snowmen, it’s this girl.
Dan White’s Cindy and Biscuit is a freaking delight. There’s no real *overarching story at play, no tragedy haunting our heroine’s past, and no grand destiny. Why would there be? She’s not some ‘chosen one’, she’s just a regular, energetic little kid, trying to get by. Cindy can’t help it if the world is full of interesting things. Why do people have to make such a fuss about where she is at night, or why she’s got all those cuts and bruises on her legs, or how her clothes got covered in all that ick? I mean, come on!
Children internalise expectations from a very early age, so I bought this collection for my daughter as an antidote to all the schmaltz, gender stereotypes and commodification pumped into her through pop culture. I wanted her to see that girls could be inquisitive and adventurous, silly and fierce, as well as all the usual loving, kind, nurturing stuff. I wanted my child to grow up braver than me, for her to develop an indomitable spirit and a sense of wonder – and praise be, that’s **exactly what’s happened.
The art in We Love Trouble is all monochrome – ink lines, stippling – but I note that the two follow-up volumes both use full-colour artwork, which will add that extra hug of warmth to Dan White’s wonderful world. The character design is simple but effective – one of those you could recognise by silhouette. The lack of pupils in the eyes is disconcerting at first, ***but White gets away without them, bringing Cindy vividly to life with his use of posture and expressive faces.
As you can see, Cindy is hella-cute, but one of the things I love about this comic is the way White contrasts quiet moments of pure innocence – such as sitting side by side with a yeti – with kinetic action and scenes that imply astonishing violence. It’s cartoon-like in its extremity, provoking laughter rather than horror, but there are some fascinating layers hinting at the core of her psyche – her classmates think she’s an oddball, for instance, excluding her on a school trip; she dreams of throwing a rock at planet Earth, blowing it all up with a smile; she endures the screaming skull in her room, because it’ll only be gone by the time mum arrives anyway.
There are also one or two scenes which are pretty creepy: the boy with half a face who warns her to keep away from the pond is one. The broken (absolutely-not-a-)Transformer in the junkyard is another. With the expression on its face, I’m surprised the freaky mermaid didn’t give my nipper nightmares, but then the horror on display is generally kept low-key. Its closest analogue would be the adventures of Calvin and Hobbes, where boundaries are crossed but there’s never any real danger. All it takes for Cindy to win through is a bit of bravery, an open heart, and a ruddy big stick when it’s called for.
So why the kid’s stuff on here? This is supposed to be a serious horror website, right?
Nah. Horror belongs to everybody. Chances are, you were a nipper when you first found something to love within an object of fear. That’s a gift that keeps on giving. We all get something different from the genre, but one of its most powerful aspects is to remind us that fear alone can’t stop us. Mustn’t stop us. There may be monsters out there, but they can be fought – and they should be.
Not a bad lesson to pass on.
Reading experience: 4/5
* Or at least, no evidence of one in this first volume.
** Of course, I can’t credit Cindy and Biscuit with that entirely, but I reckon they played their part.
*** The mouse-like nose and pointy ears? Yeah, I don’t know. We may learn more about her in later volumes. I’m not sure it matters, though. She may not strictly be human, but it’s easy to think of her as one of us.
White Knuckle is a murky cocktail brought over by a grinning bar shark at a stag do who fucking dares you you down it. They won’t tell you what’s in there, but it looks septic somehow. There are milky lumps floating about in it; swirls of brown and yellow turn your stomach. You feel unclean just looking at it but – well – you came here to drink, after all. Try not to choke on it.
White Knuckle is a complex psychological thriller, reframing the ‘retired gunslinger’ motif into a modern tale of violent drives, degeneration and damnation. Forty years ago, the Gripper was a man to be feared – a serial strangler with a string of victims. Now nearly seventy, Seth Rigal lives on the verge of poverty, waiting for the death he knows he deserves. Tortured and confused, he finds himself stalking the daughter of his final victim – only to find himself rescuing her son. The last thing he needs is attention, but when a local reporter gets him in his sights, Seth loses his grip entirely.
Cy Dethan is a fucking genius. I hate him. The sympathetic monster is not a new trope, but *rarely have I seen it handled so deftly, nor with such emotional force. The key lies, I think, in Rigal’s vulnerability. He’s a man haunted by the darkness inside, weakened by age and infirmity, caught up in events he has no control over. That helplessness elicits our empathy despite ourselves, with a copy-cat killer adding further contrast to the Gripper of old and the broken soul that’s left before us.
The heart of the story is Michelle Brooks – last living remnant of Seth’s murderous past. She is damaged by trauma, struggling to live a normal life, but her ex-husband is a piece of shit. The simple light she brings to the comic – and to Seth’s life – is wonderful and painful to behold because we know it cannot last. Her hesitant attempts to form a human connection with Rigal make redemption feel tantalisingy possible and damnation almost inevitable, whichever way the chips fall.
I was not an instant fan of Valia Kapadai’s art, but my appreciation has grown with each reading. There’s a rough, sketchy quality to the lines, and the colouring is watery – washes of drab and greasy tones that make your fingers feel dirty. The more we crawl inside Dethan’s story though, the more appropriate this creative partnership seems. Both writer and artist have a deep interest in small, telling details that help to round out a real, fallible human being, whether it be the self-delusion of Michelle’s husband, or the gleam in her kid’s eyes as he describes his own grandmother’s murder.
Kapadai’s art well evokes the killer’s bleak despair; his face is so sad, his lank hair, sunken shoulders and hunched posture so pathetic; the action scenes are filled with angry scratches and fierce glares – all pulling us inexorably into his mindscape. Kapadai reserves her most startling images and the brightest colours for the ghosts of the past: the hallucinations and hauntings that intrude upon Seth, begging for release or cursing his name, and the psychedelic excesses of the ‘Laser Crypt’ where Rigal loses all sense of reality. It’s powerful stuff, well used, and helps to differentiate the psychological layers for the reader in a way that feels quite natural.
This is an absolute killer. It’s a tough read, no doubt – dark, brutal, emotionally tangled and surprisingly painful by the end – but it’s well worth your time
Written by Cy Dethan
Illustrated by Valia Kapadai
Lettered by Nic Wilkinson
Published by Markosia
Reading experience 5/5