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.’
I’m archiving my Splashes of Darkness posts for Ginger Nuts of Horror here at The Fine-toothed Comb as well, for easy access in case you miss any of them. I already covered July’s, August’s and September’s editions, but then got caught up in other things. Apologies for the delay. Here we are now with the books I reviewed in October – A Cordial Invitation, Wrinkles, and Who on Earth was Thaddeus Mist? A short month once more then, but let’s get into them.
A Cordial Invitation
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1929. Luisa and her dad are driving home on a dark lonely highway in their beat-up old truck when they get into trouble. There’s a vast house up there on the hill, though. Luisa just needs to wait while her dad goes to get help. A full hour passes and he still hasn’t returned, so the thirteen-year-old grabs a torch, sucks up her courage and goes looking for him. She finds a glitzy party up there, full of nightmarish revellers, an annual entertainment of horrific significance, and a window into a world far larger, far scarier than she ever could have imagined.
I admit the name ‘A Cordial Invitation’ brings up images of politesse, a flat and flavourless splash sipped in lieu of something more intoxicating. Don’t be fooled. There’s something dark and unnerving in this short cocktail, swirling around two cubes of spine-chilling ice. The blend has been subtly concocted to shift your perceptions and let you glimpse the truth through this heavy crystal tumbler: the real faces of the people around you. Chin-chin. Keep smiling. Don’t make any sudden moves.
Here’s your invitation. Come and join her…
Thoughts on the comic:
There’s a delightful pot-luck sensation to be found when you reach into the reviews bag, particularly when it comes to the indie scene. The lack of gate-keepers ups the risk of rubbish, naturally, but the thrill of discovery when you find a gem makes it all worthwhile—and let me tell you, there are some incredible talents out there. A Cordial Invitation is a real pearl, and you can read the first half for free. The comic dropped into my in-box a while back and I knew nothing about it or its creator, Adam Szym. I like to go into these things cold, and let them just speak to me.
The artwork is monochromatic, stark and sharply delineated. The opening is silent, a series of images that speak of isolation and perspective, the pacing slow and deliberate. There’s an atmosphere set up from the get-go that places the reader firmly into the mindset of being a child, lost and alone, facing the dark and uncertainty. And, subtly, there’s a sense of being watched. I wasn’t sure about the look of Luisa at first – there’s something off about her proportions – but I was hooked psychologically.
The cross-cuts to the party guests blathering away, taken from a child’s height, carefully omitting the heads, reminded me of Peanuts but in an ominous way. This is a world of adults and Luisa does not belong here. That perspective is only heightened by the scale of the building, its relative emptiness and the endless rooms and stairways. One of the benefits of reading digitally is being able to zoom in on the images to really take it all in, but when one considers the actual scale of the panels, a sudden appreciation strike for the close nature of the work, the tiny details scratched in to present this vision of overwhelming size.
I have to take my hat off to the dude.
The first reveal, when it comes, is startling, and sets the tone for the rest of the comic. Adulthood is not demonised itself (we see Luisa’s father as a true, honest and loving man) but the adults of this monied class – subject to their own self-importance, prey to their own whims and predilections – seem part of a truly alien world. The horror comes, not from these differences, but from the touches of familiarity behind their masks: ephemeral moments of empathy, the behaviour of their children in the playroom, the small talk and idioms of paternalism guiding all with a broad smile and a firm hand. These are people, definitively, but they are not like us and we are entirely disposable as far as they are concerned.
I will not spoil the plot any further, nor will I discuss what I think is ‘really’ happening here. Not in this review, at any rate. If you want to hit me up in the DMs on social media though, I’d be happy to give my two cents, and listen to yours. It’s not a perfect comic. There’s an issue with dates that caught my editorial eye, the aforementioned people proportions which, while at least consistent, kept jarring me, and a slight stiltedness to the flow in some sections which draws attention to the panel-work instead of giving the illusion of sweeping action. But these criticisms are small potatoes. I think it’s a cracking read, and if anything the book becomes stronger on the second read-through as your understanding expands.
Highly recommended. As it turns out, it was nominated for the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Comic 2021, so there’s additional cred for you.
Written and illustrated by Adam Szymczak
I have, over time, become increasingly interested in European comics. This has been largely through my discovery of the Cinebook translations, though other suppliers have broadened my horizons. The most admirable and intoxicating books I have come across so far have been Peter Pan and The Hartlepool Monkey (Follow those links if you missed my reviews). I’ll add Wrinkles to this list of what-are-you-waiting-fors with a hearty kick up your booty.
This slice-of-life story has not only deepened my appreciation of the European sequential art scene, but of the comics medium as a whole.
Here’s something a little different for you; I know you like to try different flavours. This is bittersweet, one of those concoctions that seems to change as you sip it, hitting the palate in odd ways and taking you by surprise. You don’t want to knock it back in one go. Give it time to play on your tongue. There’s liberation to be found at the bottom of this glass, and a lot to mull over on the way. I think you’ll like it but I’ve seen a lot of folk sobbing into their glasses too.
Thoughts on the comic:
Wrinkles takes us into the lives of Ernest, a retired bank manager – who finds himself placed in a home for the elderly – and Émile, a roguish resident who takes Ernest under his wing. The book is essentially a collection of personal stories and anecdotes from both residents and staff at care homes, woven into a tragi-comic tapestry by the talented Spanish artist, Paco Roca.
His visual style is clean and appealing to the eye, blending simple line-work and blocks of warm colour with subtle shadows and a keen eye for characterful detail. Émile’s story reminds us that every OAP was a young person once, full of love and life, yet tricked by time. Ernest’s journey is somewhat different, but it breeds compassion and consideration in the hardest of hearts.
You might think that life in a care home would offer little in the way of interest to either residents or reader; we imagine endless monotony, but Roca never lets our attention wander. He engages our sympathies and understanding of each person through natural dialogue (rather than exposition) and the marvellous trick of depicting the residents’ inner worlds when we see events from their perspectives. It should be confusing to the senses but Roca’s narrative carries it through as though it were the most natural form of storytelling in the world.
For some readers, the trials and tribulations of the characters will be all too familiar. Alzheimer’s is a brutal disease, affecting more and more people both directly and indirectly. I would suggest that their burdens could be lightened by sharing Wrinkles with others, using it as a jumping-off point to start talking about their own experiences. For others, the truths inside these covers will be hard to handle. People don’t like talking about old age because it is scary, humiliating and inevitable. I found the book profoundly disquieting, as must surely be the intention, yet the rays of humour and hope which light up the book shine all the brighter by contrast.
Wrinkles is not meant to be a lecture or lesson and, thankfully, it never feels so heavy-handed; it is merely a window into a world we prefer not to see. It will make you laugh, it will make you angry and if you’re anything like me, you will probably shed a tear or two. There is a real love and generosity of spirit worked incrementally into the pages, like dust. It may be hard to see at times but your fingers pick it up with each turn of the page and, as you wipe your tears, it changes you. By the end you will see the world with new eyes. It is old, it is beautiful, and it matters a great deal.
Do yourself a favour and seek it out. (10 copies on eBay currently.)
* Oh, and by the way, there was a Spanish-made animation of Wrinkles made back in 2011 by the way. The US dub stars Martin Sheen and Matthew Modine. It’s available at Amazon, but I stuck two fingers up at them and snagged the blu-ray from CEX. Half as much, baby!
Written and illustrated by Paco Roca
Translated into English by Nora Goldberg
Published by Knockabout Comics
This review was originally posted on Geek Syndicate, along with one or two other Splashes. (Life is pretty busy right now.) Many thanks to the boys for letting me spruce it up and republish here.
Who on Earth was Thaddeus Mist?
Thaddeus Mist is truly a name to conjure with, redolent with authority and an atmosphere of mystery. Independent publisher Accent UK have outdone themselves with this anthology of stories, spinning a web of intrigue across a multitude of written and artistic styles to tackle the deceptively simple question posed by the title. As his friends and relations come together for his funeral, we begin to hear bizarre tales of the man, revealing him to be something of an adventurer: a stage magician; detective; lover; artist; and wild raconteur. Pulled together, they form a tapestry of contradictions and skewed perspectives, full of anger, horror and rose-tinted grief. Griselda Mist is determined at last to understand the enigma that was her husband. The truth lurks there, somewhere between memory and perception, outrage and deception. She will hunt it out.
You won’t find this kind of thing in a regular bar, nor written up in some Buzzfeed article on trending cocktails. It’s more of an artisanal thing. You either know it or you miss out. Fortunately for you, I know people in the know. Don’t be shy now; I haven’t let you down yet, have I? It’s a fine blend. Just takes a little time to get used to, is all. The base is gothic romance, and there are undertones of pulp adventure, murder mystery, some strains of raw horror and…well…something quite poetic. Different folks get different kinds of kicks from it, but it all comes together just beautifully. Here, take a snifter.
Thoughts on the comic:
I wasn’t, I confess, particularly attracted by the cover of this book. It seemed altogether too darksome and difficult to decipher. When first flicking through the pages, I found the mish-mash of artistic styles jarring, and the monochromatic inks a bit of a depressing sight. Ordinarily, I would not have looked further, but the man who pressed it into my hands is a salesman born. His name is Conor Boyle, and I’ve been acquainted with him for a few years now. He’s a shrewd fellow, with a strong sense of artistic integrity and a passion for the tale well-told. Essentially, I bought the book on trust, and I am very glad that I did.
Conor’s artwork bookends the volume but also wends its way between the tales, tying the project together. The narrative it illustrates represents the here-and-now of Mist’s funeral and the wake – introducing the various characters, teasing out the threads and (upon occasion) interrupting the stories to comment upon them. There is something of Agatha Christie in the set-up: near strangers brought together by a death and a mystery – but the tone is gothic, more akin to The Cat and the Canary. The ever-astonishing writer, Owen Michael Johnson (Raygun Roads), does an exquisite job laying out the key characters, planting exposition in their dialogue with the panache of a stage magician. You’ll find yourself referring back to the early scenes again and again as each new tale unfolds and fresh puzzle pieces are revealed.
The first tale is that of the young widow, Griselda Mist. It is integral to driving the plot of the volume as a whole, and gives us the heart of her pain. Through it, we come to care deeply for the woman and her need for closure. Boyle’s art is primarily line-work with black or white spaces used to give a sense of shadow and space. He is economical, with some panels seeming almost unfinished, yet he still manages to capture the complexity of Victorian design and decoration. His layouts are the most free of the artists within the volume, sprawling across pages to overwhelming our senses, just as Griselda herself is overwhelmed. While her memories swirl, so to do images, blending together in montage and mystery.
We follow her and, as she fulfils her hostly duty – passing from guest to guest – a new writer takes over, along with a new artist to illustrate their tale. It is part anthology, part ongoing drama, and a fascinating way to construct a project. I doubt any mainstream publisher out there would have the balls to try the same. Independents have to take chances though, and make the most of their resources. This method has allowed Accent to spread the workload across a far wider pool of creative talent – each of whom most likely hold down a full-time job elsewhere, and so have limited time to spare – but it also gives us readers the with truly separate perspectives (visually and tonally) for each story.
Each life that Thaddeus has touched, he did in a different way, and the artistic approaches mirror the tone of each script beautifully. The breakneck pulp thrills of Thaddeus Mist And The Drums Of A’Kra, for instance, are drawn is a slightly cartoonish style, boxed by sketchy panels and unfolding in a cinematic fashion. Oils, by contrast, is intensely emotional and oblique, blending angular fashion design sensibilities with impressionistic close-ups. As you may have gathered, the type of story changes from person to person as well. We have a detective story, a romance to whisk us away, a penny dreadful here, a pastoral tale there—it makes for an incredibly dense book, filled with rich layers that each deserve your time.
Unfortunately, that makes it difficult to take everything in one sitting. The schlocky stories which make up the first half of the book are the most enjoyable to read, in terms of mystery and dark delight, but my personal favourites are probably Grey Britain and The Butterfly – both sentimental, uplifting and beautiful stories that nevertheless manage to remain faithful to all we have seen before. The Butterfly contains particularly effective artwork, evoking intimacy, horror and the rural idyll with equal delicacy. Old Wounds, meanwhile, has one of the most chilling images in the book, but is also filled with some of the sketchiest. A Modest Proposal balances the two sides of the anthology neatly, with its hideous conceit and an underlying streak of sentiment. It stands out for me as perhaps the most memorable of the narratives, though not the most original.
Overall impressions, then. I think this book is a grower. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes a bit of attention. I really didn’t think I was going to like it when I began my read. I had preconceptions about the production values and the artwork, and I felt more obliged than excited at the prospect of digging into it. The more I read though, the more I was drawn to Thaddeus and his world. Mist comes from the Byronic mould – full of brooding intensity, blinding charisma and a passion for life in all shades and textures. He strides across the book like a colossus and you cannot help but marvel at him, or the mysteries that surround the man.
Each time I read it, I am awed by the format, the gumption involved in pulling such a thing together, and the sheer artistry with which the team forges a whole, complex, believable human being from such a diverse collection of tales. Oddly, joy comes as much from the questions asked as any answers received—but don’t worry, it wraps it all up perfectly. As is well recorded, the illusionist’s art is in making the mundane appear impossibly dramatic. This shared-world anthology takes things a step farther when it finally gives up its answer to the original question. Not perhaps the answer we imagined, but one that is far more emotionally satisfying, uplifting and inspirational than any magic trick could provide.
The whole team should take a bow.
Writers / Artists
David West / Steve Howard
Mark Douglas / MD Penman
Jim Schwitzer / Rhys L Reed
Marleen Lowe R.I.P.
Published by Accent UK
Out of print, but second-hand copies are available.
Maybe bug the publishers for a reprint? Or a digital version?
This review was originally featured at Geek Syndicate. It has been revisited and polished up for GNOH. Many thanks to Barry once more for letting me bring it across to share with you all.
If you are interested in reading more of my Personal reflections on life, I produce something new on the first week of every month.
I post Reviews on the second week of each month, covering games, books, comics, or tv.
The third week is reserved for Business-related posts. Sometimes it’s my business journey, other times it’s professional thoughts and observations.
The fourth week of each month is for Hobbies. 2021 was entirely taken up by Audio productions. There’re one or two more of those to come, and then I’m switching things up. Keep your eyes peeled.