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 and August’s but I got caught up in other things. Apologies for the delay. Here we are now with the books I reviewed in September: Judge Anderson: Satan, The Hartlepool Monkey, and Powers Fearful and Divine. A short month, but let’s get into them.
Judge Anderson: Satan
The Hamlyn edition of Satan that I own pairs the main story with an earlier short called The Jesus Syndrome. It’s a slender tale with a lot of heft, in which the Chief Judge outlaws Christianity – a minority religion in this world of the future. The writer (Alan Grant) uses this as a lens through which to examine the morality of the Judges system, pitting Anderson against the thuggish Judge Goon, bringing her inner conflicts to a head, and sending her off on her own path. Satan, set several years later, brings Anderson back to Megacity One to be assessed for fitness by Judge Dredd. During this time, an asteroid crashes to Earth, unleashing the long-imprisoned Lucifer. Only one woman has the skills, insight and experience to confront the devil.
Judge Anderson’s a long, cool, meditative drink, cwtched up in a shady spot on the hottest, most wretched day of the year. The city may be stinking, noisy, fractious and intense, but there’s refuge to be had here. Satan is a surprising but well-balanced addition to the mix. Dangerous, tantalising, intoxicating. He’s the stranger who catches your eye at the bar, the off-hand comment that snags your interest and – were it not for watchful friends – the nightmare you’d be praying to wake from.
Thoughts on the comic:
Of all the characters I’ve come across in 2000AD, Cassandra Anderson undergoes the biggest internal journey. She is the pure soul trying to stay sane, moral and whole in a dystopian state run by fascists, trying to change the system from within. Anderson sunk her nails in deep when I was at an impressionable *age, for all the wrong reasons. Halo Jones was mine, but Judge Anderson belonged to my brother so, naturally, I grew jealous. Where Halo was an ingénue, trying to find her place in her world, Judge Anderson came fully-formed. She was a psychic cop, dealing with supernatural threats – tough as nails when she had to be, but sensitive and kind when it mattered. And in the brutal world of 2000AD, it mattered a lot. Back then, I wanted her (ahem… her book) more than anything else in the world.
Satan came along **much later. In terms of narrative and sheer artistry, it displayed a maturity that far outstripped its contemporaries at DC and Marvel, and gave me a whole new appreciation of what the medium could do. I’m not religious now, nor was I then, but the questions raised in this book surpassed theology to plumb the depths of humanity. It’s a thoughtful read, carefully paced to give the reader time to ponder the imponderables. They get to the heart of what it means to be righteous and flawed, what it means to make a choice and take responsibility for your actions.
Any hormone-driven fantasies I’d previously entertained were cast aside through raw appreciation of the heart and soul Grant gave this extraordinary character and the philosophical narrative he wove around her.
Arthur Ranson’s artwork plays a huge part of that too, bringing subtlety of expression, cultural diversity, and a full emotional range to the inhabitants of Megacity One. The story may be relatively low on action but it remains an apocalyptic event – both literally and figuratively. As such, he draws it big, wielding his fine-liners fearlessly to create some truly epic and astonishing imagery, crammed with sumptuous detail. I have never been more taken in by the sketched sense of ‘multitudes’ – whether in the revivalist crowds of John Baptiste, the rotting bodies littering Lucifer’s history, or the extraordinary page of reaction portraits Ranson uses as Icarus comes crashing to Earth.
This style, melded with Grant’s deeply introspective script, creates a deeply familiar world – for all its SF trappings – full of downtrodden masses and callous bullies, fear and love, honour and hypocrisy, etched on the faces of those around us.
Satan himself must have been quite the challenge to both Grant and Ranson. Encapsulating the ultimate religious evil as a credible being, a vast supernatural threat, and yet still something that can be ultimately defeated (spoilers be damned) is a tough act to pull off. I mean, if nukes don’t cut it, does Cass really stand a snowball’s chance? I was blown away by it. This is Milton’s Satan in many ways – beautiful, charming, innocent and defiant – but taken to the far edge of his existence and beginning to crack. The character design is deliberately statuesque, marble made flesh, standing 120 feet tall; overwhelming in every way.
It shouldn’t work, conceptually or narratively, and yet for me, the creators nail it, thematically, spiritually, and emotionally.
The dénouement did feel a little precipitous first time round – having had all that build-up – and we get precious little sense of the effect Satan has on Anderson, the Judges, or the world at large. (In the timeframe of this story, at least.) However, subsequent readings have given me more appreciation of the inner tale, told from Satan’s perspective: his rambling reminiscences, all his insecurities and uncertainties layered in from the start. It’s good stuff: unexpected and powerful. I don’t know if mankind’s origins and destiny are delved into any ***further by the team at 2000AD or whether this is something of an aberration in their universe, but I’d certainly be interested to find out.
Like many of these long-running series, there are various jumping-on points which crop up for newbies and, checking the online stores, I see there are currently 5 chunky collected editions of Anderson stories available, both digitally and in paperback.
Hmmm. I might…just…add some to my basket and… oops.
Written by Alan Grant
Illustrated by Arthur Ranson
Lettered by Annie Parkhouse/Steve Potter
Published by 2000AD
The Hartlepool Monkey
A Nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and by common hatred of its neighbours. – Dean William Ralph Inge
1814, off the Durham coast, near the little village of Hartlepool, a warship in the Napoleonic fleet founders during a storm and sinks. At daybreak, amid the flotsam on the beach, fishermen discover a survivor: a monkey dressed in full military regalia, the mascot of the shipwrecked French vessel. The good people of Hartlepool despise all Frenchmen, though they have never seen one in the flesh, nor have they ever seen a monkey. But this brutish, bestial castaway tallies with the vague impression they have of the enemy, and this alone is enough for it to be court martialled. This is a tragic-comic fable of war and jingoism, of xenophobia and ignorance, and the glimmering of enlightenment.
The Hartlepool Monkey is a fruit punchbowl, innocently sat out at the pub barbecue amongst the squashes and pop on the kids’ table. There’s something different about it, though: something…off about the colour. Most of the children who drink from it are giggling, but others seem changed somehow. A little more thoughtful, perhaps; a little blue. Wait a minute. Is this on the right table? Has some scamp slipped a little something extra into it, maybe? Cautiously, you take a sip…
Thoughts on the comic:
There are people with certain attitudes, events that unfold around us almost daily, where you almost have to laugh or you’d cry: where tragedy cleaves so close to comedy they become all but indistinguishable. Wilfrid Lupano and Jérémie Moreau stride that tightrope over despair’s abyss with supreme confidence in their humorous retelling of The Hartlepool Monkey. Factual details are sparse, but the legend goes that the people of Hartlepool once hanged a monkey, believing it to be a French spy. Upon this slender thread of history the creative team build a multi-layered masterpiece that explores the mechanics of nationalism, the horror of mob mentality, and what hopes we may have for a civilised future.
The Hartlepool Monkey is that rarest of beasts, a truly all-ages comic. I found it enjoyable to read on every level and was quietly delighted by what it had to say. It is a mischievous book, energetic and troublesome. It may appear to be poking fun at British stupidity but, despite its Gallic provenance, the project remains even-handed throughout. As the writer stated in an interview with Forbidden Planet, he just wanted to write a satire about extreme nationalist behaviours from the point of view of the ordinary people. It could have happened in France with an English monkey, (as far as a monkey can have a nationality).
The story demonstrates how easy it is to hate someone you’ve never seen before, and about whom you hardly know anything. The imagery reflects this intent beautifully with its cast of grotesques leaping straight from the pages of Punch. It’s beautifully hideous stuff, full of flying spittle and the vinegar of irony.
What impressed me the most is the manner in which the legend is brought to life. Forget exposition, thought bubbles and narrative captions; these are master tale-spinners at work. It reads more like a slice of life than a history lesson, using everyday language and familiar behaviours. We simply have to accept what is placed before us, building up an understanding of events from the action and conversations as they unfold. Lupano gives us two sets of characters to follow: the adults, egging each other on with jingoistic fears, and the children, caught up in the thrill of events yet unable to fully comprehend them.
Who were these ordinary people though, what could have led them to be so appallingly stupid? Crucially, are we really so far removed from them?
While the children fall into natural new friendships with the strangers in their midst, the grown-ups become ever more hysterical in the build-up to the farcical lynching. Lupano handles the dual narratives effortlessly, using the generation gap to reveal the adults hypocrisy and demonstrate how thoughtlessly we foist follies upon our offspring. There is something of the danse macabre in the book, structurally and thematically speaking. Each step is simple and easy to follow, yet together they form a complex pattern which is at once light-hearted in tone and grimly inevitable in its direction.
Moreau’s artwork feels to me like a mongrel blend of Quentin Blake and Raymond Briggs – adorably warped, scratchy, warm and chock full of nervous energy. Everybody is plug ugly, with the exception of Philip, Melody and Charlie – the children who offer us the greatest hope for the future with their thoughtful intelligence and warmth – and this is surely no coincidence. Neither is the fact that so many of the Hartlepuddlian rabble-rousers look distinctly simian themselves, skewering them with their own prejudices. Who are the real beasts? The fact that the monkey had been dressed in a French uniform, and has been trained to march like a soldier for the amusement of its Captain, only adds to the pitch-black hilarity.
The art here bear a greater weight of the story-telling than I am used to in my comic-reading experience (though this is far from a silent book), and this collaborative method works tremendously well. In some instances action scenes are unveiled in a manner that lets you engage more, filling in the deafening storm or artful oration with your own imaginations; silence is also used to help the reader see things from the perspective of the innocent monkey, to whom speech is a meaningless abstraction; while yet other panels are simply there to help pace out the narrative, set a scene or evoke a certain mood.
The rounded-off panels and slightly chaotic layouts subtly defy the hard-edged strictures of the medium and help develop the fundamental theme that the barriers we surround ourselves with are artificial, preventing us from seeing the real world—though I may well be spiralling up my own arse here. The point is, the creators know what they’re doing, they are working collaboratively towards that aim, and they’re bloody good at their jobs.
It is a genuine pleasure to read, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Now, I mentioned Raymond Briggs back there and I just want to take a moment to compare The Hartlepool Monkey to one of his finest. When The Wind Blows had a similar remit of tackling monstrous truths through satirical horror, humour and the perspective of everyday people. It was hugely important in its day for stirring public debate about nuclear weapons across the generations, and it still resonates powerfully with its readers today. However, to my mind The Hartlepool Monkey is a far more accessible work.
It talks about big subjects but it does so in a way that everyday people can really get to grips with. It scales Nationalism down to simple tribalism: whether it be denigrating the French, looking down on the nearest town down the coast, or making the new kid play ‘the Frenchies’ just because he’s not from around here. It has a simplicity of language, a broadness of applicability and, more importantly, contains a diverse cast of recognisable people with different opinions.
Where Wind bombards you with information, Monkey gives you an example; where Wind scares you, Monkey makes you angry, makes you want to shake people out of the dark ages and embrace the future—ever more applicable in these days of hard-right populist governance, Brexit, and the so-called War on Terror, where hate-mongers constantly try to scare us into shunning the outsider.
If you are trying to find new ways to engage your class at school, spark interesting discussions with your family, or just want a damn good read, then The Hartlepool Monkey should be top of your list.
Written by Wilfrid Lupano
Illustrated by Jérémie Moreau
Published by Knockabout Comics
Available via eBay
Review originally written for Geek Syndicate.
Powers Fearful and Divine – Kickstarter
Harry Houdini is more than an escapologist; he’s a champion of the scientific method, dedicated to unmasking charlatans. Unbeknownst to history, he is also an agent of the Secret Service. It’s 1925, and Harry’s brought in for questioning, suspected of being a traitor. It seems he sent Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out to Ingolstadt, where he has found something so dangerous, so earth-shattering, it imperils the age of reason: a so-called Messiah weapon. In order to prove his innocence – and to save the world from a new global conflict – Houdini must team up with technological genius Nikola Tesla, and H.P. Lovecraft, a writer who claims to have certain esoteric knowledge appertaining to the case.
Okay, that’s the last of ’em gone. Time for a lock-in. I’ve got something new out back for you to try… Here we are, take a sniff of this. We’re calling it ‘Powers Fearful and Divine.’ Yeah, I know; gives it a whole gothic horror vibe. Now look, strictly speaking this isn’t for public consumption – at least not yet – but you know what it’s like. When you get hold of some shizz with a fair bit of fizz, it’s…kind of hard to keep the cork in. Flavour-wise, think Hellboy for tone, Indiana Jones for setting, and Avengers of…all varieties, somehow. It’s a heady mix of alternate history, playful pulp and perfidious plots.
Thoughts on the comic:
Powers Fearful and Divine is a Kickstarter project from Blue Fox Comics, created by *Cy Dethan, one of my favourite comic writers. I’ve just had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of the first issue, so I thought I’d share some thoughts.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room first: despite one or two superficial similarities, this is not some twisted variant of **The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The games Dethan plays here are philosophical rather than pop-cultural. In his own words, Powers Divine and Fearful is ‘effectively a “retrospeculation” – playing “what if…?” with the tides of history. The interconnected lives of these people, and the ways their relationships and beliefs intersected and conflicted, are far more fantastical than the (comparitively modest) injection of Victor Frankenstein into the mix. In terms of its theme, we’re dealing with a very real “culture war” between the forces of rationalism and spiritualism, wrestling over the soul of the 20th century.’
The artwork by RHStewart reminds me of some of the European comics I used to read and review, with their muted tones, realist figurework, and love of the urban longshots. Time, place and tone are nicely captured without going overboard; where some Euro comics tend to excessive detail, Stewart gives us the gist, allowing colour blocks, shadow and the readers’ imagination fill out the rest. The layouts are quite busy, but they flow pretty well, drawing the eye for full impact. Less successful are the speech bubbles which are a little domineering and occasionally confusing in their order. Of course, this is a preview and such elements will be tweaked as the Kickstarter progresses. Don’t let it put you off because the story is a cracker.
Dethan’s take on Houdini is a peach, captured beautifully by Stewart’s inks. Harry is, first and foremost, a showman – devastatingly effective, cheeky, and fun. He’s a man both outrageous to behold and full of his own rightious fury – a rationalist driven to understand how things work, who is dedicated to his cause and diligent in his investigations. I suspect these will help to develop him into something of a detective as the tale proceeds, which could be very interesting given his opponent – the creator of Sherlock Holmes. I guess we’ll have to see.
Tesla is a delight. I’m not sure yet whether he’ll be fulfilling the Q role to Houdini’s Bond, or if he’s going along for the ride. Either way, I’m always happy to see him rescued from Edison’s over-publicised shadow. His super-science should provide us with a lot of fun. Lovecraft is a tougher one to call, being the least active character on display. Given his obsessions, I found it odd in some ways that he’s placed on the side of the rationalists, but Dethan is no shmo. In his words, Lovecraft’s ‘…personal horror at the concept of a universe indifferent to human existence stemmed inescapably from his own atheism.’ Interesting stuff. I’m suspect he’ll have a part to play – for better or for worse – in bridging the two sides of this conflict. He may even stop Tesla disintegrating sheep. Who knows…?
That’s about it for now. The Kickstarter has just begun, so help Cy and his team get their project off the ground by backing it today. (I’ve already done so.) Now, hurry up, folks. I can’t wait to see how all this plays out.
* Forgive my returning to him so soon. I’d already submitted the [White Knuckle] review when I found out about this project – and timing is everything when it comes to crowd-funding.
** The awesome, intricate, meta-cultural comic by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, rather than the crappy film adaptation.
Written by Cy Dethan
Illustrated by RHStewart
Lettered by Nic Wilkinson
Published by Blue Fox Comics
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