Scott Snyder and Jock’s Wytches: How Comics Can Be Scary

November 19, 2014

Wytches #2

Writer: Scott Snyder

Artist: Jock

Image comics

 

(a few spoilers below)

I  love horror, I love comics, but when the two are combined I am often left wanting. Horror films use music to manipulate our emotions and anxiety, and the camera lens controls our passive gaze so that we literally don’t know what’s coming next. Horror prose uses language, or the lack thereof, to pit us against unimaginable monsters. By playing with point of view, authors can put us inside the heads of victims, or worse, killers. But comics? maybe I’m cynical, or maybe I can’t quite suspend disbelief when it comes to this particular combination of genre and form, or maybe it’s just that drawings of monsters aren’t that scary.

Yet somehow, sometimes, they are. A lot of those times it’s when Scott Snyder is writing them, though in the case of Wytches, series artist jock shares a lot of the credit.

When horror comics are effective, and by effective I mean terrifying, it’s because the creators have control of two things: pacing and anticipation.

Unlike in the movies, it’s a mistake for a horror comic to put too much emphasis on the “big reveal” because, unlike in the movies, a comic book reveal doesn’t happen in that split second, instead we stare and analyze and critique. As soon as we become active readers and not passive viewers, we control the experience and the monster loses its vitality.

Comics don’t have moments, they have the space between them. Snyder and Jock exploit the hell out of that space in Wytches #2.

wytches1

In this sequence, the evil lurking in the woods begins to bubble up from the background (quite literally in this case) into the life of our protagonist, Sailor. The tension between Sailor and the perceived threat rises, one panel at a time. Jock’s choice of stacked horizontal panels is also important. Panels placed side by side are great for kinetic action and conversations, but they encourage the eye to wander. When reading directly from top to bottom, however, our attention is drawn to the spaces that bridge the moments. Then, with an intrusive splash, the tension breaks, our payoff is denied, and on the next page Snyder takes us somewhere else completely. But that unresolved tension? We can’t let go of it, it follows us through the book and occasionally resurfaces, like in this scene with Sailor’s mother:

wytches2

Again the horizontal panels are used to great effect, albeit in a slightly different manner. Even though context and the setting are much different on this page, we get the sense that the same unresolved tension has returned, and that the this threat is related to the earlier one. This time the tension never breaks, but it doesn’t resolve either and, consequently, our unease rises. Again, the setting shifts drastically on the next page.

Even when this tension feels like it MUST be coming to a head, as in the scene below, Jock and Snyder make us fret it out for a few more pages.

wytches3

So how does the tension pay off?

It wouldn’t really be any fun if I told you now, would it?


Kim Boekbinder’s New Kickstarter Is Her Most Interesting Project Yet

November 18, 2014

Kim Boekbinder has been known to make creative use of Kickstarter, financing several albums and at least two full tours through the platform. Now she’s back at it with her most interesting and unique project yet: The Infinite Minute

Basically, she is releasing a backers only album that will include a 1-minute song for every $100 raised. As of this post she’s at 58 songs and it hasn’t even been up for an entire day!

I’ve always been fond of very short songs – I blame a short attention span – but that’s not the only reason that this project excites me. One of the most interesting things about Kim Boekbinder’s music is the way she works within the framework of self-imposed constraints. You can hear her talk about how that process led to her last album, The Sky is Calling, in this video:

That album was fantastic, I can’t wait for this one!


Why You Should be Reading Uber (spoilers for issue #19)

November 13, 2014

Uber #19

Writer: Kieron Gillen

Artist: Caanan White

Avatar Press

 

Avatar Press’ comics have a reputation for exploitative violence and gore, a well deserved one. A cursory glance at Uber’s premise – World War II turns into a superhuman arms race that pushes the already tapped out limits of wartime depravity – would likely lead one to assume the same. And they’d be right, take for example Leah:

uber19.2

Following in the footsteps of Great Britain’s last unsuccessful attempt at creating a battleship class superhuman, Patrick O’Connor (AKA H.M.H. Colossus), Leah is undergoing tests to determine her ability levels. This is how they test her:

uber19

 

Yes, those are he remains of O’Connor, what better way to test the strength of a battleship than against the flesh and bones of another battleship? Pure, disgusting shock value, right? Except that we got this scene earlier in the issue:

uber19.3

 

This is Patrick’s brother Eamonn having a heart to heart at his brother’s tomb. The panels above are a short excerpt from a masterful monologue crafted by Gillen that captures Eamonn’s conflicted emotions – a desire for revenge, a fear of combat, a longing for closure – but underlying all of that is the illusion of comfort that Patrick’s monument provides. So later, when we are confronted by that appalling pile of limbs, the physical horror takes a back seat to the disdain with which genuine human needs and emotions are treated in the world of Uber. That type of horror doesn’t merely shock, but burrows under your skin and remains there long after the comic has been bagged, boarded and stowed away.

Later, the issue returns to the United States to look at some even more troubling aspects of the allied governments’ exploitation of their respective populations.

uber19.4

Here we are introduced to two American candidates for the superhuman treatment. The enthusiasm and patriotism of Freddie and Vernon is immediately contextualized within the racial tension of the era. It’s hard not to root for these two underdogs, despite the brutal reality they face. Of course, Uber is not a story of the perseverance of the human spirit, nor its ability to put prejudice aside to unite under a greater cause. After Freddie and Vernon leave the room, the ugliness of reality rears its head:

uber19.5.

And somehow, in a comic where Nazi supersoldiers can use their minds to annihilate whole armies in violent explosions of blood and guts, it’s moments like these that express the true horror of humanities darkest moments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Fiction Review: Jeff Vandermeer’s Acceptance

November 5, 2014

acceptance coverAcceptance: Book 3 of the Southern Reach Trilogy

by Jeff Vandermeer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

You feel numb and you feel broken, but there’s a strange relief mixed in with the regret: to come such a long way, to come to a halt here, without knowing how it will turn out, and yet… to rest. To come to rest. Finally.

This is how we are addressed on the first page of Acceptance, the final installment of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. The first two novels have dragged us, helplessly and impressively, through their respective worlds. Annihilation tossed us into Area X, a southern coastal wilderness that exhibits an unsettling awareness, and reacts to its visitors with a strange indifferent hostility, while Authority put us at the fulcrum of the Southern Reach, the maddening bureaucracy that has been fruitlessly investigating it for years.

But here, the second person narration jars our expectations, but also signals a change: that things are coming to a head, and that we can expect that some respite from the anxiety of not knowing. Of course, it also taunts us, as we know full well that nearly 350 pages stand between us and the “rest” that it promises.

While the first two novels stand alone fairly well, and could probably be read in any order, Acceptance makes no apologies for being a concluding book. It is split between four points of view, three we have met before and one that is new. It encompasses the entire life of Area X, from its creation through the end of our characters’ respective journeys; but the novel assumes that the reader already has most of the context. This is good, because it rewards its readers with a narrative structure that, despite shifting chronologically, never stops marching forward.

Given the fast pace and roving narration, it may come as a surprise that Acceptance also manages to be the most intimate installment in the series. Most of the characters in the Southern Reach novels wear self-created “shells.” These may come in the form of a name they’ve taken, a story they’ve constructed, or even a structure they inhabit. Their shells help them cope, they bring comfort, and stability. Acceptance is about stripping those shells away.

The terrifying thing about Area X is its odd familiarity, the simultaneous sense of belonging and repulsion that it evokes. As Area X challenges these characters to shed their shells and accept the truth that lies beneath, the novel challenges us, its readers, to remove some of the barriers we erect against the world to avoid seeing it, and our role therein, for what it is. Though this awareness can be petrifying, it is also, as that first narration suggests, an odd relief.


Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”: A Halloween Movie Marathon

October 29, 2014
The Black Cat by Aubrey Beardsley

The Black Cat by Aubrey Beardsley

October, the time of year when horror enthusiasts get to proudly fly their colors without fear of being labeled a freak, weirdo or sociopath, when bookstores and box offices, not to mention, the internet, collectively cash in on pop cultures annual thirst for the macabre. For fiction fiends like myself, it’s a time to gleefully indulge in favorite tales of the uncanny and the unmentionable. For most of us, one medium reigns supreme when it comes to the horror: film.

But what movie(s) do you choose to help you ring in All Hallows Eve? If you’re like me and you celebrate horror cinema in all its incarnations. To help us sift through the choices we can turn back to literature for just a moment. Perhaps no author was did more to lay the groundwork for the horror fiction that would come in the following centuries than Edgar Allan Poe. His stories, which often revolved around themes of obsession and guilt, two universal human experiences that, forced readers to readers to identify with that terrifying grey area at the edge of sanity. One tale in particular, “The Black Cat,” deftly plays those two experiences off one another. In the story (spoilers), the narrator becomes obsessed with his and wife’s black cat. After harming it in a drunken furor, his guilt only adds to his obsession, until he finally kills it. Despite his best efforts, the narrator’s guilt remains, until he finds a nearly identical cat as a replacement, but, obsessed with the white spot of fur on the new cat that he believes depicts the method of execution used to kill its predecessor, the narrator eventually reverts to his former madness. In an attempt to kill feline number 2, he mistakenly kills his wife. He hides his murdered wife’s corpse in behind a false wall in his basement, and believes he’s gotten away with it, until that pesky cat, accidentally boarded up with her, gives him away.

This outrageous, but downright effective story has been adapted into film time and time again. The results are admittedly mixed, and rarely faithful but when they’re good, they’re some of the best moments in horror film history. So I submit today my Halloween recommendation: The Black Cat Marathon!

1) The Black Cat (1934), starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, and produced by Universal Studios.

Lugosi in The Black Cat (1932)

Lugosi in The Black Cat (1932)

It’s important to get this disclaimer out of the way: this adaptation is very loose, so loose, in fact that the normal “based on a story by…” only reads “suggested by a story by…” It does, however, have guilt and obsession in spades.

This gothic horror with a modernist veneer features horror legends Lugosi and Karloff, both in their respective primes. Lugosi plays a Hungarian psychiatrist who, after 15 years in a prison camp plans to confront his old friend, an Austrian architect played by Karloff. Lugosi accuses Karloff of wartime indiscretions, but more importantly of stealing his wife, Karen, while he was imprisoned. The ubiquitous presence of Karloff’s black cat in his otherwise hyper-modern mansion sets off Lugosi’s irrational Ailurophobia. It is the only literal nod to the Poe story, but more importantly, it serves to foreshadow the evil secrets hidden in the house.

The climax is still chill inducing today and one can only imagine how it was received at the time. It’s no surprise that it was Universal’s biggest money-maker of the year. This early adaptation is a true horror classic and a must see for any fan of classic movies.

Price and Lorre from Tales of Terror (1962)

Price and Lorre from Tales of Terror (1962)

2) Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Terror – segment: “The Black Cat” (1962), starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre, directed by Roger Corman, and produced by American International Pictures.

This segment from the class Corman anthology Tales of Terror is my favorite Roger Corman film, my favorite Peter Lorre film, and my favorite Vincent Price film. In some ways it’s the most faithful adaptation on this list, even though it essentially fuses “The Black Cat” with Poe’s other classic boarded-up-body yarn, “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Lorre’s character is a drunk who is constantly stealing booze money from his poor wife. One evening, out of cash, but in need of the bottle, Lorre stumbles on a creative solution: a wine tasting competition. There he meets Price’s character, a wine aficionado and dandy extraordinaire. The two end up getting along surprisingly well, but when Price walks Lorre home, the latter’s neglected wife quickly turns to Price, the sophisticated gentlemen, for the affection her lush of a husband has denying her. Lorre eventually gets wise to his wife’s infidelity, and, well, given the source material, you can guess where the narrative goes.

The real joy of this film is the marvelous chemistry between Lorre and Price. It’s a high point for both actors so late in their respective careers and I never get tired of watching it!

3) Two Evil Eyes – segment: “The Black Cat” (1990), directed by Dario Argento, starring Harvey Keitel and Madeleine Potter, and produced by ADC films.

A vicious black cat from Two Evil eyes (1990)

A vicious black cat from Two Evil eyes (1990)

Two Evil Eyes is a joint tribute to Poe from horror masters Dario Argento and George Romero. Romero’s segment is an adaptation of “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” which is a fun zombie/hypnotism film in its own right, but Argento’s segment is the one filled with the gore and excess that the pair of director’s evoke.

“The Black Cat” may not be Argento’s finest work, but it delivers on of the director’s trademark sensationalism and violence in a way that his later work mostly failed to do. It jams Poe’s story into a modern setting and faithfully recreate’s certain aspects of the source material, while diverging widely from others.

Harvey Keitel stars as the disturbed, alcoholic protagonist. He is a crime scene photographer who is far more comfortable in the seedy underbelly of Pittsburg than he is in the realm of domesticity. Keitel plays this role well. Essentially, the film is about the escalation of madness until it crescendos in a sequence of events that is every bit is mad as the finales of Argento’s classics of the 70s and 80s.

There you have it, one classic horror story that leaves a trail of guilt and obsession through golden age of the 1930s, the baroque gothic of the 1960s, and the excessive sensationalism of the 1990s. These are my picks, what will you be watching this Halloween?

Extra credit for the Italian horror fans: If late era Argento isn’t enough for you, there is a Lucio Fulci adaptation from 1981. The movie came out right smack in the middle of Fulci’s gore period, but never reached the cult status of films like City of the Living Dead or House by the Cemetery. I might have included it in this list, except it’s been some time since I’ve watched and don’t remember all that much about it. As I write this, however, it is starting to taunt me from the DVD shelf, maybe it’s time for a re-watch


Cathartic Retribution in Milligan and Fernandez’ The Names

September 10, 2014

names

The Names

Writer: Peter Milligan

Artist: Leandro Fernandez

Vertigo Comics

The Names opens in an executive office on the top floor of a Wall Street skyscraper. Its the type of place that evokes the shady back-room deals and reckless behavior that have come to characterize the American financial system of our collective consciousness. However, we’ve walked in on a scene that even that image hasn’t prepared us for: Kevin Walker, a hapless investment banker, is instructed to scrawl out a suicide note to his wife, before being forced by a maniacally grinning superior to leap to his death from a 51st story window. The picture it paints is unequivocal: Wall Street puppet-masters are an evil lot and you and I are helpless in the face of their whimsical greed.

            I’m usually put-off by such black and white representations of good vs. evil. Reductive as this dichotomy may be (I think the more accurate picture is an industry full of self-serving, and not always terribly bright, sycophants and opportunists who run amok thanks to governmental complacency and fear), the fact remains that these are the people whose reckless and irresponsible behavior led to some pretty widespread misery and unemployment, and who saw virtually butkus in the way of consequences. It does leave one yearning for some sense that comeuppance has been served. In Lieu of any real world closure, Peter Milligan and Leandro Fernandez have stepped in to provide some fictional catharsis, and you know what? It feels pretty damn good.

            In The Names, it’s the victim’s widowed wife, Katya, who strikes out for revenge. Katya, is young, beautiful, and athletic, she knows that the suicide story doesn’t add up; and furthermore, she can take care of herself. It’s not hard to see where this one is going: a proper revenge story, wherein the heroin will not rest until she kills everyone who wronged her.

            Despite the cut-and-dried premise, the story is more complex than meets the eye. Contrary to the overused notion of the Wall Street trophy wife, Katya’s relationship to her husband was by all indications, intimate and sincere. It’s hinted that they shared a significant experience in the past that I expect will be explored in future issues, but for now the mystery is compelling. Katya’s other primary relationship is rockier. Her step-son is a selectively mute math-wiz, and its clear that she will have to bridge that gap that’s grown between them before any real closure can be had.

            Meanwhile, the villainous traders have another foe to deal with in the enigmatic group of high-frequency traders referred to enigmatically as “the dark loops” who are slowly chipping away at their profit margins. The role they will play in the larger story is still yet to be seen, but the implied old-guard vs. new-guard narrative lends an added layer of depth that has me hooked.

            Fernandez’ art plays a crucial role in balancing the more outlandish and operatic elements of the comic with its subtle emotional relevance. His villains are pure hyperbolized evil – impossibly wide, toothy grins, grotesque features, wildly exaggerated gestures, but when the script calls for a deeply emotive expression, he can shift on a dime. In the moment when Walker realizes there is no way to escape his fate, and when Katya views his body in the morgue, and her stoicism breaks, just for a second, Fernandez’ art has the effect of stopping time momentarily. He forces the reader to dwell on the personal human elements of what is, at other times, a pretty baroque narrative.

            The Names is an 8 part maxi-series, and if issue #1 is any indication, readers who get on board now are in for a wild ride.


Building Worlds with Cello Strings: A Review of Unwoman’s Circling

August 25, 2014

circlingThe new album from cellist/singer/songwriter, Unwoman, was released late last month. I got it a few weeks early for backing the Kickstarter, and I haven’t stopped listening to it since the download showed up in my inbox. A few months earlier I wrote a piece plugging the album’s Kickstarter campaign. I had a lot to say about the qualities that make Unwoman (Erica Mulkey) a quintessential steampunk artist, transcending the purely aesthetic trappings of the genre.

The things I wrote about Unwoman then (anachronisms juxtaposed with the DIY ethos of the digital music landscape) continue to apply to her latest record, Circling. However, something I was trying to do in that piece was to define steampunk music in a way that was distinct from, yet consistent with, steampunk literature. Ironically, after many repeat listenings of Circling, I am struck by how much of the power of Unwoman’s music can be located in her talent for storytelling.

Ok, maybe storytelling isn’t exactly the right word – it implies a beginning, middle, and end, flowing along something resembling a linear narrative. As the album title suggests, Unwoman is rarely interested in the resolution, but instead focuses on characters caught in those tantalizing circles of uncertainty.

Take, for example, the hypnotically baroque “I could have killed the king.” The song takes the point of view of a would be assassin, who instead of murdering the king, has become his mistress. The lyrics take the form of the protagonist’s internal struggle to reconcile the promise of a life of leisure with her compromised values: “but our hope that this kingdom / could have been all of ours seems a delusion / and to be a royal concubine may be my best option / he covers me with kisses, tells me what a lucky girl I am / to use my only power to destroy / or to be power’s toy.”

In contrast to Unwoman’s previous record, The Fires I started, which was characterized by abrupt percussive anthems, the compositions on Circling tend towards winding melodies that rise and fall, echoing the protagonists’ indecisive and often paradoxical dilemmas. The result is a tangible sense not only of character, but also setting and atmosphere. So rather than storytelling, let’s call it world building, not a perfect description of what Unwoman does, but I think it captures much of the effect. No matter how finite the space of the song, we get glimpses and suggestions of the larger world its subjects inhabit, and we are compelled to continue building on those glimpses long after each track has ended.

Unwoman seems to play with this idea herself in the lyrics of “In Pinks and Golds.” The song describes a performer locked in a metaphorical dance with a member of her audience, repeating it night after night. The performer, lonely in her sea of admirers, is trapped by her addiction to the spotlight, and her infatuation with the one audience member who does not lavish her with gifts and praise.

She addresses him in the song: “you know the stories behind my words / you know the stories behind my cues,” the lyrics themselves acknowledge that their words only describe a snapshot of the story contained within, and encourage the listener to search for the rest.

Sometimes only the slightest hint of a setting or a theme within a lyric is enough to imbue the compositions with the suggestion of a vivid fictional world. “Long, Long, Shadows,” evokes a bleakly beautiful landscape of a land of “sunlight” “echoes” and “regrets.” The only way I can describe it is as the theme song to my favorite western that’s never been made.

This quality of rich visual and emotional world building can be found in most of the songs on this record, to greater or lesser degrees, and explains why it stands up so well to many, many listenings. it’s one of the things Unwoman does best, but its far from the only thing she does well.

Another standout track that takes an altogether different approach is “Specimen.” This song, a scathing and personal critique of the male gaze, is more explicitly subversive than many of the tracks. Rather than using fictional characters, Unwoman addresses the audience directly, using taxidermy as a metaphor for the casual objectification of women in society. In a departure from the meandering aesthetic of the record, “Specimen” is written with a direct and incisive lyrical style that channels Eve Libertine of Crass, in all of its indignant glory.

You can download this record, and all of Unwoman’s others, here, but be warned, you won’t listen to much else once you do.


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