Sunday, April 28, 2013

Quick Review

Been having some interesting conversations in the bookstore lately about genre.  One of the great benefits of working in a large store has always been the diversity of the staff; a lot of people means a lot of very different reading, among my younger coworkers specially.  There are unapologetic fans of everything from poetry to mysteries, and, as one might think in a bookstore with the best selection of Science Fiction in the region, more than a few enthusiasts and students of everything from classic space operas to the most cerebral of "speculative fiction."  Beyond the obvious retail utility of all these opinions mixing, it is refreshing to hear so many readers open to other people's recommendations, and recommendations from outside the membership, as it were.  As the traditional, now all too last-century, divisions of genre have been breaking down, and literary fiction becomes less and less a matter of critical and or academic canon,  it can be rather thrilling to hear, for example, from a fan of Aimee Bender why a fan of the weirder works of Joyce Carol Oates -- me -- might enjoy The Girl in the Flammable Skirt -- which I very much did.  Is there anyone still who would dismiss either writer as a "horror writer"?

I want to say a word though in defence of genre.  Even as contemporary, fine artists continue to explore and mix the pop and the respectable in ever new and interesting ways, there's something to be said for those who can craft a well-made, satisfying, entirely conventional object.  Not every chair needs less than four legs, not every thing needs to be new.

When I was a boy, my graduation, if you will, from little kids' comic books -- Little LuLu and Scrooge McDuck and the like -- wasn't so much to super hero books, which always rather bored me, though I read them, but rather to horror.  I loved horror movies.  I loved horror comics.  I'm just old enough to have caught the tail of the last silver age of horror comics.  The still shocking productions of the Fifties; full of the most graphic gore and violence, had already been suppressed,  but there were still amazingly clever artists and writers producing wonderfully twisted stuff.  I couldn't get enough of it, in part at least, I should think, because my mother, bless 'er, found the lot of it repugnant.  "What," she used demand with appropriately Victorian gestures of dismay, turning from Tales of the Crypt, "what appeals to you in that nasty stuff?!"  Exactly.

I won't review the whole history of the form.  Another day.  I will say that at nine, I did not really appreciate the more Hitchcockian stories of murderous infidelity and revenge.  I liked monsters: bloodthirsty, fiendish, deformed, and yes, now and then, misunderstood -- though I had yet to have much appreciation of satire, or comedy in general, so I did not like trick nightmare awakenings, joke endings and the like.  I liked monsters with consequences, and threatening mystery.  Still do.  (Though I like to think I've grown into a sense of humor.  Little boys can be so very serious.)

I very seldom read comic books as-such anymore, at least not by the issue, so I tend to only come across new things when published in book form.  Thus the new-ish book from Image Comics, Severed.  Everything about this one immediately appealed to my vestigial nine-year-old-boy: from the title to the design, even to the wonderfully familiar trick of the monster peeping through the shredded cover.  Yeah!

The book itself did not disappoint.  Written by two Scotts, Snyder & Tuft (sounds like a forgotten vaudeville "Dutch" act,) and handsomely drawn by one Attila Futaki, this is the best of what fidelity to form can do.  I was put in mind immediately of the best remembered monsters of my childhood.  What's different about this is the time clearly taken, and the care.  There is a visual lavishness, an attention to detail and pallet, and a more leisurely, or better, a more cinematic pace to the frights that tells of a labour undertaken from love, for the pure pleasure in making a thing well, rather than to a deadline or just as a job of work.

The monster here is likewise a familiar enough fellow; the friendly adult who actually means to eat you up -- think Hansel & Gretel, by way here of Hammer Studio.  There's a classic framing device and most of the story a remembered nightmare from childhood.  (I won't spoil the pleasure of the thing for anyone by noting too the absolutely correct and suggestively indefinite ending.)

A very professional job, this, and happily so, though improved, as I've said already by the entirely modern resources of enthusiastic young artists paying tribute to the horrors of a bygone time.  (Even the historical setting in a pre-electronic age, but in a time not so remote from modernity as to indicate the traditional, and safely remote fairytale was a perfect choice.)

I might cavil here or there with the unwelcome reminders of the original, serial  publication; the time taken by the monster with our protagonist feels a bit unjustified by his talents and charms, the necessity of stepping behind a curtain more than once to make what is pretty much the same shock as the last time, but this is quibbling  stuff.  The shocks are good ones and as satisfying as a familiar roller coaster.

What I like best here is the very avoidance of unnecessary and self-conscience explanation or fustian myth remaking, or sneaking parody.  (Fantasy as genre has much to answer for, and not the least of it, the grinding anthropology of begats and back-stories.)  I also hate winking.  This is the thing well done, and without irony, or embarrassment.

for all my enjoyment of variation and innovation, for genre-flipping and commentary, there is nothing better, when the night is coming on, and the window's open to let in the air and the dark, than a well-made monster before bedtime.

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