Filler content with graphic novels

Four reviews of graphic novels that originally appeared in Black Static #45


Over the last year or so, Birmingham based SST have been making their mark with the release of high quality art books (I reviewed a couple back in #41) and now they have added a range of graphic novels to their portfolio.

Written by Jeff Mariotte and illustrated by Daniele Serra, FADE TO BLACK (SST hc, 132pp, £24.95) began life as a five issue mini-series published by the Shadowline imprint of Image Comics. The SST edition has an introduction by Jonathan Maberry.

As far as the plot goes it’s reminiscent of the second Wrong Turn movie with a touch of The Hills Have Eyes for flavour. While filming at an isolated location in the desert, the cast of a horror film return to their caravan encampment to discover that everyone in the crew has been slaughtered, with signs of cannibalism on display. They find themselves hunted by the members of a cult by the name of the Children of the Radiant Night and led by the megalomaniacal Brother Juniper, who has plans to sacrifice one of their number to raise his demon god and set this corrupt world to rights. Only once raised it seems that demons won’t always do what you want them to. (Who’d have thought?)

It’s a fast paced and beautifully constructed story, one in which the ante is continually upped, but never in such a way as to lose reader interest or give any reason for disbelief. The characters are well drawn, each with their own quirks and foibles, using their past experience as actors to finagle ways to succeed in this scenario, while in a novel twist on the conventions of genre, it is not the virgin who gets to survive. And, despite the generous lashings of blood, there’s also some rather black humour, as with the character who tells a cannibal to look him up on imdb. Daniele Serra’s gritty artwork brings the story to vivid and memorable life on the page, his usual ethereal style backed up by hard edge visual that are perfect for this kind of in your face storytelling. To add extra value at the end of the book is a gallery of the original covers from the five issues of the comic. All in all this is a great little package, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Like Fade, Eric Red’s CONTAINMENT (SST hc, 122pp, £24.95) also first saw life as a five issue comic series, this time released by IDW Publishing. The SST edition has an introduction by Wes Craven and, again, a bonus gallery of the original comic covers.

The story is set in the year 2025 aboard a NASA spaceship millions of miles from Earth. Half the crew are awakened from cryogenic sleep to discover that a malfunction has turned the other half into ravenous zombies. Led by feisty Commander Stark they must fight their former colleagues and deal with treachery in the ranks to survive.

So far, so Alien, even down to a tag line ‘In space nobody knows you’re dead’. There’s the spaceship setting, with Stark in lieu of Ripley, zombies instead of an alien, and even if he isn’t an android the science officer is still a double dealing shit. Not too many bonus points for originality then, but allowing for that this is still a tautly written and exciting action thriller, with artist Nick Stakal capturing perfectly the cramped confines of the spaceship, the grimy corridors and passageways that the crew have to manoeuvre through and in which the bloody battles take place, and bringing to the work a sense of context, the immensity of space itself through which these people move in their tin can. It’s a perfect rendition of the material, making us believe in what happens, with the visuals fleshing out the characters, though apart from Stark and the science officer (read pervert) none of them have much depth, but in this context that isn’t an issue. The ending is far bleaker than that of Alien and in its way every bit as effective, and Red even manages to shoehorn in some social and political commentary by crediting many of the spaceship’s problems to the privatisation of NASA, with a knock on effect as regards shoddy workmanship and inadequately tested equipment. It’s a tad obvious in where it’s going, maybe a patch contrived, but also great fun and with its heart in the right place (except when that heart is being munched down on by a zombie, of course).

The third graphic novel under consideration, I TELL YOU IT’S LOVE (SST hc, 94pp, £19.95), is an adaptation of a Joe R. Lansdale story by Daniele Serra. Less plot driven and more impressionistic than its two predecessors, it tells the story of a happy couple whose addiction to S&M and need for pain escalates. Initially they are satisfied with hurting each other, but then Gloria wants more, and so they take to the streets in search of victims, torturing and killing old people and children. But even this is not enough for her, she desires something more intimate, something more final. All of this plays out with the lyrics of a cheerful Christmas tune (“Happiest Time of the Year”) running through the story like a bright red thread. At the end an attempt is made to explain things with the male narrator reifying himself as some sort of social mutation, even though he realises that the electric chair is waiting for him, something that he is determined to enjoy.

I have slightly mixed feelings about this. There is a lot of violence in the story, but mostly it takes place off the page, with Serra’s illustrations used to subtly convey what is happening, suggesting rather than revealing, and given the child victim that is probably a good thing. The art style is more recognisably Serra’s work than in Fade to Black, with the familiar washed out backgrounds and blurred visuals, as if the paint had somehow run, not quite respecting boundaries, to give an atmospheric and impressionist feel to what’s on the page. It works as a picture of a perverse relationship, but at the same time you have to wonder what point, if any, there is to the work, with no real attempt to get a grasp on who these characters are or why they act as they do, other than a love of pain, and little in the way of a narrative arc beyond their drive to satisfy these needs. I was slightly repelled by the vacuity of the characters’ lives, the hungering emptiness that it appears only spilled blood and mutilated flesh can satiate, but at the same time almost hypnotised by what was taking place, unable to turn away or put the book down. I recommend it as an antidote to Fifty Shades of Grey for those who prefer their S&M hard wired with horror, or at the other end of the spectrum as a bête noir for those who need a better reason to feel outraged.

Last up we have THE ROCKABYE WORM (SST hc, 72pp, £14.95), written and illustrated by Glenn Chadbourne. This particular pretty, pretty the publishers are classifying as an illustrated book rather than graphic novel, and that’s a good call as there really isn’t all that much to it.

A young boy goes off on a fishing trip, and stops in at the local graveyard to dig up some worms to use as bait. The Rockabye Worm of the title manages to convince him that this isn’t a very good idea, as he will end up eating members of his family whose remains will be recycled via the worms. And that’s it.

Chadbourne originally wrote the words as the lyric to a song with a blackly comedic subtext, similar to work like ‘The Worms Crawl In’. The text is simply a pretext for the artist to produce a whole slew of his gorgeously textured black and white illustrations, each one rich in detail and a feast for the eye, though I can’t argue with those who might feel that this is rather an expensive book, all things considered. It’s a work with echoes of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, with lots of squishy stuff reproduced on the page and a streak of black humour bordering on the ghoulish running through the narrative.

All the same, rather more a work aimed at the collectors’ market I feel than one for the general reader, and on that note I should mention that there’s also a Signed and Lettered Remarque Edition limited to 52 copies and priced at £62.95. I should also mention that all the SST graphic novels reviewed above when ordered directly from SST Publications come with a free exclusive signature sheet which is signed by the author and the artist, and not available from any other retail outlet.

One last caveat – I reviewed all of these books from PDFs supplied by the publisher and haven’t seen actual copies, so can’t speak as to the production quality.

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