Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Webcomic Worth Wreading, Entry Fourteen: Broodhollow

Everyone has their coping mechanisms to deal with stress and anxiety. Sometimes this is how traditions evolve... Scary faces to keep monsters at bay when it’s dark out transform over time into fun things to do with pumpkins at Halloween. Personal rituals and public rituals share a significance. They help us to feel comfortable and at ease with a world that contains many real and imagined threats. The use of ritual to protect oneself, and the dangers that this practice can cause, are key components of Broodhollow.

The protagonist of Broodhollow is Wadsworth Zane, a newcomer to the eponymous town, and a man modern readers can easily identify as suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is the 1930s, however, and the state of mental health treatment leaves a lot to be desired.

Worsening matters, Zane’s fears often revolve around ghosts, and it seems that ghosts pose a real threat to him and others. I’ve read that it’s difficult to treat germaphobia, because fears are treated through exposure to the feared thing, and germs can be genuinely harmful. If ghosts really can harm Zane, and his rituals, or the “pattern,” as he calls it, can keep them away, then there is no safe way to cure him of his compulsions.

NOTE: Broodhollow is a narrative-based comic and must be read in order. I cannot avoid spoilers entirely, though I will not describe plot points in detail. I strongly recommend that when you read Broodhollow you start at the very beginning.

Zane’s personal rituals are reflected in the culture of Broodhollow, with its emphasis on tradition. Broodhollow is known as the “town of a thousand holidays,” since every day the inhabitants are participating in some arcane celebration or another. No one remembers the origin of most of these rituals, but they all adhere to them. Like Zane, they are protecting themselves from ghosts and whatever else is out there, but unlike Zane, they do not consciously acknowledge what they’re doing.

The use of obsessive behavior as a defense against an unsettling presence reminds me of the Salman Rushdie novel Grimus, wherein characters each find their own obsession to keep their minds off the thing that is broken in their world. For most Broodhollow residents, following cultural traditions carefully seems to be enough. Zane has his own set of compulsions, and his late uncle channeled his obsessive energies into researching lineages. The same fears and uncertainties manifest in all sorts of permutations among different people with different coping mechanisms.

There are definitely ghosts, and they can definitely be harmful, but at times it’s not entirely clear whether Zane is frightened of real supernatural beings or mere extensions of his own anxieties. The power of suggestion is strong. Someone predisposed to believe that ghosts are interfering in his life might interpret stressful but mundane situations as having a more sinister edge.

Uncertainty lies at the core of Broodhollow. Zane is frightened by ghosts, but the unknown is far more threatening. Ghosts can at least be named and understood. Whatever else is out there is more difficult to comprehend.

Broodhollow’s traditions may be silly or they may be vital. Zane may be exaggerating dangers or everyone else may be recklessly unaware. Rituals may help keep everyone safe, or they may build a sense of false security that will ultimately betray them. It’s a difficult landscape to navigate, and no one can say for certain where the safest path lies.

For all the horror and the deep personal issues on display in Broodhollow, much of the time it is refreshingly lighthearted. The easy-going, silly, joking-around atmosphere of the comic serves a few purposes. It keeps the work as a whole from becoming a drain to read by offering comic relief and reminders that there is usually something fun not too far off. It provides a sharp contrast, present in both the tone of dialog and the artistic style, between day-to-day life and the darker, more uncertain and scary parts of the setting. It also lets us get to know the characters and appreciate them as fun, relatable people in an ordinary context, so that we have a clear picture of the type of nice, happy people we’d be dealing with if things weren’t so messed up.

Light humor, fantastical intrigue, pervasive mystery... Broodhollow offers a range of attractions that fit into a cohesive whole. As much as I’ve enjoyed the story so far, I’m pretty sure it’s just going to get better. I feel like I’ve hardly begun to grasp the nature of the story. It’s going somewhere, but I wouldn’t hazard to guess the destination. Every time I see a new page, I immediately long for the next one, because the question Broodhollow consistently brings out of me is: “What happens next?”

And that is precisely the question that lets you know a story is engaging.

Broodhollow is written and drawn by Kris Straub and updates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. As of this writing, we are in a pause wherein the updates are not the standard comic pages that make up the bulk of Broodhollow. The first storyline has just ended, and the second will begin soon.

There is also a Kickstarter currently running to print the first Broodhollow volume, so now is a great time to head over there and buy a copy if you think you’d like one (I know I would).

If this is your first encounter with Broodhollow, dive right in and enjoy! Just make sure all your doors and windows are completely closed before you start.

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