Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Entry 52: The Last Halloween

As I write this, Halloween is mere days away. Just a short period of time remains before we shall have to pack away our ghosts and goblins and push all thoughts of terror from our minds. This enchanted month will draw to a close, and lingering questions of mortality and the limited scope of human knowledge will have to wait until next year. So, whether you’ve been immersed in seasonally appropriate spookiness and are always on the lookout for more, or have been frightfully deprived and desperate for something to chill your bones before it is too late, I present for your consideration The Last Halloween.

What we have here is a fantasy horror story, complete with monsters and undead creatures of every kind imaginable. The world is ending, society is in chaos, and a 10-year-old girl is sent on a hero’s journey against her wishes. The Last Halloween takes this well-worn adventure framework and hangs upon it the author’s peculiar sensibilities. Thus we wind up with a story in which matters are deadly serious, but those involved refuse to take them seriously. Instead, they do things like make jokes about how the situation is literally deadly, get it?

This is dark comedy at its best; serious conflicts in a weighty story coupled with a wild and irreverent sense of humor. Rather than providing relief from the horror, the comedy serves to emphasize it. Inappropriate japes contrast so strongly to the grave atmosphere that the effect is remarkably unsettling. I often find myself reacting with exaggerated horror and outrage simply because the characters just aren’t bothered enough and I feel like I have to make up the difference.

The art in this comic perfectly reflects and enhances the atmosphere. Scenes are beautifully rendered in a way that is clear and appealing yet undeniably creepy. To be sure, there are monsters and mayhem everywhere, but one need only look at a forest, or the night sky, to tell exactly what the tone of the comic is. Every object communicates unease.

I can’t help recalling Stephen Gammel’s illustrations from Scary Stories to tell in the Dark. If you’ve read those books in the past, you know what I’m talking about. If not, you can get an idea with a simple Google Image search. Though distinct in style, those drawings also communicated a macabre and spooky tone with every brushstroke. However, while Gammel’s artwork emphasized horror, the art in The Last Halloween often mitigates horror.

I’ll note here that The Last Halloween is definitely best read in order from the beginning, and that while I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling anything, clever readers may be able to infer some details regarding the plot. I’ll also note that this comic contains some pretty horrific images, albeit rendered in a stylized fashion that robs them of their visceral punch. This is one way that The Last Halloween takes advantage of the comics medium. If the maulings and eviscerations in this comic were reproduced in film, or given detailed description in text, I’d find the content too off-putting to engage with it. The Last Halloween’s artwork takes events from which I would normally avert my eyes and presents them in such a manner that I can’t look away.

Speaking of taking advantage of the comics medium, let’s talk about monsters. (The term “monster,” when used in The Last Halloween, actually refers to only a specific type of creature, but I’m going to go ahead and use it in a broader sense for the purposes of this post.) Way back when I wrote about Spacetrawler, I discussed the diversity of alien designs used in that comic. The same principle applies to the monsters in The Last Halloween. There’s a tremendous amount of creativity in the way the shapes and movement of these monsters.

The stunning array of monster designs, combined with the delightfully expressive and compelling art style, make this a comic that I could stare at for hours. Like a particularly well-shot film, The Last Halloween is not so much a story expressed through art and more a story told in parallel to art, with many panels worthy of admiration even were they to be presented isolated from all context.

In terms of story, at the most basic level The Last Halloween follows well-trod ground (at least so far). What makes this version of the hero’s journey so appealing are the details. Characters express awareness of genre conventions, but tend to outright reject them. Everyone has a role to play, and they participate in the story not out of your typical good-guy desire to save humanity, but as a means to serve whatever immediate goal they’re trying to fulfil. The plot is almost incidental, something that just kind of happens while the characters run around in pursuit of their own petty desires.

The aimless antics stay fun, rather than tedious, in part thanks to the fun and quirky dialogue. This dialogue here is idiosyncratic and humorous in a way that reminds me of John Allison’s particular skill with words. Nobody in real life talks quite like the characters in The Last Halloween, and the real world is poorer for that fact.

The world of the story is well-developed, giving a definite impression that there’s more to the setting than just what we readers have been exposed to. Mona, the protagonist, comes from a clearly strange and messed-up family. We only see her dad for one page, but that page is enough to imply a history of outlandish and upsetting behavior. What’s not clear is how far this microcosm deviates from “normal” in The Last Halloween. The story begins with the development of a great catastrophe, so it’s difficult to establish a sense of baseline, but I get the impression that the setting as a whole was somewhat outlandish to begin with.

Of particular note is a character of a type that I’ve really never seen before, because she’s based on a stereotype that’s only been around for a few years: Shirley, the slacktivist. Fantasy has a long and storied history of use as metaphor for real-world social and political issues. While that’s not the focus of The Last Halloween, it’s definitely present, and Shirley is the reader’s gateway to social commentary.

There are tons of valid social justice concerns facing the supernatural community in The Last Halloween, and I find that sort of speculation fascinating. The concept of cultural appropriation as it applies to one’s identity as a ghoul is the sort of thing about which I would gladly read pseudo-academic essays. The Last Halloween crafts a world in which these are real issues, and Shirley tells us about some of them… but she doesn’t actually do anything to fix them. Though aware of social issues, and possessed of educated positions, she shows no inclination toward effecting change. Rather, she holds her political awareness smugly over those who haven’t done the same kind of research and arrived at the same conclusions that she has. Shirley serves as an excellent negative example for those who would like to do good in the world.

Where Shirley offers advice, maybe consider offering assistance?

I recommend reading The Last Halloween if you’re looking for something fun and spooky to wrap up your October. There’s depth there, too, if that’s appealing, but you don’t have to engage with this comic on anything other than the surface level to enjoy it. Monsters and mayhem are quite entertaining enough, though if you’d like to go further and think about symbolism and cultural trends you are quite welcome. The mere incongruity in many of the significant images could keep an analyst going for some time.

The Last Halloween is written and drawn by Abby Howard. It’s an engaging and frightening read, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing where this whole thing goes. (I’m guessing the ragtag bunch of misfits are going to save the world. I mean, I don’t know, maybe everything’s going to go down in flames, but I’ve read a lot of stories about people trying to stop the apocalypse, and they succeed at least, like, 90% of the time.)

By genre convention, the less qualified characters seem at first, the stronger they eventually become. So we're in pretty good shape!
Previous Entry: Everything by Emily Carroll

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Webcomics Worth Wreading, Entry 51: Everything by Emily Carroll

October is upon us. It is the month of ghost stories, when we frighten one another and remind ourselves of all that is unsettlingly beyond our understanding. Each year around this time, when I search for suitable material to chill my soul, my thoughts turn to one cartoonist in particular: Emily Carroll.

Rather than putting up individual installments of a single ongoing work, Carroll tends to present one complete short form comic at a time. These are self-contained stories, often several pages long, suitable for reading in one sitting, possibly alone at night while rain thrashes against your window panes and lighting sheds eerie light on the world outside.

Her work is haunting, not because it often features ghosts, but because it endures in the mind. I’ve never read a comic of hers that didn’t stay with me, popping up in my mind unexpectedly and (typically) reminding me of the horrors that lurk just past the edge of consciousness. These aren’t the kind of scary stories you tell by the campfire, causing a temporary feeling of fear that fades into surprise or relief. These are the kind of scary stories that slowly, subtly fill you with dread, becoming gradually more unsettling until they’ve eased you from a mildly ominous beginning to a truly horrific conclusion.

This is the kind of horror that creeps under your skin and stays there.

Normally I don’t talk much about what scares me, because to be honest there aren’t a lot of horror works that I find scary. While I can certainly enjoy a good horror story, and a few movies and books have been known to keep me awake at night, the vast majority of horror stories don’t frighten me at all. If I enjoy them it’s more likely because I’m intrigued than scared, and though I can empathize with characters who are in frightening situations, that doesn’t usually extend to being frightened just because they are.

When I wrote about Broodhollow, I didn’t really touch on that comic as horror, because as much as I love it, Broodhollow doesn’t really scare me. It’s hard to discuss the ways that something is scary when I’m not actually scared by it.

Emily Carroll is the rare example of an artist who can make me scared. There are definitely things to appreciate about her comics besides the fear element, so if her type of horror doesn’t get to you the way it gets to me, there’s still plenty of reason to read them. Within her body of work you’ll find compelling, imaginative vignettes that delve into dark and suppressed elements of the human psyche. Being scared is not a requirement for enjoyment.

I just think it’s cool that I found something that scares me and I want to tell everybody!

Not all of Carroll’s comics have the same feel to them, or are even accurately described as “horror.” While taken as a whole the effect is overwhelmingly spooky, these comics are versatile, with different art styles and tones depending on the requirements of the story.

Even the formats of the comics vary depending on what’s needed. The panels may be aligned vertically, or horizontally, or even using a combination to direct the flow of action along a specific path. Multiple stories use narrative tools that only work using the medium of the Internet. When reading The Three Snake Leaves, you get to make a choice about whose perspective the second half of the story is told from.

Margot’s Room gets even more inventive, asking the reader to click on various objects in the eponymous room to see different parts of the story. It’s up to you to figure out the order and make sure you read the whole story, and though figuring it out isn’t a challenge, it still feels like putting together a puzzle, and getting from the beginning to the end provides a definite feeling of accomplishment, and more importantly, of completion.

The Three Snake Leaves, by the way, is an adaptation of one of Grimm’s fairy tales. If you’re a fan of those fairy tales, like I am, then Emily Carroll’s comics are perfect for you. Her sensibilities as a storyteller are perfectly aligned with the atmosphere one expects from those dark and classic stories.

Sometimes, I’ve found it hard to tell whether a particular comic is an adaptation of an existing fairy tale or a new story that Emily Carroll came up with on her own. Fairy tales work so well in her style, and her writing so evokes the feeling of old fairy tales, that often either option is possible. At times I’ve been surprised to find that the reason I’ve never heard a particular story before is because Emily Carroll made it up. The surprise isn’t that she could invent such ideas on her own, but that she could do so while making them seem so familiar, like they’re as integral a part of human storytelling as Cinderella’s stepsister having her toes cut off.

I wouldn’t recommend this work to the squeamish. The art is beautiful, but often grotesque, and at times there are acts of terrible violence. The blood and gore are not used as an artistic end unto themselves; every instance of violence is necessary for the story being told. Rather than shocking the audience into a reaction with violent imagery, an Emily Carroll comic will build an atmosphere of suspense, wherein a violent conclusion is the only reasonable outcome. If you cover your eyes during scary parts of movies, then sadly Carroll’s stuff might not be for you. But if you like being scared, and think you can handle anything, I encourage you to dive right in.

“But where to begin?” You might ask.

Well, there’s no bad starting point. None of the stories are too long, so you don’t need to worry about getting bogged down in a drawn-out narrative. If you’re on the fence, Out of Skin might give you a good sense for what Carroll’s work tends to be like. If you enjoy that one, there’s a strong chance you’ll enjoy the rest of them. I’m kind of perversely fond of The Prince & The Sea, while His Face All Red is the first one that I ever read, and it made a lasting impression on me.

Really, though, there’s no need to read in any particular order, or even to feel like you must read everything Carroll has to offer. Each story is self-contained, and most require only a few minutes to read through, though I strongly suggest taking your time, lingering on the artwork and savoring the experience.

A type of comic I haven’t yet discussed is Carroll’s dream journal. I love the idea of representing dreams in comics so much I’m kind of jealous I didn’t think of it first. (I did photographs, instead.) This isn’t the only place I’ve seen dreams as comics, either, but every time someone does something of the sort I think it’s super cool. Dreams are a great source of imagery, and they present ideas that aren’t bound by linear conscious thinking. Carroll basically says so in the introduction to her dream journal: “I'd recommend it too, if you don't already record your dreams -- I've mined a lot of ideas and images from mine, and it's a good source of, er, things a Waking You might not have thought of.”

Dreams are so much fun, and I love it when other people see that and give me a glimpse of what their dreams are like.

I highly recommend all the comics that Emily Carroll has on offer. Each and every one of them is extraordinary. Any time Carroll puts up a new comic I’m eager to see what she’s done this time, and I hope you will be too.

And if you’re looking for a way to get into the Halloween spirit this year, I can think of no better way than by huddling before your computer screen, in a darkened room, and discovering one of Emily Carroll’s distinctive tales of terror.

Previous Entry: Athena Wheatley