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

No comments:

Post a Comment