Abominations, by Hermann Huppen. Catalan.
Horror comics are tough stuff. There are almost a ridiculous amount of impediments to getting a comic to scare people -- it starts with the level of reader participation the medium demands, where unlike with moving pictures the reader has to engage with the work for it to happen to them at all. Asking someone to go deeper into something while simultaneously constructing it to repel them is certainly possible (see any horror novel), but it's a balancing act nonetheless, not as easy as drawing a punch with some impact behind it. Comics' lack of motion is also a problem -- in a medium where the audience theoretically has an infinite amount of time to stare into each single image, getting the movements in the shadows and the blurred atrocities is harder than it is when (in prose) someone sees something out of the corner of their eye, or (on film) a guy in a fright mask runs by the camera real fast. Then there's art style, the barrier of another person's hands between the story content and the reader's experience of it. Film goes direct to the eyes, prose straight into the imagination, but comics have to appeal to both at the same time. You see the scary picture, you pick it apart until you're seeing brush lines and benday instead of what scared you, and then the story basically asks you to pretend the thrill's still there when you move on to the next panel. Like I said, tough stuff.
But there's a less universal reason why horror comics have a higher hill to get over than most other genres -- the EC line. Not only did the American medium's all-time greatest company-wide line of books build itself on the foundation stone of horror, they took it about as far as it can go. The best-put-together crack team of illustrators a comics house has ever hosted going deep into churned-out tales of dudes getting run through meat grinders, dudes getting their torsos ripped open by piranhas, dudes getting blown into a bloody hail of tiny pieces, dudes getting their innards turned into athletic equipment... as hard as the ECs are to stand up to in terms of pure gall, if you haven't got the craft as well it doesn't matter, because this was Bernie Krigstein, Johnny Craig, Jack Davis drawing. American comics shy away from horror. When they do go there it's usually either more "dark fantasy" type stuff or it just isn't good to read. Horror manga do a bit better because they don't look much like anything that came out of EC. So what happens when a Eurocomics artist -- one who's got some Wally Wood and Joe Orlando to his style -- takes it on? Well, we get Abominations, which is very good.
This 48-page album, published in English in 1990, contains four short horror stories, putting it more or less directly in the same ballpark as the ECs (which also contained quartets of scary shorts). More than that, they all utilize the same broad formula as EC did, with gore and shocks being the main instruments of fright, atmospherics close at their heels and clever plotting only popping up as needed. These are art-based comics, as the ECs were, relying on the spell that beautiful pictures weave to take care of the attraction side of the horror engage/repel equation. And like the ECs, they are brutal, they are sick, they pull no punches. Hoe do they hold up? Not just as works forever to be judged against the yardstick of a medium's great works, but as examples of the medium itself? Well, this book is a pretty rough ride, so let's take them one by one.
In a lot of ways, this first story is the closest thing in Abominations to standard American comics. It's a badass revenge tale, more in line with the Punisher than any fringe-genre evocation of dread or bitter social comment. (Those will come later.) It's also probably the simplest story in the book, a mostly wordless study in action and reaction. A young, handsome man drives home in his luxury car. He opens the door to find his wife has been brutally murdered, stripped and slashed to ribbons with a razor blade. He susses out a clue the police miss, tracks the killers to their hideout, and exterminates them all with the same gory relish that went into his wife's murder. And that's it. The story ends with a final panel of the handsome man walking away from his last victim's Molotov cocktail-charred corpse, wordless, the two characters' faces obscured by turned backs and flames, respectively.
Though the fight scenes have a definite pull and urgency to them, a real sweat-soaked tension, "Massacre" is a supremely cold exercise. Ten pages of humans hurting each other in obscenely horrible ways, no final point to make or even much formal innovation (though I did like the panel above quit a bit indeed). It's just shoot, stab, slash, burn, Hermann piling nightmare situations on top of one another and trusting the strength of his cartooning to drag the reader through it without their being pushed away by the gut-churning violence or the lack of any real story content whatsoever. It works, it completely works -- the story is riveting, a white-knuckle thrill ride, but its empty, nihilistic smolder is the best thing it has going, magnifying these events, these sordid little atrocities, until they eclipse everything else, until it seems that nothing else could possibly exist in the world. This country farmhouse on this rainy, freezing evening. This wood-grain. This pitchfork. This blood. These screams.
It's masterful stuff, about as immersive as comics get, and as horror it's really interesting because the content isn't too different from the kind of fight scenes that were getting into the harder edges of mainstream action comics like Batman or Wolverine in the depths of the post-1985 mature/nasty superhero revolution. The horror is all in Hermann's imagining of the sequence of events, both visual and narrative. Where the average hero goes into a close-quarters battle to the death with stoic pride and emerges bathed in immature glory, Hermann's nameless protagonist goes in with empty, gutted desperation, fights it through by the seat of his pants, lashing out with whatever's at hand in an icy rage to blow back even the most jaded of readers, and walks away with his back to us, obviously without having accomplished or even felt anything of any value. Hermann strips the glamor from an archetypal hero story and finds not Alan Moore neuroses or Harvey Kurtzman yuks or even Benjamin Marra black humor -- no, here it's the supreme, concrete-slab horror of life derailed, sans hope, sans justification, sans meaning.
The art is similarly impressive, falling somewhere between Moebius' high-focus, richly organic detailing and Paul Gulacy's gritty '80s-action-movie cartoon realism. Drenched in blacks and moodily colored, it turns the rural outskirts where the action takes place into something primal and alive, the original place of horror. Hermann's sharp lines and deep detailing marks sway with force of expression, and his figures are balls of fury, radiating coiled tension without popping out muscle-veins all over the place. This is action comics of grit teeth, clenched fists, bone and wood and gasoline. Its characters are ciphers, yes, but so vividly brought to life that we smell their fear, we feel their pain, we fight their pointless battles with them.
The shortest and by far the hardest and meanest story in Abominations, "Flight" is markedly similar to "Massacre", only with even less held back and even more minimal regard for human life, let alone decency. Like "Massacre", it's straight-up search and destroy chase comics, but transposed in time to the bleakest, darkest corners of the Neolithic era. Hermann draws it with a malice that burns off the page, eschewing the deft figurework and meticulous staging of "Massacre" for something deeper, dirtier, uglier. The panel borders drop out and the frames become slightly indistinct, wavery shapes, cut apart by tiny beams of white that offer the only relief from the art's relentless gloom. Every centimeter of every panel in "Flight" is full of marks -- pen scratchings, thick, savage brushstrokes, and sponged-on blots of ink that spread over everything, their writhing, spontaneous forms more immediate and primitive than anything short of pure abstraction.
The story is well-matched to its ghastly visualization. It's the riff from the beginning of Grant Morrison's X-Men run played backward: two naked, exhausted, plainly terrified figures, one male and one female, emerge from the gloom of a burned-out savannah, running at full tilt. The male falls. The female keeps going, then falls as well. Hair-covered, lumpy, primordial humans appear out of the roiling dust. A spear skewers the fallen woman. She's raped, then carried off and hung upside-down over a slowly kindling fire. Then... she wakes up. It's a cop-out pretty much every reader will have seen before, but -- oh, wait -- in the final half-a-page Hermann utilizes the patented EC twist ending. Turned on by the memory of her dream-rape, the woman's hand slides under the sheet. Someone walks down the hall toward the bedroom. "That you, my big honey?" the woman calls from inside... as a lumpy, hair-covered hand eases the door open!
Like most of the EC snappers, the ending flirts with farce, not to mention plain old offensiveness. There's a very uncomfortable strand of sex-based Eurocomics in which rape is portrayed as a fantasy experience for its (invariably female) victim, and Hermann plays it out to the very end here, with his protagonist almost salivating at the thought of being subjected to inter-species rape once more. And aside from the total hokiness of the twist, which does, after all, place a pre-Neanderthal type in the hallway of a very modern home, there's a weird confusion to it. Has this primitive man somehow been transposed into modern times to finish the job he started in the dream? (That's just kind of dumb.) Or... is he the, umm, the "big honey" that the woman was expecting, some kind of cave-lover in a co-habitating relationship with the woman? (Which is even dumber, and brings the story into the realm of outright misogyny.)
Either way, it's gross as hell and hard to understand from any kind of logical perspective, which slams the door shut on this story in as appropriate a fashion as possible. If "Massacre" is a genre story stripped of the usual moralistic trappings, "Flight" is "Massacre" stripped of even the barest motivation. The jarring twist aside, this is some of the most horrible shit you can see in a comic -- brutal stabbings, decapitated heads with stakes through the eye sockets, truly terrifying antagonists stalking prey driven so far into fear that it's lost even the vestige of human rationality, and a few straight-on shots of erect cave-dicks. And it's more than the subject matter, but the way it's presented, in Hermann's atmospheric, dense, utterly realist drawings. Even Josh Simmons' "Cockbone", which is the one story I can think of that matches this for sheer brutality, hides its ugliness to some extent behind the screen of a cartooned, mannerist drawing style. "Flight", though, is nothing more or less than a vivid imagining of a truly disturbing sequence of events. Yeah, twist aside this is the most effective horror comics I can think of. But with the twist, it becomes something other than horror, a bizarre object lesson with a psychosexual point to make that's too elusive and absurd to even fathom. The mocking laughter of the void, this -- five pages sounds short, but anything more would take us out of art and into the realm of obscenity.
Abominations deals almost completely in environmental horror, relying on images and atmosphere rather than any clever plot maneuvering to convey what icy chills and creeping disease is necessary. In a way, "The Cage" is the acme of that approach; in a way, it's the furthest from it. The plot is a straight rip from a template you can find in basically any issue of Heavy Metal -- after a thermonuclear war, the vast majority of Earth's population has been reduced to barbaric mutants, and a small holdout of "normals" holed up in a dilapidated apartment building struggle to survive and find a way forward. There's definitely some horror to that outline, and Hermann does a fair job extracting it, but the tropes and the environment fall squarely in the realm of sci-fi. It's a far cry from the instant horror of "Flight" and its devastated stone age, or "Massacre" and its serial killers, but Hermann twists the dystopian look of Moebius' "Long Tomorrow" or Miller's Ronin into something we can be afraid of, spiraling everything out from the single, devastatingly dark image of the titular Cage (above), a lonely lookout post which hangs down from the tenement's bastion of sanity and into the mutants' land of the damned.
With the story more or less out of the fright arena, the pictures in "The Cage" are the sole means of instilling fear, and they shoulder the load well. The cage itself is a minor masterpiece of design -- chains, cold iron siding, and barred windows suspended in thin air, it's dread in miniature. And it anchors the bulk of the story, as page after page arrays panels around it, places huddled figures inside it, considers it from multiple angles, lets it hang over everything with its full weight creaking and groaning for release. It's not terror so much as tension, a tension that never lets up -- both the story begins and ends with the same image of the metal edifice set into the choking indigo of night, the mere plot points of beautiful mute women, frayed group dynamics, malice and revenge, savagery and civilization nothing against the slight sway and low hang of the image, more powerful on its own than any explanation.
Which is good, because the story's rather incomprehensible in its own way -- you can follow the action near enough, and the characters' motivations are fairly well-grounded, but the end is a violent mess that leaves the main character (a new recruit to the commune of the "normals") dead for no discernible reason. That's okay, maybe even the best way to go, because it doesn't dilute the power of the pictures (maybe just the picture, singular) with any meaning. It lets it be what it is, which is a story about that one dread thing, the cage that can't be explained but simply is. It's scary enough that way, and leaving the reader in the unknown is a good place for a horror story to go.
By far the most classically constructed story in Abominations, "Vengeance", the book's closer, is probably the most overt use of the EC formula. Like a bushel of shock-horror classics before it (Bernard Krigstein's "The Catacombs" being perhaps the best example), it's the story of two rotten petty criminals getting it in the neck, their misdeeds paid forward with an unimaginably gruesome demise. Hermann uses the formula as a prime opportunity for some EC house-style artistic showboating, mixing pointillism, woodcut-style flashback sequences, and fearsomely atmospheric lighting into a dark, richly visual extravaganza. As horror, it isn't as effective as the smoldering grit of "Massacre" or the fever-dream blottings of "Flight", but this is really pretty comics, panel after twi-lit panel that the eye just sinks into.
It's a good approach for the subject matter, which is very straight -- a tried 'n' true Old-European vampire-y thing, with the two crypt-robbers getting good and fucked up by bats, falling gargoyles, and finally the grotesquely drawn bloodsuckers themselves. It's competent storytelling elevated by excellent art, which is basically what every good EC story was. But there's also a pretty interesting political subtext to "Vengeance", which deserves a little digging up. The story was drawn in 1986, at which time Eastern European communism was on its last legs. The old power structure was crumbling, the Soviet Union was entering its final half-decade of life, and its satellite nations were moving rapidly through the process of democratizing themselves. More importantly, immigrants were beginning to slip through the tarnished cracks in the once-impregnable Iron Curtain, and the capitalist West was suddenly an asylum for post-communist immigrants who carried the baggage of their countries' histories into its new world.
The sociopolitical problems this exodus caused are at the root of "Vengeance", as the story's two ne'er-do-well main players (Janosz and Ferko by name) literally bring their nation's demons into the West along with their plundered treasure, leaving that most Eastern European of villains, the vampire, to run riot over what appears to be Paris, with collateral damage all over the place -- an innocent policeman here, a historical work of architecture there -- there's a very mid-eighties feel to it all, shades of the international spy games and intrigues that heated up as the Cold War melted down. The story metaphor's obvious, and made more so by the patrons of the bar Janosz begins and ends the story in, who cast dour looks and grim aspersions over the "foreigner" who "barely speaks our language". But unlike the famous EC "preachies", which gave solid opinions on the social issues that powered their gruesome plots and backed them up with the hard-hitting material itself, Hermann (a Belgian who must have had some opnion on the matter) keeps any individual perspective on the matter of post-communist immigrants strictly hidden. Instead, he zeroes in on the terror of the hunted men, the gruesome visage of their vampiric pursuer, and without much sympathy for any of the story's thoroughly unpleasant characters, either. For Hermann, they're all bastards, they're all the damned, and the less proseletyzing on that fact the better.
He just draws it.