Category Archives: Horror

Review: Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country 2

“I do love them,” George agreed.  “But stories are like people, Atticus.  Loving them doesn’t make them perfect.  You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws.  The flaws are still there, though.”

“But you don’t get mad.  Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad.  Not at stories.  They do disappoint me sometimes.”  He looked at the shelves.  “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

H.P Lovecraft was one of the masters of twentieth-century horror.

He was also, to be blunt, a huge fucking racist.

We sometimes tend to let the authors of past decades off the hook  with pat excuses like, “Well, he was just a product of his time,”  but Lovecraft’s racism goes way beyond that.  It was extreme even for America in the 1920’s, and it is so bound up in every aspect of his writing it is impossible to ignore.  His stories are loaded with sinister foreigners and bestial “half breeds,” and many of the fears and anxieties he explores are rooted in an intense xenophobia and obsession with racial purity.  That’s why just last year the World Fantasy Awards changed their trophy from a bust of Lovecraft.  For anyone–like me–who reads and enjoys Lovecraft, this fundamental racism is a serious issue.

That’s why Lovecraft Country, the new novel by Matt Ruff, feels so fresh and important.  It takes a hard look at the racism of Lovecraft’s stories, but nevertheless finds something worthwhile in them.  Then it uses those same stories, themes, and ideas as a way of talking about race and racism in the United States.

Lovecraft Country 3

The story centers on two black families living in Chicago in 1954.  When Atticus Turner’s father disappears, his search takes him to a mysterious town controlled a very Lovecraftian cult, “the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn.”  From here, the story expands to explore how the cult touches the lives of Atticus’ friends and family, and includes ghosts, haunted houses, interdimensional travel, magic potions, and possessed dolls.  Each chapter focuses on a separate character, and they range from frightening to funny, adventurous to thought-provoking.

Using Lovecraft’s ideas and motifs to talk about black lives under Jim Crow seems like a strange choice.  However, in Ruff’s hands this combination works surprisingly well.    After all, the central theme of Lovecraft’s writing is “cosmic horror”:  the idea that we are trapped in a vast unfeeling universe, the victim of forces we cannot control or even understand.  This is not so different from the daily life of many African Americans in the 1950’s.  In fact, when a cult leader warns Atticus and his friends that they are doomed to be hounded and persecuted, to never know moment’s peace or safety, they simply laugh at him.  Atticus responds, “What is it you’re trying to scare me with?  You think I don’t know what country I live in?  I know.  We all do.  We always have.  You’re the one who doesn’t understand.”

Atticus’ meaning is clear:  they are already living in Lovecraft Country.  America is Lovecraft Country.  Racism, segregation, and hate turn life into a horror story, and the only way to understand it is through the language of horror.  This is what makes Lovecraft Country so special:  it revitalizes Lovecraftian horror by making it relevant, using supernatural evil as a way of talking about more prosaic everyday evils.  In doing so, it allows us to use Lovecraft’s deeply racist stories as tools for thinking critically about race.

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

6 Comics You Should Be Reading

We are living in a golden age of comics.  No, not because Superman is being a dick or Batman is fending off the Joker’s boners; the sheer variety and quality of comics on the shelves right now is staggering.  For example, right now I am reading a take on Apocalypse Now starring a lesbian werewolf; my wife is reading a zany comedy about three young women starting college in England; and my stepdaughter is reading the story of a princess who gets sick of waiting for princes and decides to save herself.  There’s truly something for everybody, but there are so many options out there it can be tricky to keep up with which are the best.  With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite comics right now.  I’m sorting them by category, so you can find what interests you the most, and also because a lot of the books I read fit into these certain types.  Please list a few of your own favorites in the comments–I’m always looking for great new things to read!

Best Superhero Comic:  Ms. Marvel

Ms. Marvel

Let’s start with the capes–or in her case, the ridiculously awesome scarf.  How could I pick anyone else but Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel?  Discounting Marvel’s change in numbering, Ms. Marvel has been running for 24 issues so far, and every single one of them has been excellent.  Whether coming to terms with her identity as a Pakistani-American superhero (although she is so much more than that), teaming up with Wolverine (about whom she also writes fanfiction), or finding her place as a New Avenger, Kamala’s adventures are an equal mixture of exciting, funny, and heartfelt.  I need to give writer G. Willow Wilson enormous credit for bringing in real-world issues like discrimination and gentrification in thoughtful and subtle ways that never feel forced or preachy.  Relatable but inspiring, Ms. Marvel is the apex of what superheroes–and superhero comics–should be.

Honorable Mentions:  I have always been a sucker for Batman, and Snyder and Capullo’s run on the series has been excellent.  They are not afraid to go some very strange places (motorcycle Batman wrestling a lion?  Jim Gordon in robot armor as the new Batman?), but they stay true to their vision of what Batman and Gotham City stand for, throughout.  Another of my favorite superhero comics is…

Best Humor Comic:  The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Squirrel Girl

Okay, so I may be cheating here–this is another superhero comic, and another Marvel one, to boot.  But seriously–if you are not reading this comic, I feel sorry for you.  Squirrel Girl‘s irrepressible optimism and enthusiasm are a joy to behold (“What, you think I won’t fight a dinosaur?  Are you crazy?  All I want to do is fight dinosaurs“).  And almost every issue has me laughing out loud–the “Deadpool’s Guide to Supervillains” collectible trading cards and Ryan North’s wry observations at the bottom of each page are particular highlights.  Squirrel Girl truly is Unbeatable–she has already taken on Galactus and Doctor Doom, and will be beating up the whole Marvel Universe later this year–but finding out what creative and hilarious ways she will find to triumph makes this comic endlessly entertaining.  Unless you hate joy and fun, you need to read Squirrel Girl.

Honorable Mentions:  It’s only getting started, but the cute and colorful Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat! comic rounds out this trifecta of funny Marvel heroines nicely.  Giant Days is very different from my usual fare, but the great interplay between its funny characters always makes me smile.

Best Horror Comic:  Harrow County

Harrow County

There are a lot of great horror comics out now, but Harrow County gets my vote because it has heart as well as horror, and writing and art working brilliantly together.  Tyler Crook’s watercolors have a softness and beauty that contrasts with the dark subject matter, but also captures its horror and grotesquerie.  Cullen Bunn perfectly captures the mood of backwoods horror, of “countless haints” lying in wait within every hollow.  But unlike some horror comics, Harrow County isn’t simply a parade of terrors:   the protagonist, Emmy, is a complex and sympathetic character who truly wants to be a good person, despite her evil ancestry.  You can read the first issue of Harrow Country for free online, and if you are at all interested in horror, I could  not recommend it more highly.

Honorable Mentions:  The October Faction, about a family of monster-hunters, is worth the price of admission for the art alone:  it’s like walking into a lost Tim Burton film. Survivors’ Club, about a killer video game, reads like someone put six different horror movies into a blender, and the results are enormous fun.  I would have a hard time recommending Alan Moore’s Providence to anyone who is not a Lovecraft buff–but I am, and I eat it up.

Best Science Fiction Comic:  Bitch Planet

Bitch Planet

I would argue that Ms. MarvelSquirrel Girl, and Harrow County are all feminist comics, to varying degrees.  But Bitch Planet slaps you in the face with its feminism, and that is what makes it so great.  Set in the not-to-distant-future on a prison world for “Noncompliant” women, Bitch Planet is a true dystopia, and that dystopia is patriarchy.  Audre Lord wrote that “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” but in this comic Kelly Sue Deonnick brilliantly subverts the language and style of the grindhouse “Women in Prison” films of the 1970s.  While these films typically objectified and dehumanized women, Bitch Planet flips the script to show us the prisoners’ inherent humanity and nobility.  I also need to praise the Bitch Planet‘s back matter, some of the best I have ever seen.  Each issue is jam-packed with thoughtful commentary, feminist editorials, in-depth conversation, pictures, tweets–even a Noncompliant crafting guide in the most recent issue!

Honorable Mentions:  It would be criminal not to mention Saga, which is still as beautiful, heartbreaking , and creative as ever four years in.  Everyone should read this comic.  I am also enjoying Descender, Jeff Lemire’s science fiction epic about a robot boy.  Think Stanley Kubrick’s A.I., if it was much better.

Best Fantasy Comic:  Monstress

Monstress

Oh my god, the art.  Sana Takeda’s art for Monstress is simply gorgeous:  beautiful, intricate, detailed–I feel like I could get lost in it for days.  This art fleshes out the already fascinating and creative world created by Marjorie Liu, which takes more cues from steampunk and anime than Tolkien (I love Tolkien as much as the next guy, but every once in a while, it’s nice to see something different).  Although we are only 4 issues into Monstress, the massive 66-page first issue immediately plunged us into this world with a riveting jailbreak executed by Maika and the mysterious monster inside her.  The pace has not slackened yet, and with its superior art and worldbuilding, I am excited to see where Monstress takes us next.

Honorable Mentions:  Speaking of epic fantasies with great art, Mike del Mundo’s work on Weirdworld is a sight to behold.  The characters are fun and the world amusingly strange, but I want to hang the art on my walls.  The Spire has some of the most fascinating and creative worldbuilding I have seen, creating a massive city of strange characters and creatures; highly recommended for fans of China Mieville.

Best Apocalypse Now, But With Lesbian Werewolves Comic:  Cry Havoc

Cry Havoc

You had me at Apocalypse Now, but with lesbian werewolves.  In all seriousness, despite the strange premise, this comic is exploring some extremely interesting ideas.  Relocating the search for a renegade general with dreams of godhood to war-torn Afghanistan changes the meaning and relevance of the story.  And the most recent issue suggests that this comic is interested in even deeper questions of narrative and mythology, how they shape us and are shaped by us.  Besides, any comic that comes with endnotes needs to be taken seriously, right?

Honorable Mentions:  Frankly, this pretty much sweeps the category; although Wolf is closer than you might think.

Final Thoughts

My intention with this list was just to share some of my favorite comics currently on the stands; looking over my picks, I’m surprised to see I could just as easily have called my list “6 Comics with Awesome Female Heroes.”  My first response is that this is just an odd, interesting coincidence.  But as I think about it more, it’s actually pretty awesome.  After spending so long as a boys’ club, comics have started to embrace different characters, authors, artists, and audiences.  The women in these comics are heroic, funny, scary, challenging, and refreshingly human–even when they are part monster.  There will always be a space for Batman, but I ‘m thankful to be reading comics at a time when there  are such diverse characters and stories available.