November 18th, 2011
Night. A boy lies slumped on the pavement.
A car pulls up, the door opens and a red woman calls him over.
He gets in.
Uno Moralez’s pixel art has an infernal heat.
Shorn of deeper narrative context thanks to their self-imposed brevity, Moralez’s illustrations and micro-comic strips are more vignettes than stories. By condensing the action into a single panel, or small set of panels, he does away with the necessity of explanation and forces the moment upon the reader. Perverse assemblages of horror and lust and things that conjure, at least in my febrile mind, the bespoke torments and pleasures of hell, dream, or sexual fantasy, or a sinful synthesis of all three.
An effect reinforced by the recurrent themes, genres and stereotypes that under-pin much of his work: corruption of innocence, the perils of sex, the dangers of knowledge, woman as Other, folklore and fairytale. The fears and anxieties – sometimes, as in the example above, the form and content – articulated by much of Moralez’s imagery are well worn. We don’t need to expand on the boy’s story because the panels are crammed with resonance: the predatory, tempter woman; the vulnerable male child; the red light (district); the scarlet-ribbed depths of the car. The scene sparks connections from Adam and Eve, through Hansel and Gretel, through Freud. Just the other week I found myself pulling away from the page as I read an almost identical and spectacularly sinister fairytale penned by Sheridan Le Fanu, The Child that Went with the Fairies [really, click the link].
It must be noted that clichés are hardly the bedrock of good art. And I’d be remiss if I were to fail to point out that there’s not a little misogyny at work in a vision that almost uniformly represents female sexuality as dangerous, femininity as fundamentally inscrutable and mysterious, all burgundy lips and vaginal emptiness.
But Moralez’s imagery goes some if perhaps not all the way to redeeming itself through something approaching equal opportunity sexism. His men are more often than not monstrous reductions of masculinity: face-eating smiles and barely, if at all repressed, violence. Not only that, but, as the sickeningly on-the-nose image but one above will attest, he doesn’t restrict the victims in his scenes of sexual and bodily violence to women.
More importantly, despite his frequent visits to the lands of fairytale, religion and folklore, Moralez’s surreal visions push hard against the possibility that his work could ever feel too knowable. The precise stabs of flat colour that litter so many of his panels subtly emphasise their weird and troubling components: blue teeth transform a driver into a monster; neon turquiose adds a unfamiliar otherworldliness to a demon; a shock of red is blood, doubles as strawberry juice, triples as violence and lust.
Moralez’s scratchy line and his heavy use of black, all in the service of bizarre horrors, brings to mind the work of a pixel slinging Junji Ito, although unlike Ito Moralez draws largely if far from exclusively on fantastical European and, one suspects, his native Russian culture’s storytelling traditions. Moreover his post-modern mash-up aesthetic* – when combined with his murky pastels, late-night neons and his stripped and be-mulleted actors (like something out of a bad porn movie) – sits uncomfortably with his horrific subject matter.
*Best exemplified in his wonderful if sometimes too obvious gif galleries
It’s in the detail that things get really strange, however. Zak Sabbath has written a great deal about how to inject weirdness [link to an essay in PDF format by China Mieville] into fiction – you could read what Zak has to say, or you could take one look at a panel by Moralez. Why have a werewolf and woman caught in flagrante on a tombstone by a mob, when you can have a were-donkey/bearded ogre wearing a woollen coat, hat and what looks like a polka-dot skirt with a horrified man’s head in it’s mouth for the price of your common or garden monster? Why settle for a femme fatale when you can have a belly button double as a portal to infinity? And why-oh-why have a woman tied to a bed awaiting unspeakable acts when you can have a woman tied to a bed awaiting unspeakable acts that feature Carla Bruni and Karl Lagerfeld as stand-ins for the Cenobites, floating teddies and overwrought décor?
Moralez’s disorientatingly weird images often deliberately cross the line into humour. The er… interestingly dressed ogre-donkey described above, the satanic Lagerfeld-Bruni visitation, the nude man peacefully dreaming of rampaging through the sky as a knife toothed, moustachioed monster are at least as funny as they are disturbing. Similarly Moralez often throws a perverse sexiness into the mix, forcing the audience to grapple with attraction and repulsion and possibly humour simultaneously (back to Lagerfeld and the teddies). This juggling of conflicting and strangely reinforcing emotions and components works to place Moralez firmly in that small camp of creators whose power rests in hard to reconcile tensions and vacillations: the Coens and Lynch’s of this world.
While their hellish, dream-like, or, for want of a better description, sexually fantastic flavour* is in part a product of subject matter and form**, most of his scenarios get their real strength from being something that you quite simply wouldn’t have imagined without Moralez’s help. They speak to things – common fears, desires, staples of fiction, etc… – that we often have little trouble recognising, but their gargantuan idiosyncrasies and freudian qualities forever queer the possibility of cosy familiarity, and in my view suggest the inner lives of others. I personally don’t know where the foetal floating man taking direction from the crystal midget all watched over by a demure woman in a mirror comes from, but it sure does look like the sort of thing that might have caused someone to wake up screaming. And while I’ve never dreamt of disappearing into a sexy lady’s belly button, you can imagine a chap somewhere out there having a hard time getting back to sleep, if you see what I mean.
*It’s worth noting that his characters are often found in bed or asleep.
**Almost everyone looks like they could have stepped off the set of Logjammin’ with Karl Hungus
Ultimately it’s the evil delight exuded by his creations combined with the perversely erotic, violent and nightmarish elements that made me want to use the word “infernal” in my opening paragraph. Rictus grins don’t infest every single frame, but on the whole Moralez’s work is filled with beings who are, for better or worse, having one a hell of a good time, be they stealing kiddies, murdering astronauts, or watching us from the shadows as we sleep. The woman with the strawberry man, she’s enjoying herself, savouring every bite, taking her time. The demon smiling out of the darkness? He’s happy to see us. The mermaids eviscerating the sailor-boy? Well, they took their clothes off didn’t they? Uno Moralez presents us with a world that thoroughly enjoys being bad, where horror is sexy, beautiful, even gleeful fun. A theme park or nightclub for demons and evil stepmothers, where no child is safe and no dream is too sick.
Click for Note 1 – The Overlook Hotel