March 21st, 2012
Being: the first in a series of posts about John Smith and Edmund Bagwell’s top British horror comic Cradlegrave.
ONE – If you didn’t look past this cover-cum-announcement for Cradlegrave, you might think that it was telling a very specific sort of story, the sort of story you might describe as being either “tabloid shit” or “a bit Jamie Delano” depending on where you felt like throwing your cruelty.
When I first discussed Cradlegrave back in December, regular commenter Thrills noted that he was “looking forward to reading Cradlegrave” now that he’d got past his concerns that it would “be like that Denise Mina Hellblazer where ‘hoodies’ are ‘demons’.”
Ah, so it’s the worst of both worlds – tabloid shit that smells like Jamie Delano. Fuck.
TWO – Despite the fact that the “Fear they Neighbour” text is missing, the cover of the collected edition still works hard to make the same impression:
There’s something less real about these four hooded figures in this second, reformatted cover – the overly harsh, pixelated light that gleams on of their shoulders is even more unnatural when set against an all-black background, a background that now extends into the empty spaces where four young faces should be.
These are absent phantoms, not flesh and blood monsters, and while I wouldn’t want to pretend that they’re being deliberately undermined here, I still find it hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously.
The only fear in this image is the fear you bring with you, be it fear of “savage” yoofs or of right wing rhetoric…
THREE – If you want to talk about actual fear, you don’t have to look too far into Cradlegrave to find it. It’s right there in all of its startling mundanity on the second page:
The important thing being that, in this image, the Ravenglade Cradlegrave estate is presented as being a a scary environment from the perspective of one of its residents, returning. The sense of dread that hangs over this image is an insider’s dread – for our protagonist Shane Cradlegrave is the “real world”, its inescapable gravity written in to its new name, its true name:
FOUR - From the cradle to the grave… if you want to find irony in the invocation of this phrase then go ahead, we’re all right there with you! Obvious as it might seem, there’s still something chilling about the logic of this reversal, of the idea that far from protecting its poorest members from birth to death, our society dooms and condemns them.
I know it sounds dramatic, but fuck it, if you’re capable of looking at the world without feeling even a little bit like you’re staring into a bottomless pit then maybe you’re in the wrong place…
FIVE - And so while there are many horrors, both supernatural and otherwise, in the Cradlegrave estate, the people who suffer these horrors are the very people who are hollowed out and turned into monsters by the “Fear thy Neighbour” image, by popular British sketch shows and hack “news” articles.
You wouldn’t think that it would feel revolutionary to view people as people, rather than as lumpen monsters made out of meat, but that’s Britain in 2012 for you.
SIX - It’s also worth noting that Cradlegrave doesn’t attempt to present its readers with a tidy, cuddly version of reality either. Instead, all perspectives from outside of the estate are excluded, so that you never get the sense that you’re reading something designed by and for Guardian readers.
As a mushy, middle-class comic book reader, this is the fear that’s haunted me while writing this post. In trying to write about Cradlegrave, I’m worried that I’ll smooth the edge off of the reality it hints at in order to write a piece that makes more sense to people like me.
SEVEN - Cradlegrave presents the reader with a series of characters, without ever stopping to pat itself on the back for doing so – which is to say, without ever winking at the reader and mentioning ‘Common People’. Everyone in the Cradlegrave estate breaths the same sticky air, putrid with the smell of rotting rubbish because of an ongoing labour dispute. Everyone has skin, and all skin can crawl.
Even Shane’s troubled, troubling mate Cal has worries that would be strictly outsider the limits of your average tabloid report on life on the wrong side of the poverty line:
I mean, he’s still a prick, obviously, but he’s not just a prick.
EIGHT - Well done as they might be, “character moments” like the one above are far from the most effective tools used in Cradlegrave, probably because traditional psychology isn’t the driving force in this comic.
John Smith is probably the most sickly and sensual writer to emerge from the Brit Comics crowd – not for him the magical mystery tours of Moore and Morrison, the unstable identities of Peter Milligan, the blokey back’n'forth of Garth Ennis or the “I can’t believe it’s not still the 80s” technophilia of Warren Ellis.
Even at his most abstract, Smith’s work often presents you with an uncannily tactile sort of fantasy, to the extent that I wouldn’t be surprised if even his sweetest dreams looked like Chris Weston’s nightmares…
What can I say, I can relate.
NINE - Strangely, the most obvious conduit for this concern are the words on the page, rather than the pictures. Smith’s concise captions are all skewed sense-memory, and they add several (horrible) dimensions to Cradlegrave all on their own:
The smell inside is worse than out. Dettol and bed pans ad stale piss and something sickly sweet as pear drops underneath it all.
He thinks of tramps raiding a sweetshop and gags on a laugh.
Taken on its own Smith’s prose is a little ripe, but if that ripeness doesn’t but catch in the back of your throat then you’re eyes don’t link up to your brain like mine does. While he’s evoking putrid smells and sounds like this, Smith is generally careful to stick the reader with little barbs of otherness:
Cal wakes still sticky from last night’s dream.
Black milk and gaping legs. Wet red mouths wih too many tongues. Something like a sow feeding her farrow.
His body feels awkward in his own skin, his body like an old school uniform he’s long grown out of.
Twinge of blood on his gums and a twinge in his balls like puberty all over again.
I have never tasted these tastes, couldn’t taste them, wouldn’t want to, but – I feel like I have, now.
TEN - It becomes even clearer that this is more than just another cheap holiday in other peoples’ misery when Smith and Bagwell start hitting the reader with fragmented memories from the site of the horror, from Mary, a withered old woman in the middle of a strange new bloom:
Sometimes she forgets who she is. Sometimes she thinks she’s a child again, playing in the back streets of Belfast.
Her memories are like leaves in fast water she can’t quite catch.
This isn’t an attempt to paint a sympathetic picture, it’s an assault on the reader’s sense of superiority, of their assurance that what they are reading has only two dimensions and can be comfortably held in their hands. Cradlegrave doesn’t want you to feel for Mary – it wants to hollow you out, to put a little bit of Mary in you, to leave you chasing leaves in fast water.
ELEVEN - Edmund Bagwell’s art maintain the focus on distressed flesh that powers Smith’s horrific imagination. Cradlegrave is a book full of dazed, tough, frightened faces, and while Bagwell is more than up to the challenge of providing full-on, Cronenbergian body horror when the script demands it, it’s the faces that’ll stick with you when you’re done:
TWELVE - If there’s one weakness to Bagwell’s art, it’s that his backgrounds occasionally tend towards a strandely rendered looking sort of blocky realism. From what I can tell from the bonus material in the collected edition, Bagwell seems to have created computer models for some of these backgrounds, so maybe they’re to blame:
Or maybe it’s just the colours. Comics luminary James Baker is on record as not being a fan of the colours in this book, and the course, digital tones that illuminate the cover appear at various points throughout. Bagwell makes good use of this most of the time, but there are moments where these effects create a strange sort of dissonance, suggesting as they do a strained attempt at replicating reality that has little in common with the measured, poetic reality of the rest of the comic.
It’s much easier to let the images in Cradlegrave burrow into your skull when they don’t look like they’re fresh off your laptop.
THIRTEEN – For all its sheen of grim, Northern realism, Cradlegrave is a book that takes pleasure in eroding the line between inner and outer spaces. You first get a sense of this when you see Shane returning to the room he grew up in, only to find it strangely uninhabitable…
From there on it haunts the comic in the form of the sensory shrapnel of the captions, in the blurry mixture of real horror (car accidents, crushing poverty) and elliptical fantasy (“It’s foraging again”), and in the way these two types of horror build until you can’t tell the difference between the characters’ feverish body heat and the overripe warmth of the air.
The feeling you get reading Cradlegrave is really a sort of despair, of hopelessness. Sifting through Mary’s jagged memories at the heart of the monstrosity, you get the sense of life’s possibilities closing in as she moves from open fields to the sticky confines of her bed without ever leaving her council house; breathing in Shane’s panic, you see the pattern repeating.
Look in the mirror. What do you see?
This is horror that makes you want to burn everything else down in the hope of making yourself clean.
FOURTEEN - The blurb on the back of the collected edition seems to have been designed to reinforce the initial impression the cover made, just in case you were afraid that Cradlegrave might actually be as good as you thought it was:
After serving eight months at a young offenders institution for arson, Shane Holt returns to his home on the Ravenglade Estate during a long, hot summer. Plagued by the ASBO generation, the estate has seen its fair share of problems but nothing comes close to the horror that lurks within Ted and Mary’s council house…
Yeah, that’s right – “Plagued by the ASBO generation”, by the only generation who could have been given ASBOs. That’s got to be what Cradlegrave was all about. It can’t have been everything you thought it was. That would be ridiculous…
FIFTEEN - But of course, it’d take more than one fairly formulaic paragraph to get Cradlegrave out of your head. Its tastes are too vivid to be washed away that easily.
And so, if the ending doesn’t seem triumphant or conclusive, if Shane’s “escape” from the estate at the end scarcely seems more appealing than the NVQ he discusses earlier in the comic, then that’s only fitting. Even if Shane escapes Cradlegrave, it [the place/the mind/the body] is still there, still fucked, still reeling off the last hit of the black milk.
Best take note of that “4EVER” as you try to leave this comic behind you.
You might not be away for as long as you think…
(With apologies to the great Neil Kulkarni, whose far superior “Twenty Thoughts About Love & Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two” provided the template for this piece.)
Diggers and Snatchers
PART 2 - Staring Through Her Mother’s Eyes
PART 3 – Ghosts of the Cradlegrave Estate