Being: the second in a series of posts about John Smith and Edmund Bagwell’s top British horror comic Cradlegrave.

If you’re going to talk about Cradlegrave, you’ve pretty much got to face up to this image at some point:

Stripped of context it’s just a doll, just a tired horror-movie prop, a signifier of terror rather than something actually terrifying. In context however, this dull prop seems far more potent:

The sense of surprise, that feeling of “what the fuck is that face doing in the middle of this conversation?”, is enough to give the image some fresh charge here.  The last panel of the sequence hints at the answer, but for the duration of the two panels before it you could be forgiven for thinking you were in another, more Lynchian kind of horror story.

Still, even the most bewildering emanations in Cradlegrave trace back to fleshy, non-Lynchian sources, so it’s just as well that there’s more to the this sequence than  lifeless eyes and startling incongruity.

Look into these eyes, and tell me what you see…

Is this a flash of what’s to come or just a bit of scattered bit of wreckage, the battered possession of a battered girl? Well, handily enough, it’s both! This panel is a premonition of the imminent collision between the car Shane and Cal are riding in and a young girl called Keira, a collision that leaves the girl in a wheelchair and puts the boys in the sights of her drug-dealing dad, Tozzer.

It’s worth noting how blankly terrified this little harbinger of the future looks, especially when compared to the withered face of Mary, that other sign of things to come on the Cradlegrave estate…

The doll’s wide open eyes acquire a resonance beyond the generic when compared to Mary’s barely-open peepers. Neither picture is exactly optimistic, but taken together they suggest a before and after portrait of suffering, one that moves from inert terror into crumpled half-life before becoming something else, something other(ed).

In the first part of this series, when I said that “Cradlegrave is a book full of dazed, tough, frightened faces”, I negected to mention that these two images show where those faces might be heading and where they’ve been…

…but maybe I was just trying to be kind, trying not to emphasise what could happen to said “dazed, tough, frightened faces” when the toughness gets worn away.

So: the doll’s stare begins to look cruelly prophetic when Tozzer decides that he can’t stand the way that Keira (the doll’s owner/his daughter) is looking at him, with eyes that belong to her mother and not to him, and glues her eyelids shut to avoid the sight.

Keira’s final scene in Cradlegrave shows her squirming, immobile and unseeing as her abusive dad is offered up as breakfast to Mary’s litter. You might think that she’d be better off not seeing this scene play out in front of her, but unfortunately her other senses are still working, and her expression throughout this scene seems just a little bit too much like either a follow up or a precursor to the doll’s face to me:

The more I think about it, the more I think that the image of the doll’s face is not only the axis on which the whole story turns (the car crash brings the non-horror aspects of the plot up to a boil alongside the horror elements, and Keira’s final scene works as a revelation of what’s left when both plots have burned away) but also Cradlegrave in microcosm.  The way it appears out of nowhere at the bottom of that page, a bewildered alien presence that seems to clash with everything else around it, reminds me of something Bobsy said in the comments to my first Diggers and Snatchers entry:

I think the way Bagwell’s art slips into the computer-rendered images creates a pleasingly horrid but appropriate dissonance. It creates a point of stress between the chaacters and their environment, which is kind of what the whole story’s about.

While I still don’t take much pleasure from the way Edmund Bagwell‘s characters jar with their backgrounds, I know a good visual metaphor when I have it pointed out to me, and I’ve come around to Brother Bobsy’s thinking of late.

To be honest, it’s currently hard for me to look at this sequence…

..without thinking of this:

What do you think Shane sees when he looks down into the otherworldly estate he calls home? A lot of things, probably, but I reckon that if you could give them an abstract form then they might just look right back at him like this off-centre phantom:

If you stare at this sequence long enough you might even come to realise that the same dissonance between character and landscape that is reflected in the doll’s placement at the bottom of the page also mirrors the clash between grim Northern realism and oblique fantasy that characterises Cradlegrave. It’s all there in the eyes, if you want it to be:

Still, as I’ve already said, both this image and the book’s horror element are defiantly non-abstract in nature. They both have their place in this poverty-ravaged environment – both are their environment in their own stark ways – but that doesn’t mean that having faced up to them, you’re done with Cradlegrave.  It just means you’ve started to figure out how you fit in there…

…or rather, how you don’t.


Diggers and Snatchers

PART 1 - 15 Thoughts About Fear and Cradlegrave

PART 2 - Staring Through Her Mother’s Eyes

PART 3 – Ghosts of the Cradlegrave Estate

17 Responses to “Diggers & Snatchers: Staring Through Her Mother’s Eyes”

  1. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Diggers & Snatchers: Fifteen Thoughts About Fear and Cradlegrave Says:

    [...] PART 2 – Staring Through Her Mother’s Eyes [...]

  2. bobsy Says:

    It’s just a simple visual misread on my part, but every time I look at that panel there’s a third eye lurking in the doll’s mouth.


    (Also, small detail, but the two blank square windows on the nearmost houses in the ‘Welcome back’ splash page… they kind of ‘gaze back’, do they not?)

  3. Illogical Volume Says:

    Haha, yeah, I saw the doll’s third eye in exactly the same place Bobsy – it took me a while to unsee it, and now the fucking thing’s back again.

    Nice spot on the blank gaze of the Cradlegrave estate too. When I said, back in my frist post, that it was the faces that would stay with you, I had no idea quite how right I was…

  4. i am all bum Says:

    volume – great stuff. truth is, for me, cradlegrave is all about atmosphere. well observed chat. character studies. that kind of thing. story coulda been a 5 page future shock though. heroin metaphor not good enough. gimme brian yuzna’s society over cradlegrave (from which it surely suckles). apologies for lowering the tone.

  5. bobsy Says:

    Heroin metaphor? I think it goes rather further than that to be honest – drug issues are dealt with at the very front of the text, not subsumed into the metaphorical superstructure. #theblackmilk is more about the collapse of the postwar socioeconomic settlement, isn’t it? We all see what we want to I guess, but why, if it’s all just smack-talk, are the ‘pushers’ a pair of neglected OAPs? why does the British bulldog (yes, I know it’s not a British bulldog) go mad and eat its young?

    Society is a classic of course, and undoubtedly a general influence on John Smith, much as Cronenberg and Clive Barker are, but it describes a different (vertical, oppositional) dynamic of class antagonism than Cradlegrave does, which is more about messy internalities.

  6. Illogical Volume Says:

    Nae worries about lowering the tone big baws – glad you liked the post, but the tone could stand to be lower, I reckon.

    (lovely suckling filth-teats are best for wank, hmmmm?)

    I’d think the heroin metaphor wasn’t good enough if that’s all there was to Cradlegrave, but like brother bobsy I think it’s just one part of the social/personal implosion you get from Shane and Mary’s POV throughout the comic.

    The chat and atmospherics are fucking brilliant though, eh? I’ve got to remember to talk about all of that when I’m done trying to look big and clever…

  7. bobsy Says:

    ‘when I’m done trying to look big and clever…’

    Hey! I resemble that remark!

    Apols bum, didn’t mean to gloss over yr too-true observation that what makes Cradlegrave ping so loud is the brilliantly observed dialogue and sense that these folk actually live just round the corner.

  8. Illogical Volume Says:

    Don’t gloss over the bum ya bas!

  9. Nosher McNosh - bum's mate Says:

    society and cradlegrave have ‘fitting in’ in common. and visually, the fleshorgy (pronounced fleshergee) at the end and the suckling scenes in cradlegrave are closer than any I can think of in cronenberg or barker (i think). of course bobsy you’re right in that there’s a bigger story about the failure of post war housing for the working classes obviously signposted by the title, ‘cradlegrave’ (which again for me is too heavy-handed – is it not a bit ‘duh’…?) but actually taking heroin in reality – in the circumstances shown, rather than say the way Burroughs (or some other enabled citizen) did – is a personal metaphor for those same failures too. and if you want to understand why dogs eat their puppies there’s all sorts of stuff on the cybernet concerning this rum occurrence. let me share my curse with you: i have an internal comicometer ticking in my heart – and sadly, cradlegrave didn’t push the needle beyond the line marked ‘hmmmm’. nevertheless, thanks for acknowledging bum’s respect for dialogue etc – although he’s more proud of his ‘tell it in five pages’ observation. because really, as far as the story is concerned that’s all it needs. (bum misses good five page stories though). And I do too. True, we wouldn’t have got all the wonderful dialogue or smart panel sequences and foreshadowing, which volume writes engagingly about, but perhaps Smith could save that set of skills for the great comic book tale he has yet to write. Promises, promises with this cunt. that’s the problem.

  10. Illogical Volume Says:

    Reckon we can all agree that it’s nice to be able to slip a good five page story deep inside you, even if we disagree that Cradlegrave (the name’s kinda obvious, yeah, but it works fine for me here as a reminder of where you’re going and where you’ve been as you enter/exit the estate) wouldn’t lose anything substantial if you cut it down to that size.

    Tell you what though, I’m well grateful to the bum/nosher dream team, because they’ve (you’ve) brought the fourth post in this series right into focus. S’gonna be called “Black Milk as Metaphor” or something similar, and it’ll be all the other horrible shit Cradlegrave manages to get you to pump into yr arm as it goes on.

    I mean, at the end of the day we’ll still be left with a situation where nosher’s comicometer is stuck at ‘hmmmmm’ while mine is all the way up at ‘look maw, ah’ve shite mah-self again!’, but it’ll be fun to get there, I think.

  11. Nosher's mum (mrs mcnosh) Says:

    Cradegrave…it’s like if the costumed ‘heroes’ in watchmen where called, ‘the watchmen’.

    But yes mr volume. Next post sounds like it’ll be fun.

  12. bobsy Says:


    I don’t know – there’s more to the postwar dream than just a roof over your head though, isn’t there? ‘cradle to the grave’ as its used in politickal chanting is more about a guarantee of healthcare than housing.

    but you are buildings mad: bildungsromad

    (there’s a books of blood story, i think maybe the one where the guy turns into a woman overnight, where there’s like this ur-mother thing that lives in the showers at the local swimming pool? that’s closer than society to this.)

    and like, how could you get the sweaty build, the dragging quagmire atmosphere and gnawing unease, over in five pages? twouldn’t be impossible, but you’d get a very different kind of book.


    (Srsly you should do this – )

    Do a shaky kane on it: Get yourself to the scissor drawer and chop down your cradlegrave to a five-page version of same. we’ll stick it up on the site, you will become the odd mod of comics god.

  13. Illogical Volume Says:

    I’m not going to say too much here because I want to do this in a post, but I agree with Bobsy’s points, and that you should mangle Cradlegrave FOR OUR PLEASURE, you saucy mcnosher you!

  14. bum and co Says:

    ok I will do as you ask. (tho it make take longer than mindless cares for.)

    however when i said post war housing, it was my way of saying ‘postwar socioeconomic settlement’ – which is what i thought you meant bobsy, as opposed to me being buildings mad. (which I’m not. that’s yawn yer thinking of. he’s not really either tho. hes comics mad, but out of fear of wasting the degree he studied, ploughed away in that sector of employment until he found a bearable job. Yawn’d much rather (deputy) edit 2000AD than AJ tho).

    furthermore, you point out that it wouldn’t be possible (or at least question how bum etc’d manage) to get across ‘the sweaty build, the dragging quagmire atmosphere and gnawing unease’ in five pages?which is something I admit to not being possible either – here:

    “True, we wouldn’t have got all the wonderful dialogue or smart panel sequences and foreshadowing” (ok, perhaps its not exactly what you said, but trust me, it’s what I meant)

    because my main point was (and still is):

    the story is pretty thin, all the other things that volume picks up on so brilliantly are indeed worthy of comment, but sadly are hung around an all too abruptly ended tale that could be told in the blink of a Betelgeusian eye.

    Nevertheless, I shall try and convey the sweaty tension building as well as the story in five pages.

    As for Society versus Books of Blood as source, i think we’ll just have to ask John Smith himself.

    As for Cradlegrave being a bit obvious – not if it was a five pager – that’d be fine. I think however this story has higher aspirations – and should therefore not relied to heavily on cliches to signpost the state of affairs.

    (Although I love strangehaven. which seems related – through art anyway, and certainly it’s crap title)

  15. bum and co Says:

    oh, and as for heroin being pushed by oldies – see Acid House by Irvine ‘nosher’ Welsh and ‘Granny’s Old Junk’. scary.

  16. bobsy Says:

    Ah OK, sorry I thought you were actually Y hisself hiding in a new name. I’ve gone and asked him to do a trimjob on CG too, so now if you both do one (which you definitely should – no rush though) we will maybe have a crisis on infinite Cradlegraves, which should be brain-buggeringly good fun.

    And not to pursue an argument that I doubt either of us can be arsed with, but like, although I’d kinda-agree (not that this is what you’re saying necessarily) that CG – like most 2K strips – is worming its way out of an ideal five-page format for the sake of filling pages and thrilling the squaxx with a few twists and turns before disappearing again, I think there is something about CG and its plotlessness, its lack of splashy cliffhangers etc. that works in its favour and makes it unique.

    2K strips are by nature hectic, fastmoving things, set unfailingly in far flung mega-exotic locales. CG isn’t: it makes features of such ill-trodden byways as boredom, banality, boxy houses. Alienation, stasis, absence, all those (like sooo on-trend) dysphoric things that an action-adventure SF comic is supposed to eschew. 2K is supposed to take us out of mundane reality, not try to drown us in it. The fact that CG’s plot isn’t swinging us around and snapping our heads back with an earth shattering new revelation every few pages – quite the opposite, making you feel sick and slow and trapped, chapters stopping with no exclamation point, the whole thing ending not at a point of natural dramatic closure but when our POV character realises he’s simply had enough and is getting the hell out etc. – is to me a big part of what’s so fresh and interesting about it.

  17. Yawn Says:

    Bum’s a fanny, so are his pals, talks shite.

    Anyway is that wee guy – the main guy – in cradlegrave not just Ultimate John Constantine?

    Back on top!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.