April 16th, 2012
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 2 - Staring Through Her Mother’s Eyes
PART 3 – Ghosts of the Cradlegrave Estate