Superhero Horror

February 23rd, 2012

This is the first in what will probably -HAHAHAHAHAHAHA – be a series of regular, if shortish posts about good, scary moments in superhero books.

This week:

From Dante’s Inferno and Fungus the Bogeyman to the much maligned, because capriciously fatal, Chasms of Malice the megadungeon has, for me, an eternal appeal. But because I’ve always found it such a comforting fictional environment, films like 127 Hours and Touching The Void really fuck with my head. They take the safe, endlessly sheltered, endlessly contained and controlled space and aggressively insist it’s anything but. The endless shelter, the roofing, becomes nothing but a granite sky as uncaring, if not moreso, than the one in the stock quote. Because unlike the sky above us it can cave in, trap arms, pulverise shins. Can go on forever…. until it tapers into a little hole where the star of The Descent is still trapped, alone, left to rot and go mad in the dark. Dungeons jostle about like this in all our minds, I think. Humans seek refuge. We instantly anthropomorphise enclosed spaces. Potential homes. But they may resist us. Perhaps they *are* homes – but not ours. Filled with… things.

(clicky to embiggen)

Which is why Riveira’s imagery and Waid’s script are so good. They contains both possibilities.

Those familiar with my writing will know I share a love of the Marvel Monsters of yesteryear with artists like Charles Burns (by whom, I think, this image is inspired as much it is by Jack Kirby) and no doubt everyone else, the roots of which infatuation lie in the tension between the silly and the absurd and the unknowable abject horror battling for supremacy over these behorn-ed and fanged spaces. Nostalgia veering into dread. Because maybe Marvel was never a safe space. And that certainly comes into play here. It’s a key element to what makes these panels so effective. From a certain angle the monsters look dumb and kind of friendly, but those ‘creepy cartoon eyes’ would make you sick if you were confronted with them anywhere outside the comic page.

And obviously this is heightened by the broader context of Mark Waid’s comic. Daredevil (especially this Daredevil, shorn of the banal bleatings of the wider MU, unshackled, so far, by mega events emanating from both within or without) is a book that has traditionally had a tighter, dare I say it, more ‘realistic’ focus. Daredevil’s natural environment is The Streets, his enemies gangsters, assassins and low rent supercrooks. As with Batman, the character’s defining era was presided over by Frank Miller, who brought to the book ever enduring hardboiled concerns, aided and abetted by David Mazuchelli of whose art Riveira’s is a not so distant echo. And so it’s no surprise that, as with this story’s closest correlate I can think of right now, the post Typhoid Mary Inferno arc of the late Eighties, it comes as something of a shock to find Daredevil braving the underworld and the kind of creatures the FF would normally be fighting. World’s collide uneasily here, and it seems right that the second panel should reframe these beasties as the wayward inky weirdness they always were in their beating unhearts of unhearts but which somewhere along the way has been ground out of them by the wonder-pummeling pens of Marvel’s current stable of massively mandated writer-monkeys. In fact part of me can’t help but read the panel in question as one composed of panels past, a hallway of grotesque portraits through which our blind hero obliviously surfs. It’s almost though Waid and Riveira are saying: ‘Look! Look at these things! Remember these things! Before they were explained or rationalised or given back-stories! Look at them! Remember how WRONG they were!’

No more words, just the terrible reality hanging there uncontextualised. You can never hope to explain anything about ANYTHING that looks like these fucking things. You tried. You gave it your best shot. You thought you named the demon, that you laid Sadako to rest, etc.

But the bell still tolls for that dreadful day.

I also dig the metaphorical connotations embedded in the imagery. From Matt’s inability to read texts to his failure to properly disguise himself in the issue currently under discussion, blindness, whilst not exactly a plot point, has been a theme returned to again and again during Waid’s run. And here we have a perfect pictoral description, albeit via rabid fantasy, of the world as it’s perceived by many people with sight loss – a hostile, precarious world, where one false step, if not into a churning subterranean river but down the stairs or into the road, can lead to death or injury – and the small raft of safety upon which the visually impaired are balanced (in this case, aptly, a coffin) in any situation they enter into where the geography and variables are unknown. And around them, in all that endless dark, Monsters, always there, undetected (as in the first panel) by their limited sense range. This panel wouldn’t have half the charge it we weren’t aware of Daredevil’s visual impairment. And the hero wouldn’t seem half as brave.

This kind of takes me to where I want to wrap up, actually. Full circle, back to the glorious tension contained in the panels’ juxtaposition. Because as I mentioned above, in one panel the monsters are there and in the other they’re not. The in-story explanation for this is, of course, that Murdoch’s supersenses fail to pick them up. But what does that mean beyond the cool idea that these things are radar invisible, a sophisticated survival trait for creatures living in an environment where nothing relies on its eyes to find its dinner? Are they more rock than flesh, these dirt-whales, sewage hydras and gargoyles de terre with their Slow Vision, burrowing fins and wings powerful enough to beat through packed earth? Are they not conceived, but hewn? Erupted not birthed? Time is slower here. Imagine a sculpture of a sea monster turning to face its prey, silently roaring, over the course of a hundred years. Their wild hunts take eons.

Or was it just a simulacrum after all? The Earth’s heaving briefly imparting to it the illusion of life.

Perhaps the tunnel was always empty. Just Caves. Those eyes really are dead. The bellowing mouths just fissures.

Waves lapping against rocks in the dark.

Take your pick. An emptiness that bites.

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