Column: Global Ghoul: Cthulhu #1

By Dale Carothers

Cthulhu #1. KettleDrummerBooks, in association with Diabolo Ediciones (June 2010). $9.95. ISBN: 978-0-9778066-4-5.

[spoilers ahead]

Cthulhu #1 is an anthology from KettleDrummer Books of Spanish writers and artists. There are several stories and I’ll give a quick review of each one. The book reminds me of those old EC Horror comics, or a series of two-minute Twilight Zone episodes with a Lovecraftian flavor.

The first two stories are by writer/artist Pepe Aviles. His work is sharp and shadowy, with fine lines blocked in by swathes of black-or-greyscale. Some panels remind me of Dave Gibbons, while others remind me of Frank Miller, though there’s some Bryan Talbot in there, as well.

“Darkness” is a story about the last surviving man on a fishing boat that ventured out to investigate a series of shark attacks. The narrator recounts the deaths of his crewmates at the tentacles of a creature from the deep. He sits alone, minus a hand from the last encounter with the creature, in the cabin of his boat. The seas rage around the tiny boat and forks of lightning strike the waves, which are rendered expertly to look like obsidian blades. Suddenly, the generator dies and the lights go out. He panics. Because the creature only comes in the dark. The creature rises up out of the depths, a curling spray of tentacles large enough to engulf the ship. Eyes line the creature’s tentacles. The narrator stares into them and is hypnotized. The next morning, the boat is empty.

“The Warning” shows us a couple driving on a country road lined with trees. There are no leaves on the trees, just the fine tendrils of claw-like branches that weave together so tightly that the rest of the world is obscured. They see a girl walking along the road. Aviles leaves her white and eyeless, against a background of dark skies and feeble tree branches. The couple scolds the girl for being out alone on a country road in the middle of the night. While they lecture her, we see her memories of a rave, pills and visions of dancers turning into the living dead. Before they’re all run down by a train, the girl screams, just in time for the man to slam on the breaks. Then there’s a twist. You expect the girl to disappear and for the couple to thank her ghost in relief, but instead the couple and their car disappear and the girl then kneels and lays flowers on the road next to the train tracks in a memorial to the couple that she failed to save.

“The Well” by Toni Fejzula (adapted from the story by Ricardo Guiraldes) is a quick, impressionistic tale that was either done in ink washes or painted full-colour and then reproduced in black-and-white. Lots of little panels tell the story, mosaic-style, laid side-by-side or nested within each other. A lone, exhausted traveler sits on the edge of a well at the top of a hill. Fatigue overcomes him and he falls backward into the well. Close-ups of his screaming face, his panicked eye, the distant circle of light at the top of the well, and his fingers clutching at the seams between the bricks tell the story silently, subtly, and with a creepy intimacy. The traveler crawls out of the well, but when he pulls himself up, a passing couple stops. The wife turns away while the husband throws rocks at the traveler until he falls into the well again. The last panel shows a cross near the well, accompanied by a caption that says it is there to protect the surrounding valley from evil. Was the traveler evil? Or was he made evil by falling into the well? Is the well itself evil? Depending on the reader, the story could end in any number of ways. I usually don’t like ambiguous endings, but in this case, I did.

“Convict”, with story by Alex Ogalla and art by Beni Lobel, is the story of two convicts who escape from an overturned prison bus. They escape into the woods and wade across a river, leaving no trail for the police dogs to follow. The convicts find a rickety cabin in the woods, with an old, blind man sitting on the porch. The old man offers to help them. As soon as they split up, the old man kills them. He’s the ghost of a serial killer, happy to have new victims. Ogalla’s script is fast and concise, giving the reader exactly what’s needed as the story rushes toward its conclusion. Lobel’s art is precise and cartoonish, with hints of photorealism. He’s great with the wrinkles in clothing, the grain of wood and the texture of stone. But it almost seems like he’s obsessed with the way skin stretches across bone as his characters move. And even though his anatomy is exaggerated, I think it’s to highlight this obsession. He loved drawing these people. I’d like to see more of his work. He’d be perfect for a DC Vertigo series.

“The Songs of Maldoror” by Enrique Corominas isn’t a story but, instead, four pin-ups that creeped me out to no end. His lines are so fine, so claustrophobic, that they look like they were laid down by a razor blade. Everything has been sculpted by long, flowing lines or cross-hatched in obsessive detail, much like the work of Gary Gianni. His compositions are Daliesque, filtered through a Lovecraftian sensibility. This is evil in the classic Old Testament style. Devils rend the flesh of men above a black lake as waves crash into skull-carved castles and spires. A moon in the shape of a woman, who screams a spider web, while demons leap and a bloody woman get dragged into a swamp by onyx tentacles. Fat women rip the flesh from a hanging man to fill their bucket with gore. A bearded lunatic dips his toes into a boiling pot of corpses, while, off to the side, a smiling man – oozing evil, watches. These drawings stuck with me for a long time after I first saw them. Now, they are back.

“The Bench”, with story by Elchinodepelocrespo and art by Cesar Sebastian, starts with a few panels of two boys exploring a haunted house, but that story is quickly abandoned and shown to be just a comic book being read by an old woman sitting on a park bench. Soon, she’s joined by another old woman and they talk about missions, murder and code names. The narrative is a bit confusing. After reading it five times, I’m still not sure what’s going on. The old women refer to each other as “brother”. By the end of the tale, one of the women reveals that a few of her fingers are turning to tentacles and states that they are running out of time. Are these shape-shifting monsters from another world, hiding on Earth in the form of old ladies? And if that’s true, are they locked in a secret battle with other shape-shifters, or maybe shape-shifter hunters? I don’t know. The ambiguity in this story doesn’t quite work. Maybe the writer shouldn’t have wasted most of the first page on the unused comic book story, and spent more time showing us what’s going on with the actual story. The art is passable. It gets the job done, but fails to impress.

“Journey to the Great Beyond”, with story by Raule and art by Meritxell, is quick and charming. The art is a combination of Edward Gorey, Richard Sala and Rene French. The lines are long and flowing, but the inking is scratchy. It’s like a five-page children’s book told in rhyme. I wonder if something was lost in translation from Spanish to English, because, while things rhyme, the rhythm feels a little off, but not so much that you can’t tell what’s going on. A little girl follows Death as she guides the little girl’s brother into the afterlife. The message is that death is inevitable, so you better do something with the time you have. I’d like to see what Raule and Meritxell do with a full-length children’s book.

“The Picture in the House”, by Carlos Lamani (adapted from the story by Lovecraft), left me feeling uneasy, as so much of Lovecraft’s fiction does. A man on his way to Arkham stops to explore a ramshackle house that sits near the road. Once inside, he finds a book detailing the exploration of the Congo. The owner of the house soon shows up and the two fall into a conversation about the pictures in the book. The owner – speaking in the strange, backcountry, phonetically rendered pidgin that illustrates Lovecraft’s difficulty with dialogue, loves the picture of a cannibal’s butcher shop and speaks at length about how it’s changed his life. Slaughtering sheep has become so much more fun since he’s seen the picture, but it still fails to satisfy, implying that killing men would bring him closer to the Almighty and prolong his life. Blood drips from the ceiling (He must have a victim upstairs that was killed in a manner so messy that the blood leaked through the floor) and then a lightning bolt destroys the house. Has the Almighty destroyed them, one for his sins, and one because his soul has been sullied by knowledge of the unclean? It’s fair to assume so.

“Gothicomics” by Angel Rodriguez is a short collection of one-panel joke strips with a horror theme. Jokes using Poe, Nosferatu, Twilight, Cthulhu, and Hellraiser are the norm. Rodriguez is adept at using facial expressions to convey much of the humour, and his jokes are simple but clever.

“The Plague”, story by Elchinodepelocrespo and art by Karles Selles, takes place on a train. An insect that falls somewhere between a fly and a mosquito comes in through an open window and slides its proboscis into a soldier’s neck. The soldier is on the phone with his wife. The conversation starts out sweet, but as the insect sucks the blood from his neck, the conversation slides into insanity. The man in the seat behind the soldier takes notice and tries to help, but the soldier draws his weapon and threatens the man. We see that the insect has grown to the size of a tennis ball. The man turns to ask for help from the woman behind him, but she’s got an insect in her neck, as well. The man flees into the bathroom, and he sits thinking about a woman, while the insects swarm over the window. Selles’s art is gentle, his line delicate, and his storytelling is fluid and dramatic. But, Elchinodepelocrespo’s script disintegrates into ambiguity (much as it did in “The Bench”). The last line only confuses the story further.

“Hunger, An Infinite Hole”, story by Sergio A. Sierra and art by Unai Ortiz, begins on a dark and lonely road. A man narrowly avoids hitting a young woman. When he gets out to scold her, shadowy figures with glowing eyes close in on them. He reluctantly follows her into the woods and into an old church. Once there, she tells him the old legend of the church, involving a saint and some witches. While she eats him, she reveals that she’s the witch and the shadowy figures were the ghosts of the townspeople from the legend, who were only trying to protect him from her. While the story is a bit clichĂ©, it still works. Sierra and Ortiz manage to fit character development (the man’s self-centered nature, and disbelief and fear) into a rather short tale. Ortiz’s art is cartoonish, but grim, like a 70s-style cartoon movie made for adults.

“The Cursed Island” by Manuel Mota (adapted from the story by W. Hope Hodgson) is the story of a ship damaged at sea. Abandoned by the crew, a man and his fiancĂ© construct a raft and drift upon the ocean, until they come upon a ship anchored near an island. Ragged fungus lies in scabby patches all over the ship, but they board anyway, hoping to find someone to help them. They find food in the hold and live on the ship until fear of the fungus drives them to the island. The fungus is rampant there, as well. Soon, they find patches of it on their own bodies. Months later, starving and desperate, they begin to eat the fungus. Soon, it covers their bodies and they resign themselves to their fate. I loved this little story. Mota’s adaptation is deft and clear. His art resembles that of the old Classics Illustrated mode, but filtered through his own style. His figures and compositions may lack symmetry, but that works for him, and doesn’t interfere with the storytelling. Ink lies in fat lines, like lumpy dribblings of candle wax, upon the page. Mota can suggest a lot with a few swipes of his pen. Mota was a major discovery for me. I want to see more. I want a full-length project from him.

“The Book” by Manuel Mota is another delight. It’s his own story instead of an adaptation and inked in a completely different style than “The Cursed Island”. The lines are thinner, sharper, but still with that free-form, sloppy-but-charming style. Much more like Jose Munoz. A man enters a bookstore and kills the owner with a gun because he can’t afford the book he wants. He searches the bookstore, leading him into a maze in the basement. He gets lost and eventually turns his gun on himself. But there’s no ammo left, so he starts walking again, only to find the bookseller that he’d shot at the beginning of the story. The bookseller explains the rules of the store and of the Book of Life that the man had come to acquire. The man is now the owner of the bookstore; he has all the time in the world to find the book and to read the entire collection if he chooses. That is, until he can convince someone else to buy the Book of Life and take over for him. It’s a classic passing-of-the-cursed-stewardship tale, and it works. As I said before, I’d like to see more out of Mota.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jack” by Javi Santonja is a mash-up of literature and history. He combines, in a mere three pages, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jack the Ripper. Robert Louis Stevenson has a nightmare vision of his story, or, as the story suggests, a vision of the coming murders in Whitechapel. It’s a quick, candy-like piece, with art in two styles. The nightmare is done in a stark, black-and-white, faux-woodcut style. Stevenson’s panicked waking moments are done in a simpler style and coloured in gray-scale.

“In Me”, story by Alex Ogalla and art by Salvador Lopez, is a werewolf story done in the vein of Being John Malkovich. A ventriloquist who’s fallen on tough times is cursed with lycanthropy. He has all of the classic signs. Lost time, bloody hands, torn clothing. As time goes on, he’s able to control more and more of his time as the wolf, maybe because he’s a ventriloquist – much like the puppeteer that John Cusack plays in Being John Malkovich. But soon, the wolf takes over and controls him when he’s in human form. This is most ably illustrated by Lopez in the last panel. It’s a close-up of the ventriloquist’s eye. In the midst of the dark pupil is a howling werewolf head, showing the beast just under the surface. Lopez’s art is like a slightly sketchy version of Gary Erskine’s stuff, though a better comparison may be Russ Heath.

“The Session”, story by Alex Ogalla and art by Karles Selles, brings us on tour with two friends who are exploring an abandoned house. They plan to film a legitimate haunting and then to sell it to a TV channel. Everything is strewn with cobwebs and obscured by shadow. One friend complains that there’s nothing there to film, but in the last moments, we see that the other friend has murderous plans that that there will be something to film, after all. Ogalla has the most stories in the collection and I can see why. His writing is precise and creepy. In “The Session”, he achieves synthesis with Selles. And Selles’s art, compared to what we saw earlier in “The Plague”, is more refined, more self-assured. I wonder if they’ve worked together on any other projects.

There are a few strips of Young Lovecraft by Jose Oliver and Bartolo Torres, but I’m not going to review them because my next review focuses on an entire collection of their Young Lovecraft work.

Editor/Publisher of KettleDrummer Books, Lance Hansen, uses the inside of both the front and back covers to give us a sample of his graphic novel Hayseed. These are silent and simple stories, but effective. He covers every inch of space with tiny panels, taking us, moment by moment, through a lonely drunk’s evening. He has two encounters, one with a skeleton (his own, after he dies) and one with the shadow of a devil. Death is following this little man around, and the tone is somewhere between tragic and funny. Hansen’s art is a little like Ivan Brunetti’s, but Hansen has a better handle on facial expressions and cartoonishly humourous body language. Look into Lance Hansen’s work.

Cthulhu #1 was a fun and varied read. I was introduced to several new creators (at least to me) and I know that I’ll be looking for more stuff by Manuel Mota.

Rating: 8 out of 10

You can buy Cthulhu #1 directly from KettleDrummerBooks.