Out of the nihilist inkwell and printed in poison! Meet the finest in new cosmic horror! Face melters from: Max Clotfelter (Henry & Glenn Forever), Alex Delaney (Rapt In Fear), Eamon Espey (Wormdye and Songs of The Abyss), Noel Freibert (Weird Magazine), Sammy Harkham (The Simpsons’ Tree House of Horror, Kramers Ergot and Everything Together), Juliacks (Swell and Rock That Never Sleeps), Jason T. Miles (Love Wins), Scott Roller (Rapt In Fear), Matthew Thurber (1-800 Mice and Infomaniacs), and Zach Hazard Vaupen (The Inflated Head Zone). Cover by Alex Degan (Area CC, Mighty Star and Soft Xray/Mindhunters). Published by Profanity Hill!
I hope you’ll pardon the imagery after what you’ve just seen, but cartoonist Sammy Harkham is a culture-maker with a great many arrows in his quiver. He’s an owner of Los Angeles’s Family Store, purveyor of an impeccable array of art books, comics, music, and more. He’s also an owner of the store’s sister cinematheque Cinefamily, an arthouse movie theater renowned for its guests and programming. Kramers Ergot, the comics anthology he edits and has released both by himself and through several publishers (the most recent volume, #8, came out from PictureBox Books), is bar none the most influential comics anthology of the young century; its landmark, phonebook-sized fourth volume, released in 2003, revolutionized alternative comics with its showcase of the “noisy,” SFF-influenced aesthetic of Providence, Rhode Island’s Fort Thunder collective — equally concerned with the marks put on the page as on what story those marks communicate. And as you can see, as a maker of comics himself, Harkham’s got chops that could sit him comfortably in the funnypages of your great-grandpa’s golden-age archives.
Originally serialized in his solo series Crickets and now hosted on fellow cartoonist/editor/publisher Jordan Crane’s influential What Things Do webcomics portal, Harkham’s horror-fantasy comic "Black Death" is a deceptive thing. Sure, the title communicates a certain…darkness, but for the longest time you’re so immersed in these bright, buoyant, action-packed drawings that you start to forget. It’s a thrill to watch Harkham put his protagonist through his paces, all while riddled with enough arrows to put both Boromir and Saint Sebastian to shame. Not even when he miraculously survives an arrow to the eye and a fall that would pancake Wile E. Coyote, and is greeted by an enormous, mute golem, do you take the strangeness for darkness.
It’s only after this odd couple chances upon a cowboy-like father and son camping in the nighttime wilderness in the middle of a trek to bury the family’s five-year-old son that the “black death” of the title reveals itself. The arrow-studded protagonist is unwilling or incapable of really facing the remarkable thing that has happened to him; the golem is incapable of communicating except through physical force; the father and son have only their beliefs in the supernatural to go by, and only their desire to have their little boy back to drive them. It’s a recipe for disaster, and the blunt brutality with which Harkham serves up the resulting dish can shock even a seasoned hand. His surface-cute cartooning only heightens the morbidity.
Sweet to the eye, bitter to the taste: That’s “Black Death.”
Of particular interest to me are his thoughts on the value of laying out comics with many small panels per page:
For me, when I make my panels smaller, and there are more panels on the page, it’s easier for me to draw. It becomes more about pure information. […] When you only have two or three inches to do that in, it takes a lot the pressure off of making a nice drawing and just trying to make a readable drawing.
I don’t like to be too fussy. It also reminded me of the kind of storytelling I like in film or in literature. I have a preference for clean, declarative sentences, right? So if the comic can kind of mirror that — and I think that that one does in the sense that it’s very unadorned and very straight-forward — hopefully each panel gives you the information. As you work on that, you start realizing that emotional complexity doesn’t necessarily come out of composition or realistic faces. A realistic face trying to convey sadness may not be as effective as two dots and a sad mouth. A downward line. Then you realize that whole idea that Chris Ware talked about in ‘97 in his [The Comics Journal] interview of comics as music, all of the sudden you understand what he’s talking about in a whole new way, because it’s not, if you look at each at each individual panel as notes of music, any individual note isn’t necessarily complex, it’s the arrangement of those notes that creates complexity. So working on “The New Yorker Story” I started seeing that these were really simple images, really simple ideas, as individual panels. It’s the arrangement of these panels, these really easy-to-read images, that creates — hopefully — something richer.