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Friday, July 11, 2014

Homegrown Horror: Boston's Own Hellbound III: Darkness

Homegrown Horror
An Extensive Look at Boston’s Own
Hellbound III Darkness

I have been trying to broaden my horizons of graphic novel consumption as of late, particularly to include more independent and local work into my usual mainstream weekly variety. One of the greatest local projects I have had the privilege to fall upon is a publication of short horror stories entitled, Hellbound III: Darkness. This particular independent compilation was written and drawn by members of the Boston Comics Roundtable, a networking and skill-sharing group that meets once a week on Harvard’s campus to discuss the greatest topic known to man: the comic book. The roundtable does a lot for the local independent comics community, including holding sketching and scripting workshops, planning and managing Boston’s annual independent comic book convention, the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, (endearingly referred to by insiders as M.I.C.E.), providing the means for local artists and writers to network and exchange ideas and even offering some assistance with publications. They really are the go-to people in Boston for anything regarding the graphic novel medium. This is how I knew that the heart and soul of the city of Boston went into each panel of the publication.

In regards to the work itself, the third installment of the Hellbound series, (and yes, I know I am behind the eight ball starting at volume three, and do plan on playing catch-up on volumes 1 and 2 ASAP), each individual short story was creative, original and distinctive to the individual styles of each artist and writer. In a compilation of numerous works of art or literature, (or in this case, both), it is important to feel like each story or composition has a fresh new tone and voice to it; and that is exactly what the creators of the Hellbound series have accomplished. If I were forced to choose a favorite story from the compilation, I don’t think I would be able to. Therefore, I’d like to give a brief analysis on a few stories that I have hand picked.
Before I continue, let me first mention the cover. The cover art, done by Jerel Dye and Roho, is simply phenomenal.  If you were to remove the cover from the book, you would unfold an intricate mural of doom and gloom, depicting a large monster of sorts with four eyeballs and decaying skin emerging from the ground.  On one end of the cover you will see a large, menacing python snake slithering next to a couple old farmers trying desperately to ward off the monster with pitchforks and scythes. Numerous other dark creatures lurk across the cover, such as giant vampire bats, evil-looking mountain goats with six eyes, squid-like creatures with endless tentacles, giant crabs, etc. In other words, if it was a childhood nightmare of your’s once upon a time, chances are it is on the cover of this book.  At the opposite end of the cover you will find an extremely odd, fairly disturbing image of a creature that appears to have a troll’s head, a giant insect’s body and talons for claws. The cover itself is quite an amazing and intricate spectacle that could become very time-consuming to look at if one were to allow themselves to be “sucked in” to the horrific alternate reality created by Jerel Dye and Roho.

The first short story entitled, “Family Man,” written and drawn by Tak Toyoshima, is an extremely morbid look at what could potentially occur during the zombie apocalypse. The story starts off with a man fortified in his old cabin, overlooking hoards of zombies approaching his home. The man seems rather pessimistic about his ordeal, feeling very little hope for survival.  The story throws a quick dagger at the reader when the man says, “At least I spared my family from those bastards.” The next panel shows the man going for the fridge to make himself a “hand” sandwich. A bloody stump is all that is left in the place where the man’s hand should be. By the last panel, the reader comes to the harsh realization that the man killed and ate his own family for survival. Wow, what a quick lesson in “adapt to survive,” or maybe just a lesson in the inevitable harshness of the circle of life. I’m sure Tak Toyoshima could elaborate on this if he were here with me now.

The following story, entitled, “Blackout,” written by Janaka Stucky and drawn by Josh Wallis, was so descriptive in regards to the illustrations that I could almost smell the rotting corpses right off the page. In this story, an old, bald, troubled mortician, alone in his mortuary, seems ready to join the corpses himself in eternal slumber. In the first page of panels, the mortician states that, “Once you stop being afraid of death, that is what you strive for.” Ok, quite a depressing outlook, but if I spent my entire career around cadavers maybe I’d feel the same way? Not long after, our mortician friend starts to think that the corpses are speaking to him through the odor leaving their decrepit mouths. However, as the mortician looks up a second time, there are no bodies to be seen! Perhaps the mortician is going insane? Maybe his psychosis is causing him to hallucinate? As the story progresses, it suggests that this man has such a passionate death wish that he is actually preparing his own body as a cadaver. While stitching up different parts of flesh, he reflects on Indian religious rituals of the “Aghori,” perhaps an ideology the mortician has adapted. The mortician goes on stating their beliefs as such, “The only way to be free from rebirth is through the self’s identity with the absolute. To achieve unity, to secure their freedom from life, they must move beyond all illusions of duality. They embrace all that is polluted in order to fully embrace themselves and their own death.” It seems to me that based on this ideology, if someone is searching for “freedom from life,” they must certainly be suffering in their own personal reality here on Earth. Perhaps the mortician was in so much pain and anguish from being around so much death that he found the beliefs of the Aghori and clung to this point of view as a means of justifying his suicide. The Aghori also embrace all that is taboo, (ie. drugs, alcohol, meat) in order to better prepare for their deaths. The story ends with the mortician encountering the Indian deity Shiva, who is shown with skulls for pupils and the tongue of a reptile. Whether or not this is supposed to suggest that our poor mortician friend has entered the afterlife or not is still a mystery, but the artwork regarding Shiva at the end of this story is simply incredible!

One story in this compilation that came as a pleasant, yet eerie surprise was “America’s Pastime,” written by Stephen Cartisano and illustrated by Ellen T. Crenshaw. As the title suggests, the story is somewhat baseball-related, but only in regards to setting and attire.  This is by no means a heart-warming tale of America’s favorite game, such as Field of Dreams or In a League of Their Own. No, no, this one made the hairs on my neck stand-up, which is not easy to do since I’m a horror junkie. The tale kicks off with a woman coming home from work to a mysterious shadow lurking in her living room.  The devilish shadow looks evil, with spikes forming out of his shoulders. However, the woman does not seem to be startled at all. Instead, she asks the mystery shadow if she is late or if he is early. It is then that we realize the shadow is her husband, all decked-out in baseball catcher’s garb. However, this wasn’t an average catcher’s uniform. As I stated before, it looked quite demonic, with spikes coming out of the shoulders and a creepy mask. The wife thinks nothing of it, and proceeds to have her husband sit with her and tell her about his night at the ballpark. This is when things become really disturbing.
He tells his wife about a young teenage couple he found getting intimate in the dugout. He is displeased with the couple to put it lightly, griping about how “they have no respect for tradition. Just like those before them. Willing to defile everything pure and American.” He then iterates that he “couldn’t allow that.” As the couple is confronted by the husband in the catcher’s garb, the boyfriend pushes his girlfriend towards the horrifying baseball catcher and runs for his life. The catcher, appearing sympathetic to the girl, gives her a hand getting up, gives her his baseball bat, (complete with spikes also), and proceeds to have her do the dirty work, killing the cowardly boyfriend. The catcher goes on to add that, “They will do whatever is asked of them, if you simply tell them it’s alright.” Perhaps this insinuates that the younger generations are more naïve or ignorant, or perhaps this is an example of how older generations have power and authority over younger generations. Either way, the real clincher is when the wife, who is later seen using the dead grandmother as a footstool, becomes gleeful and celebratory over her husband’s acts of violence, telling him that, “society is lucky to have you.” Talk about a textbook enabler!

Another very distinctive tale from this compilation was “Garbage,” written by Lindsay Moore and illustrated by Donna Martinez and Joey Peters. This story starts out in the halls of high school, where one girl approaches another rugged-looking girl with a proposition. The proposition was for the rugged girl, (Brenda), to break the other girl’s, (Doris), fingers for fifty dollars. Though perturbed by the odd request, Brenda does not have time to answer Doris, as a teacher breaks up the conversation sending Brenda off to detention. Brenda is now concerned for Doris, but cannot seem to get the attention of the scolding teacher, so she runs to the nearest pay phone, (as if those still exist, but let’s not be cynical and pretend), to call Doris’s home.
When the voice at the other end of the line refuses to let Brenda speak to Doris, Brenda decides to get to the bottom of this strange dilemma by visiting Doris’s home.  When Brenda arrives at Doris’s house, there is no answer to the doorbell, so Brenda enters with caution. Upon entering, Brenda hears nothing except the eerie ticking of the piano metronome and sees nothing except a dark figure lurking in the background. Upon a closer look, the dark figure appears to be Doris, covered in blood and wielding a butcher knife at her mother and calling her “garbage.” Doris then exclaims, “I really wish you had taken my fifty dollars!” Terrified, Brenda runs out of the house and calls the authorities. As Doris is taken away by the police she reiterates once again to Brenda, “I really wish you had taken my fifty dollars.” I felt this insinuated that if Brenda had taken the fifty dollars and broken Doris’s fingers, that she would not have been able to murder her mother. However, even though one act of violence could have been utilized to prevent a much more brutal act of violence in the future, is it justifiable to fight violence with violence? I suppose this was a question that most readers had after reading this terrifying short.

One last story that simply must be mentioned before this article concludes is, “No, He Can Come,” written and illustrated by Kimball Anderson. I really enjoyed this story for two reasons, the first being the creative artwork. Anderson does all his panels for the story in the form of silhouettes, which to me adds a very creepy, yet realistic element to the horror short. If you think about it for a second, this story takes place in the pitch-black darkness of night, so chances are if one were there, they would be able to see little more than silhouettes.
Secondly, this tale hits close to home for me. The plot is very straight forward, but it works. It involves a boy wearing glasses wishing to join a group of children who are going to explore an old factory in the middle of the night. This reminded me of my childhood, because before the dawn of the XBOX and the Playstation, believe it or not kids used to play outside. My childhood friends and I were always trespassing where we didn’t belong and exploring old structures in the middle of the night. Being able to visualize some of these experiences from my own childhood made me feel much more connected to the story. The only difference between my own childhood experiences and that of the main character is that I always had a sense of security knowing that my group of friends were by my side during these late night expeditions. As we come to find out as the boys are exploring the inside of the factory, this poor young lad is all alone, as none of the boys he was with were his friends at all! They ended up being complete strangers! I challenge any of you to think of anything scarier for a young boy than realizing he is stranded in the darkness, in an old decrepit building, surrounded by a group of strangers he thought were his group of friends. The tale ends with the boys circling the four-eyed main character, insinuating that something less-than-desirable would be happening to him..

This was the most fun I have ever had reading any compilation in the graphic novel medium. The special element that each of these stories have is that they all force the reader to ponder different choices and outcomes. This is such a crucial part of storytelling. If a writer or artist can leave the consumer wondering why or how something happened the way it did, they have done their job. Not only that, but a lot of these stories force readers to contemplate in an almost philosophical manner certain elements of morality and daily life choices. Complete with intricate artwork that provided me with goosebumps well after I put the compilation down,  I can say with great confidence that Hellbound III: Darkness is a must-own for all horror enthusiasts and graphic novel afficionados alike. I am eager with anticipation for the next graphic novel publication that the Boston Comics Roundtable puts out. Great job guys and girls!!

**** For those scriptors/artists in the independent comics community looking for further online exposure, please feel free to leave me a message on this post, or send me an email at apuzak66@gmail.com and let me know a little about your organization and projects. I am always looking to give local and independent writers/artists the exposure they deserve! (Also, look for me at Boston Comicon, I’ll be wearing my trademark Batman ball cap and will be spending quite a bit of time in “artist’s alley.”

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