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Spirit photography is a villainous plot in graphic novel 'Obscura'

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Spirit photography is a villainous plot in graphic novel ‘Obscura’

Ah, the bygone days of ectoplasm and shaking tables.

Written by Luke Cartwright and illustrated by Lukasz Wnuczek, Obscura, debuting in March, is described on its website as “a gothic fairytale that will make you rethink graphic novels, and your life.” Whether or not it follows through on that strong claim, it may make you appreciate the wild, weird, and dark past of medical science and spiritualism.

Into the darkness

Obscura takes place in the late 1800s, and is centered around the life and death of a young man named William Morier. We see him both as a young boy and an adult, first struggling with his own grief and trying to cope with extreme loneliness, and later fighting to keep the only slice of life he’s made for himself. It’s very fast-paced and there’s quite a bit of historically-driven context that gets lost in the chaos of Morier’s undoing.

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Spirit photography is a villainous plot in graphic novel 'Obscura'

As a boy, Morier’s father, an undertaker, expresses his objections to selling a cadaver to a doctor, though he does so anyway. When he’s found out, he’s dragged away and expected to suffer the same fate — being killed, hacked apart, and never given a “proper burial.” Body snatching was, in fact, a huge problem in the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite the moral outrage and religious objections, medical science, especially anatomy, benefited heavily from it.

Though body snatching doesn’t occur as often today, body donation does. Behind the scenes of a seemingly kind gesture to donate one’s body to science is a bustling world of selling and trading bodies and body parts. Today we call these people “body brokers,” and they’re part of a multimillion-dollar industry that’s been widely unregulated and is hard to keep track of.

One day after approximately 10 years of seclusion, Morier decides he wants to give living a chance (“I couldn’t deny it … but I could try it.”), and he walks out the door to town. While looking for work, he spots a girl he once met (at her sister’s funeral) who he believed was able to talk to ghosts. They immediately fall in love, get married, and have … an ectopic pregnancy.

Spirit photography is a villainous plot in graphic novel 'Obscura'

The doctor tells William and Mrs. Morier the pregnancy will kill her within a month if she doesn’t have an operation. Interestingly, in 1880, there wasn’t yet a successful surgery for ectopic pregnancies. Before a surgical option was available, often times doctors would make suggestions aimed at killing the fetus, such as starvation, bleeding the mother, administration of strychnine, and more.

If those things don’t sound all that helpful, it’s worth noting that surgery wasn’t super successful at first either, because even getting a proper diagnosis were pretty rough. It wouldn’t be until 1883 that a successful tubal salpingectomy was developed, thanks to Robert Lawson Tait. In the years following, the mortality rate of mothers experiencing ectopic pregnancies would decrease rapidly.

A plan to get money to pay the doctor is hatched: swindle wealthy widows by telling them their loved one is always with them, and that you can prove it with a photo. The Moriers hold a conjuring and invite the townspeople to come. It goes over extremely well, just like the paranormal and supernatural truly did during the mid-19th century.

The spiritualism movement was a fad that took the world by storm in the 1850s, with fascination of psychic mediums and the idea of communicating with the dead. Like our lead in Obscura, cameras were sometimes even major players in the swindle. In addition to Morier’s double exposure plate tricks, Victorian era mediums used cameras to photograph ectoplasm, a gooey-looking substance said to be of supernatural origin that was typically just a gauze-type cloth.

Séances could get pretty believable, too. Tables would shake, bells would ring, and objects might hover or fly through the air. All of these things would be debunked, some even by the great magician Harry Houdini. Claims of fraud and evidence that the mediums were physically manipulating their surroundings led to the downfall of spiritualism, beginning about the time that Morier is suggesting the swindle.

Spirit photography is a villainous plot in graphic novel 'Obscura'

Oh. It’s over.

While Obscura got some of these interesting historical events into their narrative,  Cartwright didn’t really nail it. For a story that revolves around camera obscura, there just isn’t much about it. Most of the time is spent not dealing with the camera nor Morier’s “world” of photos, which is really frustrating. The graphic novel as a whole feels rushed and awkward, despite a seven-year production time.

That said, wow, Wnuczk! One thing that stands out amazingly is the artwork. It’s all in black and white, which is a brilliant callback to Victorian era photography. The scenes after Morier’s had a drink of his photo processing chemical are wild and absolutely stunning. The art pulls Obscura together where the words fail.

Spirit photography is a villainous plot in graphic novel 'Obscura'

If you have time to kill and you enjoy some really dark and creepy concepts, then Obscura might be right for you. Make sure you’re in the right headspace, though — it has some nudity, the wife is emotionally abusive, there’s a lot of death and two well-placed bullets through a man’s eye sockets. It’s different, it’s beautiful, and it’s okay.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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