Across the interviews I’ve conducted this year, one question has popped up again and again: “How do you write/draw horror given that we’re living in the absolute worst timeline?” Some creators have said that more horror is a way to cope with the endless terrors of actual reality. Others, meanwhile, have even mentioned that fictional horror is a way to ground some of the larger fears that foster these stories. Yet none of those answers have ever really helped me. Having spent so much of this year scared (of global pandemics, utter economic ruin, a second Trump term, etc.), horror comics seem all too foreign this year. My own fears have proven enough, and I’m weighted down with dread that I can never truly distance from.
Then I read Frank At Home On The Farm, and I’m ready to be scared again.
Written by Jordan Thomas, and with art from Clark Bint, Frank follows our titular hero as he returns home to the family farm having served in WWI. Only instead of the warm welcome back, Frank sets out to find his missing family. It’s been described as “equal parts The Shining and Twin Peaks,” if that somehow helps orient you, dear reader. I’d say it’s more like if John Carpenter directed some six-episode BBC series for Halloween: it’s heavy with a certain spooky mood, and the atmospherics of true terror are nearly palpable.
On the surface, there’s not really a lot that’s “new” or “novel” to Frank. The whole idea of using veterans in horror is so deeply cliched by now it may as well be its own trope. Same goes for the slightly weird or unusual cast of townsfolk that Frank encounters as he makes his way through the village, asking questions and orienting himself in the early part of this mystery. (There has to be a movie out there featuring “Strange Villager #2.”) There is at least one thing “novel” that’s at least hinted at: the animals. Specifically, those on Frank’s family farm. Is he being paranoid, or are the sheep and cows really out to get him? The point is, that slightly cheesy but potentially wonderful device aside, don’t expect much in the way of innovation. In that sense, Frank is a frills-free entry into horror, more akin to Get Out or Midsommar: the tension exists between what is right in front of us and what we think might be coming.
It’s this element (the directness, or “lack” of hook) that makes Frank part of a larger tradition of horror comics across 2020. However, not all books are as effective given this dynamic. Killadelphia is a generally great take on vampire films/fiction, but even what makes it stand out (the exploration of socio-political issues) feels in line with all of my favorite horror (race relations in Night of the Living Dead, male-female politics in Let the Right One In, masculinity and “feminization” of men in Dead Alive/Braindead, etc.) The same goes for Something is Killing the Children: the idea of a child-hunting monster isn’t exactly novel, and what makes this book standout (Erica Slaughter, mostly) has everything to do instead with great writing and character development. You could then make the same argument for James Tynion IV’s other great series, Department of Truth, which is conspiracy fetishism meets horror.
Even something that feels like it’s pushing some genre boundaries/trope, Black Stars Above, really is part of a larger 19th century tradition a la Horace Walpole or Mary Shelley. Same goes for the mostly excellent Razorblades anthology: It’s not necessarily about breaking new grounds, but doing the best version of this tried and true form. In that instance, Frank feels the most “comfortable” with its lack of doodads thus far, and it’s the one I hope remains the most direct as it develops. It should be about results and not endless gimmicks and visual chicanery.
However, where Thomas and Bint truly excel is that it’s clear from panel one that they’re true students of horror. As such, they understand what it takes to really get to people. It’s not about jump scares, or even particularly disgusting or terrifying imagery (though there’s some of that latter for sure, especially in this issue’s “dog scene”). Instead, it’s about hinting at the darkness of the situation, setting up Frank amid a world that just feels slightly off center to really drive home the idea that we’re in the midst of genuinely scary situation. What that actually involves will be slowly revealed to us over the course of the series, peeling back layers of greater horror and generally unnerving imagery.
This is about affecting the reader psychologically, and taking the fear and apprehension and dread Frank feels and laying it bare. We feel these sensations because of the primary state of Frank throughout this first issue; he’s our gateway into the world we can’t help but mistrust. So things that feel normal are scary, and even vice versa — and the end result is a jarring, discombobulating experience. It’s horror as it was meant to be: uncomfortable and lethally effective.
And when you look again at some of this book’s “peers,” it’s clear that it’s about purveying feelings and emotions above all else. Department of Truth and Something are among the best instances; Tynion wants to scare you, especially with the latter, but he also wants to inform who these people are as a way of making us care and letting the scares ring all that more true. Killadelphia‘s kind of the same: you build a dynamic connection with the Sangster family (James Sr. and Jr.), and throughout that process, their struggle for their humanity (and that of their city) becomes a more moving experience (and doubly terrifying in both a physical and emotional sense). Black Stars Above has perhaps a slightly less “evolved” mastery of this, but it’s more focused on drawing out the tension than it is in fostering some larger emotional connection with Eulalie Dubois. Sure, you care about her isolation and her status (forced to run a trapline in the middle of nowhere), but the larger arc of the story makes it less about feelings and more about what could happen to the people in the story.
Once again, Frank feels like your closest companion, and we traipse with him into this strange new world. There’s an uncomfortable but effective lack of distance compared to other titles, and we’re with him every agonizing step of the way. Because we can’t ever get away, and we’re compelled to engage with him, the scares and shocks seem to hit much harder. It’s as if the creators have somehow weaponized our relationship with this person in a really sick and twisted way (that’s also quite awesome).
As part of the psychological approach the creative team takes, there’s always this one persist thread — let’s call it the salve of reality. It’s this thread that’s always there to remind Frank (and, by extension, the reader) that what’s going on has a perfectly logical explanation. Missing family? Maybe they’re away on a trip. Noises in the barn? Could be a storm, or a particularly stupid cow. Creepy neighbor with a haunting story to share? It’s just his dementia-addled mind. From both a visual and narrative standpoint, the story ensures that this core thread remains constant, and we’re continually reminded that things may seem scary, but that could just be all in our minds.
And that’s the sweet spot this series needs to really flourish: we can’t trust ourselves at any time, and the moment we do, this narrative could implode. But both Thomas and Bint (at least through issue #1) keep us second guessing everything, and in that little space of doubt is where the horror and existential dread grow and flourish. It’s the zone of true horror, one built and fostered by greats like Alfred Hitchcock, where we are forced to confront our own feelings of doubt and loneliness. It ain’t flashy, but it sure does work to drill its way deep into your heart and mind.
Few other horror books in 2020 can achieve this “salve” like Frank. Something and Department of Truth are too far removed from reality, and there’s a sense from page one that we’re dealing with a world that’s not at all like ours. You’d think Killadelphia would be even less “realistic,” but then even the presence of vampires doesn’t really take away from our connection with this “version” of a Philadelphia locked in violent social upheaval. And trapped somewhere between these two is Black Stars Above, which feels both hugely grounded and also utterly fantastical in its scope (regardless of what happens in this Lovecraft-ian nightmare).
It’s ultimately Frank, then, that creates a world that we both know and recognize and fill it with these pockets of profoundly unsettling imagery and events. It’s about tricking the mind at all times, and that means being comforting and charming just as much as leaping out from the dark unknown. Frank‘s first issue alone is able to provide meaningful scares because it never forgets its place in the world at large, and the scares that comes with mere existence. All the best horror is both familiar and unrecognizable, and by tricking people with dashes of reality, the best entries (Frank included) put all of the onus on the consumer to scare themselves.
I mentioned earlier about the alignment between visuals and storyline in maintaining that all-too essential thread of reality. But Bint’s own visuals are worth discussing entirely on their own — especially as it’s the storyline that does a lot to build the world around Frank as one he can’t fully trust in. It’s the artwork, then, that pulls us further away from the world as we see it to some other (often troubling) places. It’s the creepy grin of some shopkeeper/bartender; the unnecessarily even or deliberate formation of a group of farm animals; and the tinge of something unseen in Frank’s eyes — all of these visual devices help start to shred that sense of “normalcy” in Frank’s little world.
From there, Bint turns it up a few notches, and we see some disturbing dreams and/or flashbacks from Frank’s combat experience. Here is where the veil of reality gets thrown aside for some truly troubling and compelling imagery that lets us know Frank’s precise mental status. But then the question begs: is all of that horror in the past, or is there more to come? It’s subtle, but it’s art that both engages and repulses, and that two-pronged approach is where the mind starts to unravel.
It’s here where I’d say that all of the other books listed have done a tremendous job in terms of artwork. Killadelphia, especially, shows us just how grounded the world can feel, even if you’re facing down a bloody mob of newly-turned vamps. Something and Department of Truth are similarly effective, and the only real downside is that there’s a kind of cartoonish quality to each. While that works for the respective books (in Something, it helps play up the ideals of child-like innocence), there’s no denying that this fantastical energy creates a separate kind of reality. Black Stars Above is perhaps the least “normal” of them all, and the book is intended to be this gorgeous, perfectly deliberate visual machine. Is it at times scary? God yes. Does such beauty then make the horror that much more effective? Affirmative. However, it doesn’t so much skew reality as seemingly reinvent it from a visual standpoint.
And that distinction really matters: Frank subverts our reality for something that’s mostly unfamiliar, and in that space we get some profoundly impactful moments of real dread and confusion. It’s a very particular thing, but when Frank does it, we feel the bounds of our world slipping, and there’s very little we can do but watch. We need to have the ground underneath us feel warm and solid before it quickly crumbles beneath.
The whole time I was reading Frank #1, I was still thinking about why we need horror comics in 2020. I’m not totally sure if I still have a decent answer, but Frank makes a pretty important statement: the world around you is filled with horrors at all time, regardless of what’s going on. If you’re more keen to perceive it, then things are going to get weird. But even if you ignore it, that doesn’t mean you’re immune to the machinations of a cruel and indifferent world. What Frank does best is pull back that curtain, and let that uncomfortable truth settle all around you.
To a huge extent, a lot of the best horror series of this year do that very same thing, and the only real distinction is what kind of scares hit you the hardest. I happen to prefer Frank if only because my own experiences this year make me more susceptible to its specific brand of horror (the world as I know has ended). But whether you prefer that or Killadelphia (your world will be consumed), or think Black Stars Above (the world is not as you know it) totally nails its, we’re all part of a much larger conversation. We can’t ever escape the need for these books, and they represent a continued effort into both explaining our world and helping us contextualize all the fear, dread, and anxiety we experience on a daily basis.
With Frank as a kind of “standout,” I think we’re learning that even if we aren’t scared by these books, a world without their contextual value would be all the more terrifying. We’d find ourselves without some larger sounding board for the awful things of the world, and at a time when we need help processing and finding solace like never before. Horror doesn’t have to be about how this page featuring a bloody demon makes us feel (though it is) — but how the world around us has sharpened or dulled our senses to ideas that we’re never really in control and that things far worse than monsters are always waiting on the periphery. Horror is the language of life, and it’s how we speak to things beyond the here and now. I understand now the need to engage this, or face the wraith of something truly sinister: my own inability to process my emotions as they exist in the world around us all.
And forget murder hornets — that’s some real scary s--t.
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