Thursday, 27 December 2012

Books: Cradlegrave


Written by John Smith
Art by Edmund Bagwell

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Out of all the comics websites / blogs I have found lurking around on the internet Mindless Ones is one of my  favourites [1] (in fact I'd say it's tied up there with 4thLetter! [3]: both of which deserve your attention if they don't already - ok? Yes? Good). I don't know if you're like me and basically spend far too much of your finite amount of time on this planet staring at little glowing rectangles but (what can I say?) when you find something that someone's written that makes you think about something like someone's turned over your mind like a snow globe and all of a sudden there's a mini-snow-storm inside your head or (just as good) when you encounter a writer who puts into words every single feeling you've had about a blockbuster film that deserves none of the "Hey - that was pretty cool!" status updates that all your facebook friends lavish upon it [4]: but hey - it's not like I'm bitter or anything [5].

Sadly - lately the Mindless Ones have taken to directing all their energies at producing a podcast called SILENCE! [6] (which - yes - is a great name for a podcast) and so don't really have that much time to get down all their lovely ideas in written down word form. I don't think I've ever listened to a podcast (apart from maybe Adam and Joe? Oh - and a few tracks of The Ricky Gervais Show on youtube [7]) and - well - I like to spend my downtime doing listening to music and reading at the same time - and only doing one of those things at a time seems like (I dunno) a waste of resources or something (I need to give my eyes something to do after all...). I mean yeah - Andrew Hickey writes about Doctor Who now and again [8] and they like to do (frankly EPIC) annotations for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Grant Morrison's Batman run [9] but there's been little in the way of just general comics chat - until (all the way back in March now) I clicked through to their website and found an article called Diggers & Snatchers: Fifteen Thoughts About Fear and Cradlegrave (see below in links if you want to read it yourself). Up until I saw that I had never heard nothing about Cradlegrave (yeah - still don't know if I like that title [10]) but that didn't stop me reading the article: I don't know at which point that I decided that it might be worth a look... I mean it starts off by saying (and this is a good point to underline) that judging from the cover of the first issue [11] (which is the same picture as the cover above) it looks like it's going to be kinda "ooooh hoodies are demons" type malarkey - but rest your assures: it's actually nothing like it looks (I mean - I could tell you what it's really about - but I wouldn't want to ruin all the awful and prickly suspense).

I didn't actually write down any notes when I was reading Cradlegrave. I guess because I just wanted to read it without having to stop every other page and so that I could pretend (if only to myself, if only for a little while) that it was something that I was reading for fun (although "fun" is very much the wrong word to use to describe the experience of reading this comic). I know that if I had been writing things down tho - the word that I would have written down and unlined three times would have been sticky [12]. At this point in time I think that maybe I need to admit to myself that I'm just much too old to be eating sweets. Still at lunchtime today (for whatever reason) I thought that it would be a good idea to buy myself a packet of wine gums which (more fool me) I managed to completely devour in the space of a hour. Now my mouth feels all sicky sweet, coated in chemicals [13] and just kinda - well - sticky. Do you know the feeling? Well - that's the sensation that Cradlegrave does it's best to replicate: only inside of putting it inside your mouth - it puts it inside your brain: and instead of it being just the side-effect of eating a whole packet of wine gums - here it's masking something a lot more unpleasant and a lot more dangerous.

So yeah - it's a horror comic. Which is (unlike horror films) a pretty narrow little category. I mean - in terms of what I've read (and things which have actually managed to disturb me rather than just showing me pictures of monsters and beasts (which come on - is nowhere near the same thing)): the only other examples I can really think of are Crossed (obviously), Neonomicon and the work of Junji Ito [14] - oh - and those three panels from Tintin: The Seven Crystal Balls (but that's a whole other story). Part of the reason for this I guess is that it's really hard to pull off something creepy in picture form: with film (where horror seems to work best) the picture is always moving and you can never quite tell when the monster is going to appear from behind the sofa with the butcher knife (or whatever) while with comics - because you can see the whole page at a glance: you always know when the monster is going to appear (I mean maybe the monster is hidden over the page - but then as soon as you turn it over - there it is: and - you know (how do I say this?) - the other problem for horror comics is that the monster is always frozen. Locked in the same panel. Unable to escape. Safely contained within the page.

But - then again: maybe that's a mistake and rests upon a confused understanding about what horror is and how it works (when it works best). I mean - I don't know if I've admitted this before (although maybe you could tell when I listed all the zombie films I've seen when I was writing about the Walking Dead?) but I do tend to watch - well - quite a lot of horror films. I wouldn't say that I'm really a horror film buff - because that would imply that I'm kinda into slasher-stuff with boogeymen wielding knives chasing teenagers when - oh well - most of the time I can't really stand that kinda of stuff. But I do like a horror film that genuinely knows how to creep me out. Best example of that I guess would be this film that I saw about five years ago called Kairo (or Pulse): it's a Japanese horror film that came out in 2001 (and was remade - awfully - in 2006) that has some of the creepiest and most skin-crawling scenes that I've ever had the misfortune to see. I mean - all-in-all (as a film) it's not really so great - there's bits that don't really go anywhere especially at the end and it's at least 30 minutes too long [15]: but there are these moments that will haunt me until the day I die (don't believe me? Fine. Watch it alone and on headphones (headphones are important - it has some of the best sounds I've ever heard in a film apart from Star Wars) and then we'll talk about just how scary one lady walking can be).    

Because what Pulse understands (along with a few notable others) is that horror that really lasts and really gets under your brain and stays there - is that it's not just about the anticipation [16] (oooh - where's the monster? where's the monster? where's the monster? AHHHH!! THERE IT IS!) but rather crafting a story where the appearance (in both senses of the word) of the monster is as disturbing as the thought of it. To use an example that's a lot more well-known than Pulse - in The Shining when you finally see what's inside Room 237 it's not a manic with a knife and it's not a monster with an attitude problem rather it's something that your head can't really make sense - sure - you know it's bad but that's about it. That (for me) is the type of horror that always works best - I mean: once you know that the monster is behind the sofa then it's kinda hard to get scared the second, third or fifth time you watch it: but if instead - when (after all the suspense) the monster shows up and even when you see it your brain still can't process it properly - then that's how you know you've got something that's going to play your spinal cord like the lowest string on a cello: and make it reverberate long and loud and painful. You getting me yeah? [17]

And that's what's great about Cradlegrave. It keeps everything at just a far enough remove - that you've never really quite sure what it is that you're seeing. I mean - for the first half at least it's all a bit of a tease - with lots of extreme close-ups that mean that (literally) you don't get the whole picture: but then - deeper in: even when things start to be revealed - it's telling (and extremely effective) just how much it is that you don't learn: which is all the better for keeping your brain crawling over itself.

The experience of reading it is best compared to being in a bath when the plug's just been pulled: right from the start you can tell that something's wrong - that the water is slowly seeping away but it's almost like it's happening in the background and that maybe (maybe?) everything will be ok as long as you stay very still: and then suddenly you look around and realise that most of the bath has drained out - you can hear that awful gurgling sound - and there's nowhere to go but into that dark round hole in the centre and everything's rushing towards it.... 

Or (more simply) it's Shane Meadows spliced with David Cronenberg. And just about as good as that sounds. And if Mazeworld is all the reasons why I stopped reading 2000AD - well: if someone told me that all the other stories were as good as this then I would have no hesitation to start buying it again. I mean - not even the fact that the art has a computer-generated sheen to it's colouring can spoil it (in fact - if anything it slightly enhances the whole something's not-quite-right-here atmospherics) and even tho there were bits where I did start to confuse which character was which (all those white folk do tend to look the same): it managed to reach places (with it's dirty, sticky claws) that other books don't ever come close to: the dark places - hidden inside somewhere deep and safe: slowly torn apart from within by the book's strange powers. It's good is what I'm trying to say. And left me shaken like a baby's rattle.

Still sticky from last night's dream? Trust me - you ain't seen nothing yet.

[1] I guess I should just link to them up there: but I dunno - it seems neater to have all the links and stuff safely stored away down here. So (yes) anyway: Mindless Ones - go explore! (named after the monsters from that Nextwave Warren Ellis / Stuart Immonen thing - which (sadly) we no longer have in stock - oh well [2]).  

[2] Actually - I did a trouble check: turns out that they've actually been around for a lot longer than that. And so now you know too. Yay.

[3] Hosted by the (always excellent) David Brothers - who even when he's writing about stuff that I don't really know all that much about (see his recent: Lyricist Lounge: “It is the thickest blood on this planet.” article) is still worth reading all the way to the end (and I don't think I know any higher praise than that). But go and discover for yourself: here.

[4] I am of course talking about "The Ever Risable Dark Knight" (and A D Jameson's fantastic HTML Giant article which you can read here quote: "Permit me but one more example of this tendency. Batman pauses to talk with Commissioner Gordon, despite having in his possession a nuclear bomb with roughly one minute on its timer, and therefore in desperate need of disposal:

Batman: “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” [Departs.]
[Cue inserted footage—a clip from Batman Begins—of Commissioner Gordon placing his coat around young Bruce Wayne's shoulders.]
Commissioner Gordon [finally getting a clue]: “Bruce Wayne?”

Good thing Gordon only ever put his coat around one little boy’s shoulders! You know, the first time that I saw this movie, I didn’t understand why Matthew Modine and all the other cops suddenly hated Gordon. But by the end I understood: he’s the only guy in Gotham who couldn’t figure that Bruce Wayne was the Batman.")

[5] This is a lie. I'm actually a very bitter person. So much so that you could put me in a glass and serve me up next to some real ales and no one would even notice. In fact - my girlfriend - when recently asked what one word would best sum me up opted for ungracious. I mean - she said she was joking (and everyone laughed) but (don't tell anyone) it's actually pretty spot on... (Ho hum).

[6] Which you can listen to here.

[7] Infinite monkeys anyone? (It's not the full conversation (don't know if that's available online anymore - I mean it was - but I guess it got taken down because I can't find it anywhere) - but still - one of the funniest things I've ever heard...).

[8] Yeah his recent article on an episode (that I had never heard of before - but then I'm more Nu Who than Classic Who kinda guy) called Logopolis was kinda cool. Although I suspect that if I ever watched the episode in question - it would be nowhere near as good as he makes it sound: "Hard science: What Christopher Bidmead wanted to reintroduce to Doctor Who. Judging from the script to Logopolis, hard science consists of millions of chanting monks in a city made to look like a brain, chanting block transfer mathematics codes in order to counteract entropy, while the ghost of someone’s future self tells him the future in order to cause it."

[9] You can find those here. Enjoy (they're gonna take a while for you to get through...).

[10] Yeah yeah yeah - I get that it's a play on the "from the cradle to the grave" (very clever): but still don't know if it's got the right ring to it? I dunno. I guess I just want to say that if you're put off by the title - don't be. Trust me - once you're in it's all good.

[11] Did I not mention that this was originally published in 2000AD? No? Well - ok: well - then: let me say it here: it was originally published in 2000AD: but don't let that put you off or fool you into thinking that you know what kind of story it's going to be like - I mean - there's a reason there's an article in the links below entitled "Cradlegrave is the reason I have returned to reading 2000AD after 20 years away" - and if I haven't known that it originally appeared in the pages of the Galaxy's Favourite Comic - well: I don't think there's anyway that I would have been able to guess (unlike most 2000AD stories) it's not really built on a succession of cliffhangers (I mean - it's not that there's anything wrong with that: but still) and even knowing that it was published in weekly instalments I couldn't work out where the seams are (every page could have "to be continued" at the end of it really I guess - but reading it as a book it feels like it was meant to be consumed in one-big-uninterrupted go: but whatever).

[12] Although there are loads of great little sentences potted around here and there. Best examples: "Dettol and bed pans ad stale piss and something sickly sweet as pear drops underneath it all." "Twinge of blood on his gums and a twinge in his balls like puberty all over again." and "Her memories are like leaves in fast water she can’t quite catch." (yes - these are also quotes that the mindless ones article picks out - and (sorry) I can't quite tell whether I'm picking out these quotes because I read them in article before I read Cradlegrave (and so they stuck out at me when I read the comic) or if they're just really good little lines that would have stuck out at me anyway - but who knows?).

[13] Oops. Sorry not chemicals. Something else. Sorry.

[14] Islington has a copy of Uzumaki (which I really should write about sometime soon and post up on here: but - hey - you know how it goes: so many comics and so little time).

[15] Ha - I just read the wikipedia entry and it seems that the Village Voice agrees with me: who would have thunk it?

[16] A little Hitchcock quote that may be relevant here: “There is a clear difference between surprise and suspense […]. We are sitting here and having an innocent conversation. Let us assume that there is a bomb under this table between us. […] suddenly there is a loud boom and the bomb goes off. The audience is surprised, but before this surprise they have only seen a very ordinary scene without any significance. Let us instead look at a suspense scene. The bomb is under the table and the audience is aware of this because they have seen the anarchist plant it there. They also know that the bomb will go off at one o’clock, and up on the wall is a clock showing that the time is now quarter to one […]. In the first scene we have given the audience 15 seconds of surprise […] but in the last scene we have given them fifteen minutes of suspense.”

[17] At this point I'd like to point out that - yeah - I'm one of those people that was properly left traumatised by the Blair Witch Project - a good example of the type of thing I'm trying to put my finger on (before I saw it I remember thinking - well - come on: how scary could it be? And then after I said goodbye to my friend - had to walk home along through the park: holy moly).

Links: Mindless Ones Article Part One: Diggers & Snatchers: Fifteen Thoughts About Fear and Cradlegrave / Part Two: Diggers & Snatchers: Staring Through Her Mother’s Eyes / Part Three: Diggers & Snatchers: Ghosts of the Cradlegrave EstateGraeme's Fantasy Book Review Review, Those We Left Behind Article: Cradlegrave is the reason I have returned to reading 2000AD after 20 years away (2009), Grovel Review.

Further reading: CrossedNeonomicon, Uzumaki, Locke & Key, Black Hole, The Filth, No Hero, The Stand, Button ManMazeworld, Supergod, Hellblazer: The Family Man.

All comments welcome.

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