You know what would be awesome? If the horror stories contained in this best-of anthology by scratchboard-wielding German cartoonist Thomas Ott were half as well considered or painstakingly rendered as the luminous black and white art. Luminous really is the right word for the visuals here: Their pure-white-on-pure-black construction makes every line and reverse-negative shading—carved out with scalpel precision—practically shine forth from the glossy black and white pages. Like Charles Burns’s inks or Drew Friedman’s stippling, Thomas Ott’s scratchboard work is art to be marveled at as much as read.
By contrast, the stories themselves deploy horror and trash-culture tropes with all the subtlety and precision of a shotgun blast. (Literally, in several cases.) Culled from nearly two decades of Ott’s previously published albums (including Tales of Error, Dead End, and Greetings from Hellville) as well as a recent contribution to MOME and several unpublished works, they virtually all rely on broad, violent shock/twist/ironic endings anyone who’s ever read an EC Comic can see coming from a mile away. A mass-murdering Klansman is done in by the voodoo of his unassuming shoeshine boy. A suicidal man kills himself repeatedly and resurrects unwillingly, Groundhog Day style, only to be annihilated by a nuclear attack on his city. A series of people meet poetically just demises (electrocutions, car crashes, scorpion stings, etc.) after betraying their compatriots for a briefcase full of money. A man spends several pages dressing up like a happy clown, then sticks (yes) a shotgun in his mouth and blows his brains out. There are mugs and broads, well-worn fedoras and seedy motel rooms, straitjacketed lunatics and sinister dwarfs, back-alley muggers and taciturn hit men, none of which contain even an iota of genuine menace.
Perhaps this was less true when many of these comics were originally made, when the tight white tees and DA haircuts and Tales from the Crypt aesthetic of Ott’s psychobilly subculture represented a surprising and refreshing flip of the coin (and the bird) to resurgent and nostalgic cultural conservatism—an era captured succinctly in the afterword by Celtic Frost bassist Martin Eric Ain, who recounts a Cramps concert he and Ott went to where Lux Interior got coldcocked by a Zürich skinhead. But we’re not looking at the comics then, we’re looking at them now, and now they’re bereft of what power they had, an assortment of kitschy imagery long stripped of its ability to shock or frighten. Precious few of the comics collected here—basically only a slow-burn space-madness story that ends with an astronaut drifting forever off into space, a dreamily sexual collaboration with the great David B. involving puberty and rabbits, and a catalog of Mexican low culture icons (luchadores, Day of the Dead skeletons and so on) that to be fair may be just as tedious to Mexican horror aficionados—transcend that cultural moment, or sear into the mind the way that white-on-black scratchboard art sears into the retinas.