REVIEWS

The Cursed Hermit

As far as presentational choices go, designing a comic so that it looks somewhat generic, albeit slightly “off,” is a risky one. The covers of these “Hobtown Mystery Stories,” written by Kris Bertin and drawn by Alexander Forbes, seem modeled after certain vintages of Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries, with fairly flat drab colors that I believe are painted, though in a way that lends no shading, only a sense of lacquered texture if inspected closely. The Cursed Hermit is the second installment in the series, following The Case Of The Missing Men, which came out in late 2017. It makes its pitch to those familiar with the visual tropes of young detectives, whose sense of mystery will be intrigued enough to figure out what exactly is going on.

Such a reader would not even necessarily expect these books to be comics, but they are, and attractive ones. Forbes’ art is quite dynamic in black and white, reminiscent in some ways of Simon Gane, though it retains its power at a reduced size in a way I don’t think Gane’s would. There’s a push and pull to the rendering. Many panels just depict a human figure, and these have an elegant smoothness to them, and a sense of economy in how characters are distinguished from one another by their facial features. When these characters are set inside backgrounds, there’s a sense of contrasting textual hatching effects that maintains readability while bearing the mark of an obsessive hand. Reading the pages as they transition between these effects, there’s a vivid tactility that feels uncanny. We intuitively understand the scale the art is drawn at from its usual smoothness, but then way more will be more rendered than would have previously been thought possible if the scale you were imagining is correct. There’s a dissociative effect similar to meditating on how our perception of size is built around our bodies and the eye’s capacity to take in light, but the molecular and atomic bonds that constitute us are far smaller than makes sense to contemplate, and the extremes of space lie beyond human reckoning as well.

This works well for a horror story. The Cursed Hermit follows two members of the Hobtown Junior Detective Club as they are selected to attend a cloistered-off academy, in the mountains overlooking their small town. The mystery it then becomes incumbent for them to solve is what exactly is going on at the school, and includes ghosts, possession, occult objects, and generation-spanning conspiracies of the ruling class. The conspiracy calls for the rigid enforcement of gender roles, which is a horror the sort of stiff quality of Forbes’ art, the clip-art like returning to the same shifting faces, recalls. We’re incessantly being offered the comfort of the recognizable form, as madness swirls all around. Bertin’s script makes a wise choice, matching the presentation by breaking the story up into chapters. Each is focused enough to feel somewhat abbreviated, which keeps the story moving effectively while still feeling like there are larger secrets being left untold. Each new chapter gets to reset the feeling of in-media-res mystery, whereas an unbroken procession of pages would suggest a steady pace for the story to reveal itself.

Breaking the story up into chapters suggests serialization, familiar from both TV comic books and TV shows. There’s also a certain visual similarity between Forbes’ art and Yummy Fur era Chester Brown, which feels appropriate for a work that almost seems like a Canadian answer to the visions of Americana in David Lynch. Lynch has a deep body of work, the Hobtown Mysteries recall the most iconic examples, Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. It’s not as dark as either, nor is it as rich. Twin Peaks is a genuinely form-destroying bit of television. The Cursed Hermit is more a work that’s operating within the outline of a genre David Lynch created than anything comparably revolutionary. However! There is something notable not just about the comic’s distinct sense of visual style, which maps neatly onto the generally-agreed-upon “look” of the show; but also its sense of visual effects that matches Lynch’s own willingness to use a corny video effect or something stupidly ugly, for the sake of contrast. While one can see this as a further mimicry, to me it speaks to creators that know what transcendence is, and that you get there by not being overly self-conscious, which a lot of imitators miss.

This invocation of David Lynch in the context of contemporary work, all about teens, might put you in the mind of the popular TV series Riverdale, which places the familiar names of Archie comics stand-bys inside Lynch-indebted aesthetics in a way which maybe seems analogous to this comic’s work with the teen detective genre. I haven’t watched Riverdale, but I’ve heard the chatter, and here are the distinctions based on my understanding: One, it seems like Riverdale has an anxiously pulpy sense of pacing as it runs through its plots, while these Hobtown comics seem very deliberately paced. Two, the storytelling in Hobtown is distinctly not horny. The Cursed Hermit pretty openly posits chastity and platonic friendship as virtues and strengths with which the protagonists navigate the complexities and corruptions of adult behavior. This morality connects it to the very work intended for preadolescent readers that its choice of presentation posits the book as. It also allows the characters to be likable without appealing to an adult audience’s sense of lecherous voyeurism. It’s not Fire Walk With Me, but Snowy Walk With Teens remains plenty eerie, and pretty nice.

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One Response to The Cursed Hermit

  1. Abe Scott says:

    This is a good review. It is balanced, supportive (in several senses of the word), multi-layered, of an individualistic voice, and has me interested in the comic book that it speaks of.

    The writing is very much evidence of the remarkable improvement that can occur when one chooses to be of a structure that expects consistent work and allows for critical discussion of said work. (I’ve very rarely placed myself in these contexts, which I very much regret, or have not properly realized when I was among those who helped me accomplish such important art-life necessities, which makes me feel a sorrow.) 

    You know, Missoula, Montana is not really all that far from the border of Canada. It’s an eight-hour drive. I don’t even think of Lynch as being distinctly “American”; in my mind he is far more of a “northern” artist. I see Canada and the bordering areas of America as being far more tonally connected than, say, Michigan and San Diego, upstate New York and Mississippi. Opinions notwithstanding, it is evidence that those locations which some foolish people consider to be “the middle of nowhere” are in no way bad places for expressive people to develop, or create.

    I enjoyed the way in which the critic started with a description of the comic book’s cover, for reasons beginning with that it replicates the reading process. I can’t say for sure how often I’ve seen that done, but my memory feels like it has not been very much. (And I’ve read The Comics Journal regularly since issue 199, obtained when I was twelve years old from a kiosk at a shopping mall for reasons of the Paul Smith cover, being a fan of “Leave it to Chance”.)

    The description of the cover as being painted with “a sense of lacquered texture if inspected closely” was something I very much responded to. My favorite cartoonists tend to be those who began work in the eighties and nineties, and though I still revere/enjoy most of them more than/as much as ever I sometimes miss their occasional forays into painted work. I wonder if it has to do with the amount of precision that computer coloring affords the artist, and the weird way that even the best modern computer equipment slightly-bungles faithful representation of the painter’s intent.

    I sometimes wish that these cartoonists would have the “Eh, whatever, it’ll look how it looks” attitude that Normans Mingo and Saunders or the myriad of anonymous-to-me Gold Key cover artists had to have about their efforts. Sometimes it seems like the only ones still painting are Steve Rude and Sam Kieth.

    It brings to mind one of the things I enjoy the most about “the younger generation” of cartoonists. This just one example (and an extreme qualitative simplification), but I am regularly amazed by the way in which the mean jokes in a Simon Hanselmann comic are offset by the sense of “Wow, this guy really loves painting.”

    However, I must take exception to the critic’s description of some of the artwork as being “clip-art like”, even if he is speaking of a repeated image. I can’t think of a single cartoonist who would be happy with reading their work described in such a manner.

    Maybe the guy who makes “Dinosaur Comics” would be fine with it, because those literally are clip-art. I don’t think the cartoonist of “The Angriest Dog In The World” would mind having that terminology applied to his strip, firstly because it is almost true and secondly because I doubt he spends very much time thinking about criticism or comics, as he is probably too busy thinking about interesting textures of wood grain, how he is going to convince Ringo to participate in yet-another TM charity event and his latest particularly-clearheaded insight as to how “ideas are the best things going”.

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