Comic Horror: The Work of Junji Ito

Junji Ito is the premier horror comics talent of our era, an artist whose handle has become synonymous not only with a distinct kind of style and story, but with the very genre of horror itself. His work is immediately recognizable and lauded on the international scene, so adored by critics (myself among them) and fans alike that the fact his work is only now being adapted into an anime after decades of such acclaim seems absurd.

Yet when I first encountered his work, I did not understand it. It was easy to admire his brilliant, ultra-detailed line work, his bold and unsettling inks, and the way he effectively married the both of these to render his endless parade of grotesqueries and shocking imagery believable, yes, but such undeniable talent seemed to me in the service of so much nonsense. The plots of his stories – tales of mechanically enhanced fish rising up to take the land from man, of a feckless lover cursed by a fortuneteller to forever hold his severed head upon his neck lest it fall off –  were the stuff of B-movies one found dusty and forgotten at the back of a still-lingering Blockbuster. The casts of these tales, stupid in the way only a gaggle of horny teens camping in foreboding woods could be, seemed borrowed from the same. When Kirie Goshima, the heroine of Uzumaki, hears her boyfriend Shuichi rambling about how “this town is contaminated by the spiral,” she derisively mutters, “not again,” as though Shuichi was merely some paranoid lunatic and she had not herself witnessed a classmate being sucked into the spiral where her face had once been, as if she had already forgotten the day she’d watched as star-crossed lovers twisted their bodies round one another into a spiral hundreds of feet long or the some dozen friends and family members already driven mad by this same shape’s pernicious influence.

More than the stuff of nightmares, these characters’ rigid idiocy and deadpan reactions to the most bizarre happenings seemed laughable to me, the stuff of unintentional comedy or of dirk-subtle parody. Even Ito’s art, perfect as it was, seemed to exist solely to undercut those moments where the story finally hit upon a note more unsettling. No sooner had the characters faced down the unvarnished truth of the world or a monster beyond any explanation than one of them broke out into the grossly exaggerated expressions that pervade Ito’s work – eyes popping out or sinking in, tongues lolling out, cheeks puffing up like a pair of blimps or caving like a cadaver’s. Far from earning a gasp, these outlandish countenances only ever drew out my laughter. No moment was too sacred, no horror so awful that Ito could help puncturing it with another display of body humor. That his Cat Diary uses many of these exact same conceits and styles to parody his earlier work and yet is distinguishable from those same works only by its mundane content (and then only barely) suggested to me that Ito was in on a joke his fans had missed entirely. Suggested to me that Ito’s work was itself a kind of grand joke.

For all that, though, I never found myself able to dismiss it with a snide comment and a sneer the way I could the horror schlock like Piranhas or Mansquito or Bats that I’d mistakenly lumped Ito’s work in with. Weeks, months, or years after reading an Ito tale I would find myself stopped in my kitchen by the spiral shape of my stove-top burners. Would wake up to check my hands for signs of change, of deformity, after a dream that had lasted for what seemed decades. Would refuse to play the rare, unmarked record in a friend’s collection on the off-chance it would drive us both to murderous obsession. What should have been asinine proved impossible to forget; what should have been easy to write off spurred in me a fascination that would drive me back again and again to a body of work I poured over in desperate search of the occult truths it seemed to hide. Something was hiding in those works that compelled me, but what that was I could not quite articulate.

I’d fostered a similar obsession when, as a teen I’d made it a point to become an expert on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and the writers who’d inspired him – Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Robert Chambers –  and whom he’d in his turn inspired – Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron. While I was drawn initially by the appeal of the larger Cthulhu mythos, it was my slow dawning understanding that these works conveyed something deeper and darker that drove my obsession. Such writers gave voice to my understanding that what was most horrible in the world were not serial killers or moaning ghosts. That what was truly upsetting were problems more philosophical. The terrors they explored were instead of a cosmic variety, terrors that challenged the centrality of man, terrors that shook up so many comfy presuppositions about humanity’s purpose, place and meaning in a universe they had been ordering themselves at the center of for millennia. “What we derive from Lovecraft's fiction is a brutal sense of mankind's hopelessly infinitesimal place in the cosmic scheme of thing,” remarked prominent Lovecraft and horror fiction scholar S.T. Joshi. Lovecraft, for his part, would never disagree. In a letter to his contemporary Farnsworth Wright he had it that “all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”  Though he railed in another letter that the “human scenes and characters” in such stories “must be handled with unsparing realism,” the truth is that such tales by default seem to preclude nuanced casts. What is the point of building up complex characters in such tales, after all, save to emphasize their insignificance in the face of all they learn?

What ruins the mind of the Lovecraftian protagonist is not, then, as is commonly joked, the tentacled horror so upsetting the narrator can only describe it as “indescribable.” What truly wrecks them and the reader in turn is everything that aberration represents, what philosopher Eugene Thacker describes as the “stark and impersonal void at the core of all things.” What worth can one possibly find in terrestrial morality and anthropocentric deities when the truth is that we are not the sons and daughters of gods – formed in their image –  but merely the accidental byproducts of experiments by older races and aberrations utterly alien to us? What purpose is left for those raised on views of meaning and importance that place our race the center of the universe when struck by the revelation that humans are only so much cosmic waste, doomed to be swept aside by the return of older, stranger beings that recognize us no more than we recognize ants? What else can one do but despair when made to realize that our foundational systems of logic and reason are either so badly misinformed as to be nonsense or are actively disguising the most unpleasant of truths: that we possess no importance and have no control? As Thacker has it, “the most difficult thought is that the world, the cosmos, even our own bodies, may all be indifferent to our daily wants and desires. It is this indifference, this stark and shadowy blankness, that is both alluring and terrifying.”

But while his words could just as easily apply to the mode of fiction practiced by Lovecraft and his ilk, it is telling that he is instead describing “the terrain of Ito’s manga, where, for a brief moment, we glimpse something on the order of deep time and the scale of the unhuman.” And indeed, there’s little denying the debt Ito owes to Lovecraft; the man himself stated in an interview with 78 Magazine that Uzumaki –  and his work as a whole – had its roots in Lovecraft’s (It’s also perhaps worth remarking that Uzumaki shares more than a little in common with Ramsey Campbell’s “The Voice of the Beach,” the story of a man who discovers that the geometric pattern currently driving him mad is the last vestiges of an alternate reality that has slowly been reclaiming British beachside villages and driving their inhabitants insane for centuries). “His expressionism with regard to atmosphere greatly inspires my creative impulse,” he claimed, a fact evident in stories that privilege again and again not so much characters – who are strawmen at worst, eccentric freakshows at best – or sensible plots as much the sensation conveyed by the story’s environments, as his own unsparing attention to world building, as the overall sensation of terror conveyed by every precisely chosen image. What matters most in an Ito story, as with a Lovecraft story, as with a Liggoti story, as with a Campbell story, is not the people or their place in their own stories. It is atmosphere and what exactly that atmosphere conveys about Ito’s own understanding of our world.

But where Lovecraft worked in a mode that fostered an oppressive atmosphere to better emphasize the insignificance of his cast (and hence his readers), and where later writers like Campbell or Ligotti emphasized tones that conveyed debasement, degeneration, the loss of self, Ito’s works are saturated with humor. More specifically, Ito’s fascination seems to be with demonstrating why even our deepest fears are inherently risible. Hence his obsessions with such ludicrous plots. Hence his desire to insert into even the most dreadful of encounters expressions and reactions that would not be out of place in a gag manga. Hence why even a self-parody like Cat Diary is near indistinguishable in tone and style from his other, more serious works. And, hence, why they work at all when by conventional standards they seem as if they would be immediately forgettable.

The truth is that Ito's work scares us because we know they shouldn’t. We know there is nothing so laughable as people being mauled by fish with mechanical spider legs; the idea of people contorting themselves to fit into custom-made holes on a mountainside should deserves not much more than a giggle. And yet when we read his work we shiver. And yet we also know that these things we dismiss so easily in fiction would make mince of us in the real world. Humans are weak and vulnerable and at the whims of forces we delude ourselves into thinking we’ve mastered; millions have lost their lives to a bite from a plague-carrying fleas, to malaria-toting mosquitoes. I once had neighbors who were under such siege by a gang of rabid raccoons that they could not leave their house for days for fear of their very lives. Why then shouldn't a plague of mechanically enabled fish monsters cut us down like wheat at harvest season? Similarly, we commonly hear about formerly sane people who wake up one day so obsessed with the idea of cleanliness they'll scrub their own skin off or so paranoid they'll murder their neighbor for some imagined slight; is the idea of a woman so horrified by spirals that she rips off her fingerprints and gouges out her eardrums really so outlandish?

The sad fact is that as absurd as these ideas seem at first blush they are not truly so far removed from what we see in the papers and in the news each day or what we encounter in our lives, and that is what scares us most in Ito’s work. How stupid a world is the one where our greatest artistic geniuses might have their brains eaten from the inside out by parasites they contracted up while swimming and be reduced to vegetables, where a fluke of brain chemistry drives a formerly mild-mannered architecture student to snipe his peers from a watchtower? How ridiculous is this reality that we are all of us only a minor and utterly unpredictable traffic accident from our demise, where a snake hiding in a laundry hamper or a bit of pretzel improperly swallowed could end the lives of the bravest among us? All our stories and all our lives and our personal struggles seem so much more significant than this, so much grander: we've built cities that cover the globe, have created weapons that can level mountains, live out days full of pathos, of pain, of tragedy and of romance and of wonder that are immortalized in art we construct to give it all a semblance of meaning, and yet nothing guarantees our lives will not end in deprivation or trivial accident. The world shouldn't be this way: it's too absurd for us to countenance. And yet it is: and yet we do, because there is no other way to go on.

Ito’s work, then, is a kind of grand joke, a kind of comic horror. That was always the point. Cosmic horror stories might be bleak, but at least they are written in a serious register the better to offer us the sense that our pain and our terror before such awful truths deserve gravitas. Our insignificance is emphasized by the grandeur and scope of these works. Ito’s comic horror does not even afford that much. They make us fear the trivial, and in doing so show how trivial we are. All they allows us are a chance to laugh, not at them so much as with it, not for relief but because what else can we do in the face of such uncomfortable truths? It is this opportunity that only Ito’s work offer mark him as singular in his field and that lend his work so singular an effect; that is why readers the world over return to his stories again and again. Who else is willing to offer us even that much? Who else but Ito could?