It’s been simultaneously amusing and infuriating to watch as a certain strand of critic grapples with the ascendance of horror fiction across all media by offering justifications as to why only now, in this moment, is it finally possible to appreciate the genre: the pomposity of a Cracked.com author who can breathlessly declare “(Get Out and Babadook and The Witch)…are actually an entirely new genre of horror…extremely allegorical to some real-world problem or philosophy” and then dub this supposedly new form “scarable” while ignoring literal centuries of art and scholarship is so risible it’s beyond satire. Equally hilarious have been efforts to make sure the marketing-savvy appellation “elevated horror” sticks to any example of the genre that traffics in even the slightest of metaphors. If the idea of “elevating” genre fare might sound like a high-minded attempt to trumpet what is best in a particular artistic strain, the reality is that this kind of plea to respectability too often masks the author’s own neurotic desires to be taken seriously. After all, if you’re the one who discovers and champions a particularly “elevated” piece, mustn’t you possess something of that same rarified quality yourself? How else could you recognize such qualities, especially in a genre you’d historically dismissed?
Unfortunately, what’s been less amusing to watch is exactly what ends up deserving the title of “elevated,” and so what aesthetic trends end up rewarded and then imitated. While there are some amongst this stable that have earned due praise — Jordan Peele’s masterful Get Out deserves every accolade it receives; Laird Barron’s heady blend of pulp trappings and literary sensibilities has resulted in some of the finest horror literature in a decade — most of the adulation has been reserved for a particular strain of overly-polished, anti-septic story that seems to have been intended less as art than as a well-polished portfolio for a job interview marketing product for a Fortune 500 company. How else to describe works like the banal and brain-dead Hereditary, the didactic writings of Mike Griffin, the figuratively bloodless Gideon Falls, that have jettisoned all evidence of the skuzziness, the ugliness, the gross physicality so often associated with the genre in order to announce their professional aspirations in each and every clinically assembled frame or manicured sentence or overly-designed set-piece? Even the most gruesome of sights in these works often feels as if it they’ve been refined a thousand times over and so, consequently, feel tame, and so, consequently, feel empty of horror.
It’s a kind of aesthetic that writer Ezra Claytan Daniels and artist/colorist Ben Passmore aggressively reject with their BTTM FDRS, a comic that various blurbs from horror luminaries like Victor LaValle describe as “gentrification horror.” If it’s a designation that sounds too much like the pompous and ultimately meaningless tag of “elevated” applied elsewhere, know that this particular designation is less a sales point or craven bid for respectability than an accurate description of the novel’s thematic and aesthetic concerns. The tale of Darla, a self-loathing trust-fund hipster who moves back to the neighborhood her father long ago abandoned — a fictional slice of Chicago known colloquially as the Bottomyards (marking her as one of the many titular bottom feeders alluded to in the book’s title; the pun recurs throughout and describes everything from Darla’s clothing brand to a particular dietary habit of the book’s monster) — and in doing so wakes a dormant abomination, BBTM FDRS is unapologetically an allegory for the cultural and economic conditions that drive gentrification and the impact it has on those communities it targets. It’s a satire with a welcomely weird energy and a mean streak that prevents it from pulling punches, unafraid to get ugly because it knows that the injustices it’s fighting are uglier still. Nowhere is this more immediately evident than in Passmore’s pencils, which channel a gnarly low-life low-light flavor reminiscent of the cartoons and indie comics of the early-to-mid 90s; it’s not difficult to imagine an animated adaptation of BTTM FDRS slotting into MTV’s Liquid Television block, or a more sanitized version airing easily alongside very early Nickelodeon cartoons like the first manic season of Ren and Stimpy. The palette Passmore favors even consists of the same paranoid yellows and bruised purples and sickly chartreuses that painted those worlds as something upsetting, unsettling. Similarly, the character designs are plastic in a deranged cartoonish way that lend themselves perfectly to exaggerated action scenes and the variety of expressive facial work needed here: set in an aspect ratio wider than it is tall, BTTM FDRS puts most of its emphasis on wide and close-up panels meant to convey a claustrophobia equal to the cramped, windowless confines of the apartment Darla settles in and so often works its best effect by zeroing in on characters’ faces in extreme close-ups that demand peerless caricature work. Not to say that the background work or the one monster — a mess of wildly writhing extremities and organs skittering on centipede legs only one step removed from John Carpenter’s “thing” on the evolutionary ladder — design are less deft. It’s only that they occupy less of the artist’s and of the narratives concern than the emotions of its cast and so do less of the work; most of the background work is spare, nondescript, conveying more an atmospheric impression of decay than any concrete details of this world.
Unfortunately, Daniels and Passmore lean so heavily on Passmore’s strengths as a caricaturist that they can’t help but draw attention to BTTM FDRS’ most pronounced weakness: for a story unambiguously aimed at criticizing the terrors of gentrification its scope is too narrow, its sense of environment unrealized. Gentrification is so insidious precisely because it’s a communal evil, one that devastates and displaces groups and eradicates history, but in BTTM FDRS little if anything is ever shown of the Bottomyards. The occasional background details sprinkled to suggest this growing infection — a bespectacled, bearded white hipster strolling through the background, a sign in the periphery advertising soon-to-come bougie condos — showcase only the symptoms of gentrification, not its causes or its final prognosis. We are given no clue besides some off-hand comments of what the Bottomyards were like before, of what living in them is like now, and of what the visceral human cost is if this continues spreading. It’s telling that no location earns a name beyond a bar called The High Top that Darla and neighbor Julio (another new arrival to the neighborhood) visit; everything else we see we see only as brief glimpses of streets in the periphery while Darla hashes out her frustrations with her feckless friend Cynthia or stares out at the empty lots across from her apartment’s front steps. An apartment that, conveniently, is uninhabited save for the elderly Katherine and her son, Charles (who prefers to go by Chucky). Reasons of plot that also sharpen the novel’s satiric thrust hand wave this away, yes: the building was abandoned after Katherine’s sister Jay Jay, who engineered it, tried to murder the organic system running it before investors tried to “add fangs and claws it…so they could sell it to prisons” in an act that implies the gentrification of this neighborhood — and of the African-American community at large — has been happening at the behest of racist real-estate and carceral interests for generations. But sequestering the action to a historically isolated building itself cutoff from the larger currents of life in the Bottomyards reduces what might have been a story about a systemic evil to something narrower and more solipsistic.
Similarly, by choosing to focus almost entirely on the triangle playing out between Darla, Julio, and a jealous Cynthia turned dangerous after she’s possessed by the monstrous biological system running the building, Daniels renders the characters of the neighborhood’s individual residents as unclear as its own. Only a few earn names — the deranged electrician Patrick, the bartender Nicole — and of these even fewer are allowed any role or dimension beyond wracking up the body count. Charles’ fate is worst of all: attuned to the pain of his aunt’s creation and unwilling to fail it as he did in childhood, Charles replaces Cynthia as its host. If this sequence ends up one of the funniest in the book — a reunion between Charles and the aforementioned Nicole pays off a thread established early on with a brilliant bit of dead-panning — it is also ends up one of the cruelest. Much as it’s intended to send up the callousness of Cynthia (who says she’s happy for Charles after he takes on the burden she abandoned) the joke seems too much like it’s on Charles, who proclaims it “what (he) wants” moments after he’s told he’ll spend the rest of his life literally eating shit to survive.
It’s certainly possible that this is the dark punchline of the book: if we come away from BTTM FDRS only concerned with the fate of its protagonists are we any better than the media jackals who can think of this tragedy only in terms of how it affects Cynthia, the solitary white member of the cast? But if that’s the case then this callousness isn’t something Daniels and Passmore are witnessing; it’s an element they themselves actively engineered by devoting the vast majority of their attention to the petty drama of Darla’s circle without ever bothering to widen the scope and portray the impact of their actions on their neighborhood and neighbors. The result is a story where the horrors of gentrification aren’t visited on the gentrified as much as on the gentrifiers and so we spend less time worrying about the results of their actions than anticipating their comeuppance. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with this kind of mean-spirited horror: the contempt both writer and artist feel for Cynthia leads to some of the most scabrous (and so best) jokes in the book. You know from an introduction that finds her conflating catching the bubonic plague with fame that her arc can only end with her benefitting from trauma. Tying her recovery at the end of the book, then, to a mass media campaign, a cameo from a VICE producer, and a decision by a corrupt landlord’s equally heinous brother to sell biowaste from the attack to military companies serves not just as a perfectly timed bit of comic recall but as a unsparing criticism on how those who create or encourage the conditions for tragedy are also those who ultimately profit from their inevitable outcomes. And while the book is callous (leaning towards delighted) over Julio’s death— his demise is rendered in a playfully excessive, lovingly detailed cloud of page-filling gore whereas all mourning for him is relegated to a single small panel of silence — there’s something wickedly inspired about a novelty colonial rapper called Plymouth Rock whose last word’s include the line “[hit it with the] Digerdioo…it’s…ironic.”
No, BTTM FDRS’s problem isn’t that it’s too cruel or that it’s misplaced the target of its ire so much that it’s too focused on these elements to the detriment of its wider concerns. It’s narrowed until it ends not so much as a horror-comedy intent on demonstrating the ravages of racist urban development than as a revenge comedy directed at the kind of blithe bozos who don’t have the empathy or imagination to conceive of what their actions might unleash. This certainly provides for more comedy and more targets for satire, yes, but the results feel unwelcomely ironic: what does it mean that the stories of the neighborhood’s original populace are sidelined in favor of the petty squabbles of outsiders? Even if this is done to make a point about their marginalization by larger social forces, it is still a point scored at their expense. They’re still bit players in their own story. Consequently, Daniels’ and Passmore’s artistic decisions can feel less choices born out of satiric needs than one made to ease the burden of storytelling that comes with a large cast and a wide scope. BTTM FDRS is a delightfully and rightly angry polemic with a rage that feels a thousand miles away from the bloodless metaphors being dished out by near everything in the genre that’s passed off as “elevated,” but a disappointing one that ultimately feels more exploitative than it’s intended to be and lazier than its larger point requires.