Reviews

Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus

Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus

S. Craig Zahler

Floating World Comics

$15.95

104 pages

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The court of public opinion weighs in periodically on the question of American film directors moved by their enthusiasm for comics to actually make the things, usually by ignoring the results both as comics and as things made by film directors. Richard Kelly co-created the full obligatory trilogy of graphic novels in support of Southland Tales with artist Brett Weldele before the film had even been released, but no one felt inclined to put Kelly up for an Eisner. A crate of volume one was shipped to the 2006 Cannes film festival, where they were handed out before the film's screening and then plucked from the beach by refuse collectors the following morning. (The film Southland Tales is fine.)

Clearly something lurked in the water back then, since Darren Aronofsky was beavering over a 170-page graphic novel in support of his time-traveling esoteric romance film The Fountain, a "sister project... stretched upon the limitless storytelling canvas of the comics medium." Then he wrangled his Noah script into another one drawn by Niko Henrichon, although whether a graphic novel could really balance comics' historic respectful relationship with Bible stories and Aronofsky's surrender to the buffeting gloom of Old Testament ecstasy is another question. (I am fine with Noah too.)

Last year filmmaker Duncan Jones, along with Alex de Campi and a posse of artists, crowdfunded Madi: Once Upon a Time in the Future, which blazed past the target and raked in $370,000 for a project that had at some point been conceived as a film script for Jones to direct. The all-star art jam means that Simon Bisley briefly swings in through the window to draw a punch-up and James Stokoe makes his own 20-page comic in the middle, both unalloyed good things; but if Jones's affection for 2000 AD is clear, then it also feels like he's got that comic fixed on a microscope slide. (Crowdfunding aligns with a retreat from central public funding for the arts and from entrepreneurial support for art in general, and, notwithstanding those disasters, might not encourage rigorous pre-production of the work being created - and, I thought Madi had some problems.)

All of which is to say that S. Craig Zahler is having none of this rhubarb.

Zahler's American horror stories, already available as a handful of films (most recently Dragged Across Concrete) and a larger handful of novels, plus some lyrics for metal bands for which Zahler drummed, now arrive in comics as the next stage of an ad hoc march across all media. Speaking from behind the frosted glass screen of pastiche, Zahler has spotted a niche for filmed provocations within the prevailing neoliberal echo chamber: films of social unease, honor among males, hair-raising violence, and behind-the-camera relationships with cancellation-adjacent individuals such as actor Mel Gibson and producer Dallas Sonnier, duly clouding the question of where on the spectrum Zahler's own politics may lie. With auteurist consistency, he transplants something like the same tone of self-awareness and self-amusement into Forbidden Surgeries of the Hideous Dr. Divinus, a first foray into sequential art with a conspicuously cinematic title conjuring up both The Abominable Dr. Phibes and that dingbat surgeon in The Human Centipede, two blaspheming medics with strong brand recognition who could have fitted into this story without scraping the sides.

Zahler scripts and draws and letters his graphic novel via the good offices of Floating World Comics, so it would count as an individual vision even if he didn't import business from the urban crimescapes already on his resume. Raiding the existing notebooks, he begins Dr. Divinus with a doomed vagrant caught up in back-alley aggro, which is the same cold open as his baroquely fatalistic novel Mean Business on North Ganson Street - society's detritus being preyed upon on an industrial scale by the better off, which is everyone. From there the comic splices together two stories, one concerning an enforced team-up between a sharp-dressed criminal and his more slovenly police officer brother over shared concerns for their sister, and the other some seemingly unrelated medical doings of a deformed cloaked figure pursuing his own appalling agenda. This plotline, which eventually yanks the story in the direction of gonzo body horror, turns out to be rooted in the sour class prejudices of a Hammer Films Olde England -- although Zahler seems also to be channeling the Brothers Grimm, or Richard Wagner during one of his periods on the skids -- before ultimately slipping into a mildly Orientalist gear. Snacking on this mythic horror buffet suggests a creator happy to fling himself into everything he likes all at once, rather than obsessing over solid structural consistency. Some of the themes are just squarely from Zahler's turf: past wrongs casting a fell shadow over the present, fraternal antagonism on either side of the law, and a healthy dollop of castration anxiety. When a Jewish lawyer arrives, he looks like the actor Fred Melamed, whose real face has cropped up in all Zahler films so far.

You could call Dr. Divinus a pre-code horror story rendered in the ironic sparse lines of alt comics cartooning, although it doesn't embrace the alternative ethos with much gusto in the narrative department - the book's significant female characters are a girlfriend, a rape victim and a coma patient, for one thing. The males, though, are soft doughy individuals being blown around by a cruel cosmos, kidnapped or murdered or their genitalia marked for removal by a monster from someone else's id entirely, which so severely undercuts any looming machismo that Dr. Divinus does sidle up to the already pretty parodic tone of the original indie autobio comics production line -- all that literary urban male unhappiness -- and then undercuts that too through the arrival of the utterly inexplicable through some hole in the world. Zahler's pen strokes are a steady unvaried weight - the anatomical accuracy comes and goes, and the main artistic tactic is shading with parallel ink lines, an all-purpose sign of solidity for flesh and floors and concrete. Those floors and walls meet at rigid angles like an old video game maze, and the setting seems only half-genuine even before the nightmare Doctor gets his scalpel out. When protagonist and shady businessman Tommy Driscoll, his hair up in a quiff of peacock self-esteem and preening in his boxer shorts as if his head were full of old Richard Gere films, surveys his kingdom from his apartment, he sees a city of capitalist progress drawn in flats that looks like it might topple over if you poked it. Meanwhile a reader surveying their bookshelf from the sofa might see Kyle Starks' 2015 Sexcastle, a comic not made by a movie director but deliberately crafted as "an exciting action romp in the style of classic '80s Action Film" according to an Image Comics ad, its grammar collapsing in excitement. Starks's comic works with its perspectives and grey tones and motion (and its jokes) in demonstrative ways that Zahler's does not, but the only way not to see their conspicuous similarity is to pull a hat over your eyes. Art starting from a similar place and aiming for a similar place by artists with similar tools alluding to similar things might just be destined to end up in a similar state.

Seeing as Zahler also wrote the script for something less similar, or at least less house-trained, the film Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, in which a possessed Nazi doll bursts through the womb of a pregnant woman cradling her bloody fetus in a pietà, the amount of actual profane shit-stirring in Dr. Divinus is pretty low. Littlest Reich, as well as flagging Zahler once and for all as an absurdist, features title cards drawn by Benjamin Marra, another compass point for Zahler's cartooning, as well as an advertisement for coming down on the spicy genres from as great a height as possible. You could take Dr. Divinus as Zahler's variation on a theme of Marra without too much trouble. Zahler has one brother needle those annoying him with a repeated mocking epigram, "You're adorable", and readers of Marra's Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T. may start supplying the unwritten prefix of "Let's just say…" for themselves. Marra's comics, like the sweetest exploitation work, feel so immodestly opportunistic that they might be weightless, unburdened by worry about your response when they grab you by the lapels. Dr. Divinus is much less aggressive; ironic given the author's confrontational stance in the other arts, but unavoidable given the style of cartooning in the book. Art's validity doesn't vary if it's a hobbyist work originating from relative comfort rather than hauled up from the agonizing fires of possibility by an artist falling to pieces (although one of those might sync more neatly with a climate of art made by scrupulously polite people, should that be what we're after these days). But if that work is referential and primativist and metronomic, under-wrought rather than overwrought, if it works with the exterior rather than the interior life in pen lines of fixed expressivity... well, then it might materialize in our era of irony beyond any meaningful judgment of whether the result is a sincere work or some form of fine-tooled trolling. Which is pretty much the same response many people have to Zahler's films. And although every now and again someone will call Ridley Scott's highly polished storyboards "a comic" to set off a small argument -- and you assume Zahler's film storyboards do look much like this when he draws Vince Vaughn snapping a guy's head clean off into a pit latrine -- the theory that film directors acquire insight into what makes a comic work while at their day jobs is probably a flattering boondoggle.

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