Imagine that horsehead beam on an oil well that you always see in movies, the up and down motion of that colossal pump. Now, imagine that pump falling, like a spear thrown by a god, and crushing the skull of a person right below it. This is the first splatter scene in an unexpectedly brilliant eco-horror comic which began as a screenplay by scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and filmmaker Russell Goldman, and evolved into a graphic novel by cartoonist and painter Karl Stevens.
There are more splatter scenes like this, just as gruesome. It’s part of the rhythm to this comic, both an essential trope and a plot device to expose other evils. The biggest villain in this story doesn’t strike all at once, but over the steady drip of decades. It’s Cobalt Energy, selling the citizens of Catch Creek, New Mexico, on its “Mother Nature” plan to purify the very same drinking water it contaminated in the first place. Right after the pages with the horsehead pump killing off one of the company’s most loyal and dedicated workers, there’s a montage of corporate propaganda - talk about scary. At the heart of this story is Nova, a mixed race 11-year old girl, whose mother is Navajo and whose father was Anglo and the guy who got bludgeoned to death by that horsehead pump.
The setting for our story is the Four Corners, a part of the United States that is no stranger to powerful forces, both natural and perceived as supernatural, encompassing southwest Colorado, southeast Utah, northeast Arizona, and northwest New Mexico. Try picturing that in your mind for a minute and you should think of indigenous peoples, a certain mystical vibe, nuclear test sites, and all manner of energy exploitation. Quite the heady stew. It was Curtis, as a teenager, who came up with the idea of an eco-horror story set in this region. Fast-forward to more recent years. She befriended Stevens by way of her interest in his cartoons in the New Yorker. One thing led to another, and you’ve got a unique take on the horror genre mixed in well with authentic comics storytelling.
The narrative itself flows in an offbeat manner, evoking the patterns of a daydream and remembrances of things past. Some may claim the story is hard to follow, but that’s incorrect. The story is what it is. Great storytelling is not obligated to follow a linear path and explain everything in an explicit connect-the-dots presentation. It’s like if someone asks me where the local tavern is located, and I mention there will be some dips in the road which act as natural speed bumps. That is a description, not a criticism. In other words, this story has some dips in the road in order to create some tension and enhance some mystery. Keep in mind this all comes back to corporate entities encroaching upon the natural landscape and nature’s retribution in all its forms.
The beauty of the comic is thanks in no small measure to the artistry of Karl Stevens’s visual storytelling. It’s his signature style: a grounded, semi-realistic depiction of the human condition rendered with light and detailed pen work and nuanced watercolor. This way of looking at the world readily lends itself to quotidian themes, and is especially intriguing when it goes off into unexpected realms. Stevens’s earthy and quirky view ends up buoying the ambitious story's heartfelt call to action on climate change - to say nothing of the various vengeful supernatural forces at play.
You attract bees with honey; readers with horror. The magic ingredient for really good horror is the human connection, which Stevens evokes with great ease. Stock characters and horror tropes all seem to go through a cleansing process. The quiet life artfully meets the mind-blowing within a series of well-placed mannerisms and gestures. One scene I really like is comprise of a series of panels of facial expressions from the main villain in the plot, an energy company honcho modeled off Curtis herself. What I’m talking about is the gradual building up of subtleties, the stuff of life, like the ups and downs of a budding relationship, which is a prominent motif in this book. Whether or not a couple will stay together is of little consequence to the big picture, but it means everything in the right context. In order to truly appreciate global issues like climate change, well, it always comes back to you: your life, your concerns.
The little things have a way of adding up and attaching themselves to bigger things. Think of the normal day-to-day backdrop to such films as The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, to simply name two exemplary examples of naturalism meets the supernatural. That’s what we’ve got happening here: the reader is lulled into the pleasant and familiar, only to confront the ferocity of nature and its protective gods. We come across this sort of storyline, the mundane versus the sublime, more often than we may realize. For fans of Steven’s urbane humor, keep in mind that this artist has always given a certain nod to things that go bump in the night. Remember, the Stevens' cat has a propensity to teleport into the netherworld. And so, it won’t come exactly as a shock to any loyal fan to see him here with a little blood on his hands; maybe a lot.