Ah, the human body, site of trauma both primal and picayune. Is there anything more annoying in all the world than having to take care of this sagging, steaming bag of meat? Just between you and me and the lamppost, I’m sure they could have done better with this thing. Knees alone - what the hell where they thinking?
“Owning and operating a body is the most subjective experience of one’s life,” says Katie Skelly, editor of today’s subject, the first installment of the new Viscere anthology. I’ve had a few words to say on the subject of Skelly myself, recently, and curating a volume of similar-minded work strikes me as an apt signpost of her quiet influence across the current generation of mark-makers. The topic for discussion is Body Horror. ("Viscere" is the Italian word for “guts.”) “For as much control as we believe we have,” she continues, “we are always just one inhalation, one foot led astray, one swallowed substance away from changing the makeup of ourselves forever.” It’s a terrifying thing, to live in the shadow of such fateful contingency. We are all of us behind the same 8 ball here. Nobody gets out alive, so they say.
Viscere is also the maiden voyage of Skelly’s new publishing imprint, Strega Sporca (translation: “Dirty Witch”). The present volume was Kickstarted, and you're apparently going to have to wait until later this month to buy one if you didn’t preorder. A fairly common lament these days! In any event, it’s a nice book - a hefty album on pleasingly thick paper, lots of room for the artists to stretch. As anthologies go, it’s pretty good. I don’t love all the features, but I like many of them. Nothing here is outright bad; rather, there are different flavors of interesting to appeal to different readers. “Body horror” is a wide remit - many of the entries aim directly for sexual discomfort, but not all. A few of the stories touch on medical trauma. If there’s any common thread to be found, it’s the acknowledgment echoed in Skelly’s introduction: that the greatest undiscovered country remains the world beneath our skins.
The book begins with an essay by Dr. Rachel R. Miller, on the subject of Junko Mizuno. I hadn’t had cause to reflect on Mizuno in a while, truth be told, and it was nice to be reminded. It’s a world of hyperviolent kawaii caricatures throwing up stomachfuls of pills before going back for more - similar in affect (as Miller reflects) to the work of Jhonen Vasquez, a remarkably underdiscussed artist despite a disproportionate cultural footprint. Sometimes cute things are unaccountably violent. The seeming disjuncture is an animating frisson these days, to judge even from watered-down exemplars like Five Nights at Freddy’s. Hiding a knife inside a teddy bear is a familiar strategy. Not everything in Viscere is cute, or sexy, but both aesthetics find ample egress into the world of horror.
The first comics feature, Natalia Hernandez’s “Draining Tube,” is actually neither cute nor sexy. Having recently come through the experience of helping my mother through late-stage cancer, this struck me as very pressing. Just the other day I came across some photos I took of the plug for the draining tube the doctor had inserted to remove the fluid from her lungs; I had the responsibility of squeezing a bulb that created suction pressure to fill a plastic sack with yellowish ichor, which I then flushed down the toilet. There’s nothing quite so horrifying as a plastic tube sewn into a person’s skin, unless it’s the feeling of calm that accompanies the subsequent acceptance of this uncanny imposition on the organic. It slides into the valley of the normal borne atop a savage banality. The back cover of Viscere features a detail from one of Hernandez’s pages, an abstract representation of a tube uncoiling from the torso like a snake, accompanied by a clown. Because why not a clown? They’re as much a symbol of unease as anything else, at this late date.
The next feature is one of the longer narratives in the book, “Body. Double.” by Chloe Brailsford (credited simply as "Chloe."). In the interest of transparency, I know Chloe fairly well and would even call her a friend. I’ve been watching her evolution for a good few years now and this is the longest piece she’s had printed to date. The story begins when our protagonist, French actress Anaïs, comes to work one day and finds she has been replaced by a much sexier version of herself. The doppelgänger is a particular thread of body horror, the fear of replacement, of your own body turning against you - so too here, with Anaïs forced to confront the reality of not being sexy enough, or sexual, to survive as a commodity on the market. The decision to accommodate oneself to the reality, to accept the sexual double, does not bring about any salubrious rapprochement, but rather creates a kind of monstrous hybrid, a hideously scarred mutant that represents the most crushingly literal combination of two opposing organisms. Sometimes healthy resolution between conflicting impulses simply isn’t possible, and sometimes we can’t quite survive being torn apart by that torsion.
A few stories here focus on violent sapphism. Coco Paluck’s “Decision” tackles the question of commodification head-on, with lesbian vampires on the payroll of a totalizing corporate overload undergoing radical body modification at the whims of an overweening AI. I find the distended features of Paluck’s monsters quite unsettling, pointy chins unnerving in the precise same fashion as Jim Aparo’s hideously inhuman Joker. Corinne Halbert’s “Total Vore” is a brief sketch on the subject of some manner of succubus devouring a helpless female - as in, literally placing a woman on the table, cutting open her belly and eating her guts. It’s quite horny, as these things go, probably the mostly expressly horny feature in a book that seems, overall, surprisingly ambivalent on the subject of sexual attraction. That theme returns later with Alejandra Gutiérrez’s “Teratoma,” also a story of a lesbian seduction turned into ritual murder. Folks, I’m afraid to report the dykes have turned feral.
Tia Roxae’s “Face Fatigue” is a horror sketch that brings to mind the work of Charles Burns, on the subject of a young woman who begins to develop little bumps under her eyes which eventually metastasize into hideous fish scales covering her entire body. No rhyme or reason for any of it, just a sudden and sharp descent into insanity as your body turns unexpected fifth column. I like Roxae’s work, a soft line vacillating somewhere between Dave Cooper and James Jean. Roxae also makes the best use of color here, pleasing blues and pinks with sharp, sudden splashes of crimson.
If I had to pick a standout from a generally strong volume, it would almost certainly be the penultimate feature, Jenna Cha’s “Evening Coffee.” There’s nothing sexy going on here, ambivalent or otherwise - we’re back to the medical themes of “Draining Tube.” Our unnamed heroine spends her days taking care of her son, bound in an iron lung. The story features her appearance on a show called Queen for a Day, a real program that ran for a combined 20 years, on radio and TV, from 1945 to 1964, with various revivals, the most recent being in 2004. It’s a rather grotesque spectacle, truth be told, and the version shown here is exaggerated not a bit from the reality. The show’s gimmick was essentially a popularity contest between sad women, who’d win prizes based on the volume of pity applause generated by the studio audience. No less an authority than comics’ own Mark Evanier described it as “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced.”
The heroine of our story is a sad creature, visibly beaten by circumstances, but without the winning charm necessary to package her misfortune for the delectation of an audience. She is slowly going insane at home, re-watching her humiliation after the fact and gradually—literally—turning herself inside out from the desperation. That’s a particular kind of rancid rage, the impotent self-hatred that comes from resenting having to take care of someone who can’t take care of themselves, of feeling your life hijacked by a need greater than your own. I’ve been there. It’s the worst kind of way to be, full of anger at an uncaring universe and mad at yourself for not being able to better bear the necessary weight. A relatable feeling in a world where home health care is left to people without the social or economic resources to lighten the burden. Nothing has changed since the 1950s. By the end of the story our nameless heroine is a heap of tortured meat in the living room.
The final story, “Tapeworm” by Rin Ascher, serves as a fitting closer, a brief sketch on the subject of metamorphosis. It’s about cultivating a tapeworm for the express purpose of enabling some manner of change. Pages of illness and decay give way to an explosion of blood as our protagonist, Sam, is engulfed in endlessly unspooling worms. They emerge from this crucible as a healthy body with a strange horned fire hydrant for a head. There’s something here about gender, too. I like Ascher’s brushwork, lots of deep spotted blacks and lush feathering, reminiscent of the great Becky Cloonan. The moment Sam explodes is a striking, virtuoso two-page spread of explosive gore, more or less the climax and thesis of the entire volume in one moment. In the words of the prophet: a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl.