I guess I should have expected that, the terrifying part, given not only the title, but the author concerned. I somehow missed reading Joe Hill’s short story THE CAPE when it was winning all kinds of awards, so first encountered it here in comics form in IDW’s recent “Treasury Edition” of several short comics from Hill’s oevre. The edition is unusual in very attractive ways. It’s extra large in format, semi-hard cover, glossy, only 10 bucks, and visually screaming its showcase function for great comic art, but it’s also, intriguingly, a collection following the work of a particular writer in comics.
That’s not unheard of in the least, but it’s much more common to see collections of Neil Gaiman’s work, or Alan Moore’s, or even Grant Morrison, and Joe Hill is much younger than these guys. But he’s Joe Hill, which seems to be the well-deserved justification. If you’re new to Hill, he’s the multi-award winning creator of LOCKE & KEY, ongoing since 2008 from IDW, and while this volume does contain two comics stories from the LOCKE & KEY stories, they seem to have been picked out precisely because they are unusual and not part of the main storyline of the series. With these two tales we also find two one-shots by Hill to fill out the “terror” and “tragedy” theme.The thing is, these comics are so beautifully drawn, colored, and presented in such large format that you forget to look out for the terrifying aspects right away.
KODIAK, drawn by Nat Jones, and with writing credits also given to Jason Ciaramella, starts off the four comic collection. It follows two children who are regaled with the story of a fight with a giant bear, set within the late medieval period, and in Italy, to judge by the names. It’s a simple story, but it sets up the trend in the volume for these comics to persistently follow a measured pacing with very gradual reveals and late in the game twists. The art is stunning, and seems to be made for a showcase volume like this. A double-page depiction of an “unbeaten bear” fighting vicious attack dogs is pretty haunting. Both sets of assailants seem equally atrocious and stay etched in your imagination. A forbidden love theme, unlikely odds, and the concept of consequences, both bad and good come from Hill. It’s far from a fluffy feel-good story.
FREDDIE WERTHAM GOES TO HELL comes from LOCKE & KEY, but was an extra included in the WELCOME TO LOVECRAFT #1 SPECIAL EDITION, so may not be a comic that every fan of the series has read. With art by Seth Fisher and Langdon Foss, the story is impressively overwhelming. Visual detail “pops” with arrows and explanations in nearly every panel, and the theme as well as the medium is violence in comics. The premise is ingenious without being overworked. Frederic Wertham, encountering some comic-reading street thugs, gets bashed in the head and faces some of his worst nightmares, the consequences of his comic book vendetta on real human lives. But his demons have even more bite than a simple dream or fantasy tale might suggest. The comic’s almost upbeat art style contributes to the gradually creepy reveals of the story’s intent.
But this one-shot comic, THE CAPE, may be the most disturbing comic I’ve ever read, maybe even the most disturbing story I’ve ever read. It was adapted to comics from Hill’s short story of the same title by Jason Ciaramella, so Ciaramella gets props for doing an excellent job on how information is revealed at a controlled pace. You get to know the central character through his serious childhood traumas surrounding his “ lucky blanket” that turns into his superhero cape. The realism in the story keeps every plot movement so grounded that you remain aware of the dangerous mix of heroic concepts with very human motivations and struggles. The determination and confidence of childhood contrast heavily with the darker themes of adulthood, but the contrast builds up so gradually that the comic is a masterpiece of structured composition. Zach Howard’s artwork makes childhood so adorable and appealing that it’s a very impressive transition into more horrifying images. One of the best choices made in adapting this story to comics was to keep the accents of superhero comics in the art style, making the antagonism between the heroic and the tragic that much more shocking. I couldn’t recommend THE CAPE more highly to fans of superhero comics as well as to horror readers.
The collection concludes with a mind-scrambling, emotional and very haunting piece, LOCKE & KEY: “Open the Moon”, which originally appeared in GUIDE TO THE KNOWN KEYS for the series. Like FREDDIE WERTHAM, it’s out of continuity, or rather, prior to continuity for the series, since it’s set in the past of the Locke family. The things that are left unexplained are as appealing as the increasingly LITTLE NEMO like rendering by Gabriel Rodriguez. The story goes for your emotions as well as your imagination, dealing with a sick, possibly dying child and his continued engagement with the wonders of life, as well as the perspective of his father who has difficult choices to make about his child’s future. It also subtly comments on the whole smoke and mirrors, stage-play like aspects of visual storytelling, though the meta aspects don’t take away from the deeper questions in the story. Three of the stories in this collection, in fact, involve children in some way, though not always in a way that you’d expect. Adulthood is still the prime cipher of experience, but a consideration of childhood perception seems to be a kind of proxy for the reader hearing a tale and becoming enthralled by the ideas involved.
It would be hard to pin down exactly why this is so, but Hill’s stories seem to create an environment whereby artists can springboard off into astonishing art styles that contribute greatly to the mythos of the story. That’s the goal of great comic writing, but you don’t always see results of this magnitude. Like Gaiman’s SANDMAN, which brought in a vast array of impressively imaginative artists, Hill’s works draw in and inspire excellent art that in turn creates a unique comic experience for readers.
For that reason, Hill’s TERRIFYINGLY TRAGIC TREASURY EDITION become as much a treasury of Hill’s storytelling as a treasury of artists who rose to the challenge and went significantly beyond the necessary to dazzle readers. Ideas are often terrifying, and Hill has no shortage of those, but the way in which he crafts his ideas seems to open doors for spectacular flights of the imagination in comics. It’s reassuring that IDW realized this and placed these stories side by side to represent this achievement and offer it as a single volume for readers.
[*Reader Request: There are no real spoilers here, so please try to avoid spoilers in the comments section for those who haven't read these stories yet]
Title: JOE HILL’S TERRIFYINGLY TRAGIC TREASURY EDITION
Creative Team: Joe Hill, Jason Ciaramella, writers/Nat Jones, Seth Fisher, Langdon Foss, Zach Howard, Gabriel Rodriguez, artists/Jay Fotos, Langdon Foss, Nelson Daniel, colorists/Robbie Robbins, letters
Hannah Means-Shannon writes and blogs about comics for TRIP CITY and Sequart.org and is currently working on books about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore for Sequart. She is @hannahmenzies on Twitter and hannahmenziesblog on WordPress.